“Even big trucks go through there!” said a small boy watching me try to reverse out of the kasbah in Nefta, the great date oasis in southern Tunisia.
I had long wanted to travel independently of a press group, and when the others left for London, I’d hired a car and headed inland. The coastal resorts were fine for a sun-and-sand type of holiday, but I wanted to see the djerid, the bizarre belt of oases and salt lakes strung along the roof of the Sahara.
As a western woman, I felt it prudent to have a local with me and discreet enquiries in Tunis found an eighteen year old science student happy to come for his keep. He’d be useful in the event of a breakdown, I decided. Either the car, or my rusty French.
With Ali beside me, we set off for Dougga, the first destination on our 804 km (500 mile) round-trip of Tunisia. Fortunately Ali was not a chatterbox. On the twisting drive, he said little more than that he had six brothers and three sisters. And that none of them had ever been outside Tunis.
Ali found us a local hotel and I retired early to what would become a familiar chorus of barking dogs. My initial driving experience hadn’t been too frightening. Traffic was light although schoolchildren were a menace. When not straggling along the road, they were throwing stones across it.
From Dougga we crossed the tell, a barren region of undulating plains broken by further stunning Roman ruins in Sbeitla. I was relieved to find plenty of gas stations, but road-blocks were numerous and exceeding the 90kph speed limit in one spot, we were flagged down by police. My UK driving licence wasn’t valid because it didn’t have my photograph I was curtly informed.
Happily my Australian passport saved the situation but next time, said an officer, I would be fined four dinar ($10 at the time). And he waved us on our way.
We reached Nefta, a huge oasis sunk in a dung coloured crater studded with emerald date palms. Sounds drifted up —muezzins making the evening prayer call, dogs yapping, turkeys gobbling and a voice at my elbow urging me to take a picture of a desert fox.
When I did so for a small fee, other small boys appeared with more desert foxes and to avoid a confrontation, I drove into the kasbah.
Now this old, labyrinthine part of every Arab town is strictly for desultory strolls. At precisely ten minutes to sunset, I wedged the Renault in an alley wide enough only for a loaded donkey. I could go neither forward nor back and I did not appreciate a child’s assurance that “même les gros camions passent.”
Humiliated, I imagined spending the night outdoors, but Ali located a team of date pickers who lifted us bodily out and I drive to the ETAP, a big French-run tourist hotel overlooking the crater with a well stocked bar…
Next morning we explored the oasis which counts some half million date palms. And to avoid tramping on the vegetable cultivation beneath the trees, we walked along shallow streams fed by hot and cold springs. At one point there was a fork where Ali turned left and I turned right and I came upon three Bedouin women lying in the warm waters with their black robes floating around them.
Leaving Nefta, we motored east across Chott Djerid, a huge salt lake on the edge of the Sahara whose eerie lunar-like landscape devoid of life was no place to break down.
Safely across, we reached Douz, a Beau Geste sort of town known for its weekly camel market. Judging from the lines of animals heading back to their desert camp-sites we must have just missed it. And I was amazed when Ali said it was the first time he had seen a camel, except on television.
Chenini, our final destination, deep in the heart of Tunisia, is inhabited by Berbers who live out of pace with the coastal towns: there is a school, yet camels still crush the olive harvest on ancient wooden presses as generations of camels have done before them.
With Ali nervously cracking his knuckles, from Chenini I gunned the Renault over a rough track to Matmata, a rugged journey up to the roof of Tunisia and down again.
We found Matmata thronged with scantily clad tourists tramping being led through underground houses, past souvenir stands and its sub subterranean hotel and after a quick look we left them to it and headed north again.
Rather than repeat the coast road I had done with the press-group, I took the inland route via Zaghouan, a town set against grey crags whose freshwater springs once supplied Roman Carthage by way of an overhead aqueduct, 132 kms long (82 miles).
We had passed many hitch-hikers on our trip —farmers going to market and people waiting for a rural bus— however I had been reluctant to stop in case of an accident. Now something about an elderly Bedouin woman made me pull over.
Skirts rustling, silver bangles jangling and smelling of olives, she climbed into the back seat. She was going to Kairouan to sell her oil, she shouted at Ali in high-pitched Arabic. She had been waiting hours for a lift — God bless his wife for stopping.
Reaching Tunis again, the boy shot off leaving me wondering whether my driving had terrified him, but in London three months later, I received a Christmas card, written in wobbly English, thanking me for the best holiday of his life…