We rolled into Douz around noon after our drive from Ksar Ghilene. There is nothing on the way save a few closed-looking cafes and semi-nomadic shepherds and their flocks. First we tried to find the campsite on our own, but we failed so we went to the tourist office. The chap there was only too eager to help and jumped aboard his moped and sped along to the edge of the oasis where we found Camping Desert Club and met Sophie, the French owner. An oasis indeed, this is the best campsite we’ve found in Tunisia so far. It is run to a high standard and is clean and well cared for with friendly staff. We felt immediately that we would spend a few days here. In fact, the few days turned into a week. The tourist office chap was duly tipped and we managed to persuade him that he couldn’t buy me no matter how many camels he offered.
Douz is billed as the ‘gateway to the Sahara’ but is as much workaday town as tourist destination. It has narrow streets full of shoemakers and metalworkers and small hole-in-the-wall shops. Its rather tacky tourist zone is tucked away on the other side of the oasis and we stayed away from the largely empty hotels and the bored looking camels waiting in vain for tourists. There is a lot of golden sand here, but it lacks the drama and beauty of the copper-coloured dunes of Ksar Ghilene. The campsite is a stopping point for off-roaders, both independent and in organised groups, in search of desert adventures, as well as the few motorhome over-winterers. Three big French vehicles were there. The couples from two of them returned a couple of days after we arrived, having walked to Ksar Ghilene, a 90km trek across the desert, with transport back.
We didn’t do anything remotely energetic, needing time to relax and catch up on much needed laundry. Washing machines are few and far between in Tunisia – no launderettes, no service washeries that we been able to find – so it was a godsend to find a machine, weather, time and space to do washing. The weather has warmed up considerably since we left the south east of the country and we’ve been able to sit out until longer into the evening. There was even beer available.
One of our biggest challenges in Douz was finding interesting things to eat. There is no cheese except plastic processed stuff and it’s hard to find boneless cuts of meat, for ease of preparing in a small campervan. It is almost impossible to find beef in Douz, and the lamb only comes in chops. Of the many butchers, none had a mincer. We could have camel though. There was a camel butcher, but after making friends with camels at Ksar Ghilene, we couldn’t bring ourselves to walk past the head hanging up and the neatly arranged legs outside … We also saw a camel in a pick-up being taken there. Vegetarians no, but sometimes squeamish about quite how fresh the meat is here! Luckily we did track down the chicken and egg shop.
And there’s plenty of fresh vegetables piled high as usual, though a narrow range of what’s in season. We’re still buying the lovely oranges that we’ve been enjoying throughout Tunisia. We also bought galettes, not pancakes here but a kind of round unleavened bread that you can split and fill with an omelette just the right size from our small frying pan, with harissa of course. This solved the ‘what to have with our bread’ problem.
We had a fascinating tour of the local museum, which gave us a real insight into the traditions of the fast disappearing desert nomadic life. Although there is the air of mystery and enchantment of the desert, in reality it was and still is a very hard existence, especially for the women who appeared to be confined to one half of the tent, preparing food and bringing up children the whole time.
Thursdays are the high point of the week in Douz, when it’s market day. We could hear bustle and noise from first thing and realised that the animal market was literally only a stone’s throw from the campsite. There were a lot of donkey, goat and sheep sounds in the air! Every Peugeot 404 pick up from miles around was parked up with animals being led hither and yon.
It was very ‘free form’, no pens and the business of the day was going on all around you as you walked through the area amongst the oasis palms, with money changing hands and animals being loaded into vehicles, willingly and unwillingly. One goat was being tethered to a bale of hay on top of a horse cart.
We cycled round the oasis, looking at all the date palmeries, and did a trip out in the van to the Nefzaoua region around Douz and up to Kebili, the next larger town. There were lots of villages tucked into the edge of the desert, surrounded by dunes and oases, a few marabouts and ruins. We got our first taste of the Chott El Jerid. This is a huge dry salt lake extending westwards. There were mirages – distant islands shimmering above the ground, and water where there was none.
In Kebili we visited the old town, in the middle of an oasis. It was abandoned in 1979 because of overcrowded conditions. It was impossible to extend the town without damaging the palmeries, so a new town was built beyond the oasis. The ruins here looked like they were in a war zone. Some buildings quite gone except for a wall or two, others almost intact.
We sat down for tea with a retired teacher who is spearheading the preservation society. He was born here 70 years ago and still lives here with his family. There is a plan to rebuild some of the houses and up to 24 families are expected to move back. A Czech film about the Battle of Tobruk was recently filmed here.
By the time we headed back to Douz the wind had got up and there was quite a sand haze on the roads.
We also did some much welcome socialising. We met Steve, a British independent traveller who was touring Tunisia by public transport, who shared stories from his extensive travels over a couple of meals together. One of them at Ali Baba’s cafe in the Bedouin tent in the back garden, the other home cooked in our van.
We also met Jochin and Sylvia again, having first seen them at Ksar Ghilene. They are Germans living in Italy who were exploring the desert in their Landrover with their small son, Jakob.
In the last couple of days at Douz, Marieke and Aad from The Netherlands arrived in their Landrover with a roof tent.
They had come straight down from the north of the country where there has been a lot of bad weather. They told firsthand about how they only just made it out from some severely flooded areas where there have also been landslides. We are heading that way and will review the situation as we go. If the roads are badly damaged we may have to miss out the mountainous northwest of the country.
One evening while we were sitting talking with Aad and Marieke, and thinking about preparing dinner, we heard the sound of music floating across the oasis. We all jumped up and walked in its direction. It was some way off, but our walk was rewarded by turning a corner and finding a wedding band playing in the street, surrounded by brightly dressed up guests thronging in the golden afternoon light.
It was a joyous occasion – we’ve learned how important weddings are here with festivities lasting for seven days. It was unclear who was the bride and who was the groom but no matter, they were all enjoying themselves. And we loved watching until it was time for the band to move on with the throng following them.