We’ve explored most of the oasis towns in Tunisia’s south and were really looking forward to seeing the dramatic sounding mountain oasis villages in the far west of the country along the Algerian border. The desert plain stretched flat and empty from Tozeur to the foot of the textured mountains, which as you came closer split into small jagged foothills lining the edge of the higher ridges behind them.
The “dromedaries crossing” warning signs were true to their word and we saw a group of camels with their young along the road side.
The first oasis we came to was Chebika. A small oasis with arid land reaching above it and a water source gushing out between a gap in the cliffs. We stopped to go for a wander round. There were the usual tat stalls lining the whole area, but it was the gang of youths who gave it their all to get us to buy rocks from them before we had even parked that we’ll most remember Chebika for.
There are tables overflowing with rocks and crystals of different sorts throughout the region, from the ubiquitous desert roses through to the slabs of transparent mica. There are also rocks which, when split open, reveal the crystals within. We’ve seen some beautiful examples. The ones waved around by our young chaps had purple crystals inside. We had no intention of buying any, but as usual it wasn’t about whether or not we wanted them. We must surely want to buy if only a price could be agreed. The starting offer was 300TD – around £150. We were asked if we wouldn’t trade our bicycles, or surely we had a bottle of whiskey we could swap? No. OK vodka then? By the time we had managed to shed our followers and had walked to the small waterfall and back to the van, they had dropped the price to 5TD or biscuits maybe. We later found out that the local youths find rock crystals and dye them with purple ink to look like amethysts. They did look a bit oddly coloured.
Being some of the very few tourists around has its advantages and disadvantages. Of the travellers that do make it to these out of the way places, very few of them are independent. Most are on day trips from their hotel in Tozeur, or even as far afield as Djerba. These people, mostly French, spend a few minutes in each place and are firmly protected from would-be guides and rock vendors by their drivers. If you’re on your own you are fair game!
Chebika’s old village sits in ruins above the oasis – barely visible against the mountain behind it. It was abandoned after severe flooding in the area in 1969. The road from Chebika wound up through spectacular mountain canyons – bending and twisting to Tameghza.
Before reaching the town we visited the first of two ‘panoramic cascades’ on the edge of the oasis below the town.
It probably was more impressive once, but the floods affected the lay of the land and now it is a rather modest although very attractive fall of water. The scenery itself is rather hidden by the number of souvenir stalls almost on top of the waterfall itself.
As we drove through the new part of town, we were greeted by a drunk calling out to us from the gutter. Also, the children of various ages were quite vehement in their demands for dinars and stylos. For the first time since arriving in the country, we felt a hostile vibe. There was none of the cheerful friendly greetings and banter we’ve grown used to. We strolled down to the second cascade, even managing to shake off our ‘guide’ after a while. It was quite pretty but again not as impressive as it once had been, although it did have marginally fewer shops right by it. We wandered down river and discovered a hidden narrow gorge, almost like a tunnel of rock heading off from the river into the mountains. This wonderful area is not signed nor is it mentioned in the guidebook.
Round the valley by the wide dry riverbed lies the old town of Tameghza, with the oasis palmeries and the mountains behind it, it is in a stunning position.
Like Chebika, it was abandoned after the flooding. We managed to cross the dry riverbed and parked by an entrance point through the walls. We were immediately followed in by the young would-be guide whose services we’d already turned down out on the main road. He wasted a lot of his time following us around before he gradually got the message. The old town ruins were dotted with small marabouts and the buildings were partial walls and rubble.
Mides is the gem of the three mountain oases and our favourite for its dramatic setting. The ruins of old Mides are perched atop the rock of one side of a deep gorge.
The trappings of tourism were less intrusive and there were comparatively few touts. Those there were quickly took no for an answer and we were left in peace. Bar the stop-for-a-few minutes day trippers, we were the only tourists around. The day was our warmest in Tunisia yet, and we enjoyed a quiet meander along the opposite side of the gorge in the sun and then into the town itself, exploring amongst the old abandoned houses to the far end where the views were still more impressive.
We got talking to one of the guys waiting around for someone to guide or sell rocks to, and it turned out there was an open campsite at Mides. We would have loved to have camped here but had found no information about sites in the area, no signs to any from the road either. There had been one at Tameghza but it had closed. We promised to put the Mides site details on the internet for him. Small Tunisian businesses are struggling, but don’t do much in the way of marketing themselves.
We returned to our campsite at Gafsa taking a wonderful western mountain route back. East of the mountain oases is a big phospate mining area with its own manmade scenery. The area has been depressed for years as the deposits are running out and there is much unemployment as a result. There has been a lot of unrest recently as workers sit in and demonstrate. It was here the revolution started too. All was peaceful and very friendly as we drove through the mining towns.
Gafsa itself is a busy major town and marks the transition between the desert south and the greener north of the country. Its oasis is a mix of palms, olive groves and fruit bushes and trees and has a different feel to those we’d visited in the south. In spite of being on the edge of town, it felt rural, idyllic and tranquil. People living simple lives working on the land and tending their livestock in ways unchanged for centuries, just the addition of a tractor or two driven by boy racers weaving around the donkey carts (and tourists on bikes).
The El-hassan campsite was in the heart of the oasis and is one of the better ones we’ve been to and also includes a cafe and restaurant. We spent a lazy Saturday enjoying the weather and had just finished one of our omelette in flat bread lunches, when the owner came out bearing a gift for us – a huge bowl of the most wondrous couscous. It was delicious. After eating all afternoon, we didn’t need any more food that day!
In the evening we were invited to have a look at a wedding party being held there. It was a more modern affair than the one we’d glimpsed at Douz, and we felt rather out of place to say the least. The very frilly bride and her rather embarrassed-looking groom sat on thrones on a raised platform at the front of the room with a formally sat audience of older women and children crowding the small space. A tiny dance floor in front of the married couple was bursting forth with heavily made-up young women dancing to modern Arab and Western-sounding music. All the men, apart from the groom, were sitting smoking chicha and drinking coffee outside the hall.