Sa-HA-ra! (Douz to Ksar Ghilane, Sahara Desert, Tunisia)



[Author's Note: I arrived in Tunis on September 10th, 2010 and left two months later. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia on December 18th, 2010, a day after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. I missed the festivities by a month. Some would say I dodged a bullet, but I cannot help feeling like I missed the boat. How often do you have the chance to watch history unfold from the front row? It is interesting for me to go back and read about my experiences at the time. Yes, I could almost taste repression in the air but if you told me the powder keg was about to ignite, I would’ve been incredulous in the extreme. Yet, there it was boiling just beneath the surface. Keep this in mind when reading my Tunisia posts. It makes for a fascinating subtext.]

10/04/10 - I TEAMED UP WITH FELLOW AMERICAN, Phil, to conquer the Sahara, the largest hot desert (there's a bigger one in Antarctica) on earth. From what we both read, it was an experience like no other. It turned out to be quite an “experience” just not the one we expected or hoped for. At least we had each other. 

An all-night bus from Tunis led us to Douz, a small town on the edge of the desert. Our plan was to rent a 4WD and blaze off into the horizon with nothing but eighty gallons of water, our wits, and some couscous for nibbling. The oasis at Ksar Ghilane is the southern-most tourist outpost, but we were more than happy to push to Tunisia's southern tip if need be. The perceived size of our balls bore an inverse relationship to the actual size of our brains.

We wanted more than a taste of the Sahara (pronounced 'sa-HA-ra!' with a violent crotch grab). We wanted a heaping mouthful. Indigestion be damned! We had visions of an oasis tent camp surrounded by a dune sea, simmering desert sunsets, peaceful star-filled nights, crackling campfires, and an inescapable feeling of desolation that would echo through our dreams. Perhaps a camel diversion led by a desert-hardened Berber man with one eye and a scorpion tattoo on his forehead would be in our future. Ever heard the expression, “Wish in one hand, shit in the other?” Annnnd…splat!

Rent our own 4WD drive? Not a chance. Nobody was interested. We did find many tour operators willing to charge us the going rate for an internal organ to fulfill our desert fantasy. One woman quoted us a price of three hundred dinars per day/per person for a three-day 4WD extravaganza with driver into the Grand Erg Oriental. For those of you not monitoring current exchange rates that’s $200 US per person/per day. W…T…F?!

Admittedly, both Phil and I felt this agency was legit and that our sojourn into the Sahara would be top notch, but $1200 US? If we were floating along the dunes in a hovercraft and bedding down in a tent city fit for a Sultan, this price might be justified. And that's a big fucking “might”. How about a motorcycle? No problem. Only $206 US per day. What, what, whaaaaaaaaat??!!!! 

Here's the issue: Independent travelers are about as common as Sasquatch. Most folks come to Douz as part of a prepackaged tour that incorporates a desert “sa-FAR-i”! They’re all on vacation, so they have no qualms about throwing money around like Ebenezer Scrooge after his apparition-induced epiphany. Can't blame Americans on this one as these yahoos hail mostly from Europe. The merchants in town are so jaded they balk at the mere idea of negotiating a discount. “But you from America” was their irrefutable evidence we possessed more money than grains of sand in the Sa-HA-ra! This was a common theme throughout. 

After speaking with various travel offices (to include our hotel), random people on the street, shop and restaurant owners, and just about anybody that might help us find a reasonable deal, we swallowed a big fat disappointment sandwich with an extra helping of dejection sauce and weighed our options over copious amounts of coffee. 

We could hire a 4WD with driver from a fellow by the name of Zou for the bargain basement rate of three hundred fifty dinars. This would include a ride through the desert to Ksar Ghilane, a night in the oasis, and follow-on transport to Matmata. 

We could book a camel trek in the area surrounding Douz (described as a mere Saharan tease by the guidebook) and hope it wouldn’t be a gaudy Venus-Fly-Tourist-Trap shit show. 

We could conjure some 4WD/camel combination and sell our plan to imagination-deficient tour operators. 

We could backtrack to the city of Gabès and see about renting a vehicle there. 

We could roll the dice and give hitchhiking a whirl on the paved road to the oasis. 

Or we could just go fuck ourselves. 

So we settled on the shits-and-giggles option (i.e hitching with a supply vehicle or the like) but decided we would make Zou (a rather intense fellow) one more counteroffer just in case. To our surprise, he agreed to three hundred dinars all in and met us at the café to finalize the deal. We were under strict orders not to reveal our arrangement to anyone as this might hamper efforts to bend over future affluent tourists with thick wallets and nary a clue. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. 

The following morning we headed off into the desert sands with Zou and his driver in a 4WD Mazda pickup. Destination: Ksar Ghilane…the hard way. It was an auspicious beginning notwithstanding our crew's lackluster enthusiasm. Have I mentioned Zou's intensity? As a joke, I asked him how many girlfriends he had to which he replied, “Four or five”, in complete deadpan. Four or five? You scalawag. He also conducted an inventory: Canada, Spain, England, etc. 

And our driver? Well, he had as much desire to be heading south as I have about getting a sex change. He may have set a record for text messages sent and received while driving. I’m betting there was a special lady involved. I believe he was the owner's son and forced on this tour as a way of compensating for our discounted price. No need to pay a driver, right? Just send junior. And who wouldn’t want to spend their time driving two assholes in the desert?

Still, the ride to the oasis was big fun. When not zipping along in a post-apocalyptic landscape, we were cutting through deep sand and dune-hopping at regular intervals. It was easy to imagine we were the only people for miles…until we came to a small “café” in the middle of hell and gone with a Coca-Cola sign. Along the way, we stopped among the sea of dunes for a quick frolic. It seemed a great introduction to what we thought was the tip of the iceberg, so we didn’t protest when Zou ushered us back to the truck with contrived urgency. Turns out, this was to be the highlight…

Remains of a ksar (Berber fortified village).

Roman Ruins at Ksar Ghilane.