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Report 1993: Tunisia - the South and the Desert

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 2 of 17: Impressions of the South

photo by MAW


Most people visit Tunisia for the sun and flock to the holiday resorts like Djerba. A few may have day trips into the desert or search out the Star Wars film sets, but many venture no further than the pool or Houmt Souk. This is a shame as Tunisia has a lot more to offer than this.

The south is desert country and very different to the fertile north. Many people are giving up farming and now work in tourism. In Djerba, land sells at 350 dinars per square meter so there is little incentive to farm. Olive groves are becoming neglected. Traditional houses are falling into disrepair. Planning regulations have been lifted since the Revolution and new houses are mushrooming everywhere. It is more like an up-market housing estate than a traditional farming community.

As you drive south the wheat fields disappear and vegetation changes becoming low and scrubby. There are fewer wild flowers. The land changes to stony desert and wild camels can be seen. The only settlements are based around springs and water sources. Stone or earth banks are built to hold back water so some wheat and a few olive trees or dates can be grown.

The oases near the Algerian Border stand out as splashes of green against the pale brown landscape. Water is used to irrigate the palmeraies. Dates need 500litres of water a day, brought by a series of channels designed to take water to all of the palmeraie and avoid wastage. Palms are very versatile and all of the tree can be used. The branches are used for roofs and fences. The leaves are used on fires especially kilns for brick or pottery manufacture. The tough leaf fibers can be woven into mats, bags or ropes. Woody fruiting stems make good brooms. Date pips can be roasted and ground to make ersatz coffee. Today they are usually ground up as animal fodder.

The trees are productive for 30-40 years. Then the tops are cut off and a tube inserted in the top of the trunk to collect the palm juice which runs for about a month. This is used as a drink. The tree then dies. The trunk is used for wood or hollowed out to make water channels.

The palms provide shape for plants underneath them and temperatures are typically five degrees lower than outside. Pomegranates, figs, bananas, apricots and oranges are grown under the palms. Roads run through the palmeraies with tracks to the individual plots, which are surrounded by palm leaf fences.

Many palms are owned by wealthy (often absentee) landlords who employ local laborers (sharecroppers) who receive a share of the harvest rather than payment. Without money, they have to borrow from their employers so are permanently in debt.

As can be seen in places like Tozeur, problems with water supply, neglect and less interest in farming have resulted in the loss of some palm trees. Tapping of deep aquifers by water pumps (funded with government money) to provide water for the increasing demands of tourism has led to the depletion of most natural springs. The effects of this are obvious in the Corbeille in Nefta. With productivity plummeting, the health and future of these palmeraies is in doubt. Those in smaller villages like Tamerza, Chebika and Mides look a lot more healthy.

South of Tozeur is the largest salt lake in Tunisia, Chott el Jerid. To the south is the Sahara desert. Ksar Ghilane is an oasis where the hamada (stony desert) meets the erg (sandy desert). The palm trees are still there but tourism has replaced agriculture and the oasis is now home to four or five large resort camps. Tourists spend a night here to enjoy a desert experience with sand dunes and camel rides. South of Ksar Ghilane is a military zone and you need a permit to enter.

The east of Ksar Ghilane between Matmata and Tataouine is more settled. The architecture is very different to the rest of Tunisia, with old Berber villages built on the top of the hills. Troglodyte houses were a response to the summer heat and some are still lived in around Mamata. Ksour, fortified granaries, were built by the Berbers to store their grain. This is Star Wars country and Tataouine gave its name to Tatooine. It is big business and fans come to visit the Star Wars sites with Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata and Ksar Ouled Soltane top of the list.

Roads vary from good to potholed tracks. There is a high police presence along the roads and drivers are often stopped to show their papers. Near the borders there is extra security. There is a fair bit of sheep smuggling from Tunisia into Libya and vehicles carrying sheep are stopped and police check they have the correct paperwork allowing them to move sheep. Anyone without authorization is stopped, fined and the sheep confiscated.

Petrol prices in Libya are lower than in Tunisia so there is a lot of illegal movement of petrol across the border. Trucks and lorries come back loaded with jerry cans full of petrol or diesel which are then sold from the roadside. Everywhere you go in Tunisia you see shelters with a pile of jerry cans containing petrol for sale. It is poured into the car using a long pipe and the sand around is saturated with petrol. It surprised us there weren't accidents. There is so much traffic that the police turn a blind eye to it and there would be major trouble if they tried to clamp down.

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