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Report 1993: Tunisia - the South and the Desert

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 3 of 17: Tamerza

photo by MAW

Tamerza - view from the hotel

Tamerza , Chebika and Mides are part of a string of mountain oases close to the border with Algeria. They were major stopping off points on the main caravan routes which linked the east and west coasts of Africa. During the Roman Empire they were part of Limes Tripolitanus line which was designed to keep out marauding Saharan tribes.

For centuries, the villages produced only what was needed to feed their population. This balance was upset when phosphate deposits were discovered around Metlaoui. Many people left to work in the mines and agriculture diminished. However the phosphate mines are no longer as productive and there is unrest among the workers who are demanding better wages and working conditions since the Jasmine Revolution. Some are returning to their native villages. This is causing high unemployment in places like Tozeur. Tourism is also causing change.

Tamerza is one of the largest of the oases villages and least spoilt. We spent four nights in Tamerza Palace Hotel, on the edge of the new town with views across the oued (i.e., dry channel) to the palmeraie and ruins of the old town. We had been expecting great things as Audley Travel had described it as their ‘favorite hotel in Tunisia’. The rooms were large and comfortable with a minimalist look and effective air conditioning kept them at a reasonable temperature. We were very disappointed by the restaurant. Breakfast was poor for a hotel of this standard and staff were slow to replenish food. Dinner was served by candlelight. It was atmospheric but difficult to see what you were eating. The menu was a bit esoteric for us and a couple of nights we were scratching around to find something we wanted to eat. Service was very slow. The candle burnt out and we had to ask for another one. It was touch and go whether that would last until we finished our meal. Meals were served to an accompaniment of canned music, usually modern jazz which is not to my taste. Overall we were disappointed and felt it didn’t live up to the hype.

Tamerza is surrounded by a huge ravine with steep curved rock faces and two waterfalls. The best of these is reached off the main road beyond the town. An old road crosses a ford to a large parking area surrounded by tourist stalls all touting for trade. Prices are high so there is a need to haggle.

It is a short walk to the cascade, three small streams dropping about 5m into a pool at bottom of wide canyon. In summer this is dug out and is a popular swimming pool. The stream running from it is neatly lined with small stones. The valley bottom is very wet with huge reeds growing. We walked along it until we couldn’t get any further. It is surrounded by huge cliffs with deep cracks where rocks were about to fall off.

The second waterfall gets few visitors now. It is on the edge of the new town and down the track past Hotel les Cascades, which is now shut and looking very sad. It was the first hotel built in Tamerza 25 years ago and the rooms were in small huts made of palm leaves. It still has a tented cafe with low seats in a tent or white plastic chairs and tables. There was no-one around and it didn’t look as if it did much business.

The path dropping down to the cascade used to be lined with tourist shops but now only one is left selling the usual selection of desert roses and stones as well as dresses, a few carpets, scarves, woven bags and tiny model Bedouin tents. All were beginning to look very dusty as if they had been there a long time.

A 5m waterfall drops into plunge pool with more water trickling down the sides of the rock from the palmeraie above and down the walls of the canyon. The water looked dirtier and there was a general feeling of being run down and unkempt. There was a sort of track along the bottom of chalky cliffs with lots of flint and a few round nodules which may have crystals when split open.

Overall verdict was that both of these could be missed another time.

Water comes from springs in the mountains to the south. It supplied water to the old town and its extensive palmeraie before flowing to the smaller palmeraie in the new town.

The old town was destroyed by floods in 1969 after 22 days torrential rain. It was built on the side of a ridge with a steep drop on the far side. The layout of the streets can still be seen with the main street running east-west with a labyrinth of narrow alleys off it. Most houses were reduced to rubble in the rain but a few walls survive.

In the centre of the village is a white painted mosque with blue doors and windows, all locked. Further along the street is the white Marabout of Sidi Tuati which is set in a courtyard with wall around it. A door leads into an oblong room with smaller one at far end. A few streets above it is the Mausoleum of Sidi Dar Ben Dhahara which has been replastered outside. It has a colonnaded entry and two rows of pillars leading to the end with a beautiful brick lined cupola made with Tozeur bricks. No contents are left in it.

The new town built after the floods is a typical small Tunisian settlement with low flat roofed houses and a few shops selling mainly dry goods and tins.

The oasis spreads along the side of the wide oued. There is an abundant water supply for the date palms. The palms are often under-planted with apricots, oranges, figs, pomegranates as well as vegetables.

Areas which are not irrigated are dry stony desert with a few low scrubby plants.

There is a super ridge walk along the ridge above the hotel which is reached off the Mides road. There is a rough track up to the radio masts on top of the ridge. It is possible to drive up here in a 4x4 and park near the masts. Up here the rocks are baked black from the heat of the summer sun. It is an easy walk along the ridge for about 1km to the far end with the jumble of rocks and steep drop into the canyon. There are 360˚ views down onto Tamerza Palace Hotel with the Palmeraie and old town beyond. On the other side is a lake and the tiny oasis of Aďn El Ouchika with Algeria stretching into the distance.

We enjoyed Tamerza and the desert oases. It is a very different experience to the green and fertile north.

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