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Report 1993: Tunisia - the South and the Desert

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 9 of 17: Chott el Jerid

photo by MAW

Chott el Jerid

Chott el Jerid is the largest salt pan in the Sahara and anyone travelling from Tozeur or Tamerza in the west of Tunisia to Douz and the south east will have to cross it.

‘Chott' is the Tunisian word for lakes that stay dry through the hot season, but have some water in the winter. Wikipedia describes it as ‘a large endoheic salt lake’. It is a closed drainage basin and water does not flow out and only escapes by evaporation or seepage. The bottom of such a basin is typically occupied by a salt lake or salt pan.

Chott El Jerid is a vast area of salt that glints in the sunshine. An elevated causeway has been built across it as the area floods during the winter rains. Drivers are advised not to leave the road as in places the salty crust is very thin. Channels are dug out on either side of road. Water drains into them and changes color from pink to green depending on the light and side of the road. When we crossed, water in the left hand channel was bright pink. We could see salt crystallizing out. The right hand channel was covered in a thin layer of salt but where there was standing water it was green.

We drove past a large salt processing plant with salt pans producing road salt.

The causeway is lined with cafes and stalls selling desert roses often dyed lurid shades.

Take sun glasses as the glare from the salt can be dazzling. Mirages are common along this stretch of road.

As we drove south east we gradually lost the salt and were back in the desert, stony at first and later becoming sandy. This is the start of the Sahara.

There are a few isolated settlements. Debebcha is the first. The old Berber settlement was abandoned as the houses kept filling with sand as the dunes moved. Yardangs are eroded bits of sandstone standing above the surface which have been left as the sand dunes move. They are made of very soft sand which brushes off easily. As always some people find it necessary to scratch their names in them. There were a few tourist stalls selling desert roses and also a cafe. We didn’t realize it at the time but apparently the yardangs were used as a backdrop in some of the Star Wars films.

A few miles further is Souk Lahad, where there are hot springs. The main attraction here is the cooling system for hot water taken from the 2800m deep well. This comes out at 85˚and runs down through bamboo filters and then a maze of concrete drains before being cool enough to irrigate the oasis. The water is supposed to be good for rheumatism and people go and soak in it.

We also made a brief stop in Telmine as I had read that it had been a Roman Outpost and a couple of the Roman reservoir pools still survive. Our driver stopped several people to ask for directions. There were many blank looks before we were directed to the remains of a Roman wall with drains into a pool. Apparently the Mosque (shut) has a deep Roman well and stones with Roman writing on them.

Kebili had been an important slave market until the 19thC and is now the main administrative centre for the area. It is a pleasant modern town missed by the tourists.

Douz had been an important stop on the trans Saharan camel trains. It is the largest oasis in Western Tunisia and is a popular stop for lunch for people travelling between Tozeur to either Djerba or Ksar Ghilane. The Zone Touristique is on the edge of the town. It has a pleasant market square with a good range of nice tourist shops. Most prices are reasonable and it is possible to haggle and bring down prices which seem too high.

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