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Report 1993: Tunisia - the South and the Desert

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 10 of 17: Ksar Ghilane and the Desert

photo by MAW

Camp Yadis Ksar Ghilane

Ksar Ghilane is an oasis in the middle of nowhere where the stony desert meets the sandy desert. It is surrounded by sand dunes of the Great Eastern Erg. It is a long drive and you have to want to come here, and tourists do in their droves to experience the Sahara Desert. We were no exception.

There is a small oasis with a Berber village housing people working in the oasis and those servicing the tourist industry. There are a few stone built houses with barrel roofs with animals and chickens running around. Donkeys are used for transport. The camels are solely for the use of tourists as a camel ride in the desert is a popular activity. No we didnít try it - you can fall off a camel... There are no services in the village. There is a very basic shop selling dry and tinned foods but not bread or water. This has to be bought from the camps at a premium, so come well stocked up. The water is sandy and even using sterilizing tablets it is unsuitable for drinking.

We were stopping in Camp Yadis Ksar Ghilane at the end of the road through the oasis. In my ignorance Iíd assumed it was the only accommodation in the oasis so was surprised when we drove past several other camps on the way. In fact the oasis is full of tents and tourists. Another illusion shattered.

Through the gate is a large white reception building with bar and the restaurant opposite. Near the bar is a Berber tent. Beyond is the swimming pool surrounded by palm trees. The en suite tents are arranged in groups of 8-12 in rather uninspiring surroundings. Breakfast and dinner are self service buffets with a reasonable selection of food.

During the evening the crickets sing, beginning about 6.30 and then suddenly stopping about 9pm. In the morning the quad bikes start up about 7am and there is a lot of noise as they drive along the road outside the camp.

On our second night we were told we were being cooked a Berber meal in the tent. Outside was a palm leaf fire with a sealed china pot cooking on it. The waiter collected bread dough from the kitchen which he kneaded and then flattened into a very large round about 15Ē diameter. This was baked for 30-40 minutes in the fire covered with hot ashes, being turned once. The bread was taken out and beaten well to get rid of all the ash. Burnt bits round the edge were trimmed and it was cut into hunks and served with olive oil, olives, harissa etc. It was very good.

We were then asked to sit on low seats at the low table in the tent. Bowls of soup arrived with a basket of round doughy bread, followed by deep fried filo pastry filled with mashed potato.

The cooking jar was removed from the fire, tapped round the top with a small axe, the whole of the top removed and contents poured into a large serving dish. We were given a plate with a large chunk of lamb, potato, half tomato and large green chili. We finished the meal with an orange, an apple and a plate of small, sweet and rather uninspiring nibbles. It was a very good meal and an interesting experience but took two hours.

Most people just spend one night at Ksar Ghilane. We decided to spend two nights there as we thought we would be grateful of a rest after the long drive the previous day. Apart from the quad bikes or camel rides there is little to do unless you enjoy lying by the pool.

We arranged to be driven to the remains of a Roman fort, 3km across the sand dunes. There is a road to it but it often becomes impassable with blown sand. It was a bumpy ride over the sand dunes which stand 4-5í high. We could see the sand being blown off the dunes.

The fort was built in a strategic position on top of a slight rise to control the important watering point and to provide intelligence on nomad movements. The rough stone walls stand 10í high and form a square with rounded corners. The blocks are not particularly well shaped, unlike most Roman buildings. A single arched doorway leads to an open space which has a square building inside. We were reminded of the milecastles along Hadrianís Wall.

The fort was later used by Berbers and we could see the remains of their houses built round the walls. Steps to the top of the walls gave views across the dunes.

Outside is a palm covered shack which used to be a shop but is now empty. Most people visit on camel from the village. A few walk.

We were then taken for a drive across the rocky desert to two other camps in the middle of the desert, several kilometers south of Ksar Ghilane. As we drove south we lost the sand dunes and it became stony desert again. We were surprised by amount of vegetation around even on the sand. There was jasmine, esparto grass, a shrub with small blue flowers loved by camels. In places there were a few yellow, white and blue flowers adding a touch of color to the desert. In a few weeks as the temperatures continue to rise these will have died.

We saw a Berber shepherd out with a big flock of sheep. We were told he would collect all the sheep from the village and was paid to look after them during the day. There were a few nomad tents scattered around and we could see across to the army control station at the start of the Military zone.

In retrospect we didnít need to spend two nights at Ksar Ghilane. We could have done the Roman fort before driving to our next destination of Tataouine. The jury is out whether it was worth the long trip. We donít particularly like sleeping in tents although we did appreciate the en suite facilities. Having seen some of the other camp sites we now know why Camp Yadis Ksar Ghilane is described as luxury tents. It probably wasnít worth the trip, although I think if we had taken the decision not to visit we might have regretted it afterwards.

Anyone else intending to stop two nights needs to plan in advance and take a snack for lunch, unless they intend to buy lunch at the camp site. The only other option is a small boulangerie near one of the other camps selling very small loaves of Berber bread for one dinar. Our driver reckoned a one dinar piece was larger than the bread.

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