Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Sunset at the Oasis

Driving across the inland deserts of Tunisia, we are struck by its harshness of the landscape, but also the variety of forms that a desert can take. There are long stretches of low-level saltbush, flat sections that look like salt lakes and rocky lunar-like landscapes. Of course the most visually appealing are great sandy deserts that come with the occasional welcoming patch of green oasis. While not looking quite like the clich├ęd image of an oasis, these are generally large areas of closely packed palm trees that are obviously thriving on a small well of water rising from somewhere deep below the ground. This was the sort of desert experience we were looking for and it wasn’t too long before our driver was heading toward an area where we could explore it further. It was mid-afternoon and the temperature was scorching as we headed toward a tiny town called Douz. Also referred to as ‘the gateway to the Sahara’. Douz has long been the starting point for many desert treks and historically was an important stop for the Trans-Saharan caravan route. Today it remains a haven for tourists wishing to have a taste of a bygone era when camels were truly the ‘ships of the desert’. We leisurely waited in the swimming pool of our hotel until late in the afternoon before we donned traditional Arabic kaftans and head cloth (known as a kufiyya) to join our group for a sunset trek into the desert by camel. Now at this point I probably need to mention that I have always been a big fan of the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, which provided me with a very romantic notion of the desert since viewing the movie at our local drive-in theatre way back in the 1960’s. So the notion of riding a camel across the desert dunes was somewhat of a fulfillment of a childhood fantasy for me. While I was getting quite excited about the notion, Jules was becoming increasingly apprehensive about climbing on board a headstrong dromedary that appeared not so keen on being ridden by an inexperienced Australian. There was a solution…while I would ride the camel, Jules would be chauffeur driven in a horse drawn buggy taking photographs of me having my ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ moment…perfect! So as the sun began to shimmer over the horizon, we headed off across the soft white desert sands. The scene looked as picturesque as I had imagined if you somehow managed to ignore the hundreds of other tourists also wishing to have the same experience. Jules’ camera was working overtime in the dying minutes of the day and as the sun began to set, a silhouetted figure sat high on his camel strolling majestically across the crest of the desert sands. At that point and in my own dream world, I swear I could hear the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia in the background!

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