We met with Mohamed quite early on Tuesday morning and he gave us a walking tour of Matmata, including the underground hotel they had used to shoot a few scenes in ‘Return of the Jedi’.
The troglodyte dwellings are much more comfortable than you would imagine, although the hotel was a tad basic. Hardly anyone lives underground anymore, although you can stay in the hotel for 20 Dinar (about £7) a head per night. You must be prepared to be woken up by parties of tourists, however! (I tried to get Tim to release his inner Wookey, but he is way too relaxed since he retired.)
We also visited the museum which was housed in a very well preserved troglodyte dwelling.
Apparently the town has changed massively since 5 underground houses were combined to form the hotel and now there are many more above ground houses than below ground ones. Having seen a photo from the time of the filming of the first Star Wars movie, the place is almost unrecognisable.
Next we were picked up by a lovely bloke called Mustafa in his 4 x 4 Toyota and were driven to some great locations, via some very excitingly bendy roads.
The fact that he was on his mobile phone for a lot of the way definitely added a frisson here and there. He kindly stopped as often as we wanted to take photos and even insisted on taking some of us.
He was surprised that we didn’t want many, as he often deals with Japanese tourists who just love having their photo taken.
We stopped at a great little cafe called Escale de Toujane that provided an awesome view over the amazing little town of Toujane.
We chatted to the proprietor, Dadi Abdullah, and he turned out to be a Professor of Mathematics, but due to the state of the Tunisian Economy, he had been unable to work in a university for about 8 years.
He said that he had decided to help both himself and the local Berber crafts people, so he set up his cafe and craft shop to sell things on for them. The carpets he sold were made of camel hair and the colours absolutely beautiful. It made me very sad that we just can not buy souvenirs on our trip.
Toujane itself is a fascinating place; it’s a Berber village, where some people still live in troglodyte houses.
A very polite young man showed us round. He said he had finished school, as he was 18 and I suspect there is no work for him locally.
I get the feeling that the place is falling to bits because people would much rather live in the the newly built above-ground houses. The locals seem to scratch a living with their camels, sheep, goats and chickens and, of course, tourism.
We then went on to Ksar Hallouf, where we were shown around this fantastic site.
It was a storage facility where the local nomads used to store and process their olives (about 800 years ago).
Mustafa then took us to an authentic Tunisian restaurant, which only had two tables, but the food was truly delicious.
After that we drove for miles down into the Sahara (much further than we would have dared on our own, as it was quite deep into the ‘only go if absolutely necessary’ part of Tunisia) to an oasis called Ksar Ghilane where we a had a beer in a bar (!) and then went to pick up our camels. Tim was not at all keen to ride camels, as he said they are ‘evil, spitting, aloof, ‘ornery critters’ (or words to that effect!)(if you know Tim you can probably guess what he actually said!) but I managed to persuade him without too much pouting. I have never ridden a camel, and riding one in the Sahara, well it was just too good an opportunity to miss. When we met the two camels, I was assured my one was very gentle and he/she (I thought it was probably a girl) sat there very nicely while I sat on the saddle, holding on where they told me to. What they didn’t say was that she would stand up straight away and so she chucked me around like a bucking bronco. Tim’s one did not seem to be behaving at all gently and it took two handlers to settle him down enough so that he could mount. I thought the camel was hissing, but it turned out that it was the noise you have to make to get a camel to lie down. So we ended up perched very high up, holding on for dear life.
We were led out into the dunes of the Sahara at a very sedate pace, trying not to feel jealous of the young folk who were setting off on quad bikes, shrieking with laughter. It is a very odd sensation, riding a camel. You get thrown forward when they go downhill and backwards on the uphill bits. When my camel sniffed the one in front he jumped a mile and when my one jogged to catch up, I was thrown around like a sack of potatoes. It was pretty uncomfortable, made your behind ache and the skin on the inside of your legs sore. But still, it was a magical experience; moving slowly and quietly through the Saharan landscape enabled you to really take it all in. I suspect that it would have ended up being a much more bland occasion by something as noisy as a quad bike. I wanted to take photos, but I was too busy holding on with a vice like grip.
The handler stopped briefly at a Roman fort and we managed to dismount without falling off.
After that very welcome break (walking around like cowboys), we set off again (avoiding the temptation to walk) to meet Mustafa at a hot spring. We were told we could swim there, but the slime growing in it was a little off-putting.
I did, however, come across these handsome fellows
Finally we were driven home watching the sun set over the Sahara. Sigh! It was just as good as it sounded.