Naturally, the ULTIMATE "essential" to any successful journey through southern Tunisia is our book, STARS OF THE DESERT - A journey across the dunes of Tunisia to discover lost "Tatooine." You can find it in our Drifter's Depot, or on Blurb.com! Of course, if you cannot wait for the guidebook to download to your tablet, you are also welcome to peruse the following...
the trek to Tataouine
Driving in, and around, Tataouine in Southern Tunisia takes some getting used to. If you are renting a car from Houmt Souk to to begin your cross-country trek, keep in mind that most rentals in
Tunisia are manual! Be prepared to drive with a stick-shift mechanism
on some pretty insane twists and turns. But first, you have to get out
of town! Make sure to watch out closely for people just randomly
crossing the street at any given time! They do not see that many
tourists taking to the road on their own, so they will most likely
smile, point and gawk at you as you pass by. Please try your best not
to run anyone over, especially the hordes of schoolchildren who seem to
spend more time walking to and from school than actually attending
For the passenger, things are much more relaxing. The views off the side of the road near Tataouine are stunning. Whether submerged in the surrounding desert valleys near Ksar Ouled Soltane (see “sights”), or hugging to side of the Jebel Dahar near Ghomrassen, there is much natural beauty to soak in.
Still, as in Djerba,there there is one drawback - litter. We were quite saddened to see so much rubbish marring the otherwise stunning landscapes. While traveling in Tunisia, please do your best to pick up after yourselves. While you may not find a decent place to recycle, there will be a trash can somewhere in the next town you breeze through.
Set of Drifters tip: While traveling from Tataouine to Matmata, or Matmata to Douz, be on the lookout for weird life-size rabbit jackal statues! Apparently they have something to do with Tunisia's tourism program, but we were never quite able to figure it out what exactly their significance was! Still, they make for a nice photo opportunity, particularly for fans of artist Kenny Scharf. We don't think he had anything to do with these rabbits, through they certainly recall his wacky, colorful aesthetic.
don't leave home without it...
One of the frustrating parts about traveling in Southern Tunisia was the lack of a "general store" to purchase the everyday items that you may have forgotten to pack back home. (There simply is no Walgreen’s or Boots pharmacy out here in the land of the ksour!) We’ve already mentioned the difficulty of locating a bottle opener for your last-minute Celtia binge (see “sips”), yet during our Tataouine excursion, we were also at a loss when looking for much needed items like aloe vera, band-aids, or even suntan lotion!
It’s not impossible. In fact, while driving through the North African countryside, you will find a number of tiny free-standing stores that sell bottled water, yogurt, sodas and small bags of cookies or chips. Still, aside from fresh hot baguette, there is not much in the way of hearty food. Since it seems that local customs shun eating outside of certain hours, you really need to plan in advance and buy food to snack on, especially if making long drives (such as the one from Tataouine to Matmata) in the course of a single day.
Set of Drifters tip: Looking to stock up before heading into the desert? The towns of Houmt Souk (Djerba), Medenine, Douz and Tozeur are probably your best bets for finding more substantial shopping options.
driving through the Jebel Dahar
great journey awaits those who choose to travel through Tunisia by
rental car. Although it is entirely possible to get from town to town
using tour buses or smaller public camionettes and louages (check with
your hotel for more information), a rental car will give you freedom to
stop off wherever you please, and to listen to whatever radio station
that will ultimately set the best mood for your journey!
We happened to start our cross-country drive on the isle of Djerba. Heading onto the mainland via El-Jorf, we traveled southwest through the arid plains surrounding Medenine down to Tataouine. After our adventures there and in nearby Chenini, we headed north on C207 passing by Ksar Hedada on our way to Matmata. It is from here, the jagged edges of the Jebel Dahar mountain range, where the adventure truly began!
Traversing through the Jebel Dahar is a journey full of twists and turns. Every new mountain pass offers a different spectacular and otherworldly view. As we climbed up and down the sides of mountains, witnessing the ever-changing topography, we were immediately reminded of similar terrain back home in California or Arizona, though the lack of other drivers will remind you that you are nowhere near traffic-infused cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Phoenix.
We had missed the opportunity of a real lunch while visiting Ksar Hedada, and were hoping the town of Beni Kheddache might offer something remotely appetizing. Sadly, the village, which seemed like an outpost at the end of the world, was well past its prime, so we carried on. After only a few rickety kilometers out of town, along C114 towards Techine, we realized that the road was only going to get worse!
We stopped at a cliff-side restaurant and asked a local family if they thought we would be okay reaching Matmata via this Techine. The father advised us to pass back through Beni Kheddache and take the safer, saner route along C113. This meant traveling about 100 kilometers out of our way, and back through the crummy low-lying town of Medenine we had visited the day prior! UGH! Still, better to be safe than sorry, especially when surrounded by such remote, and rugged terrain as this!
As we descended off the apex of the Jebel Dahar from Beni Kheddache, we passed a curious small building which lay out the middle of a wide, flat, rocky plain. We stopped the car to investigate, and as we slowly approached, were stunned to see that it rested on the edge of a very steep mountain cliff! The strategic location of a nearby Tunisian "caserne," or military outpost, suddenly made perfect sense once put into context of the grandiose view that reached far beyond Medenine. On a perfectly clear day, you could even see the island of Djerba from here! It somewhat reminded us of Dante’s peak in Death Valley where you can view the lowest point of the valley from the very highest altitude.
The small lookout hut juxtaposed with the vast space below was certainly isolating, making us feel as though we were on a completely different planet. And if the views were not dizzying enough, the fact that we would have to travel all the way down the mountain, across the flat plains to Medenine, and then back up the same mountain from another direction - all hopefully before sunset - made us cringe even further!
Before making the daunting trek, we decided to take a look around the outpost a bit more. There was definitely some curious activity going on, or at least there had been. We were a little spooked to find animal jawbones and excrement laying nearby, strewn amongst an assortment of man-made refuse including someone’s missing pants! A little gecko that scampered along the graffiti-laden interior walls startled the hell out of us as it was completely unexpected all the way out here on the edge of a cliff!
Heading back through the town of Medenine was a pain in the butt, but our trusty radio station broadcasting from Tataouine kept us moving right along. Your “Set of Drifters” highly encourage listening to the local music of any culture you may be visiting to further enrich your travel experience. In these mountains however, reception is patchy, so you’ll need someone to keep the music flowing!
Eventually, after pivoting through Medenine and turning onto C104, we passed a sign along the road that read “GO MATMATA!” Well, actually, it was a sign marker that revealed it was still "60 kilometers to Matmata!" We continued on the journey, careening through the picturesque village of Toujane (see “sights”), and meeting up with Matmata before sunset as hoped!
Set of Drifters tip:
If you look closely enough in the distance, you may just spot relics
of the long-lost past. Dinosaurs once roamed this land, and statues
depicting their magnificence are found randomly on top of hills in this
region of the country.
getting around Tozeur
While we had our trusty rental car with us during our stay in Tozeur, we barely used it. Most of the accommodations, restaurants, shops and attractions within the “Zone Touristique” are easily walkable, and if you have the extra time, pedestrian jaunts to even farther flung locales like the palmeraie, and its oddball Chak Wak Park, are recommended (see "sights"). Even better, we suspect that the perfect way to visit the palmeraie is on bicycle! Rentals can be acquired in town at various locations along Avenue Abdulkacem Chebbi, or at the Taxiphone office across from the Musée Dar Cheraït. Prices are nominal at TD5 per hour (about $4 USD).
Of course, the most picturesque way to view the city is on calèche, a two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage that initially may seem out of place. On the contrary, any breeze along the town’s “Route Touristique” will reveal that Tozeur is easily the swankiest southern locale since Djerba, dotted with high-end resorts that almost seem to topple over one another. Taken in that context, somewhat indulgent carriage rides entirely make sense. Trips via calèche can be arranged outside the Hôtel Residence Karim, and cost TD10 per hour (about $7.50 USD), but please remember to tip your driver!
Taxis are also an option, though be warned, drivers here do not use meters so you’ll have to haggle your fare before heading out. Set of Drifters tip: We suspect there may be some “DL” action going on amongst the taxi driver population, as every ride we embarked on came with a side of shameless flirting!
last note about Tozeur’s transportation network involves the more
crowded thoroughfare used by locals known as Avenue Farhat Hached. In
short, avoid it if you can. Traffic is unbearable and turning around,
or anywhere, required skills we did not even know we had. I guess
there are always camels...
Seriously, if you are heading further west out to Nefta, try using one of the other sidestreets to connect back up with P3 (Route de Nefta). Check with your hotel’s concierge for a map, or better yet, buy one before hand on Amazon.com. We could never have completed our trip without Michelin’s colorful, and accurate, Michelin Map No. 744 of Tunisia.
Hôtel Residence Karim - 150 Avenue Abdulkacem Chebbi, Zone Touristique, Tozeur, 011 (216) 76 454 574