We wander around the sleepy little town of Douz. There are workshops where men are making sandals from camel leather, but we’re not sure who buys them – this winter’s de rigeur fashion item for men appears to be a pair of furry tartan carpet slippers. Our hotel is cheap and cheerful – well at least Mahmoud the manager is normal – and the locals’ restaurant down the street is run by a chatty fella who tries his best to make our dining experience special – with paper napkins and a big dollop of harissa to go with the freshly sliced baguette. Harissa is ubiquitous, although sometimes we don’t get it because we are tourists – tourists don’t like ground red chilli dips. We keep going back to the same restaurant because he’s charging normal prices and the chicken’s good. We’re eating a lot of chicken – sometimes we cluck. One evening two drunks come in and sit down chain smoking. One of them keeps getting calls on his mobile – presumably from his wife, demanding when he will be home. He shouts down the phone and slams the phone on the table. The men carry on talking in loud voices until the phone rings again. It strikes us that with Arabic we’re not quite sure if people are arguing or not. It seems a harsh sounding language and is spoken at high volume all the time. Or maybe Tunisian men just like to shout a lot.
On the edge of the palmeraie are the luxury tourist hotels – some looking a bit forlorn. There’s a huge dune behind them which we’ve come to climb. From here we can look south across the real Sahara. Somewhere south of us is the desert’s highest point – a 3,000 metre mountain in northern Chad. We look long and hard but can’t see it. Walking back we pass a tourist café. A busload of Chinese tourists alights and enters the café garden to don robe and headgear in preparation for a ride on a camel for an hour. When people ask us where we’re from we say we’re Chinese but the touts won’t believe us now they’ve seen the real McCoy.
We head eastwards on another deserted desert road towards Matmata. This time we have a headwind so it’s hard work. But there are no annoying young men around so that’s a plus. And the desert is not entirely flat so we get some views from very low rises. After a hard effort we find ourselves climbing off the plain into hills and decide to camp in a side valley where some palms are planted. There’s no-one around and we make a dash for cover so that no passing cars will see us. Maybe we’re paranoid, but we’ve become a bit leery of being seen. The wind whips up in the night and in the morning our porch is full of dust. After a quick hoover we knock off the remaining kilometres to Matmata. On the approach we notice a very well built pavement. It is probably never used by anyone as it’s on the edge of town and not leading to any houses – but it looks nice if you are driving through. A bit further along we pass about fifteen men all sat on the wall on either side of the road taking a fag break from their hard labour of, uh, fixing some small holes in said pavement. We ‘salaam’ a few of them but no-one says a word to us – they just stare. You can’t beat a friendly welcome. Unphased, we settle down for an early lunch in the town’s only restaurant. Matmata is a small place renowned for the traditional Berber houses that have been dug out of the ground – like a series of interconnecting open bunkers. You enter through a tunnel into an open patio off which there are one or two tiers of cave-like rooms. There may be more connecting patios. All this is done to create a cool house in the summer heat. Three of these houses have been turned into hotels and we stay in one. There are no other guests at first but a steady stream of tour buses stop and unload their passengers for lunch. Did I mention Star Wars? I’m trying not to. Scenes from the original films were filmed here. I nip back to the centre of town for water and fruit and stop at the only café for a coffee. The restaurant owner approaches me and invites me to eat lunch at his establishment. But I’ve just eaten there, I exclaim. It was only an hour ago – how could he forget my pained countenance when he charged us a tourist price for our chicken dinner?
In the afternoon Faith turns up at our hotel. She’s come along way today but she gets no rest as we’re hungry to talk. She is the first real traveller we’ve met on this journey – by which I mean she’s not on a short or long holiday. She left home in the US five years ago and has spent the last year coming up from South Africa. She’s travelling alone and, I hope she doesn’t mind me saying, she’s 72. She is a remarkable woman on many counts and a great talker. We have such a good time with her that we stay another day to spend more time with her.
Our next ride is out of the hills and across to the coast to the city of Gabes. It’s an easy and uneventful ride and we’re delighted to find that, as the city is not a tourist destination, we are completely ignored by everyone. Even better, as we’re not so keen on the idea of camping along the way, we can take a train north tomorrow to El Jem and skip a lot of flat dusty roads through olive groves. Eee, this cycling lark’s a breeze.