July 15, 2009

Offering the unusual

by Daryl Dutton

From the largest desert in the world, to villages of the Troglodyte cave people, to the Star Wars’ planet Tatooine movie set, Tunisia is far from a routine destination. I was lucky enough to experience the ultimate in unusual when I escorted a group of passengers with Senior Tours Canada. A long-time popular tourist destination for European travelers, Tunisia is now also attracting North American tourists, young and old alike. In fact, this north central African state has become a tourist Mecca with attractions as diverse as relaxing on a white sandy Mediterranean beach or taking a camel trek into the Sahara desert.

One of the highlights of a number of included excursions on our tour was the opportunity to see the largest desert in the world, the Sahara. We departed our hotel in the small southern town of Douz, known as the gateway to the Sahara, and in only 20 minutes we found ourselves in the midst of massive sand dunes surrounded by colourfully adorned camels. Getting ready for the trek is half the fun – slipping on traditional local garb over our own clothes. Not only did the long tunics and head scarf look fun and exotic, but the apparel was also practical; it protected us both from the sun and the occasional burst of wind that sent the sand flying in all directions. We had the option of either riding a camel, lead by a local Beber, a horse drawn cart, or walking. In 10 minutes we were surrounded by enormous sand dunes, just like ascene out of Lawrence of Arabia, and once we arrived at our predetermined destination, about 1 mile from where we set out, we all walked amongst the dunes.

We were fortunate enough to see the elusive desert fox, a very small animal about the size of a domestic cat. A number of us in the group climbed the dunes. Once on top, we had incredible views as the sun was setting over the massive mountains of sand stretching off towards Libya and Algeria. Many of us never thought of a desert being beautiful, but our time in the Sahara changed all of our minds. It truly is beautiful, a flowing sea of sand, always moving.

Another included excursion on the Tunisia tour was a trip to the planet Tatooine of Star Wars fame – a real place in the middle of the North African desert. While ruthless Hollywood dismantles the set of each movie as soon as the director shouts his final “Cut!”, Tunisia, where George Lucas shot most of the Star Wars scenes, still keeps the original set from the ’70s, protecting it from the burning sun and winds of the Sahara.

We drove through the desert in modern four-wheel drive vehicles with alocal driver. He stopped the jeep at the top of the hill and we all stepped out for a view of the valley and some structures off in the distance.

“Prepare yourself for the ultimate Star Wars experience,” said the guide, “we are going to see the real movie location!”

The driver started the engine and slowly drove down a very steep incline before roaring off across the desert, leaving a trail of sandy fog behind. What at first seemed to be just another pile of desert rocks gradually took the shape of the rockets, satellites and spheres of the 1976 Star Wars production, the real-life science fiction amid the ancient desert. As we all wandered around the abandoned set, we found the structures being freshly painted. Camels belonging to the local Berber wandered through the set adding to the strange contrast of the ancient and the space age. As I peered inside one of the impeccably built constructions, I noticed a mattress and a small teapot on the sand floor. In a mere moment, theoccupant of the house was there: an elder Arab man dressed in typical desert fashion. The set guardian offered us some Tunisian tea, but it was time to move on and return back to our hotel in Tozeur. As we drove off, we all looked back at the piece of cinematic history that has been preserved by the Sahara for over three decades.

The next day we drove to the desert town of Matmata in the southern Tunisia. Today this village in southern Tunisia boasts several thousand hospitable troglodytes, Tunisian cave people who live in houses dug vertically into the ground. These homes are usually a couple of stories deep, complete with doors and staircases, but no windows.

We took the steps and earthen ramps down about 25 feet to open courtyards, off of which lay several habitable rooms, bedrooms, living rooms, storerooms, and even rooms for chickens or goats. ften a narrow shaft from the surface permits occupants to drop dates, olives, and grain directly into storerooms. We were all surprised how comfortable the rooms were, with carpets, couches, art work on the walls.

Though summers are scorching, these subterranean houses remain cool. Life is simple here. The women spin wool without a spinning wheel and weave blankets on their ancestral looms, while the men cultivate the land.

A few years back, the Tunisian government offered to build modern masonry houses for the entire population of the town, and a few people were persuaded to abandon their underground ways. Today, their white houses surrounded by greenery face the old town across the valley. The majority, however, chose to remain in their subterranean dwellings.

Culturally, it all seems a long way from home. But my exhilarated guests agreed Tunisia was the adventure of a lifetime. From desert towns and oases to camels and jeeps, from lovely resorts to traditional cave dwellings hundreds of years old, Tunisia truly does offer the unusual.

About Senior Tours Canada:

Senior Tours Canada is the largest Canadian tour operator specializing in fully escorted worldwide group tours for the mature traveler age 50+.

With over 100 destinations and cruises to choose from, Senior Tours Canada offers the traveler choice, interesting itineraries, flexible pacing, good value and quality.

For more information visit Senior Tours, e-mail info@stc.ca or call 1-800-268-3492.

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