Dave the motorhome has been out for a wee tour of three ancient troglodyte Berber villages, before returning back to base, this time in the centre of Tataouine in the sandy car park of Hotel Gazelle (N32.92748 E10.44688). We intended to go to Hotel Mabrouk, which is next to Hotel Sangho (you following this?) where we stayed last night, to see if we could negotiate a better deal than Sangho’s rather cheeky 30TD rate. However, popping into town on our way home to get supplies, Ju spotted this place, we nipped in. The rate’s 20TD (€10, without hook-up), winner, relatively speaking as it is just a guarded car park…
Although created by the French and therefore modern, Tataouine is still fascinating and we like it better here as we can walk into town in two minutes. Oh, and our Orange 3G dongle works here too. Yeah, baby!
I’ll get this off my chest from the off, some of the locals today have wound me up tight like a drum. Trying out scams, begging, shouting at us to go see their bl00dy poor camel working an indoor olive oil press, waving us down to try and flog can’t be arsed tours in indecipherable French of dubious accuracy, whining at us that if we want to look at their village we should give them money.
We’re richer by far than most of the locals could dream of. We can afford to pay for guides, even if they turn out to be near-useless to us. We can afford to buy post cards or tea. We can afford to be ripped off in some old-hat ‘can you exchange these Euros’ trick. We can afford to pay to look at a bl00dy camel grinding away in some dank pit of a room. We can afford to give to kids who stand in the street demanding we stop and give them money. Tunisia can’t afford to pull these scams though. Already there are far too few tourists to meet their expectations; acting like bullies won’t pull in the punters.
After taking a look around Hotel Sangho this morning I could understand why they charged 30TD (even if I didn’t like paying it), it was pretty plush. The swimming pool was cold, or I suspect I’d have begged Ju to go back. In the foyer they’d placed photos of the surrounding area over history, with interesting stuff on the French colonial period and the World Wars. They were happy for me to take photos so I grabbed a few.
We’d planned out a circular route around the hilltop Berber villages of Guermessa, Chenini and Douiret. The Berbers are the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa, their long brown robes being the obvious inspiration for the Jedi outfit. The Berber way of life is gradually being eroded away, and the villages we visited all acted as physical metaphors of the decline, only Chenini had any life about it, the others were fully abandoned as far as we could tell. The villages are built high on (and into) hillsides, with stunning views over the plain below. Each has its own modern equivalent, with power and running water, into which populace has shifted. Without a doubt, the old towns are eye-watering beautiful.
Guermessa is reached by walking up a path of large stones, laid with great energy at some point, and for what reason we don’t know. We climbed the path with Charlie in tow, peering into the abandoned caves just to be sure no-one was there before taking a look around inside. They’re all small, set on two levels with a walled-off dark area to the rear.
As we got closer to the higher part of the town, a few men we’d seen to one side gravitated towards the point we’d enter the town. Joy.
To be fair they were pretty easy going, trying to sell us a tour of the town and then asking for money, all gently done, and we gently declined. They didn’t harass us, we took a quick look around and left, eager to be free of them. Only a French couple in a hire car, who we’d seen at our hotel earlier, joined us in the town. Not being English, I suspect they’d just said ‘non’ to the men and brushed them off.
Back to the bottom of the hill and into the sanctuary of Dave, we grabbed a brew, and watched a rodent scrabbling about. One of the guys from the hill walked down after us, pushing his bike a short distance before coming to a halt.
Spying the map, the route over to the next town was a white road, sealed and maybe only 10km long. Driving through the new town a small boy stood in the road with his hand raised and palm flat before us, telling us to stop. I laughed at him and his stern face. He stood to one side so we could get past, his face full of fury, and pretended to throw stones as we ignored his request to hand over sweets, money, whatever. Further down to the road we passed a group of men taking a tea break from working on a wall, we shared waves again as we had on the way up. Further down the road again we couldn’t find the turn off so went back and asked them. The chap who appeared to be in charge came over, shook our hands and explained the only direct road was piste (unsealed), we had to go back to Tataouine. He declined a photo, shook our hands again and waved us off, top man.
After Ju had bought a couple of stamps in the Chenini new town post office (they don’t seem to have named the new towns as such, they share the name with the old town), we drove up the hill. Chenini is the most famous of the towns, according to the Rough Guide, who’s author says the place has ‘suffered from over-exposure to tour groups’. What he means is, I guess, the folks there have gotten used to people turning up in coaches, wandering about giving them cash for whatever or nothing, and leaving.
As we entered town a man stood up and indicated we should pull in, a sure sign we shouldn’t pull in. We stopped anyway and he quickly tried to get us to park, and when I didn’t move, to make a pitch for a guided tour or food in the restaurant. A few ‘non, merci’s’ and we shifted on, parking around the corner. Another would-be-guide. Just a quick point: Morocco had a problem with guides, many of whom knew very little and couldn’t speak European languages. They introduced a license system; those operating unlicensed faced prison: result – decent guides. No such system here, we declined this chap too, who went on a bit before finally giving up as we walked off.
The town’s beautiful, still inhabited, as the power lines and telecoms mast attests. As we walked past an open door, a man came out and started to shout at us in French that we should go inside, he has a camel, come inside, come inside, take photo. Yeah, yeah, non merci, he stared, face like thunder. At the top of town another guy pops up, a younger chap in a robe, postcard? Tea? Non, merci. As we grabbed a photo he came back, like the proverbial bad smell, this time with a handful of Euros change.
I don’t know what the scam is, if anyone does please enlighten me, I just know it’s a scam. I’m guessing as soon as you get out the local currency to swap the coins, he pops the Euros away and begs, or just offers some awful exchange rate, or they’re fakes? If anyone reading this knows, please enlighten me. I told him we use Pounds in England, he continued proffering the coins, non, merci. After a while he changed tact. You need a guide. Non, merci. You should have a guide. Non, merci. We start to walk off, he follows. Buy postcards. Non, merci. Buy tea. Non, merci. At this point his smirk and grabbing nature are bringing down a fine red mist and I round on him, entering some kind of shouted weird Frenglish language debate on whether as tourists we are duty bound to give him money, or whether he should get off his backside and do a job like I, erm, used to.
Fuming, I stomp off down the path, Ju calmly pointing out the right one and turning around. Camel man had another go. I stopped short of telling him what to do with his camel. A nipper begged for money. Non. Another tried, to find me begging back from him, childishly. People higher up in the town were making shrill noises to those below. Paranoid, I guessed some sort of code for ‘they’ll get a guide next time’. I’m not totally naive, but buying a guide just for the purpose of fending off all the other wasters just isn’t in my nature.
Onwards. I checked around Dave’s tyres to make sure no nails stood against them, and we left town via a route Rough Guide man said was for the ‘intrepid’. It was fine, sealed and empty of other traffic. I begged the gods not to see us break down and have to go back to Chenini for help. They answered, I owe them a sacrificed chicken or some such. They also threw up some great landscape for Ju to look at as I ranted quietly.
Douiret proved itself to be by far the best of the bunch in my book. A bloke tried to flog us a tour a couple of times, the second time by the ‘just start talking about the town’ approach. Apart from that, and the French couple we’d shadowed for the day, the place was devoid of life, a total delight. Selfishly we loved it there, gazing out onto the living-a-dream countryside, trying to imagine a similar ghost town scenario playing out in the UK somewhere and failing.
Cruising back into Tataouine, which was at one point a foreign legion base with French and German soldiers outnumbering civilians 3 to 1, Ju managed to get a photo of this scene:
Into the town, we popped Dave into the car park here and went shopping. In among the usual tiny little souk shops there stands a supermarket. If you’ll excuse the phrase, we nearly wet ourselves with excitement inside, completely missing the ‘deposit your bags here’ area and eagerly grabbing at Western delights – instant coffee and sugar puffs (both in bags with no other packaging), cheese, tins of tomato puree and peas, frozen beef meat meatballs. As Homer would say, head flung back in gurgling desire, ergrgrgegeggegeghhh. €25 worth of food later, we nipped into a pastry shop to buy the local delicacy: kab el ghezal, filled with honey and nuts. The owner gave us one to try, reeling off a list of ingredients in French. Once he sussed we were English, he changed tact, telling us they lasted 30 days (maybe he sussed Ju is half Scottish), holding both hands up to somehow signify 30. They were tasty, we got a few.
Next stop, a pavement fooderie selling crepes stuffed with an unlikely concoction of cheese slice, an oily something, chips, spam, onion, a fried egg and some unidentified stuff. At 2TD each (about 90p), they were beautiful.
Time for me to stop writing, it’s been a long old day! Jay