The oases of Tozeur and Nefta were a revelation. There was so much undergrowth of other fruits beneath the huge date palms: there were bananas, almonds, plums and apricots and all this on the edge of the Salt pans and the desert.
We traversed the Chott El Djerid – an area of salt marshes with solidified sand piles – on the road which French Engineers had built during their brief Empire. We stopped at Douz for lunch and that was where we found out that Gaddafi had been captured. This part of Tunisia is so close to the border with Libya that it is full of refugees.
Just outside Douz there is a centre for camel rides or 4 x 4 treks into the desert. The Berbers who run most of these trips have cannily caught little desert foxes which they keep on a leash for you to hold and have photos taken with. They are the size of a large cat with huge, very pointy fox-like ears, a bushy tail and a definite foxy colour. They are also terrified because, being nocturnal, their large eyes cannot cope with the blinding sunlight.
I realised there was a gap in my knowledge about Tunisia which the guide wasn’t about to fill. Of course, the Desert Fox! This was Rommel’s nickname to the Allied troops fighting in the North African Desert during World War Two. So he must have been around Tozeur. This part of Tunisia is just next door to Libya and all those famous battlefields we have heard of in films – Tobruk and El Alamein for a start!
Rommel’s fame rests on his success as a military leader, his daring and his compassionate attitude to Prisoners of War. To the British Desert Rats,(see film with James Mason) Rommel epitomised a gentleman’s approach to war. Rommel’s Afrika Korps never committed any atrocities and all prisoners were humanely treated. His masterstroke came in June 1942 when his outnumbered Afrika Korps wrecked the British Eighth Army on the Gazala Line immediately to the east of Benghazi. He then pursued his beaten foe all the way back to El Alamein, the Eighth Army’s last defensive position in Egypt before the Nile. Along the way, he also took the fortress port of Tobruk. The Battle for Tobruk lasted 240 days and by the end of that September, Rommel was suffering from exhaustion and a bout of jaundice that finally forced him to return to Germany for treatment.
We leave the desert and drive north to Matmata, a Berber troglodyte town where LukeSkywalker’s hotel was. We never visited Tataouine (supposedly Luke’s planet but nothing was ever filmed there) – important Berber trading town that had been home to regiments of the Foreign Legion (think ‘Beau Geste’) nor even Medenine where Rommel fought his last battle against Montgomery. These southern Berber towns are, by far, much more interesting than the dusty impoverished towns of the North. Called ‘Ksars’(from the Latin ‘castrum’) these fortified villages nearly all housed huge grain stores built into the rocks and they are essentially Berber, not Tunisian Arab.
As we drove north, we by-passed Kasserine where Rommel had inflicted damage on the American forces (there is apparently a military cemetery there) and were forced to by-pass Sfax as there were demonstrations/celebrations when the population (mainly Libyan refugees)learnt of the death of Gaddaffi. Somehow, the Berbers, the French Foreign Legion and Rommel all got by-passed and Luke Skywalker was the hero of the hour with Gadaffi coming a close second.
For further interest:
All photos courtesy of Julia McLean