Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world, located on the African continent. And the name “Sahara” is derived from a dialectal Arabic word “ṣaḥra”, which means “desert“.
We had an opportunity to visit it during our summer vacation in Tunisia. Well, it was in August 2004, but memories of Sahara desert scenes are still enduring.
Visiting Tunisia without seeing Sahara is not a complete trip. Even if it takes two or three days of your vacation, it is worth seeing. During the trip, you cross over 1.000 km by bus and by jeep. It is a very interesting and intensive journey and you don’t have time to think about the distance.
Just relax and enjoy every moment in the Sahara desert.
The first day in Sahara
El Jem, the Roman amphitheater
Our two-day Sahara safari started early in the morning from Yasmine Hammamet, where our hotel was located. First, we passed by Sousse, Tunisia’s third-biggest city, an important port, commercial and tourist place.
The first stop was El Jem, located about 140 km from Yasmine Hammamet. It is a small village, known as the Roman Colosseum. Yes, it is a little bit unusual to see amphitheater in the middle of Tunisia. El Jem is the third biggest amphitheater in the world, after the Colosseum of Rome and Verona as well.
Today, during the July and August, the International Symphonic Music Festival takes place here in El Jem.
History of El Jem
El Jem was constructed between 230 and 238 A.D, by the command of the Roman Imperial official Gordian. It was made of stone blocks, according to the model of the Colosseum of Rome. This impressive monument is 148 meters long and 122 meters wide. After Gordian’s death, the construction was stopped and never finished. But it used to host 35.000 visitors who watched gladiators’ games.
Despite some walls are missing, El Jem is one of the best-preserved amphitheaters in the world, thanks to high temperatures, sand, and dry climate.
It is an incredible feeling to walk around colonnades, walls, and amphitheater.
Be careful during the visit because the steps are very narrow.
You can sit on the steps or stand in the middle of the arena, which is 65 meters long and 39 meters wide.
And you can take a walk in the underground basement area as well.
It is a unique feeling. Try to imagine the scenes of gladiators and wild animals, which were kept in cells before terrible fights in the arena, while the crowd outside was yelling and cheering.
If the walls could speak, who knows what stories would they tell us!
The Berber village Matmata
After visiting El Jem, we continued our journey to Matmata, in southern Tunisia.
On the hill, in distance, you can see big white letters: MATMATA, and WELCOME as well.
The landscape is unusual and fascinating: hills, curves, valleys.
Matmata is a Berber village, known for its special troglodyte caves. Actually, they are homes, dug into the ground, to protect inhabitants from heat and enemies. First, they dug one big circular hole. Then they dug around the edges making the underground rooms, with one free space in the center, like a little courtyard.
The outdoor temperatures could be almost 50°C, but indoor is pleasant at 20°C.
Usually, these homes consist of several small rooms with simple decoration and hand-woven carpets, wooden furniture, clay pots. This village was almost unknown until the huge flooding in 1967. After that, some families moved to cities and modern houses. But some of them still live here.
The inhabitants of these unique dwellings could allow you to enter the houses and taking photos. Prepare to buy handcrafts or give some money in exchange, because they make their living from tourism and the cultivating of olives. Above the entrance of the caves, there are symbols of blue hands. This sign is usually known as Hamsa or the Hand of Fatima, which means to protect women from the evil eye and boost fertility and to strengthen the weak as well.
Today, Matmata is one of the major tourist locations in Tunisia. It is also famous because some scenes from the Star Wars were filmed here (Luke Skywalker’s childhood home on the planet of Tatooine). One of these houses was transformed into the Sidi Driss hotel.
Douz oasis and camels
Our next stop was Douz, known as the gateway to the Sahara because it is located on the edge of the desert. It is about a two-hour drive from Matmata. Douz is a desert village with an oasis and numerous palm trees. In the past, it was an important stop on caravan routes across the Sahara, especially from the 8th century until the early 17th century.
Riding the camels through the Sahara desert
And it was time for the new adventure: camel ride!
We dressed traditional Bedouin clothes, put our scarves on the mouth and prepared for the camel caravan.
These camels have only one hump. But you have to be careful: camels stand up on their back legs. So if you don’t hold well to the saddle, you can end up on the sand overthrown across the camel’s head!
I have to say that is not as comfortable as it seems when you watch in movies. Not at all! We had leg muscle pain only after one hour of riding. I could only imagine how it would be like after one or more days 🙂
And the desert sand is so fine that you have the feeling that it creaks under your teeth when you breathe!
Riding camels during the sunset was a fantastic adventure.
You are surrounded by the vast space of sand and dunes, while camels in the caravan are moving slowly and pushing each other.
The sun went down very soon. It was the moment we said goodbye to the camels and our guides.
So we went back to the hotel in the desert for dinner and refreshment in the pool.
Another day in the desert awaits us.
The second day in Sahara
On the second day of our Sahara trip, we first saw sandstone in different sizes and shapes.
I can’t remember the whole story (uh, it was 15 years ago), but I wrote on the back of photos that they were petrified graves.
And then we came to the next fantastic spot: the salt lake.
Chott El Jerid – the salt lake
Chott El Jerid is the largest salt lake in Sahara. It is about 20 km wide and 250 km long, covering about 5.000 km2.
There is water in the lake only during the winter and you can cross the lake by boat. In other periods the lake is almost dried up. Temperatures are high, sometimes reaching 50°C during the summer. So water evaporates from the lake, leaving incredible scenes including numerous fata morganas (mirages).
The bottom of the lake is between 10 and 25 meters below sea level. It is believed that once there was a sea here, but it had retreated. Today there are huge reserves of salts, which are processed and then exported.
In the middle of the lake, there is an embankment and a road. The German general Erwin Rommel, popularly known as the Desert Fox, used this route during the Second World War and his offensive in southern Tunisia as well. Probably he followed the former routes of Arab traders and caravans.
The lake can be crossed on foot during the summer. But you should not drive a car, because the salt crust is a thin and different size. One of the attempts of crossing the lake did not end well. The bus with tourists was stuck up in the soft lake bottom, and you can see its remains on the photo.
Today it is a tourist attraction and an awarning sign to stick to the main road 🙂
The colorful water of Chott El Jerid
All around the main road, there are small poles and channels. They are filled with water in different colors: blue, purple, pink, green, white, depending on mineral quantity. It can be seen from March to August.
It looks almost unbelievable!
Here you can find some salt sculptures, like a camel.
Or you can find an abandoned boat and a hotel as well 🙂
In the hot season, the salts crystallize and get the specific form, hardened on the sun and wind. This calcium crystal is knowns as the desert roses. They are the must-have souvenir, the symbol of the desert. You can buy it or if find it in the lake.
On the shores of the salt lake, there are town-oases, such as Kebili, Nefta, Douz, and Tozeur.
Tozeur and Star Wars filmed set
We continued our trip towards southwest Tunisia and we arrived in Tozeur. It is a town and oasis with hundreds of thousands of palm trees and delicious dates.
And for Star Wars fans, this was a real moment of joy. Near the city, there are still the remains of the Star Wars set: the houses from the fictional planet of Tatooine.
It was very interesting to walk around this filming site, with the feeling “lost in time on Star Wars planet”.
Jeep ride across the Sahara dunes
During our journey across the desert, we had a real jeep safari ride.
Oh, yes, we screamed a lot while the drivers raced across the dunes and around them!
Some moments were a bit terrifying, but we enjoyed the ride.
In one moment, in the distance, we clearly saw the lake in the desert. Actually, it was not a lake, only a fata morgana (mirage). It looked so real that we could swear that the lake was in front of us. We took photos, but there was just sand, no water, unbelievable!
And then we realized what it meant to be lost in the desert, without water!
An oasis in Sahara: Tamerza and Chebika
The road with serpentines leads across the parts of Atlas mountain.
We are passing the amazing Sahara landscapes, where the famous romantic movie “English Patient“ was filmed in 1996. I am sure you can remember the great and tragic love story during the Second World War, between a Hungarian cartographer who mapped Sahara and an English woman.
After a heavy patch of the road, with a lot of curves and serpentines, we arrived in Tamerza, the largest mountain oasis of Tunisia.
It was abandoned after the huge flood in 1969. The Algerian border is only a few kilometers from there. The fresh water is coming from the hills. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the grand canyon, abandoned old town and waterfalls.
Close to Tamerza, at the foot of the mountains surrounded by palms trees, there is another beautiful oasis: Chébika.
I remember that we climbed a goat path, through the narrow stone passages, and reached the waterfall surrounded by palm trees. And an unusual scene: some people were washing their faces while others were cooling their feet, one next to another! Since it was a very hot day, feeling the cold water in the desert was indescribable!
Kairouan, the holy city in Sahara
We finished our journey by visiting the carpet factory and a panoramic view of Kairoun city.
It is the fourth holy city in the Islamic religion and the pilgrimage in Kairouan is very important.
The Great Mosque of Kairouan is 127 meters long and about 70 meters wide. It is the oldest mosque in Tunisia and the largest in Africa as well. It is also known as the Mosque of Ugba and it is in the UNESCO World Heritage list.
From the outside it looks like a fortress building, with a minaret, praying room and a huge courtyard in the middle.
After Kairouan, we came back to our hotel, tired but filled with the amazing impressions.
Dreaming of Sahara desert
Tunisia is a famous tourist destination, because of the warm sea, sand beaches, and big resorts.
But if you have enough time and feel a little bit adventurous, think about an excursion to the Sahara desert. Well, it is an unforgettable experience.
Wander among the walls of El Jem, visit Matmata houses.
Try riding a camel in the sunset, and sleep in the hotel or a tent in the oasis.
Walk along the bottom of the salt lake Chott El Jerid.
Take photos on Star Wars filming locations.
Join a jeep safari across the desert dunes.
And feel the powdery sand under your feet somewhere in the desert. Well, that’s something else.
The fantastic feeling of freedom flows through your veins because there is nothing around you for kilometers and kilometers. Just sand and dunes.
At that moment you realize how fragile we are and how all our problems are small and so far away from us.
In the head, you can hear the gorgeous voice of the British musician Sting singing “Desert rose”.
And then, take a deep breath.
Close your eyes and feel the touch of the Sahara desert.