Olive trees, Nomads and deserts
Africa is the second largest continent and covers one fifth of the world’s landmass. The vast Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the Mozambique Channel, the Gulfs of Aden and Guinea, and the Red and Mediterranean seas surround it. The North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt border the Mediterranean Sea. The lives of the inhabitants of these North African countries are vastly different from that of ours, their southern African neighbours.
Measuring just 164 149sq km, Tunisia is the smallest of the African countries that border the Mediterranean yet it has a huge diversity of peoples, cultures and landscapes. The country boasts a stunning coastline, medieval Islamic cities, historic Roman sites, fertile plains, oases, vast salt lakes, sand dunes, exquisite crafts and a multicultural society. It also appears in the first, and arguably most famous, Star Wars film.
The Berber tribe with their colourful clothes and staunch family values originally ruled the coastal strip of North Africa although today the majority of North Africans are Muslim. The Islamic invasion started around AD600 and swept through the area, absorbing many local cultures on the way. The Berbers – who in Morocco still form a large percentage of the population – initially withstood the coming of Islam although many now show characteristics similar to that of the Arab culture. Sadly the Tunisian Berbers now represent just one percent of the population but they have kept their colourful dress and fascinating culture. In places they still live in caves as they did centuries ago – but with a few mod cons thrown in.
In the mountainous area of eastern Tunisia and just 40km from the sea is the town of Matmata. It may have become a little overrun by tourists since Steven Speilberg used it in his Star Wars film, but the local people aren’t really complaining. The visitors bring in much-needed revenue and job creation opportunities. They come largely to see the troglodyte (cave) houses that are built underground. Throughout the hills there are large groups of Berbers living their traditional existence. Some of the houses have even been converted into hotels, the underground rooms proving very popular with tourists looking for an unusual holiday getaway.
The mosque, local bakery and an olive oil factory also operate underground – a necessary way to escape the 40 degree Celsius temperatures. Driving into Matmata from the east the only inkling that you are passing by people‘s homes are the TV aerials and solar panels sticking up out of the ground.
North of Matmata is the deceptively small whitewashed town of El Jem. Initially it looks like any small Tunisian town but in its centre stands the awesome 120m high Roman amphitheatre. The amphitheatre – the most impressive Roman monument in North Africa – once seated 30 000 people. Seventeenth century rebels may have blown up one side of it but it is still an extremely impressive structure. Wondering around it wasn’t too hard to imagine the great and perhaps gruesome events that took place within its ancient walls. Underground we saw the original dungeons and water well but thankfully the patrons and the lions had taken their leave.
The northern town of Kairouan was founded in AD67O and is the fourth most important Islamic City after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. lt is home to many places of worship including the Great Mosque, which holds 200 000 pilgrims on holy days. The old walled city has a fascinating medina (market) full of artisans using skills of a by-gone era. One covered walkway is home to the cobblers; another only sells the blankets famous throughout the area. Outside the sound of live chickens reverberates around the narrow alleyways of the fresh produce market, competing with the shouts off stall-holders and hawkers.
A visit to Tunisia wouldn‘t be complete if you didn’t sample the local fare. There are many local specialities: Kairouan‘s is makhroud. This is a honey soaked – and when l say soaked l mean absolutely dripping – pastry stuffed with dates. It is best washed down with a glass of freshly squeezed orange or lemon juice.
If your teeth can’t cope with Kairouan‘s deliciously sweet delights there are plenty of other Tunisian specialities to tempt your taste buds. Couscous – semolina to us – is the country’s staple food and there are apparently 300 different ways to cook it. It’s normally accompanied by a stew of lamb, fish or chicken. The lamb like many of the savoury dishes – is often spiced with aniseed, coriander, cumin and mint. The wide variety of fish comes courtesy of the Mediterranean Sea. If you fancy something less exotic you could try the briq, a gorgeous puff pastry filled with egg. Unleavened bread stuffed with salad and spicy meat is the Tunisian equivalent of the humble hamburger.
Although Tunisia is an Islamic country it produces a good selection of very drinkable wines. However its best drinks have to be its thick Turkish coffees and refreshing mint teas.
Southern Tunisia is home to the country‘s sand dunes, and vast salt lakes, which stretch as far as the eye can see. The largest of these, Chott El Jarid is a staggering 250km long and 20km wide. The lakes are the last great expanses of water before you reach the desert proper. For if you want to experience the true Sahara you will have to head south out of Tunisia and into North Africa’s largest country, Algeria.
At 2 322 163 sq km Algeria is 14 times larger than Tunisia yet it only has slightly more than three times Tunisia’s population, most of whom live along the 1000 km-long fertile Mediterranean coastline. This leaves the rest of the wide-open country pretty much devoid of people. lt is this vast, unpopulated expanse of desert that Algeria is deservedly renowned for.
North Africa is home to the Sahara. At 8.6 million sq km it’s the world‘s largest desert and consumes 85 percent of Algeria. There is a global misconception that a desert is a place of vast sand dunes. Unfortunately – for sand dunes are stunningly beautiful – this is not the case. Only one sixth of the Sahara’s land mass is covered by sand. Plateaux, mountains and gravel plains – the largest of which is the Tanezroutt that stretches for over 1000km across the Algerian-Mali border – make up the remaining five sixths.
Travelling through southern Algeria is an experience that stays with you forever. The most amazing scenery surrounds you for days on end. There are vast areas of emptiness and space that absorb you in their beauty. Then there is the solitude, for here you may not see another person for days and when you do it is often something quite unexpected. Like the time a Tuareg, – the best known of the Saharan nomads – materialised almost like magic from the sands of the desert with just his camel for company.
The Tuaregs call themselves Kel Taguelmous in their Tamacheck language, which translates to ‘people of the veil‘. Their dress epitomises most people’s romantic ideas of desert nomads. White or blue head-scarves called cheche’s adorn all Tuareg men as do white flowing robes. This 1000 year-old tribe was initially thought to have descended from the Berbers that fled the Arab invasion. Other theories claim they have links to the Knights Templar or the Crusaders. Unable to live their nomadic existence clue to the 28 year drought, they turn to the urban centres for food and water. However with such a delicate infrastructure and a limited amount of water the urban areas are ﬁnding it difficult to accommodate and look after them.
The Sahara is a phenomenon all to itself: amongst the vast barren lands are obscure and remarkable sights since it hasn‘t always been the massive void of emptiness that it is now. Millions of years ago this area was a great sea, and fossils of shells and coral can be found in the plateaux and plains. As the wind and minimal rain erodes the desert more and more of the Sahara’s history surfaces. ln the south-eastern corner of the country lie the eight million hectare Tassili N’Ajjer National Park. Here, in amongst its sandstone rocks and canyons are ancient rock paintings, depicting some of Africa’s largest animals. Hippo, elephant, buffalo and rhino all once roamed this land when this part of the Sahara was less arid.
Today there are still a few animals which are able to survive the heat and dust. Dorcas gazelles – similar to the springbok – live close to the dried up riverbeds. Watching them prance through the sand you can’t help but wonder where they get the energy. They share this part of the Sahara with 23 other mammals including caracal, cheetah and hyrax.
Over the last 10 000 years the Sahara has become steadily drier, which has affected the existence of the desert’s nomadic tribes. The people of the southern town of Djanet admit that there last decent wet year was in 1973. Eventually the Worlds climate will change again and the Tuaregs and animals of the desert will once more find water and green pastures. Until that time the Sahara will remain a harsh in hospitable yet stunningly beautiful part of our great continent.