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Tunisia: Into the desert

“You look at the sun, where we crossed the military road, the fort, the well, the big dunes, and you just know. Besides I’ve done this trip from Douz 20 times. I could do it with my eyes closed”

By Nick Redmayne
Published 16 May 2019, 12:08 BST, Updated 22 Jul 2021, 13:43 BST

Crossing 100km of the Sahara’s Grand Erg Oriental on foot appeared a worthy challenge for pallid Europeans but for Boubakar, the art of desert navigation held no mystery.

“The hardest thing is these bloody camels,” said Boubakar, throwing a glance over his shoulder at two blameless beasts. “At night, they wander very far, and we have to find them and catch them. It’s not easy.”

Day five in the Tunisian Sahara and our trekking group had found its stride. Shimmering air over desolate plains had toyed with our sense of scale and wandering passages through shifting dune seas had tested our directional skills, but for Boubakar, his colleagues and the camels, it had been a walk in the park.

Late morning sun, which normally beat down upon our salty brows, had dulled to a dirty orange in a sepia sky heavy with sand. Gusts of wind had grown in strength, carrying an increasingly bitter and gritty taste. Ahead low dunes dissolved in a stinging haze. A shout came from the lead cameleer — lunchtime.

Wrapped in scarves and turbans, our rag-tag group huddled behind scrubby vegetation or crouched next to conveniently parked camels, waiting for the squall to abate. Instead, the sandstorm intensified, limiting our known world to under 100 metres in any direction, that’s if you could open your eyes.

In the midst of the maelstrom, cameleers and cooks, Hammed and Marsine struggled with a large metal bowl shrouded by a maniacally rustling black bin liner. Dispensing crusts of Bedouin flatbread left over from breakfast and pasta salad, they attempted vainly to limit the addition of crunchy desert dressing. “No one told me there would be sand,” yelled Dave from Doncaster.

Peter, a white-haired former barrister, peered through a gap in his peculiarly wound turban (more Miss Marple than Lawrence of Arabia). “Is anyone enjoying this?” he asked. Saving us from an act of perjury, Amin, our indomitable guide, cut in, “Well at least you’ve experienced it.” At which point a few heavy drops of rain began to slap down on the ground. “Raining in the Sahara? Bloody typical,” said Dave.

In the afternoon, the sky quickly cleared and we walked on, ascending the rear slopes of an escarpment whose high rocky ridge poked through a sandy summit. I fell behind, following in the lee of Boubakar’s second camel; its body and precipitous load offering welcome shade.

Reaching the ridge, the crumbling fort of Ksar Ghilaine lay a short distance to our left, its lofty site chosen to defend the southernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. Below, the wrinkled contours of dunes relaxed into a plain that reached out to an indistinct horizon. Central in this panorama, some five miles distant, an island of green drew our collective gaze, the oasis that marked our journey’s end.

“Well, what did you think? Bit of a route march,” reflected Peter rhetorically. “The dunes were beautiful though, curving like the intertwined limbs of women,” he tilted his head, “Did anyone else see that? Just me?”

Leaving Peter’s question unanswered, I asked Boubakar his plans. “For us it’s simple,” he shrugged “We stay here one more night and then we go back.”

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