An all night bus from Tunis led us to Douz, a small town on the edge of the Sahara. Our plan was to rent a 4WD and blaze off into the desert with nothing but 80 gallons of water (for when we got lost) and our wits (maybe a bit of cous cous for nibbling). The oasis of Ksar Ghilane is the southern-most tourist outpost but we were willing to head all the way to Tunisia's southern tip if need be. Yeah, our balls are that big (inverse relationship to the size of our brains).
Rent our own 4WD drive? Not a chance. Nobody was interested. However, we found many tour operators that were willing to charge us what seems like the going rate for an internal organ in order to fulfill out desert fantasy. One woman quoted us a price of 300 dinar per day per person for a 3-day 4WD extravaganza (with driver) into the Grand Erg Oriental. For those of you not monitoring current exchange rates that is $200 US per person per day. W…T…F???!!!!!
Here's the issue: Independent travelers are about as common as the Sasquatch. Most folks come to Douz as part of a prepackaged tour that incorporates a desert 'safari'. They are most likely on a short vacation so they have no problem throwing money around like Scrooge after his apparition-induced epiphany. Can't blame Americans on this one as these yahoos hail mostly from Europe. The merchants in town are so jaded they balk at the mere idea of negotiating a discount. 'But you from America' was their irrefutable evidence that we possessed more money than grains of sand in the Sa-HA-ra! This would prove to be a common theme for the remainder of our trip south.
After speaking with various travel offices (to include our hotel), random people on the street, shop and restaurant owners, and just about anybody that might help us find a reasonable deal we swallowed a big fat disappointment sandwich with an extra helping of dejection sauce and began to weigh our options over copious amounts of coffee. We could hire a 4WD with driver from a fellow by the name of Zou for the bargain basement rate of 350 dinar for the two of us that would include a ride through the desert to Ksar Ghilane, a night in the oasis, and transport to the town of Matmata the following day. We could book a camel trek in the area surrounding Douz (described as a mere taste of the Sahara by the guidebook) and hope against hope it would not be a campy Venus Fly Tourist Trap. We could attempt to conjure some sort of 4WD/camel combination and sell our plan to imagination-deficient tour operators. We could backtrack to the city of Gabes and see about renting a vehicle there. We could roll the dice and give hitchhiking a whirl (turns out that in addition to a 4WD track there is also a paved road all the way to Ksar Ghilane). Or we could just go fuck ourselves.
So we settled on the shits and giggles option (i.e hitching with a supply vehicle or the like) but decided we would make Zou (a rather intense fellow) one more counteroffer just in case. To our surprise he agreed to 300 dinar all in and met us at the café to finalize the deal. However, we were under strict orders not to reveal our arrangement to anyone as this would inevitably hamper efforts by Zou and his compadres to bend over future affluent tourists with thick wallets and nary a clue. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.
The following morning we headed off into the desert sands with Zou and his driver in a 4WD (Mazda). Destination: Ksar Ghilane. It was a rather auspicious beginning notwithstanding our crew's rather lackluster enthusiasm. Have I mentioned Zou's intensity? As a joke I asked him how many girlfriends he had to which he replied 'four or five' in complete dead pan followed by a verbal inventory (one in Canada, Spain, England, etc.). And our driver? Well, I think he had about as much desire to be heading south as I have about getting a sex change. He may have set a new record for number of text messages sent and received while driving (to someone I can only assume was a lady friend). I believe he was the owner's son and forced on this tour as a way of compensating for our discounted price (no need to pay a driver).
Still, the ride to the oasis was big fun. When not zipping along in a post-apocalyptic landscape we were cutting through deep sand and dune hopping at regular intervals. It was not hard to imagine that we were the only people for miles (at least until you come to a little 'café' in the middle of hell and gone with a Coca-Cola sign out front). Along the way we stopped among the sea dunes for a short frolic. It seemed a great introduction to what we thought was only the tip of the iceberg. So we did not protest when Zou ushered us along with what seemed some sort of imaginary urgency.
Remains of a ksar (Berber village consisting of generally attached houses often containing granaries).