We arrived at the small town of Douz in the early morning. Despite most people being asleep, we did manage to check into the Hotel 20 Mars. The hotel was incredibly cheap (about £3 per person per night) but it was a nice place, the owner was a likeable, eccentric character, and any bed seems comfortable after arriving in your fourth Tunisian town in less than thirty-five hours.
Looking for an agency that arranges tours into the desert, we wrongly took a taxi into the desert, where there were eager camel handlers, but no official agency. Having no idea how to hail a taxi when you're in the middle of nowhere, we started to walk back to town. Luckily a member of the national guard spotted us and rushed over to inform us we were wandering down a road that led only to more desert. He called a taxi to come and get us, and we soon found that the official tour agencies had been in town all along, not far from our hotel.
Once we'd booked a tour, we were surprised at how many Europeans were in Douz. When everyone was ready, the guides drove us into the desert in all-terrain vehicles, to where the camels were waiting. Riding a camel in the desert is great fun, but dismounting can be quite a risky business. The camel has to drop its front knees into the sand to let you off, and if you're not holding on tight you can tumble down into the sand yourself. And however you get off the camel, you suddenly realise how badly your thighs ache. But our journey into the desert only lasted two hours, and it's well worth the aching to travel by camel. Much longer camel treks are available for the hardy traveller with more time.
In the desert, there was music and dancing, flat bread was baked on embers in the sand, and after a meal was cooked over a small fire, everyone sat around on small rugs and ate couscous and an unidentified meat. My vegetarian friend was smart enough to spot that he'd been given the wrong bowl before he tucked in. After the meal, everyone lay about on rugs chatting and staring up at the night sky. The clear view from the desert was incredible. The Milky Way was visible, individual stars were sharply defined, and shooting stars could be seen every few minutes. Once the day was done, most people slept out under the stars, but I preferred to retire into the shelter of a nomadic tent.
Waking after dawn, we all had a breakfast with tea, and then it was a return journey back to Douz before the sun was strong. It was a very enjoyable trip into the desert.
Douz itself is a small but pleasant town, rich with palm trees that bear dates in big clusters. The town even had an internet café, despite being a long way from anywhere.