Arabian Nights & Sun-Drenched Days
For a real Arabian adventure, forget magic carpet rides and think camel humps. Swaying some 2.3m (71⁄2 ft.) above the ground on an undulating Arabic dromedary is the best way to get a real feel for the Sahara’s shifting sands. This mode of transport is admittedly much slower and more awkward than Aladdin’s quick and graceful lift, but that’s part of the fun. (Of course, if you really have your heart set on a taking a flight here, booking a hot-air balloon ride early one morning should suffice.)
The Sahara, widely considered the world’s greatest desert, deserves some time and patience. After all, stretching from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, covering huge parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia, it’s almost as large as the United States. The expanse of orangey-red dunes with very little vegetation and strikingly few people evokes both biblical times and an otherworldly vision of Mars.
A good place to begin your camel trek is in the small, sunny market town of Douz, Tunisia’s unofficial gateway to the “sand sea,” more formally known as the Grand Erg Oriental. The Tunisian Sahara reached wide public acclaim during its appearances in Star Wars and The English Patient, both of which were filmed in this area.
Before taking off to explore it yourself, try to spend a Thursday in Douz, when you’ll see the market at its busiest as nomads come to trade their camels and sell crafts including silver Berber jewelry, woven blankets, carpets, and adorned saddles. You might also want to check out Chott el Jerid, a nearby salt lake.
If you haven’t set up an excursion in advance, you can arrange overnight or multiple-day camel and camping treks into the Sahara through your hotel or with a professional guide at the official tourist office in Douz. Another option is to hire a four-wheel-drive vehicle and go directly from Douz, heading southeast for about 60km (37 miles), or 4 hours, to Pansea Ksar Ghilane, one of the world’s most unique places to stay, with 60 air-conditioned tents set near a pool in the heart of the desert. You can embark on daily camel excursions from here, but come back at night to sleep in relatively comfortable accommodations.
Whichever option you choose, once you’re on a camel, try to get comfortable in the rigid saddle. You’ll be here for a while. As you hold onto that hump and bounce across shifting sands, just breathe in the pure desert air and listen to the complete silence of this barely populated land as you slowly rock across the desert.
You’ll spend about 3 hours exploring the sun-drenched Sahara before taking a break around noon for some lunch and sugary mint tea. You’ll then ride another 3 or 4 hours in the afternoon before the sun falls, a chill sets in, and you get the chance to witness some of the planet’s most serious stargazing.
Tunisian tourism office, 1 Ave. Mohamed V, Tunis ( 216/71-341-077; www.tourismtunisia.com).
Tour: Find an official tour operator in Douz, or ask your hotel to arrange an excursion. If you want to plan ahead, try designing a custom itinerary with TunisUSA ( 888/474-5502; www.tunisusa.com).
When to Go: Apr–June and Oct–Nov.
Tozeur airport or Djerba airport.
$ Hotel 20 Mars, Rue 20 mars (email@example.com). $$-$$$ Pansea Ksar Ghilane, 4 Rue El Andalous ( 216/75-759-330; www.pansea.com).