Douz: Tunisia’s prime winter destination and gate to the Sahara

Often referred to as the “Door of the Desert,” Douz acts as the final breath of civilisation before the stark vastness of the Sahara.
Sunday 09/12/2018
A view of the desert in Tunisia’s southern city of Douz. (Ministry of Tourism)
A view of the desert in Tunisia’s southern city of Douz. (Ministry of Tourism)

TUNIS - The desert is synonymous with hot weather but Tunisia’s southern city of Douz, on the northern tip of the Sahara Desert, dares tourists to visit during the winter months.

Tunisia is lauded as a summer vacation destination. It boasts sprawling white sand beaches, historic Roman and Berber architecture and a sizeable portion of the Sahara.

With beauty comes popularity and popularity means more tourists flocking to Tunisia. The Tunisia Tourism Ministry projected a record year for tourism in 2018. Those wishing to avoid summer crowds might consider autumn in quaint but frequently lively Douz.

Often referred to as the “Door of the Desert,” Douz acts as the final breath of civilisation before the stark vastness of the Sahara.

South of the city is the Grand Erg Oriental, a mountainous sand dune that stretches 600km across the northern border of the Sahara. Although most of the hulking dune is in Algeria, the tallest portion (about 300 metres) is in Tunisia.

The Grand Erg Oriental is where a nomadic people called the Rebaiya reside. These goat, sheep and camel breeders occupy each side of the Algerian border.

Douz and its surrounding areas, however, are home to the Mrazig people, nomads said to have descended from the Banu Sulaym tribe who reached Tunisia in the 13th century. The tribe left the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, journeying through Egypt and Libya before arriving in Tunisia.

The welcoming Mrazig roll out a colourful market, stocked with traditional crafts, every Thursday morning in the village square.

A large portion of Douz’s economy comes in November from harvesting dates from its many palm tree groves. It’s also ready to welcome any giddy tourist whose dream is to ride a camel.

For venturing into the Sahara, locals suggest making the trek in the cooler months from October-February because the summer heat hits 50 degrees Celsius.

Presented with many different tour routes, guests are driven into the desert in 4×4 trucks where four-wheelers or motor bikes are available to rent. Those wishing an overnight tour can be provided with a guide to help set up camp, make a fire and cook a traditional meal.

On many tours, dinner is cooked in a tajine, a clay pot that is put directly into the fire and covered with burning coals and sand. Water is splashed on the tajine from time to time during the cooking process to keep it from breaking.

Guests have the option to try camel meat. Chicken or beef is provided for the less adventurous. Many tour guides will allow travellers to make their own tajine prior to the trip.

If escaping the mirage-inducing heat isn’t enticing enough, at the end of the year Douz hosts the culture-melding extravaganza called the International Festival of the Sahara.

This 4-day celebration of the arts and traditions of North Africa takes place at the end of December and features a little bit of everything, from daring acrobatic performances on horseback to traditional Berber fare. For those in need of little more excitement, the festival offers horse races, rabbit chases and camel fights.

When the desert sun becomes too much, attendees can find solace in the smoky tents dispersed throughout the grounds. Inside there are Berber women in traditional robes, their faces etched with tattoos, cooking loaves of stuffed bread they call “Berber pizza.”

Despite its image as a summer destination, tourists flock to southern Tunisia in December to open the Door of the Desert.

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