Re-posted and revised from the BDM blog, where it will disappear.
We are in Douz, "Gateway to the Sahara." No kidding, our hotel is right up against the town wall beside the vast sandy openness. The rooms have small windows to the outside world, rarely opened because of constantly drifting sand. As with most Arab structures, the beauty is in the inner courtyard. Here too, as every morning in this delightful country, we can gorge on yoghurt and pomegranate arils to our hearts' content.
Late afternoon, some of us gear up for our optional group camel ride. Others contentedly remain beside the pool, partaking of snacks or massage offerings. For us, it's barely a hop-skip-and-jump outside the wall to a little tour office sitting in the desert. The general plan here is to dress us up in cheche turbans (aka kefiyah elsewhere) and a loose djellabah so we look like clones. Jockey around for a group photo. It's a well-practised tourist manoeuvre, pardon my cynicism. My inner camel snob is showing, channelling shades of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, as in "Road to Morocco."
OH NO. My camera memory card is full. Dither! Must rely on the others to provide what I missed. It's time to mount and I spot a white camel, perhaps the tallest in the bunch. Mine! But he doesn't have blue eyes ... our irrepressible guide Sami told us the best racing camels are white with blue eyes. We head off into the peaceful dunes with each handler leading two or three of us. The air has that slightly surreal haze from gently blowing, hovering, distant sand. The surprisingly comfortable saddle promises a smooth ride.
Not so long after we begin, a dashing young Tuareg on a perfect Arabian horse comes galloping up to my friend and me, as we are somewhat separated from the others. In rapid-fire French he goes into a invitation — no, insistence — that one or both of us get on his horse and he will take us across the desert. No concession at all of interrupting an event in progress. We try to be friendly but he goes annoyingly on and on with the extravagant, totally insincere compliments—the familiar you will be my Tunisian wife, yadda yadda. It's embarrassing. He has his royal blue cheche drawn so only his kohl eyes show, right out of a 1930s movie. Hmmmm, another practised manoeuvre.
Does this silliness really work for him sometimes? But it gets worse. Ignoring the obvious that we are not smitten, he grabs my buddy's hand, kisses it, calls her Mama ... very bad move. If Mama is intended as a winning ploy, it has the opposite effect. Besides, she's getting a bit frightened. He's impeding our progress and our camel handler stands by hesitantly. The rest of the group is out of earshot. Then he tells her handler to couche the animal so she can dismount (and remount his horse) and the daft man on the end of the rope looks like he will comply. We start shouting at both men.
Finally the horseman accepts the rebuff ungraciously and gallops away. I hear him hurl "Ingrates!" as a parting shot.
It seems only moments later we are stopped as a group. The others have already dismounted to climb the smallest bump ever to be called a dune. More photo opps. And a more or less discreet pitch for buying jewellery that magically unrolls from the folds of a handler's djellabah. Looks like this is the turning around point. Damn. Hardly a ride at all, not the expected hour. Not to mention fifteen or twenty minutes wasted trying to ditch the horseman. Where is the "Great Dune" the Tunisia guidebook promised?! More fretting about my useless camera.
Reality: We become aware of hearing distant dune buggies as the sun sinks, their rackety whine spoiling the air.
SO ... it was partially good and partially disappointing. My buddy's so glad she saw real dunes on yesterday's optional trek to the old Star Wars film set. Tunisia had much richer adventures on offer!
Photography November 2012 by Analee Smith and Peggy Wilson gratefully acknowledged.
© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.