Advice for travellers planning to visit Douz in the Tunisian Sahara for the annual Sahara Festival.
I recently heard from Greetje from Holland who is researching a trip to the Sahara Festival in Douz in Tunisia. She had seen my Photo Friday entry from the festival and wanted to know if I had any advice.
The Sahara Festival happens every year in Douz just after Christmas – you can check with the Tunisian tourist authority in your home country to make sure before you finalise your planning. It is lots of fun and certainly gives an added reason to visit the oasis town of Douz. It mainly consists of a few days of parades and different sporting events such as camel races or fights. There’s plenty of colour and life for keen photographers and you should be able to get a good view at the festival, especially if you go early. It runs for several days but one day of the festival is probably enough for most people.
I have put together this post for Greetje and anyone else thinking of going to the Sahara Festival in Douz.
1. Women should dress modestly. This is standard advice given to women travelling to a developing country but in some places it is not that much of a big deal. In Tunisia I really do recommend it, far more so than, say, Turkey. I remember walking around Douz wearing a green shirt. That evening, I had changed into something warmer and we were going out to find somewhere to eat. My then boyfriend (now husband) and I stopped to ask someone for directions. The Tunisian guy actually looked at me and said, “oh I remember you, you were walking around earlier in a low-cut top.” Yikes! It was not what I would call a low-cut top and I’d deliberately chosen one with sleeves. It was very modest by Western standards – but it did have a V neckline.
It might be different during tourist season in the beach resorts, but if you are travelling around the cities or desert areas, you will definitely want to cover up unless you want to attract unpleasant attention. It’s actually not that easy to do – most Western women’s clothes are not modest by Tunisian standards. You need sleeves that cover most of your upper arm, a high neckline and fabric that is not sheer. You don’t need a headscarf for every day but take one in case you decide to visit mosques. Raid the second-hand shops if you don’t have anything in your wardrobe.
2. Research your accommodation and book in advance. Douz gets an influx of tourists for the festival and unless you book in advance you will have to settle for what you can get – and it may be cold and dark and dingy. If you are on any sort of budget, I wouldn’t bother with the five-star hotel. The building is grandiose but it is otherwise only five star in name, in my opinion, though it does have air conditioning. There are some good budget and mid-range options if you do your homework and book in advance.
3. Pack warm clothes and a good sleeping bag. During the day you’ll be fine in a t-shirt and maybe a light jacket but you’ll need warmer clothes for the evenings and I also recommend taking a sleeping bag. Douz is an oasis in the middle of the Sahara Desert and the Sahara Festival is held in mid-winter. If you are staying in a budget hotel in Douz, your hotel room may be on ground level with a cement floor and no heating and with inadequate blankets. You may also need the sleeping bag for that camel ride!
3. Go on a camel camping trip. I really loved the Sahara camping experience. You can book this locally at one of the Douz travel agencies, which is nice because you know your money is helping local business. You go on a camel ride out into the desert in the afternoon – don’t worry, no expertise is needed for the camel riding! Camels are know as the ships of the desert for good reason – not only did they let people travel vast distances in days gone by, but they also rock back and forth like you are on a ship.
As you head into the desert, you’ll see the sand change colour as the sun sets. The dunes in this part of the Sahara are not very high but the landscape is quite beautiful. Once you’ve gone some distance, your guide will set up camp in the dunes, cook you dinner over the campfire and then set up tents.
If you wake in the night, you’ll see an incredible night sky studded with stars with just a glow in the general direction of Douz. The next morning your guide will cook bread in the coals of the campfire. It’s loads of fun and you’ll get great photos of the camels and the desert.
However, there are two caveats:
- Firstly, take your own sleeping bag – all the local tours claim to provide a “sleeping bag” but it’s just a woven mat sewn together and your “tent” is just another mat strung over some poles with a third map to sleep on (pictured above). Even wearing all your warm clothes, this arrangement does nothing to prevent you from waking up bone cold at 3am. I swear I was colder than I’ve ever been in my life – even including the time I swam in the Arctic Ocean in my bikini! You need a proper down sleeping bag.
- Secondly, try to make sure your guide clears the campsite properly in the morning (and help if need be). It was quite depressing riding back into town and passing piles of rubbish from abandoned camp sites.
4. Pig out on fresh dates. Douz is surrounded by groves of date palms and dates are in season over Christmas. They are cheap and amazingly good – like chocolate but so much healthier. If you’ve only ever had dried dates (which can have an offputting texture), then you definitely have to at least sample the fresh dates.
5. Plan your travel days around Tunisian holidays. This doesn’t particularly apply to you if you are hiring your own car or joining an organised tour, but if you are using local transport, as we did, it pays to know the Tunisian holiday camera. There is a Tunisian holiday at some point in the week or so after Christmas. On that day, nothing is open, the buses don’t run and if you are lucky enough to find a cab driver you will pay four or five times the usual rate.
Bonus tip: See more of Tunisia. If you’ve made it as far as Douz, you should definitely head to Tataouine where they filmed Star Wars and you can see the real-life cave dwellings and cloak-wearing Berber people that inspired the movie. Around Tunisia more widely, there are so many fantastic places to go from the Roman ruins at Dougga and the Roman coliseum at El Jem to the medieval Arab town of Kairouan with one of the holiest mosques in the world. You should certainly spend time in the lively metropolis of Tunis and make a day trip out to the blue-and-white painted seaside town of Sidi Bou Said near the Carthage ruins.
More photos of Douz on Flickr.