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We are sitting at the louage (long-distance taxi) station at Tozeur waiting to get a ride to Tamerza, a mountain oasis about 60 kilometres away, and not far off the Algerian border.
Not many people go to Tamerza, so we sit and watch the sands shift until we have our regulation 5 passengers for the louage to make the journey.
An old turbaned Berber shuffles up to our small group, mutters something in Arabic, shakes everyone’s hand including mine, and perches on the wall behind us.
Well, that’s another passenger, good.
Then suddenly we are joined by another two, and then some more passengers arrive, and the louage starts up and we are on our way.
We head out of Tozeur towards Gafsa, then turn off the main road towards the Algerian border. The landscape is flat, stony desert, so void of anything much in the way of a landmark that you can see the curvature of the earth’s surface.
In the distance we pick up the purple haze of the mountains and we reach the climb soon enough, and at the first escarpment the road alters its straight course and starts to zigzag up into the western mountain area.
Tamerza is an ancient Berber town. The old part of the town was abandoned in 1969 after 22 days of non-stop rain destroyed the mud brick dwellings and the inhabitants moved to a hastily constructed new town. There is now just a small population well outnumbered by the date palms of the oasis.
Our louage stops in the main street of the new town. We wander down to the cool of the palmerie and through to the big gorge that runs up into the hills. Ancient waters have carved out a huge, now dry, watercourse. We stop at a coffee house in the palmerie, the owner welcomes our business and proudly shows us his pet bird of prey.
A bit further on we climb out of the crevice and up over the hill to the deserted old town.
No one walks these streets anymore (except for the tourists) and today it is quiet. The mud walls continue to crumble, and perhaps eventually all that will remain will be the upmarket Tamerza Palace Hotel that overlooks this site.
We sit and chat to the local boy who joined us for no reason at all on our walk. A group of date palms hug one edge of the ancient walls where they fall to the spring fed stream that passes the town.
The sun beats down and we decide to climb further to the Palace above. We say goodbye to our new friend and we trek across an old dry streambed, and up the opposite face to an enjoyable, well-earned beer (the French champagne was $300 a bottle) at the Tamerza Palace Hotel. I get the impression that the waiter at the hotel also appreciates our business on what looks like a slow day.
Refreshed, we wander back down the road to Tamerza to take our chances on a returning louage or a bus. A louage is there but there are not enough passengers, so we wait – the bus will be here in an hour anyway.
The Tamerza Palace Hotel was designed by Tunisian architect Foued Elleuch. Constructed in 1990, it relates well to the surrounding countryside as it looks out over the atmospheric ruins of the nearby Berber village that was abandoned after weeks of torrential rain in 1969.
In a land where an oasis is a gentle and secure resting place, the four star rating of the hotel provides a level of comfort unknown to ancient travellers of this dry and parched land. It is truly a place to get away from it all.
A look at the menu says it all:
-The Neftienne soup with candied apricots or the foamy bean soup with lemon zest;
-The shrimp Brik, mechouia salad or fresh fennel and orange salads;
-The daily couscous, rack of lamb or poultry mosli with olives and lemon;
-Date mousse, sesame and orange blossom ice cream, fresh fruit or local pastries.