Previously, I have shared five of the what to see in Tunis and the best places in the outskirts of Tunis for a day trip. The cities along the Mediterranean coast have a strong historic and cultural significance from the Roman Empire to the Muslim world.
Check out the mosque, Roman ruins, and old towns that shed light on the country’s development in the last centuries.
Now, we continue our journey, going further into the Sahara district, the mid-south of Tunisia, to discover the natural beauty of the country, from Tozeur to Matmata.
Tozeur and Matmata are in the south of Tunisia and are about 220 kilometers apart by road. They are inland that is on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and the two cities are not directly connected by train (transit is required in Ghraiba), so the best way to get around is self-driving or considering a guided tour that takes you to the following key attractions without a hassle.
The guided group tour departs from Tozeur and the journey to Matmata takes about three days, the tour usually covers a couple of natural sites, plus – this is to the Star Wars super fans – a couple of filming sites of the Star Wars series.
Tozeur, Tunisia’s blooming oasis
Tozuer is an oasis city with shadowy palm trees laden with dates and old quarters echoing with the trots of horse-drawn carriages. After we settled down in Tozeur, we headed out first to check out the unique landscape at the border of the country in Ain El-Karma, Midès, and Tamerza – featuring a canyon, waterfall, and some abandoned houses.
Midès is a mountain oasis on the edge of the Tunisia-Algeria border, that is 6 kilometers away from Tamerza, the largest mountain oasis in Tunisia. These oasis towns in the area were established by the Romans to fend off the Berber tribes in the Sahara Desert in the past.
Some of these places were later flooded and destroyed by heavy rainfall in the 70s, and so some houses are left emptied and buried under the palm trees, giving the desert a ghostly touch. If you are a urbexer, check out some of these abandoned sites in the world that may interest you.
Tourists can take a hike in this hilly area and have a look at the terrain from a high point. There, you will have a look at the sandy, rocky, and hilly area, with palm trees interspersed along the springs that were fed by the clear water cascades. While you may have seen canyons, waterfalls, and sand dunes, which are quite common in many places, there’s a rather unique natural crystal formation in Tunisia – the desert rose. The crystal can be seen on the side of the road in various sizes, some of them as tall as a human!
Tourists will see a large pile of rocks on the side of the road in Tozeur, and the desert rose is sold as a souvenir. These rocks create a sustainable income for the locals.
Architects also take inspiration from the unique shape of the sand rose and create magnificent architecture, like the National Museum of Qatar (NMoQ). The museum is designed by French architect Jean Nouvel.
What is Desert Rose?
A desert rose, or sand rose, is not a plant, but an intricate rose-like crystal formation formed by sand grains. The “petals” of the rock panned out in radiating clusters that looks like a flower.
The natural phenomenon happens in arid sandy places, and with evaporation on a shallow salt basin. With a mixture of mineral gypsum and sand grains, the crystals are formed as flat plates with shape edge, continuous in a circular direction, that eventually gives the crystal a shape like a rose blossom.
In fact, they can also be found in some other places in Algeria, Libya, or even Saudi Arabia. The desert roses are found in large numbers in the surroundings of the salt flat in Southwest Tunisia, and they are particularly beautiful around the salt flat because the high percentage of salt makes them more crystalline and luminous.
There are many oases in the Sahara, and the Midès Valley is one of the most beautiful with its spectacular natural beauty. The canyon marks the border of Tunisia and Algeria, and if you have more time, you will be able to take a hike or trek through this dramatic landscape. The arid setting for the desert was once featured in the epic romantic war drama film The English Patient, starring Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth, and Juliette Binoche; and in the action classic Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring Harrison Ford and Paul Freeman.
Tourists can look down the canyon from above and see the astounding layers of stratified rock shaped by erosion. One thing that I noticed is the rather smooth, curving shape of the canyon that was formed by the raging torrent over the last millions of years.
The face of the canyon has an ombre from ochre to rose, and this region is rich in minerals that nurture layers of vegetation, palm trees, and acacias.
The canyon is open to the public and the best way to head to the viewpoint is by self-driving or joining a guided tour. Some walking tours take you on a journey to Tamerza in about one to two hours. The main gorge is about 3 kilometers long and you can take a walk down the gorge if you manage to climb down the paths from the top. Who knows, you may find fossils and minerals that are several million years old.
To dive into the experience of palm plantation in Tunisia, Edam Palm is a popular attraction in Tozeur. The first part of the tour is hopping a horse carriage and traveling through the palm tree plantation – where the tour guide will then give you an explanation about the planned date production industry and Tunisia.
What is Date Palm?
Dates are traditional fruit in the Middle East and North Africa. For visitors in the Middle East, it is common to find dates in the market, basically everywhere, sold as a souvenir, and also a daily treat among the locals.
So why the palm tree plantation is a thing in Tunisia? You may be surprised that 50% of the global population of date palms is found in Tunisia! They are dominantly in two regions Djerid and Kebili, making Tunisia the biggest exporter of palm dates in the world by value.
Here, date palms are basically (among cork oak, eucalyptus, and thujas…) the only fruit plant in the oasis that thrives. In Tunisia, orange and olive trees are predominant around the Sahel region (the area between Sahara and the Sudanian savanna); and in the south, date palm-filled oases. They are called trees but notice what I said earlier, date palm is a fruit plant. Yes, they are exactly tree because it doesn’t have wood.
Following the rather fun horse carriage ride around the garden, we were led into the plantation and shared a demonstration of how the dates are produced and grown. It was quite interesting to see a couple of banana trees, yet they cannot grow just like how they are in the tropical region. Digging to know deeper into dates, there are hundreds of date varieties. They are generally separated into three categories: dry, semi-dry, and soft. The date palm is an energy-rich fruit, it has plenty of sugar and it can be either eaten as a fruit or used to make honey, vinegar, and drinks.
Many of the workers on the farm are very good climbers, and you are welcome to try and climb a palm tree for a photo.
The Desert Zoo is a small tourist attraction showcasing animals from camels, ostrich, foxes, and more. The caretaker of the zoo guides visitors to take a round of the enclosures and see how a camel drinks a bottle of Coca-Cola; it seems they really enjoy the bottle!
Chott el Djerid
Chott el Djerid is Africa’s largest salt flat, with an area of 5,000 square kilometers, behind the famous Uyuni in Bolivia (the largest salt flat in the world by far). The endorheic salt flat was part of the Mediterranean Sea in thousands of years ago. The salt flat today, as I have mentioned above, is an important source of minerals to the surrounding oases in the Sahara region.
While the slat flat here in Tunisia hardly form a perfect reflection of the sky and clouds like those in Uyuni, or Lake Tuz, another salt lake in Turkey that I have been to, another fascinating phenomenon on Chott el Djerid, is the mirages (or fata morganas) that happens in summer, when the lake is completely dried up.
There is a road constructed in the middle of the salt flat, linking Tozeur to Kebili, while you are on this road across the land, travelers always catch a glimpse of an oasis that shifts further away or a Bedouin caravan. The road was built in the ’60s and it took 4 years to build because, at that time, the workers had to conquer the wind and natural forces that damaged the road rather easily.
Take a moment and stop on the side of the road, and admire the beautiful landscape of the surroundings. One great thing to do on a salt flat is watch the sunrise because the flatness of the lake offers an unobstructed view of the sun rising from the horizon.
Matmata, the Star Wars set
If you are a Star Wars fan (which I am not exactly), then please leave a message and comment below and tell me why these cave dwellings of the Matmata village are so iconic.
Matmata is a village that is known for its cave dwellings, and they were shot in many scenes in the Star Wars series. These caves were constructed in the past so that the inhabitants could enjoy a cooler temperature and escape from the immense heat of the desert. These caves were then picked by George Lucas and transformed into planet Tatooine.
The most photographed and visited Star Wars movie set is Owen’s House. Today, Matmata is a themed tourist attraction with photos, props, and frescoes of Star Wars, making it basically a Star Wars theme park and accommodation. Visitors can stay overnight at the site for about 15-20 US dollars a night. However, the cave rooms are just a bed without any internet connection, Wi-Fi, private toilets, or windows.