x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Book a tour or cook an adventure

On the road Just like in Italy, the US, India, Argentina and many other places around the world, if you head south in Tunisia then prices become cheaper and people friendlier.

Tourists hike in a gorge winding between oases.
Tourists hike in a gorge winding between oases.

Just like in Italy, the US, India, Argentina and many other places around the world, if you head south in Tunisia then prices become cheaper and people friendlier. After a couple of days staying in Tunis' Medina with seemingly endless invites to "come visit my shop", that seemed appealing and I bought a first-class ticket on a train departing at 8.50pm for Tozeur, a small town situated about 400km south-west from the capital, for US$19 (Dh70).

Two notes about riding trains in Tunisia: the only difference between the first and second class seats is that the ones that are twice as expensive recline. This is nice on a eight-hour-long journey but it is not necessary to pay extra for this small luxury because no one seems to check your ticket. The second important thing to remember is that if you are riding the rails overnight during Tunisia's winter, bring a blanket. As the train sped through the cold desert the temperature inside dropped down to a hypothermia-inducing chill and the passengers around me draped themselves in piles of clothing so that our first-class train car looked like a camp of homeless people.

When the train pulled in at 5am, I bargained with the Residence el Arich's manager to only pay for half a night. The hotel is recommended on such travel websites as Tripadvisor (www.tripadvisor.com) and in the Lonely Planet guide for outclassing it's cheapish price of $20 (Dh73) per night for spacious double rooms. The hotel was nicely adorned with Berber wallhangings adding colour to painted-white clay bricks inside and a pleasant terrace outside where date palms spread their fronds above a fountain base of desert roses. My room had no heat, however, and smelt like a refrigerator that has been defrosted and let to sit for days.

When I awoke that afternoon I went downstairs to see if the front desk could arrange a sightseeing tour to my desired destinations of the nearby oasis towns of Chebika, Tamerza and Mides, all sprinkled close together along the Algerian border. When I arrived I was surprised to find an Australian backpacker named Dan who wanted to do the exact same thing. We were thankful for each other as the price for two people to take the tour was $27 (Dh98) per person as opposed to $38 (Dh140) to ride solo. Dan and I chatted briefly before agreeing to meet for the tour at 8am the next morning and parting ways. In doing so, I also found out that I was paying too much for my room: Dan had said he was a poor student, pleaded for the smallest room and got it at the bargain basement price of $11 (Dh42) per night.

As I walked along the town's dusty streets plied by mule-drawn carriages I bumped into a young Irishman whom I recognised from the hostel in Tunis. He, along with an American and a French couple, were planning on renting a car the next day for a DIY tour of the three oasis towns that Dan and I were planning to visit. On a strict budget, he invited us to join as it would further defer the cost of renting the car.

When I found Dan back at the hotel we discussed the idea. It would be a considerably less expensive option as the car would cost only about $53 (Dh195) split between six people. There were obvious flaws in the plan, however: no one had actually succeeded in renting a car yet; no one knew the route; six people to a car is tight; Tunisian driving is crazy; and our fellow travellers might be flakes. We carefully weighed what was a sure bet and a series of risks. In the end, frugality won out over assurances.

The next morning we all convened at a cafe as the Irishman went to rent the car so as to not disclose to the agency that we were planning on squeezing in a half dozen passengers. Three hours later he returned, having had to use a different agency because of a car wreck the previous night. Alarmingly, the agency he used offered no car insurance. Dan seemed ready to back out but we had already cancelled our tour with the hotel and so we all filed into the tiny saloon like clowns in a circus car. My limit was only reached when the American driver wanted to buy as little petrol as possible - a good way to become stranded in the desert - and I insisted we fill the tank. As we drove along my feeling of trepidation seemed to go up and down as we became lost leaving town, but the driver turned out to be competent in traffic; and we saw police officers, but they didn't seem to care that we were heaped ridiculously on top of each other in the back seat.

An hour later we reached Chebika, a jewel of green palmeraie in the otherwise bone dry landscape where flatland meets scarp. We idled for a bit at a cascade beyond a turn-off and then hurried on as it was becoming late in the day. In Tamerza we bought several baguettes for less than one dinar and carried on to the furthest oasis town of Mides, which almost creeps over the Algerian border, where we picnicked on bread and the dates, jam, harissa, cheese and water that we had brought with us. In terms of cost saving, this was far more effective than eating at the tourist-trap cafes.

After lunch we decided to hike through the gorge the 6km back to Tamerza, declining several offers by locals who wanted to guide us for a fee. The winding narrow passageway was beautiful in its smoothed rockfaces sloping around us but we soon came to a dead end and were forced to turn back. With the sun hanging low in the sky and no idea how long the 6km trek would take, even this group of people averse to spending much money sucked it up and hired a guide for $11 (Dh42). In addition to making sure that we didn't accidentally wander into Algeria, the blue-scarved Berber man pointed out the best features along the way such as the canyon that was used in a Star Wars film, deposits of agate and wild-growing fenugreek.

By the time the sun set majestically over the valley in front of Tamerza we all were pleased that we had succeeded in our goal of saving a bit of money - in total, the car lunch, petrol and the guide only cost $17 (Dh64) per person - and seeing what we wanted to see. Yes, we could have saved even more by skimping on petrol or a guide, but the trick of DIY budget travelling is being mindful but not miserly, taking risks but knowing limits.