Sahara International Festival in Douz, Tunisia

The oasis of Douz stages its 45th International Festival on the edge of the Sahara and, after the austerity imposed by the velvet revolution, it’s better than ever. Rupert Parker reports.

Rolling sand dunes, the stuff of Lawrence of Arabia, stretch for miles outside the oasis of Douz and, until the 1960’s, the people who lived here were nomadic, migrating across the desert with their flocks. Nowadays this way of life is a thing of the past in Tunisia, although nomads still roam nearby Algeria and Libya. Douz, and the villages in the region, are now home to these settled people and, every year, they get back to their roots at the Sahara International Festival.

Opening Procession
The stands are packed as the crowd waits attentively for Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian president, and, as he arrives, he’s greeted by a hail of boiled sweets, a term of approbation I’m told. Mercifully the speeches are short and we’re soon into the grand opening parade. Animals feature big here, with marching bands from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Algeria, leading a procession of camels, horses, greyhounds, all with their respective riders or keepers. There’s even a flock of sheep and a couple of the camels are decked out for a traditional marriage with the bride fully enclosed and hidden from prying eyes. Even stranger, a couple of teams appear carrying hockey sticks and I’m told that sand hockey is very popular here.

Camel Racing
As a taster for next few days’ events we’re treated to a mock camel race as intrepid young boys gallop their animals across the desert. Now when I rode on a camel, earlier in the day, I clung on for dear life, seated on the back of the hump. It was obviously not the way to go fast and I see these jockeys are on the front, with their legs resting on the camels’ necks – the perfect racing position. I also learn that you must choose your camel carefully – the white are built for speed whilst the yellow are best for eating. And if you’re offered one of these animals for dinner, don’t choose the hump, unless you like your meat very salty.

Next we’re treated to a cameo of desert life, the “caravan” as a family with their flocks lead their camels to a well in the middle of the show ground. Before they can drink, however, they’re attacked by a marauding group of Arab cavalry and it looks like there’s going to be carnage as they try to steal their animals. Fortunately this is not real life, and everything ends happily as they all become friends. Even better there’s a display of traditional dancing, a beautiful sight as one young girl twirls her skirts across the desert.

Camel Wrestling
You can’t say the same for the camel wrestling, next on the bill. It’s mating season so two males from rival herds compete for the attentions of the female. Gurgling loudly, and producing huge saliva bubbles to assert their prowess, they face each other. Each uses its neck to trip the other one up and it’s an extraordinary sight as these ungainly creatures struggle to stay on their feet. Suddenly one goes down and the victor is hauled away by its proud owner to ensure there’s no further damage. The loser gets up and also manages to walk away and, of course, the crowd goes wild.

Arabian Greyhound Hunt
Now we have Arabian greyhound racing – much like the sort we have in the UK, except they use a real hare. It’s all rather surreal as the trainer holds his dog, and his accomplice releases the animal who bolts across the desert. Seconds later the dog is let go and, of course, gives chase, followed by the trainer who has to extricate the hare before any harm is done. Of course this is just a demonstration but, in the desert, these Sloughi dogs, only found in North Africa, are vital for tracking down food.

Desert Rodeo
The final event is the desert rodeo, a game for all the family. It starts with the rider galloping round in a circle, to an insistent drum rhythm, and gradually working himself to a standing position. Once upright he then jumps to the ground before climbing back on again. He repeats the same action then picks up a small child, always on the run, and proceeds to hold him aloft. It doesn’t stop there as he then pulls in the boy’s sister and suddenly all three are standing upright. As you can imagine this is the highlight of the day and the crowd responds with tumultuous applause.

This is the last organised event of the day but, as things begin to break up, the showground is invaded by hundreds of local kids on motorised scooters, with their big brothers piloting quad bikes. They’ve seen what can be done using the old technology of camels and horses but it’s their turn to show off. Frankly it’s quite dangerous as they whizz between the spectators and the animals, throwing up clouds of dust as they execute their wheelies or rise up on one wheel. But as the sun begins to sink, I realise that, although there’s something romantic about camels and horses, if these people were still nomads, they’d be using the motorised versions.

The Sahara International Festival takes place every year around Christmas time and is well worth attending. During 4 days, as well as the opening spectacular, there are events throughout the town including theatrical performances, poetry contests, concerts by local and international folk bands and a Camel marathon. If you want to get a glimpse of desert life, this is the place to be.

Tunisair operates five flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis, prices start from £190, including taxes. Internal flights with Tunisair Express operate three times a day from Tunis to Djerba, prices start from £102, including taxes. For reservations call 020 7734 7644.

The Tunisian National Tourist Office can answer your travel needs and supply information on what’s happening in Tunisia .

Rooms at the four star Sahara Douz hotel start from £41 per night, based on two people sharing a double room on a bed and breakfast basis.

Rooms at the four star Oasis Kébili hotel start from £29 per night, based on two people sharing a double room on a bed and breakfast basis.

Article and all pictures copyright Rupert Parker.