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Day 89: Djerba to El Haddej

El Haddej, Tunisia 
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In the absence of building material in this arid corner of Tunisia, early settlers dug into the soft earth to make living space that was warm in winter and cool in summer. The government is keen to resettle people in modern homes on the surface.
Michael Palin - SaharaEl Haddej looks much as I remember it. It's set in a landscape of low, yellowing hills scored by deep gullies, as if it had just dried out after a mighty flood. In fact, it has not rained here for three years, and the land is bone dry. There are the usual hardy bushes, a few palms, their lower fronds discoloured by drought, and on the side of a hill an old man is watering a single young olive tree, which won't give fruit in his lifetime.

These hills were settled by Berbers over 2000 years ago. Finding little cover above ground, they took to the caves below, and to this day their descendants still live as troglodytes.

From up here their homes look like a series of lunar craters, some with cars or pick-ups parked on the rim, others barely visible in the folds of soft, friable rock around them.

The troglodytes of the Matmata hills are experiencing rapid change. The combination of a well-organised tourist industry and the choice of one of the caves as Luke Skywalker's birthplace has, as in Djerba, brought lucrative tourist business to a poor area. Some caves have been turned into hotels, but when these proved too small to accommodate tour groups, hotels were built to look like caves.

I start to walk down the hill, passing a small dog, which barks ferociously at a line of sheep but rushes away in terror at the approach of a black plastic bag slowly twisting in the wind. I look down into two or three dwellings which appear to have been abandoned. Holes some 60 feet across and 30 feet deep, have collapsed in on themselves. To add a final indignity, rubbish has been dumped inside them.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 89
  • Country/sea: Tunisia
  • Place: El Haddej
  • Book page no: 232

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