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Day 89: Djerba to El Haddej

El Haddej, Tunisia 
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Outside my cave at Bilgessou's. The only view is up, and my mind drifts easily onto higher things.
Michael Palin - SaharaWhen he stops, the silence returns, thick and heavy, deadened by the weight of the earth around us.

They show me my room. It's across the courtyard and up a flight of irregular stone steps, cut from the clay. The coffin-shaped entrance has decorated stone dressings and inside is a vaulted space, some 20 feet deep, with just enough room to stand straight at its centre. The walls have been plastered and painted white at some time, but that's faded now. A mattress is laid along one side where the wall slopes down quite sharply. Dangerous if you wake suddenly in the night.

Not far from here is a tantalising example of the old way of life that Bilgessou fears is disappearing for ever - an underground olive oil press, set into the side of a hill. Inside the cave is a circular chamber, consisting of a platform, around which is just enough room for a donkey to walk. The oil-maker tips a basket of olives - stalks, leaves and all - onto the platform. Then the donkey, harnessed to a pole, and wearing a pair of pointed woven blinkers that look like a large wicker brassiere, starts to plod round. The pole turns a spindle, which rolls a cylindrical stone block over the olives, reducing them to an inky mulch.

The mulch is then stuffed inside pancake-sized rattan discs, which are stacked one on top of the other, fourteen at a time, and squeezed in a wooden press. Every 100 kilograms of olives produces 35 litres of oil.

The reek of olives is quite heady and every inch of this dark, cramped, glistening chamber is thick and sticky with accretions, like the inside of an immensely ancient cooking pot.

Walk back to Bilgessou's cave. What's the address I wonder? What would I ask for if I were lost? Number 43, The Mountain? The family are in the courtyard, in exactly the same positions, Bilgessou standing like an old soldier, Jemila and Manoubia sitting on stones. Their life encompassed by this pit of crumbling red rock.

And later, as darkness falls, I find myself doing exactly the same thing, just sitting there, on the steps outside my room, looking up at the stars. It's not that there's nowhere to go, or anyone's stopping me taking a walk out of the tunnel to see some other folks on the hill, it's just that once you're in here the outside world ceases to mean very much. There is no view but upwards.

Before I go to sleep I get out my portable DVD player, watch myself being crucified and feel better.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 89
  • Country/sea: Tunisia
  • Place: El Haddej
  • Book page no: 234

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