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Sahara

Day 88: Djerba

Michael Palin - SaharaThe design of our hotel, a huge U-shaped wall facing out to sea, tries hard to create a feeling of all-embracing exclusiveness, an ample concrete bosom of pleasure, where all your needs will be attended to, where food, drink, recorded music and thalassotherapy are always at hand.

Try and get away from this fortress of fun and you will find twenty or thirty others, right next door, all offering similar versions of what you've got, and before long you realise that wherever you are is just like where you've come from.

Somewhere outside the fortress walls is Djerba itself, an offshore island, 18 by 16 miles, flat, dry and agricultural. Compared with the desert we've come through, it looks almost lush, but the reality is that rainfall is low, only 8 inches a year, and the water saline. The dates from Djerba's palm trees are only suitable for animal feed and the olive groves yield low returns. The island's most productive pastures are the shallow waters that surround it. Fishing here is a traditional industry, carried on by traditional methods.

On the dockside at Houmt Souk are stacked rows of turnip-shaped, terracotta pots. These elegant little amphorae, about 18 inches high, are not for tourists to take home; they're for catching octopus. Each one has a rim at the top, around which a string is tied, attaching it to a long line of pots which are then dropped into the sea a few miles offshore. For some reason, octopuses are irresistibly drawn to the pots, curling up inside them and presenting a perfect gift for fishermen. It's a technique that's been used since the Phoenicians came this way 3000 years ago, and the octopuses still haven't caught on.

We've wangled ourselves aboard one of the brightly painted, low-tech fishing boats, which is setting out to check its lines.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 88
  • Country/sea: Tunisia
  • Place: Houmt Souk
  • Book page no: 228

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