The lizard and the sphinx

By | Category: Travel destinations
armchair1stclass

Bagging a first class seat!

Deep in southern Tunisia in a town called Metlaoui, a noise can be heard which sounds lazy, dull and monotonous. The sound ebbs and flows as through an old phonograph needs perpetually winding to stay working. This is the sound of the horn of the Red Lizard train – lezard rouge – which takes tourists on a 45 minute journey to a phosphate mine high up in the mountains.

You might ask why any visitor would want to travel to a working mine into which they cannot enter and the answer is simple.

The scenery.

The train meanders up the mountain side through and by ravines and cliff sides via tunnels through which it can only scrape by. And sometimes you feel that scraping the sides of the tunnel is what it might do. But then there is another reason. The lezard rouge is the personal train of the old rulers – the beys of Tunis.

1st stop

gazing down below

Today this tourist attraction runs a couple of times a day and, in the height of summer – can be fully booked. Unlike a lizard it doesn’t scamper along at all. It labours as it winds its way around curves which is great for the visitor as heads appear from every window to take action pictures of the front or back of the train. But remember: when it ventures into the tunnels there is no space for a head between the train and the wall!

third class

Third Class?

The six carriage, dark red and yellow-striped train is made up a two cabooses – American style ones – at either end which would have allowed the guard to see what was happening. Today there is no guard and no ticket collector; just the drivers and the barman who did a roaring trade in coffee and water. What must have been the bey’s personal carriage has a leather studded sofa and the carriage with the bar in it has padded armchairs facing inward. A carriage with wooden benches must have been for the lowest class of traveller whilst the others are made up of compartments at one end and padded benches in the rest. Like in cowboy films where outlaws are attacking trains, crossing from one to the other is in the open with wrought iron gates. Oh, and there are two toilets – antiquated things that are still used but which remind you of how far (or how little) – modern plumbing has developed.

As it rumbles its way out of Metlaoui, the horn sounds frequently as we cross roads in a slow hare and tortoise race to see whether walkers and motorised bikes will clear the way before we arrive. Somehow people move just in time. Children stare and some wave as though they have not seen the train before. Tractors and donkeys or horses pulling carts laden with dates seem to have an ability to outrace the train in places. As confident as its namesake, the lizard, the train doesn’t care and rarely responds. Sometimes it even seems to slow as it wends through the overhead conveyor belt of a phosphate plant.

Outside the town, the ascent begins. Crevaces formed by past floods of torrential rain form gullys in the mountain sides and in those gullys grasses still grow. Apart from scrub vegetation and few dotted palms this all the vegetation you see for miles. Considering that it is November and the rains ended many months ago, there must be water somewhere.

As we crept out of the second tunnel, the train catches its breath and pauses for passengers to spill out and take their holiday snaps.

sandwiched by mountain sides

No platform help here, just clamber down onto the trackside and then try and find a spot where no-one else spoils your camera shot. Although many snap the train, more focus on the ravine below which splits the mountain into two. Much whistling later the final passenger climbs back on board and we move off. Down below, next to the trickle of brackish water, there are grasses growing near the greyish mud that hugs the water. Everywhere else is a reddish beige. This must be the clue that the phosphate mine is not far ahead.

And then a surprise. There is a clump of 40 or 50 date palms. Does someone cultivate them here. Miles from anywhere. How do people get here? How did the date palms?

The train wheels moan rather than screech against the rails – much more noticible in the quiet of the tunnels – and we make a further stop. This time we are sandwiched between the slopes of the mountain on one side and a river bed below. And there, high above us, is a sphinx type outcrop overlooking the track. Seeing all, knowing all and saying nothing, this rock surveys its domain, tolerating the train and its passengers with seemingly disdainful stare as we trudge over the tracks from tunnel to tunnel.

sphinx-like rock

the Sphinx of Tunisia?

Much too quickly the journey ends after we pass a siding where hundreds of goods wagons laden with what looks like topsoil are parked. This is the mine and the ‘topsoil’ is phosphate ready to be trundled down to the plants on the edge of the town.

Some passengers alight to join their 4×4 vehicles to explore the mountains or to continue the next stage of their holiday. Most remain onboard for the return journey, dozing in the November warmth as this time their are no photo-stops. But the train has one last surprise. It can go fast for it seems that we had no sooner started than we were back at the blue and white painted station house. Or it could be that I joined the mid-morning slumberers myself!

Tunisair operates five flights per week from London Heathrow to Tunis and less frequently from Manchester. Prices start from £190, including taxes. The nearest airport to Metlaoui is Tozeur and connections from Tunis are available on Tunisair Express a subsidiary of Tunisair so the one ticket will get you to Tozeur. Metlaoui is about an hours drive from Tozeur and hotels can arrange tours or inexpensive taxis. There are also a number of UK tour operators who offer holidays in southern Tunisia.

For more information on Tunisia, click here

 

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