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Sleep in the Desert

Gustavo Ten Hoever The swimming pool at Tunisia's Ksar Ghilane resort.

Photo: Gustavo Ten Hoever

The hotel is not alone in the oasis, a bristling tuft of olive, pomegranate, and tamarisk trees zapped here and there with pink and white oleander. The company is reassuring, at least in theory. There is a small casern, or garrison, and three lesser camps, whose patrons are notorious for hogging the solitary hot spring. A dusty shanty village has a population of 200 seminomads; a mosque; a gas pump; two "shops," where villagers can buy basics like soap and cigarettes; a whitewashed obelisk celebrating a 1943 battle led by General Leclerc; a primary school; and an ambulance. The nearest town, Douz, is 112 miles to the northwest.

But for all the psychological succor Douz and the ambulance provide, they might as well be in Brooklyn. What if I fall off a camel and break my neck?Or flip over in a quad bike and smash my legs?Since camel rides and quad excursions are two of the big pastimes at Ksar Ghilane, these questions are never far away. One night, something that might have been a big worm but could also have been a small snake (and that at least was not a scorpion) wriggled out of the shower drain when I turned on the hot water. I scalded it to death, just as it was eyeing my big toe.

It was a falsely empowering victory, for nature always wins in the Sahara. Sandstorms are not shy about reducing to shreds the camp's sixty 300-square-foot tents (which are canvas, not, as the Web site claims, linen). Many of the tents are new, and by November they all will be: phase one of a refurbishment program that will, I hope, redress a scandalously casual approach to maintenance. The program also includes adding lockable storage units, facing the cement tent platforms with marble, and isolating the toilets from the other bathroom facilities. Japanese travelers famously require this, and they are not about to relax their standards just because they happen to be in the Sahara.

Unlike conventional camps, Ksar Ghilane blessedly does not feel the need to annoy its charges with entertainment or harangue them with a long menu of activities. The most anyone will suggest you do is visit the ruins of a second-century A.D. Roman fort, which are spectacular, or pay a little extra for a traditional bedouin dinner, served in low-slung tents of camel hair woven with strips of goatskin. The chic and civilized way of "doing" the garrison, one of a network that monitored the nomads' movements, is to have a driver arrive at the fort ahead of you to get the mint tea going; book a camel, but only one way, timing your arrival (the trip takes 45 minutes) to coincide with sunset; and return in the relative chauffeured ease of a 4WD.

The bedouin meal holds more anthropological than culinary interest, though I was able to make two check marks on the list of ethnic curiosities I feel I must try before dying. One is a flat bread, which you should try, since you'll never make it at home: it's baked in an open fire in direct contact with embers and hot sand. (Not as scary as it sounds. Since the loaf is unleavened, with no cracks or swellings to trap ash or grit, it brushes clean.) Actually, you should try only the crust, dipped in harissa. The crumb is like partially set mortar.

The other novelty is gargoulette. Like tajine, gargoulette describes both a terra-cotta vessel (tall, narrow, unglazed) and a dish (lamb stewed with peppers, tomatoes, paprika, and turmeric). The pot is sealed with luting paste, set in a hole lined with coals, buried picturesquely up to its neck in sand, and ultimately whacked open with the blunt edge of a heavy cleaver. Butchered according to rules laid out in a medieval manual that is still finding its way to the West, the meat inside is delicious, if completely, frighteningly mysterious.

Just like the nighttime desert. The explosive mating snorts of camels, so cute under the sun, seem less so—sinister—in the dark. On my way to the fort I had seen thousands of sandfish, a type of lizard, swimming through the dunes, looking for cool spots. Where were they now?Sleeping?Or did I have to worry?The custom at Ksar Ghilane is to hang out after dinner in the no-man's-land where the oasis stops and the colossal void of the sands begins. Lingering there is exactly like lingering too close to the lip of the subway platform when a train pulls in.

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