Of all north African countries, Tunisia is the old favourite. It is, after all, closer to Europe both geographically and culturally, and offers a stability that has not always been assured by its neighbours. Perhaps most appealing of all though, is its small size; it is simply dwarfed by its massive neighbours Algeria and Libya. It is therefore ideal for a short break, allowing both swift access to the great sand dunes of the Sahara, as well as to its wetlands, woodlands and savannahs. Indeed, for the naturalist, it is refreshing to find that these diverse habitats are so well protected by a well-managed system of national parks.
In the far north of Tunisia, the rugged green hills and valleys are clothed in vineyards, oak woodlands, and tidy towns and villages whose European style only enhances an ambience of rural well-being. It is a landscape similar to that of neighbouring southern Italy, Sardinia and Corsica. To the east lies a lake-land of great appeal to ornithologists, whose flagship is Lake Ichkeul. Further to the south, in the Gulf of Gabes, lie the estuarine mudflats and islands more reminiscent of the south coast of England than of Mediterranean north Africa. Inland of the Gulf sits a remnant of that scenic savannah landscape that was once so widespread across pre-Saharan Africa, and where even this century large game roamed, stalked by such predators as Lion, Leopard and Cheetah. To the south, beyond a rocky and dramatic terrain, the great golden sand dunes of the Grand Erg Oriental, the northernmost vanguard of the creeping Sahara, welcome us with spring warmth at the climax of our holiday.
We begin our tour with a 2-night stay in the pleasant northern town of Bizerte, an ideal base from which to explore the nearby Lake Ichkeul National Park, and pleasantly removed from the bustle of modern Tunis. Lake Ichkeul, like all the Tunisian lakes, offers a crucial staging post and watering hole for trans-Saharan migrants. It is, however, particularly special, for it not only lies in a strategic position at the northern tip of Tunisia — a first pit-stop for incoming southbound migrants, and a last-chance saloon for those outgoing northbound birds — but is also unusual in having a most variable salinity, the winter rains ensuring a largely freshwater content for much of the year, whilst its salinity is greatly increased during the summer. Lake Ichkeul National Park has the further attraction of a wide variety of habitats, and during our full day spent in the park, we will visit the forests and rocky crags of Mount Ichkeul, haunt of Barbary Partridge and Blue Rock Thrush. We will enjoy the marshes and pastures around the lake where egrets, herons and White Storks feed amongst the feral Water Buffalo that have long grazed the area. At the water’s edge we will find Spoonbills, Greater Flamingoes and a variety of ducks and waders, whilst overhead hunt birds of prey — Long-legged Buzzards, Black-shouldered Kites, Ospreys and Marsh Harriers amongst others. With luck we may even find the resident and endangered White-headed Duck, a speciality of the Tunisian lakes.
Heading east next, via the wader-rich wetlands and migration hotspot of Cap Bon, we spend two nights in the coastal town of Korba. This will allow us to explore the mudflats and estuarine habitats nearby. A huge number of waders winter here, together with high numbers of Black-necked Grebes, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns, and Slender-billed and Audouin’s Gulls; a rewarding time is therefore assured. Further south lie Tunisia’s scenic steppes and savannahs. Reminiscent of east Africa, this landscape is a far cry from those breezy mudflats. Here, in Bouhedma National Park, we will be able to enjoy watching some of Tunisia’s larger mammals, several of them successfully reintroduced since their extinction in the region earlier this century. Solitary Addax, herds of Scimitar-horned Oryx, and smaller numbers of both Dama and Dorcas Gazelles, as well as a number of other more elusive mammals, all occur in Bouhedma. The magnificent backdrop created by the less accessible mountainous part of the park will please any photographers amongst our party, whilst the acacia scrub holds such attractive species as Southern Grey Shrikes and Moussier’s Redstarts amongst others.
Our penultimate destination, and for many the highlight of the tour, will be the desert. We will be based for two nights in the town of Douz, the self-proclaimed ‘gateway to the Sahara’ and once an important stop on the trans-Saharan caravan routes. We will enjoy a dawn excursion by 4x4 to enjoy the warm, golden dunes of the Sahara and the shattering silence of the desert ... at the most productive times of the day for birds. There could be few better bases from which to enjoy such avian desert specialities as Cream-colored Courser, Brown-necked Raven, Desert Warbler, Desert Sparrow and Desert, Hoopoe and Temminck’s Horned Larks. Leaving Douz, we head to the coast for an overnight stay on Djerba Island, in preparation for our scheduled journey home. On the way we will pass through Matmata, site of the troglodyte dwellings of the local Berbers, encountering such species here as Black Wheatear, and both House and Rock Buntings.
I've been passively waiting for an opportunity to rate my trip to Tunisia. But in short it was 'Edie's big adventure' or the trip of my lifetime. I loved every moment and regret that I probably infected everyone with a common cold I brought from the US. I tried so hard to see the birds. Some I saw very well and when I could see them again, that was best for me. I am at best a mediocre birdwatcher. All of my companions were way better than me. But I saw a lot of Tunisia. I loved it, every moment.
A splendid holiday. Geoff, Amina and Heidi, our driver, were all ace. The group was friendly and relaxed, the number of birds seen incredible and I liked the chance to look into some of Tunisia's historic sites, especially when Subalpine Warblers (a new tick for me) and a sleeping Little Owl appeared at the ruins of Kerkouane. The cranes, flamingoes and storks were spectacular. I saw a real undisputed male Garganey for the first time and Moussiere's Redstarts did their thing at Cap Bon (I fell in love with them in Morocco). Plenty of larks, wheatears and desert sparrows - almost everything one could wish for.
It was a nice mixture of ruins and birds, and all the guides were excellent. Sonia, the local guide was super, and the two Naturetrek guides were amongst the best I have ever had. Their knowledge was great and they really tried to get everyone on the birds. They also had a great sense of humour, were really approachable, and were good at chivvying us along nicely and keeping us together, as a large group tends to become dispersed. When I saw the size of the group, I was worried that it was too large, but with these two, and the way they ran it, there was no problem. The open terrain helped the large group too - could not do this in a forest! I would be more than happy to go on a trip with these two guides again, and if you could tell me which other trips they run, together or singly, I would consider them. They really made a super trip, and some nice sightings, that without their knowledge, I would have missed. It was a super trip! Thanks!
We were very impressed with both Geoff and Dave (and also with Sonja). We will actively seek tours with these leaders in the future.
It was a nice mixture of ruins and birds, and all the guides were excellent. Sonia, the local guide was super, and the two Naturetrek guides were among the best I have ever had. Their knowledge was great and they really tried to get everyone on the birds. They also had a great sense of humour, were really approachable, and were good at chivvying us along nicely and keeping us together...It really was a super trip!
This trip was a very good mix of natural areas, birding and mammals. Our guide, Andy, was a world class naturalist, especially at birding...and he was an exceptional teacher. While my expectations of the trip were high, I can honestly say they were exceeded. Andy worked very hard to find birds, insects, reptiles, plants, etc. For me the Sahara Desert was the high light of the trip with its speciality birds and dazzling botanical display and diversity. Andy provided an incredible and specific overview of a country that is relatively unexplored by foreign travellers.
The leader went out of his way to make this a great experience, and to ensure that everyone in the group had every opportunity to see and do the things important to them. The desert was my main object...we were very fortunate in the great number of birds and animals we saw here.
Andy Smith was a very good leader, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and calm under pressure.
Andy Smith was outstanding as a trip leader. His organisational skills, attention to the needs of the individuals in the group, energy and enthusiasm, constant good humour and his timekeeping were all outstanding. His evident enjoyment of birds and other wildlife was contagious. Andys skills in getting us into contact with so many of the sought-after birds are of a high order. Our driver was very good at his job - safe and courteous.
A very enjoyable trip, and a good introduction to Tunisia and its different habitats and bird life. By travelling around the country and visiting the wetlands, grasslands, hillside and desert we managed to see many birds and a good selection of mammals and other wildlife. Time put aside to visit El Jem, the Mosaic Museum, Kelibia Fortress and Carthage all added variety to the trip, and were worthwhile stops. The tour leader Andy Smith was excellent, his ability to locate and identify birds from the briefest glimpse never failed to impress! He always made sure all the group saw the birds, and that everyone was included...his all round leadership was impressive. Andys enthusiasm spread amongst the group and a good team spirit formed. My thanks to all the Naturetrek staff involved in organising and running the tour - I had a wonderful time and will travel with you again!
The holiday was very enjoyable and the trip leader Andy Smith was excellent. He is brilliant at finding birds and dealing with any problems that might occur...he was competent and professional.
Andy excelled all expectations this year and was diplomatic, efficient, and extremely patient. He always made sure every member of the group could see the birds in his scope, if at all possible. Many of us will long remember him running across the desert towards a brown-necked raven! His enthusiasm is boundless and very infectious! Sandy his co-helper was a very positive presence in the group - she was lively, caring and a delightful companion. The local agent Hosseins organisation of our stay in the desert was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed the holiday - our 3rd with Naturetrek - thank you to all your staff who contributed to its success.
A. & D.N.
Andy is an excellent leader as he always treats everyone the same, both good and bad bird watchers!
I would like to mention particularly the outstanding leadership of Andy Smith, who ensured that all members of the group had ample opportunity to have excellent views of birds, and was in general very considerate, well-informed and entertaining.
Andy Smith was excellent and I was particularly impressed with the care he took over pointing out the key identification points on the less familiar birds. He was also careful to repeat this on subsequent sightings where appropriate. This was valuable because you don’t always retain all these facts instantly and the re-enforcement was very useful.