During negotiations with the louage driver getting to Douz, the driver warned us that there was an international festival going on in Douz. We had heard this line before, usually as a preface to getting us to stay at the cabdriver’s cousin’s hotel room, which was claimed to be the only room left in town. Except, well, we got there, and this time it turned out to be the truth. Most people make reservations for the International Festival of the Sahara 6 months in advance – and here we were showing up for the Opening Ceremonies without a reservation and without a clue.
We found a payphone – every hotel was full, from the $5 ultra-budget sleep-on-the-roof options to the $250 luxury hotels in the zone touristique. One of the last hotels told us that instead of calling around, we might have more luck in person. Our last hope was hotel El Medina (on rue el Hanine), where again, we were turned down. However, when we expressed our disappointment at having to leave to another city, the lady told us “One minute please…” In all honesty we really didn’t know what we were even hoping for! When she came back, she showed us the kitchen staff’s room, which we happily took! No hot showers, no locks, no heat (and it was so cold that we could actually see our breath in the bedroom as we tried to sleep!). We saw later that the kitchen staff was sleeping on the floor next door – we hope they got a cut of our $40!
The downtown area itself was not that exciting- just a few kitschy souvenir shops in an open square. We headed down to the Place du Festival, an area outside of town, for the opening ceremonies. There is no admission fee. We should have gotten there earlier than we did as the stands were already absolutely packed. We saw camel races, horse showmanship, and the presentation of all the different countries involved in the Sahara Festival.
A hound chased a poor bunny rabbit around the field. One of the camels broke away and tried to break for the desert, but a horse rider finally reined it in. There were riders in traditional costumes of all sorts on camels decked out for the occasion as well. Not to mention the most amazing demonstration of horseback riding we can imagine. All in all, it was a pretty amazing display, and lasted two hours. After the show, we were able to go on to the field and get some amazing photos from right next to the performers as the sun set. (Although our photos paled in comparison to the French guy we met who was passing himself off as a journalist, so he could get on the field itself during the performance!)
There are also some sand dunes in Douz, and it seems that every camel (regardless of its health) had been pulled in to meet the festival demands. We passed on the camel treks. If you want impressive Saharan dunes (like you saw in Lawrence of Arabia), we would suggest heading to Morocco instead.
There were many more events and competitions in the next few days of the Festival, but we decided to move on.