Metlaoui Tourist Attractions
Situation and characteristicsThe mining and industrial town of Metlaoui, Tunisia's main phosphate-mining center (with the head office of the Phosphate Company) and the administrative and market center of the whole phosphate region of southwestern Tunisia, lies on the southern edge of the Gafsa uplands, the foothills of the Tell-Atlas. It has a number of modern plants which process phosphates from a wide surrounding area, and these, along with the associated industries and power stations which have also been established, set the pattern of the town and its townscape.Round a residential district of European aspect, built by the French around the turn of the century for engineers and administrators and now occupied by senior staff of the state-owned Phosphate Company, are the housing schemes in which the work force live, divided according to their country of origin (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya). The mining area itself is a landscape of craters.The population also includes numbers of peasant farmers growing vegetables, fruit and esparto grass. The Chaal agricultural estate, with an area of some 2,600 hectares/6,500 acres and over 170,000 olive-trees, belongs to the Phosphate Company.PhosphatesMetlaoui owes its existence to the massive deposits of phosphates in the surrounding area, which now account for 90% of total Tunisian phosphate production. Phosphates are an important raw material of the chemical industry, used in the manufacture of fertilisers, washing powders and rust-proofing substances, and are therefore in great demand in the world market. For many years Tunisia was the world's leading producer of phosphates, but it has now fallen to sixth place. The difficulty is that in Tunisia the deposits of phosphates lie 5-8m/16-26ft below the surface and must be worked by underground mining methods and then transported on the Phosphate Company's own narrow-gauge railroad all the way to Sfax and Gabès, on the coast, for onward shipment. In other phosphate-producing countries the deposits lie nearer the coast and can be worked by opencast methods. On top of this there is now an increasing demand for phosphate-free detergents.HistoryThe deposits of phosphates in this region were discovered by Philippe Thomas, a veterinary officer in the French army and an amateur palaeontologist, who in 1886 came upon phosphate-bearing strata at Ras el Aioun, near Metlaoui. Mining rights were acquired by the Compagnie des Phosphats et du Chemin de Fer du Gafsa, which began to work the phosphates in 1896. A narrow-gauge railroad to Sfax was opened in 1899. Soon afterwards further deposits were discovered at Redeyef and Moularès, and in 1904 and 1905 these places were linked by rail with Metlaoui and so with Sfax. In 1909 they were given their own railroad line to Sousse by way of Kasserine and Sbeitla. Until 1945 the phosphates were shipped from Sousse; thereafter from Sfax.In 1913 new deposits were discovered on Djebel Mdilla, south of Gafsa, and these too were linked up with the Gafsa-Sfax railroad.Metlaoui, a totally insignificant hamlet until the discovery of the phosphates, thereafter developed rapidly into the center of the largest mining area in Tunisia. The workings now extend from Metlaoui and Djebel Mdilla to Midès on the Algerian frontier, producing an annual 3.5 million tons of phosphates. Although the main output now comes from the more westerly mining areas around Redeyef and Moularès, Metlaoui is still the headquarters of the now state-owned mining company, Phosphates de Gafsa, the largest industrial concern in Tunisia, with some 15,000 mining workers and office staff. It is now the most important town in the whole phosphate region, with schools, hospitals, local government offices and a railroad station belonging to the company. The mines on Djebel Mdilla are worked by another company, the Compagnie Tunisienne du Phosphat du Djebel Mdilla, with a work force of 2,000.AccessMetlaoui lies 2km/1.25mi north of the Gafsa-Tozeur road (GP 3), 42km/26mi southwest of Gafsa and 51km/32mi north of Tozeur. There are daily rail services from Metlaoui to Gafsa, Sfax, Tunis, Tozeur and Redeyef, but departures are mostly at inconvenient times. Evening departures are suitable only for long-distance journeys, since local trains do not run during the night but stop overnight at minor stations. (For trips to the Seldja Gorge in the "Lézard Rouge")From the bus station (Gare Routière) in the market square there are services several times daily to Tozeur, Gafsa and Redeyef and once daily to the upland oases of Tamerza, Chebika and Midès.Trips in the Lézard RougeDaily during the main holiday season and three times weekly (on Monday, Tuesday and Friday) at other times of year there are rail trips through the Seldja Gorge in the old-world "Lézard Rouge" ("Red Lizard"). Departures from Metlaoui are at 10.15am, the return from the gorge at 12.30pm. The "Lézard Rouge" was originally presented to the Bey of Tunisia, Mohamed Naceur Pacha, by the French government in 1910 and was used by the Bey and his successors until 1945. In 1984 it was renovated and put into service again for the benefit of tourists.
The Seldja Gorge stretches on for 15 km and features a dramatic show of limestone cliff walls, with a height of up to 200 m.
On the road from Metlaoui leave on MC 122, which runs north to join MC 201, coming from Gafsa. To the east of the road is a large salt lake, the Garaet el Douza, a port of call for huge numbers of migrant birds in autumn and winter. At the junction with MC 201 turn left (signposted Moularès). 500m/550yds beyond the junction, beside the road, are the foundations of a Roman villa; a mosaic found here is now in the museum in Metlaoui.37km/23mi from Metlaoui is Moularès. The road runs through a desolate lunar landscape, cratered by mining and dotted with slag heaps. The rock faces show a succession of strata in variegated colors. From Moularès there is a good asphalted road to Redeyef (18km/11mi) and Tamerza (23km/14mi).The first section of the road which runs west from Tamerza to Midès is asphalted. 5km/3mi along this road, which continues to the Algerian frontier (customs post), a poorer track goes off to Midès. From Tamerza a bad road runs southwest and south, through beautiful scenery, to Chebika. From the road there are fine views of the Chott el Rharsa to the south. A side track winds its way in steep hairpin bends through a 150m/500ft deep gorge on the Oued Khanga.
Natural History Museum
In the center of Metlaoui is a small Natural History Museum, with an interesting display of fossils, some of them discovered by Philippe Thomas, as well as prehistoric and Roman antiquities (including a beautiful mosaic from a Roman villa) from the surrounding area.
In the Municipal Park in Metlaoui is a small Zoo, with animals of the Tunisian steppe and desert regions, including hyenas, jackals and Dorcas gazelles.