Camels in Southern Tunisia
Our arrival in Tunisia was pretty stressful as we arrived late in the afternoon and it was dark by the time we got off the boat. The entry formalities where fairly painless (check out Formalities: Tunisia) but the weather was being difficult. On the crossing we had some very strong wind and some rain. Luckily by the time we got out of the port area it had stopped (the rain), but it was still very windy. To add to our problems, my side stand went belly up (american for "it broke") just outside the port area as we were packing our documents away. From the port there are two ways into Tunis, one across a causeway and the other (the long way), goes north and hits a major road going south into Tunis. We chose the causeway despite the wind as it was the fastest way, and we just wanted to get to the camping spot. The causeway intersects the highway we were looking for so we only took a couple of wrong turns before getting near the camping which is passed Hammam Lif at a place called Cedria (or something like it). Anyway we found it and as we drove in the watchman insisted that we drive into and set up our tent in the game room. Why not, the weather was pretty nasty, although it wasn't raining, and we were tired so it was nice setting up in the light, and with a nice dry floor.
Tunisia First Impressions
1 - It is more "advanced", as in prosperous than Morocco.
2 - It is more expensive than Morocco.
3 - Traffic even more dangerous and chaotic than Morocco!
4 - You aren't hassled as much as in Morocco.
5 - You almost don't realize where you are.
1: In this case we quickly noted that there seemed to be a lot more "wealthy" people, nicer cars, cabs are all newer models of peugeots. It is a little difficult to quantify, but we certainly got the impression that it was more western looking than what we had experienced in Morocco.
2: This goes along with the first point. The costs were nearly to European standards. The camping was 16Dinars around 12Euros! The food staples were also a bit more dear than we were used to.
3: At first glance the traffic was almost orderly, but this was because we showed up in the middle of the night, the next morning we noticed that they are even more radical than anything seen to date. Not to mention that they drive faster and make even more noise. Apparently the only real requirement to driving here is a well functioning horn. With this goes the policing, which as far as we could tell was relegating to overriding the traffic lights which (unlike Morocco) actually worked. Very chaotic.
4: Walking through the souks, and in general you are left alone a lot more than in Morocco. Which was nice. There are still the odd hustler here and there, but certainly manageable.
5: This might sound a bit strange, but our first impression of Tunisia was that it is like anywhere else. To explain this, it is easiest to say that where ever you where in Morocco, you knew you where in Morocco, it was nearly un-mistakable. Here, it could be Portugal, or maybe south France, assuming you could ignore all the Arabic signs and billboards! This did change once we headed into the south and hit the desert, but only barely.
Tunis / Carthage
We spent nearly a week in this area, taking care of various issues. Somewhere in this week, we did some sightseeing, checking out Carthage and Sidi Bou Said. Tunis itself didn't really impress us very much. It is a fairly modern, hectic city. Lots of traffic and noise. The souks were interesting in that they were pretty much split into two lanes, if you entered to the left you were in tourist heaven, featuring the usual souk stuff. The lane on the right is the local lane, here the locals shop for clothes, shoes and all the essentials of life, and nearly not a tourist in sight.
One of the advantages of a large city is that it is easy to take care of some of the more complicated issues that we had to take care of. One of the first, was to get myself a new set of glasses, as the sand had scratched them almost useless in Morocco. This was taken care of in two days for 50Dinars, which is about half of what it would have cost in Europe.
The second big thing was to check on visas for Syria. Something which we had already knew that it would be a bit problematic, as our information stated that Syrian visas would only be granted in the home country. This was quickly confirmed by a visit to the Syrian embassy. The first statement was that it is not possible. Never a good beginning, not even when you know that this is almost a defense mechanism by many officials. Nevertheless we persisted, and were told that it might be possible if we get a letter from our embassy. This is a "normal" procedure for many embassies when confronted by requests by non-residents. So off to the wizard as it were. The Swiss embassy was very friendly and helpful. Cecilia had previously e-mailed them with our information, explaining our requirements. The lady there called the Syrian embassy and cleared up the issue with them. Unfortunately the news was not good. The Syrians would not be satisfied with a "recommendation letter", which is a fairly simple document, stating that we are indeed Swiss citizens and request a visa, signed by the Swiss officials. What the Syrians in this case wanted was a "Verbal Note", which is a diplomatic document issued to diplomats when traveling, and not meant for private persons. Which meant that the Swiss embassy couldn't give it to us. End of the line. We decided to continue on and try to get the visa in Tripoli, which is the next place it would be possible.
With these things out of the way, I got my bike fixed, which turned out to provide one of the more surprising happenings on our trip so far. I had disassembled the part which was broken and headed for Hammam Lif where there was a whole row of mechanics. I stopped at the first place where I saw someone welding. Using sign language as the person didn't speak any English or French and I, no Arabic of note, managed to explain what the problem was and what I needed. This was fairly simple as the bracket was broken and I just had to point to it. Who says this has to be complicated! Anyway, he took the part, welded it, cooled it and returned it to me in 10 minutes, I then wanted to pay, but the gentleman didn't want any money. He absolutely refused to accept any. That is un-usual, but ok, I accepted, said my thanks (in Arabic) and went on my way. I did explain to him, that I had some more work for him and would return the next day with the parts. The work I needed done was just some small welding stuff, one of the bracket of the crash guard was cracking, and I wanted to extend the side stand on my bike, no big deal.
While I was having fun fixing the bike and talking to the welder, Cecilia was off exploring on her own. It is apparently not very common here for women to travel alone with a motorcycle. As she was pulling into a parking lot in Hammamet she was asked: 'Where is the rest of your tour group?' Trying to explain that she was alone without a group drew some really incredible stares and head shaking!
While in the camping here, we also updated the web pages and got everything up on the net (the last data over Morocco). So we were pretty busy. Nevertheless we did take the time to have a look at Carthage. Carthage is basically a upscale neighborhood of Tunis, where a lot of the wealthy live, surrounded by Roman and Punic ruins everywhere. The thing I enjoyed most, was the Punic port which is basically and island surrounded by a "moat" which has a tiny entrance in a larger bay. It was a lot of fun to imagine that a couple of hundred boats had room here. Further on we spent an afternoon wandering around Sidi Bou Said, which is billed as an Andalucian village in Africa. Well, we found it to be a tourist trap and hardly worth the effort, but then we are pretty hard to please. There are some fantastic views over the bay and also over Tunis and Carthage. Plenty of expensive coffee shops and souvenirs to please even the most difficult tourist. Been there, done that. P.S. the president and his family lives around here, so it is difficult to find parking anywhere, with all the security people running around.
View from Sidi Bou Said over Carthage and Tunis (on the second photo). The punician harbor is to the left in the bay. (in the first photo)
On our last day here as we were headed into Tunis, just outside of Hammam Lif, a group of young boys standing along the road threw a rock at us. They missed Cecilia but hit me in the leg! What is going on? I stopped went down an embankment and chased after the boys who took off running into a field. If nothing else I gave them a scare, although, I only wanted to find out why they were doing it. This is the first time anyone, anywhere on our trip has done anything remotely aggressive towards us. I have heard from friends that in some villages in Peru and Bolivia this is pretty prevalent, but I have never heard of anything like that here. No harm done, but it certainly made us a bit more weary. Another thing to keep an eye on! A shame really.
After a week in the outskirts of Tunis, we decided to head a bit further afield to the town of Hammamet by going around the peninsula, which according to our guide book offered one of the most scenic areas of Tunis. Well, with the exception of the town of Korbous, it was nothing special. Korbous, is a local spa, and on the day we rode by it was packed with locals. Nearly all the way back to the turn off from the main road there were locals having picnics along the side of the road. Korbous itself was nearly un-approachable due to all the parked cars on this tiny road. The town itself is build two hills split by a gorge, with hotels and guest houses clinging to the hills. The views along the coast are wonderful and there are a couple of seaside restaurants overflowing with guests. The most interesting aspect (as usual) was the lack of western tourists, we always find this fascinating, sort of hanging out with the natives, watching the flow of life free from "outside" influence. Which of course just shows how people are similar everywhere you go. Past Korbous the peninsula turned into a vegetable growing area until half-way down the other side past Korba, where the landscape magically turned into vacation resorts (for westerns mostly). With all the usual amenities. Hammamet is also part of this, and had the advantage that it had a camping, and a reasonable one at that. So we spent a few days here, and did some day trips around the area. Of particular note was a trip we did into Tunis and the south to Thuburbo Majus.
A cut-out of an aqueduct.
Along the we passed some interesting sights, such as the aqueduct above (more pictures can be found at Pictures Tunisia). We then spent a few hours wandering around the ruins of Thuburbo Majus which was fascinating, I particularly liked the location, you had a wonderful view from the Coliseum over the rest of the settlement. Additionally there where a number of exposed water pipes/canals and wells which I found interesting. At the end of the day we headed back to Hammamet along some interesting back roads (see our Tunisia Tracks), which seemed to really be a totally different country. Small villages and very poor in comparison to the areas which we had so far seen, and this only a few kilometers from a bustling modern city and tourist beaches! Speaking of beaches, Hammamet, was not much of anything. We didn't really see much beach as they were hidden behind huge tourist resorts. The town boasted a castle or fortification which is the main tourist draw. For us the town had a great gelati place, right across the road from a cemetery!
The country side south of Hammamet, turned quickly into either artificially watered vegetable farms or desert. The further south we headed the less agricultural land there was and the more desert, until it was all desert, with a few dusty towns and an oasis or two. Tozeur and the area around it are pretty popular destinations for European tourists who come here to spend time in the desert and take tours or treks, as well as those who come down to enjoy the desert in their own vehicles.
A really interesting side trip included the border town of Mides, and the oasis of Tamerza, which had a road which we took, straight through the date palm plantation, only as we came out at the other end, did we notice that driving on the road was not allowed and someone had forgotten to put down the barrier, oh, well it was very interesting. What was interesting was how the palms where planted with watering channels, and each of the plants in their own little tubs, or hollowed out area to keep water from running of. Mides is another oasis and lies right on the border to Algeria. Before getting to Tamerza you climb out of the plains and salt flats into a kind of plateau, which offered one of the areas best scenic viewpoint around. The only damper of the day, came late in the evening as we were headed back, just outside of Metlaoui the front tire went flat.
The following day we headed to Tataouine, across the salt lake. As we were crossing the lake we saw some small restaurants or coffee shops which had created tourist sights (trap) in the lake, things like a sand sculpture of a camel! If you stopped to take a picture the proprietor runs out and asks for 3-5Dinars for the pleasure. We skipped it. But the sight was surprising though very tacky. More interesting I found the structures themselves, some of these restaurants looked like they came straight out of a Mad Max movie, with all sorts of gadgets hanging from the awnings. On our way we stopped off to have a look at Douz, where the "deep" desert really comes into it's own. Here are the large dunes and the sand wastes to be found. This is also the end point for many off-road enthusiast from Europe. They get off the ferry and beeline it straight here. Set up base in one of the many, many, many high class hotels and then spend the days riding around the dunes in their 4x4, bikes or whatever vehicle they brought with them. The locals are also cashing in on the dunes, by renting anything that will walk or run across the dunes. ATV, camels, horses, 4x4 etc., can all be rented either at the hotels, or straight in front of the dunes. I don't think I would want to be around here during the high season. Nothing like enjoying the desert and being in the middle of a traffic jam at the same time!
Getting to Tataouine was great, lots of different scenery to enjoy. Past Douz, we covered a stretch of desert where we saw lots nomadic tribes, with their small herds of goats. Once out of the desert plains we headed to the hills, and passed lots of very scenic villages, and we also passed a lot of tourists doing day trips from either Douz or even Djerba out on the coast. Near Matmata, there were houses built into the hills or literally dug out of the hills, with rooms dug into the hill around a vertical shaft dug straight down, something straight out of Star Wars (well it helps, that Star Wars was filmed here). Around Tataouine we checked out some of the villages where Star Wars was filmed, but there wasn't really much to see other than the general countryside and the little villages. It is always fascinating to come around the corner and look up there is a ghost town on the hills above. Check out the tracks.
After passing a small village, again a young teenage boy threw a rock at us. This time missing. I stopped and turned around, and he took off running! This is the second time this has happened now, and both time here in Tunis. I still don't understand why?
From Tataouine we headed to the resort island of Djerba, where we spent a few days before heading to Libya. As we rode into Djerba, we realized that we had just missed the total eclipse of the sun which was supposed to happen at 10:00, but when we looked we couldn't see anything. Two hours later we were just about to set up camp and we looked up and noticed that the sun was fairly dim, although the wasn't any cloud cover. So, when we looked, sure enough part of it was obscured by the moon, and it was clearly visible to the naked eye. So we did manage to catch a little of it, even if we could not look directly to enjoy it. In the end we found Djerba to be pretty depressing, the beaches were not very nice as they were covered with sea weed/grass, and very little sand. The only redeeming quality must be the resorts, or possibly the weather? Plenty of tourists though. So we were pretty happy leaving, and heading to Libya.
Tunisa last thoughts:
- We found Tunisia to be a very easy country to travel.
- The northern part of the country didn't really appeal to us, but the south was a fascinating mix of desert types, along with the villages and plenty palm oases(?).
- Cost and services are more in-line with European standards.
- It is not as well geared to individual tourism as Morocco, due to the fact that it is more difficult to reach from Europe and caters mainly to package tourism. (hence the resorts and European standards, not to mention costs).
- People are friendly and inquisitive. (with the two exceptions in the text above, where we were targets of stones thrown by children!)