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Road around Tunisia - Nov/Dec 2008
by Elaine and John Welham

In the middle of last year the opportunity arose to sign up to a led tour around Tunisia for about 4 weeks from mid-November. Having enjoyed Morocco so much about 2 years previously, we wanted to see more of North Africa. Blue Camel Tours (BCT), www.bluecameltours.com who run the tour around Morocco, plan to add Tunisia to their offerings, and we were invited to join their pilot tour to Tunisia. We joined a party of 3 German couples, a Swiss lady, and Eddy and Flo of Blue Camel, and the idea was to start out with a planned itinerary around the country and see if it worked. If it didn't work out, what needed changing. Clearly, this did not appear to be a trip for the faint-hearted, although, as you will read below, there is every reason to make Tunisia your first experience of North Africa. For their pilot tour BCT used the old adage of, 'you can only go if you have been before', so the party had all been on the tour of Morocco and some of the Germans had even been to Belorussia and the Ukraine with another company!

Like our report about Morocco, this is not a travelogue of the tour around Tunisia, but rather something to give you an idea about what it is like to motorcaravan in the country, but we will also give you some insight about what is there to see and do.

General. Tunisia is a very much calmer place in general than Morocco. The people seem much more self-assured, they are used to tourists (although not necessarily motorcaravanners) and therefore you are not a rich novelty that they pester interminably, although the shop and stallholders are keen to make a sale wherever and whenever. There appears to be a strong ex-colonial French influence everywhere, especially in the northern part of the country, and French is widely spoken as a second language.

Getting there and back. The tour start point was planned to be Trapani on the western tip of Sicily, but here we met the first change of plan. The ferry operator had cancelled the route to Tunis, but had not told BCT. So one Sunday, whilst we were sat enjoying late sunshine on the south coast of Sicily, expecting to cross to Tunis on the following Thursday, we received a text from BCT asking if we could meet up at the rendezvous campsite near Trapani first thing the following morning because the ferry had changed. Fortunately, all the group were already on Sicily so we had our first meeting with them late that evening. A hastily replanned ferry had us leaving Palermo at 10.00 on the Tuesday instead, so we had great fun negotiating downtown Palermo through the morning rush, en route to the docks. Now as you will know, Laika is an Italian motorcaravan, and for many of you, like us, the base vehicle is also Italian, so the van knows how to get through multiple intermingling lanes of traffic, with scooters appearing over and under the van, pedestrians walking over, or even through if they got the chance, to get to their expresso and pastry, never mind work. Well, size does matter, so the idea was to keep the wheels rolling and hope the horn didn't expire, and keep smiling. Perhaps being in a convoy of 6 vans did help to bulldoze our way through, but there was definitely close marking by the home team.

Once on the dockside, the traffic problems dissolved, until our return to Palermo that is. The ferry (Grimaldi Lines, Italian) crossing takes 10 hours give or take. Outbound, (and on the return) the vans were on the sea deck, so fridges were left on gas, and we all had to sit around the one lounge cum restaurant. There was no pressure to buy food on board so you could BYO if you wanted. The return trip was overnight, so the prospect of trying to sleep in the lounge encouraged some of us to negotiate cabins at about €20 a head, with 2 couples sharing a 4 berth cabin. That enabled us to be fresh for the run through Sicily once the ferry had docked in the morning. There were dogs in 2 of the vans, and the ferry crew was quite accommodating, allowing the animals to be checked during the voyage. Overall, the ferry was quite acceptable for the longish crossing. One difference compared to crossing from Spain to Morocco, where the ferries run like buses, this crossing is definitely a booked return arrangement, ie, not an open return. You get a 40% discount on the return when booked with the outbound. An alternative would be to join the ferry at Salerno, just south of Naples. You would miss out southern Italy, where the roads are in a terminal state of disrepair, and Sicily, but it would be a longer crossing and more expensive.

Motoring. In general, the roads were pretty good, and wide enough for 2 way traffic in most places. They were well maintained, although, when a road was due for repairs theyS tended to rip up the whole thing for 10km - 20km, but they do not close the road, you just drive along whatever surface is left. If it is dry, then there are clouds of dust, and if it has been raining then you quickly learn to keep rolling through 2 - 4 inched of liquid mud! We once came upon a place where they were actually putting down the blacktop, so we were just directed onto the verges to get past.

The standard of driving was quite reasonable, and, importantly, predictable. We did not seem to encounter the blind faith approach to overtaking that occurred often in Morocco. For modern diesel engines you need to use the highest grade of fuel, or use an additive. The price whilst we were there was 52p per litre. Fuel was available in towns, but not out in the countryside, except from roadside vendors who had stacks of large plastic cans full of fuel and would filter it into your tank via a ladies stocking! Best to keep topped up from regular fuel stations. There was a high police presence throughout the country, with frequent vehicle checks, especially when entering towns. This is largely to do with the civil war that still exists in neighbouring Algeria. Except when in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace near Tunis, we were never stopped.

Borders. Our arrival at La Goulette, the ferry port for Tunis, late in the evening was the usual procession to various booths to collect another piece of paper, only to give it to the guy in the next booth. There are fixers on hand, who for about €10, will take you around the booths and get your bits of paper stamped. They are not really necessary, but when you are tired, they do speed things up. From there we moved only about 500m to a large truck stop for our first night in Tunisia. We left through the same port complex, not quite as many bits of paper needed, but the van was searched, inside, on top, and underneath looking for stowaways. Obviously a local problem! No fixers needed, but some sweeties keep the customs men sweet.

Culture. Along with its more self-assured nature comes a sense that Islamic customs are more closely observed. It is polite to respect the more obvious aspect of dress and manners, and certainly away from Tunis, it is clear that only men folk gather in the cafes and restaurants. Having said that, those Tunisians that we spoke to were quite happy to discuss and inform us about various aspects of their religion that we did not know of or understand. We were there during Eid al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, when sheep and goats are slaughtered, usually at the roadside, to celebrate the occasion when Abraham, having been asked by Allah to sacrifice his son Ismael, at the moment of slaughter, his son was replaced by a sheep or a goat. This festival is a great family occasion, where the meat from the animal is cooked and eaten, with the surplus being given to the poor. We were told about all this by the curator of a small museum, and were invited to join his Tunisian family for their feast, such is the tradition of hospitality to strangers. Unfortunately, we were on the move the following day, so were unable to accept the invitation.

Shopping. There was no problem obtaining fresh food. Meat, bread, veg and fruit were available everywhere. You could get alcoholic drinks in most towns, either to take out or in cafes and restaurants. You can exchange currency in all banks at a countrywide fixed rate, and even change surplus back at the end of the trip without being ripped off. ATMs were available in towns, and seemed to work fine. There are the usual tourist goods to be had everywhere. If you are interested in carpets, then Kairouan is the centre for new and antique carpets.

Campsites. Whilst Tunisia is used to European tourists it has not yet geared up for motorcaravanners in the same way as Morocco. We spent some nights in hotel car parks, where usually there was a low amperage electrical hook up, and where we could use the hotel facilities for fresh water and emptying out. You could even use showers for a small fee, and the restaurants and swimming pool were available. Most of the time we overnighted at marinas, on the beach or in the desert. At marinas you could pick up water and empty out, but you needed to keep track of the itinerary to make sure that you had enough fuel, water and battery power for maybe 3 nights without resupply. The drinking water that we picked up tasted fine and as far as we are aware no-one suffered from tummy upsets. Bottled drinking water was available countrywide. In the vast majority of places we were near to a Guard National post (similar to the Gendarme in France). BCT would inform the Guard about our presence, who were quite happy with us stopping over. Some even took the opportunity to come and have a chat. We were always happy with the over night parking arrangements made by BCT. No-one tried to get gas bottles refilled at gas plants, but there were plenty of French pattern gas bottles for sale. Autogas was available from fuel stations on the main routes on the eastern, coastal side of the country. We filled up without any problems using a French type adaptor.

Why go to Tunisia? It is a great place to start your North African experiences. There is less hassle than in Morocco, although it is a much smaller country, which, whilst having widely ranging geography, does not have the spectacular mountain ranges of Morocco. We journeyed through the fertile, undulating north, where you could easily believe you were in France. Then, across to the arid regions on the western border with Algeria. Down south, into the Grande Erg Orientale, (Sahara to us), to a line of forts at the furthest southern reaches of the Roman Empire. Then across to and up the eastern coast, with Mediterranean beaches deserted off-season.

Did you notice I mentioned the Roman Empire? The one thing that really stands out about Tunisia is the abundance of amazing ruins from the Africa Proconsularis period of Roman rule. Not forgetting that Carthage predated the Romans, but once Carthage fell, the Romans did a pretty good job of trashing the Punic development and replacing it with their own. We visited Bulla Regia, Sbeitla, Dougga, El Jem… the list goes on. We have never before seen such complete Roman habitations; they are much more extensive than even the ruins in Rome and thereabouts, with only Pompei perhaps matching them for scale. This is because the ruins were not plundered so much for the materials by succeeding civilizations.

Most of the mosaics have been removed to the Bardo Museum in Tunis, where you can see these monster works of art close to. They provide a visual record of the wealth and culture of Rome as it existed in North Africa. Even if you are not into history, you cannot fail to be impressed by what Rome achieved 2 millennia ago. Other places of interest include the troglodytic dwellings near Matmata, some of which are still lived in; the ancient mosque in Kairouan, where we were allowed in all but the inner prayer chamber: the great modern mosque on the outskirts of Tunis; some of the WWII battlefields near the Kasserine Pass and Bizerta, including Commonwealth and American war cemeteries.

If you want to go. BCT are running their first English tour in October this year. They run very basic tours during which you will need to use all the facilities of your motorcaravan, (that's why you bought it isn't it?). Other tour companies go to both Morocco and Tunisia, but charge over twice the price and do not include ferry costs in their price. In Tunisia we saw only a few vans, mainly from Germany, and they were only on the east coast, away from some of the best bits of the country. If you want to know more look at BCT's website, or get in touch with us, (we have a copy of their flyer for the tour in October). The road book has been translated into English, by us! (Terrible language, we determinably ensured that our German fellow tourers improved their English whilst they were with us). If you go, any complaints about the English version of the road book to us please. Various bits of the tour have been adjusted in the light of our experiences.

You do not need to feel adventurous to go to Tunisia. We felt comfortable the whole time we were there. We even have an ambition to return and spend more time at the places we enjoyed but did not have enough time to explore completely.

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