16.10.2009 - 21.10.2009 25 °C
TUNISIA – FRIDAY 16 OCTOBER 2009
It took a couple of hours to get through to Tunisia – I think this was due to the flash visa stamp that they gave each of us which included a photo! Very smart. Ryan taught Judy, Adrian, Elaine and I how to play ‘shithead’ (a card game) while we waited – land border crossings are weird things. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself – don’t smile too much, or too little – don’t talk too much or too little. A Tunisian guard asked me what the religion was of our party and I told him we were Christians. He wanted to know if any of us were Muslim and I told him we weren’t. Not sure why he wanted to know that. He made me repeat after him, “Hubbly bubbly, lovely jubbly. See you later, alligator” and I added on “in a while, crocodile” which he liked but you don’t really want to joke around as you feel the mood could change at any moment – and, let’s face, your fate is in their hands at the time. Still, bit of eye candy always helps pass the time at a border crossing.
We waited nearly two hours for our visas and then walked through to Tunisia where our new guide, Nour, and mini bus were waiting for us. We loaded our bags through the back window of the bus and hit the road.
The roadside from the border was packed with makeshift stalls selling cheap petrol from Libya – the prices in Tunisia are comparable to Australia so a vast difference.
We drove two hours, and across the roman causeway, to the island of Jerba, known as the ‘land of the lotus eaters’. Jerba was once the port of call to the Phoenicians and a port where Ulysses and his men were detained on their return from Troy.
The island is very flat with extensive agriculture – the economy is based on the production of dates, figs and olives, the production of olive oil, the fishing of sponges and octopus.
It also has soft, sandy beaches, warm Mediterranean waters and cobble stone streets with shops selling every imaginable handicraft.
Jud and I dropped our bags in our gorgeous balconied room at Hotel Les Palmes d’Or in the islands main town of Houmt Souq. Spent the afternoon pottering around, getting to know the town.
Met the group at 7pm for dinner and wandered into the medina – Nour directed us to a lovely restaurant and we all enjoyed our first beer since Egypt. Most of us took advantage of the seafood on offer – I had sea bass. Everything came with fries and mediocre salad. We got a couple of takeaway beers and Lisa, Adrien and I sat on Ryan’s balcony overlooking the street below sipping on the local brew - Celestia.
SAT 17 OCTOBER
The next morning, Nour took us to Borj Ghazi Mustapha, Houmt Souq’s old fort. You got a great view of the fishing port and marina from the top.
Next stop was the museum but I was more interested in getting into the souq so Ryan, Lee, Judith, Lisa and I peeled off. I’d got some money out of the ATM the evening before. It was in French but I’d muddled my way through – and helped Lee and Judith do the same on our way to the souq. We had a great wander – such a change to Libya where we weren’t hassled at all. The Tunisian’s are really in your face – to the point that they stand in front of you, block your way or put things in your hands and refuse to take them back. I find it easiest to smile and say “la shukran” (no thank you).
There were a heap of touristy cheap crap but also some really lovely things and I bought a gorgeous bracelet with a Tunisian coin on it.
There were a lot more tourists than we were used to - strange looking Europeans, generally inappropriately dressed but with absolutely no regard for muslim modesty. It’s also a good spot for older European ladies to go to pick up young gorgeous Tunisian men – we witnessed quite a few of these transactions which was interesting!
After the fabulous fish and food market we stopped for a coffee and then couldn’t resist a freshly squeezed orange juice. Twas delicious. It was a gorgeous way to pass the morning, just cruising around taking in the sites and smells of Houmt Souk.
Ryan was desperate to get a closer look at the olive groves we’d passed on the way in so off he trotted - there are 500,000 olive trees in Tunisia and the trunks on some of the olderest ones are just beautiful.
I hooked up with Kate and Jud who were planning an expedition out to Zone Touristique. Apparently all coastal towns in Tunisia have these zone touristiques which are filled with humungous artificially enhanced resorts. They’re designed to be a one stop shop from Europe so your holiday package includes flight, hotel, all meals and some activities – so holiday makers don’t need to leave the front door of their hotel. And most don’t! It’s pretty sad. Ryan was speaking to a pax on one of his recents trips who mentioned he’d been to Tunisia. When Ryan asked where, the passenger said he couldn’t tell him as he hadn’t left the hotel and had forgotten which airport he flew in to!
Anyway, Kate and Jud felt like they needed a bit of high living for the afternoon and, hey, who am I to turn down an offer like that?! We jumped into a cab (and our lovely TD kindly stopped for us to take photos of flamingos on the way) and we made our way to the Movenpick resort where we found a table overlooking the beach and the pool. Lots of fat, leather skinned Europeans lying around on banana lounges and Tunisian men on horses riding past showing off to the ladies. I ordered a Caprioska for 15TD and the girls ordered a G&T (which turned out to be 19TD for the gin and a further 5TD for the tonic- THE most expensive G&T in the world people). The little side dish of olives totally made up for it though…… I was wearing my new bracelet and the girls were wearing some of their new trinkets so Kate took lots of photos of us posing with our purchases. I'll have to get some copies of them so I can show you.
Here's a photo of Jud in the meantime:
We then walked along the beach to the next resort which was even more ritzy and found ourselves a decadent spot on gorgeous white lounges. The next tipple of choice was beer (we were all skint after the first round) but just sitting there made me feel richer. Ah, how the other half live. I wouldn’t have minded if we were staying there for a couple of nights, a rather lovely way to break up the journey after the relative slumming we’ve been doing. But, hey, you all know I would be bored senseless after a couple of days.
Met Ryan at 5.30pm and we went out for a couple of beers – found this awesome dinghy drinking den with a very insalubrious crowd. The den was tucked into the side of a hotel courtyard and there was only one bartender so bottles filled each of the tables. The bar was filled with rowdy but friendly drunk men (no women in sight of course). Ryan and I kept the beers coming and enjoyed a tasty ‘foul’ – it’s different everywhere you go but this one had massive lima beans sprinkled with salt and a cooked lemon on the side to squeeze over the top. It was really tasty – or it could have just been because I’d had a skin full and had the munchies!
We went and had a bite to eat afterwards – I had sea bass again which was even more delicious than the night before and we shared a bottle of ok white wine.
SUNDAY 18 OCTOBER
We left Jerba in 3 4X4s via the Ghriba synagogue (Jerba is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world). The synagogue is the oldest in North Africa and had been bombed in 2002, killing 19 people - we had to go through airport style security to enter as a result. The synagogue itself was lovely.
Back over the roman causeway, through Medenine and stopped to check out a decaying pile of WW2 tanks, jeeps, etc which were just in the middle of nowhere.
We stopped for about an hour for lunch at Tataouine and I spent the time wandering around town which doesn’t seem to get many tourists as I seemed to get more attention.
We’re in Tunisia for the general election (there is a 99% probability that the current leader, Ben Ali, will retain his presidency) and there are pictures on Ben Ali with his hand on his heart everywhere - Tunisian flags and flags of Ben Ali smother every town.
A young guy asked me my name and he wrote it on my arm in Arabic - not sure about the love heart but here's a photo anyway. Arabic is read from right to left.
From Tataouine we drove though some hilly amazing landscape to Chenini, a fantastic example of a Berber hilltop village. We walked to the top and had an amazing view over the village and the valley. The houses themselves are caves dug into the hillside with a walled courtyard at the front. The ksar (food and valuables storage)and mosque are at the highest point of the village.
Many Berber families still lived these hill top towns and we paid 1DT to take some photos of the locals – worth it sometimes.
From Chenini we had the long bumpy totally unpaved journey along the Desert Track to Ksar Ghilane, across ancient river beds, sand drifts and rocky outcrops into the depths of the Sahara.
We arrived at the oasis and staying at Camping Paradise. Well, paradise it wasn’t with a generator humming all night, a bed full of sand, bed bugs and a pillow so hard you could murder someone with it in a pillow fight. I really shouldn’t complain – it wasn’t that bad! Put our packs in the military style tents (I’m sharing with Jud, Kate and Paul).
Then walked out into the Grand Erg Oriental. The dunes are unlike any I’ve ever seen before – I’m used to high mountains of sand but these were small undulating mounds that went on for ever and ever (this sand sea, in fact, stretches for over 500 kms in to Algeria). If you’ve ever seen the scene at the start of the English Patient where Ralph Fiennes is flying the plane? Well, that’s exactly the landscape I’m standing in. Very beautiful and humbling.
A few of the crew went out on camels but I decided against it. Ducked back to the camp for supplies (beers) and then had a wonderful time watching the sun set. If there’s anything better than a desert sun set, it’s a desert sun set with beer!
The group sat around while we waited for dinner and watched some guys picking dates. They also cooked some traditional bread for us to try (much like damper).
Then we sat down to dinner and the ‘cultural show’. I got quite a lot of in your face attention from the troupe who played traditional music and sang. There was one particular act where one of the guys kept adding pots to the top of his head – he made it to eight, I made it to four….
Next act, one of the guys came out dressed in rags, a witches hat and wearing a gorilla mask – it was very strange….. It was fine but I wasn’t sorry when the evening ended…
MONDAY 19 OCTOBER
Early start – wandered out into the dunes again for some early morning shots.
We left in our land cruisers, this time following the paved pipeline road north to Matmata.
At Matmata we said good-bye to our 4X4s and met our new minibus driver who we’d have for the rest of our trip through Tunisia.
Matmata is famous for its underground troglodyte dwellings. It’s also famous as the setting for Luke Skywalker’s ‘home’ planet in Star Wars. We stopped at the hotel which was used for the film – very touristy but gave you a good understanding of the unusual local architecture.
We had a couple of stops along the way to check out the incredible landscapes.
We also visited a family who live traditionally in a hole in the side of the mountain.
We stopped off at an expensive, touristy roadside shop for lunch (told Nour that this wasn’t our style and prefer picnic in future) but I thought you'd like to see a photo of a berber nomad tent they had display in their shop.
We arrivied at El-Jem in the late afternoon. We stopped to check out the ancient colosseum which looks quite weird stuck smack bang in the middle of El-Jem. It’s the second largest colosseum in the world and very impressive – cages for lions underneath, three tiers of seating and estimated to have seated 30,000.
From there we drove on to Mahdia (yes, it was a long day driving). We stayed at Topkapi Palace which was on the edge of zone touristique – a 30 min walk in to town. The hotel was smarter than anything we’d stayed in with a balcony overlooking the sea (and next door hotel swimming pool) but it was pretty old and had loads of character.
After a hot shower to wash the dust of the desert and the day off we made our way in to town and ate a yummy fish dinner at Le Lido restaurant – washed down with some local vino. Was a fun night. Had a couple of drinks at the hotel and made use of wifi for the first time in ages.
TUESDAY 20 OCTOBER
Ryan and I took off to check out Mahdia. It’s a gorgeous white washed fishing village with blue doors and shutters adorning every house.
We found a dive shop and made enquiries – Nesh, the owner (and town spunk), was taking out an ‘exploratory’ dive that afternoon for 50TD and we decided to tag along. We had until 2pm so we walked around the point, past the cemetery (where there was a funeral taking place) and in to the market. Fantastic fish and great produce – stocked up on fresh supplies.
On our way back to the hotel we stopped in at some men on looms making beautiful scarves. I bought two cotton ones for 5DT each.
The dive shop’s very run down mini bus picked us up from our hotel (we later found out that the bus had had an impromptu swim the month before). There were a group of beginner divers and snorkelers from Poland and Germany- all men. It wasn’t the most professional dive operation but each diver was allocated an instructor – I got Nesh. The dive itself wasn’t amazing but good to get under the water – saw a couple of fish, starfish, eel and octopus. For the first part of the dive it was just Nesh and I and he held my hand most of the way. It was quite weird actually – at one point he indicated to me to wait where I was and he went off a little way and turned his back to me. I was trying to see what he was doing and I think he was doing a pee…. I couldn’t really tell and I didn’t look too hard to be honest! Then we went to the surface and he asked me where my boyfriend was – well, I’m sure there’s a man out there somewhere who is meant to be my boyfriend but I haven’t got a clue where he is. Oh, right, he means Ryan….. Well, I was equally unsure about where he was! We eventually found him and got some photos with the octopus. It was fun.
It started getting cold and the boat ride back was pretty choppy. Nesh asked Ryan and I if we wanted to meet him later for beers but it didn’t eventuate.
Everyone did their own thing for dinner – I downloaded a bunch of photos and then Ryan and I walked to Neptunes where a bunch of the guys were just finishing up – we took their spot and I tucked into a yummy seafood spaghetti (Ryan had a vego spag) and shared a bottle of plonk.
WEDNESDAY 21 OCTOBER
We left Mahdia and drove along the coast to Monastir – it was a really lovely drive along the coast with men and birds fishing in shallow waters, foggy and very still with great reflections on the water.
The Monastir we visited the fantastic ribat (Tunisia’s finest example of Islamic military architecture). It was a labyrinth of stairways and passages with massive thick walls and a great view from the tower. Apparently scenes from Life of Brian were filmed here.
Ryan and I walked out to the rocks in the harbor and enjoyed the view back of the town and harbor.
Then walked in to the walled medina which was pretty touristy and checked out the Mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba (the previous president who was born and lived on the outskirts of town).
Left Monastir in the early afternoon and drove to Kairouan. Kairouan is considered the fourth holiest site in Islam because of the presence of the Great Mosque, the oldest in North Africa. The afternoon was free so I spent the time wandering through the huge walled medina and beyond. The Kairouan medina is certainly less touristy than others we’ve visited in Tunisia - close to the main entrance were the more trashy shops so I skipped through there pretty quickly to get to the local area. Found a fantastic spot beyond the medina walls where the tin workshops were in full operation. It was great to watch them at work and they were so friendly. Put my school girl French to work (even though I learnt Japanese and German - French didn’t get a look in so my French skills are limited to nill!)
Met the group later that night and we had a quick and easy dinner at a local joint just around the corner from the hotel (with more tourists than locals but the food came quickly. I had a fantastic soup).
We had a few drinks back at the hotel – Ryan and I had bought some of the local rocket fuel at a supermarket in Monastir (figue) which I had with tonic. It does the trick, let me tell you!