We awoke outside the docks in La Goulette, Tunis, to the sound of the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. How exciting! We breakfasted, and prepared to head out. The first mission was to obtain some SIM cards so we could gain access to the Internet.
We walked down the nearby main street — it was very foreign! Lots of white-washed buildings, garbage everywhere, being picked through by cats; people ushering sheep and goats across the road, old beat-up cars, garish advertising, and about a billion posters of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s president, several in every shop. Woah.
I know from my research that Tunisiana was the telco we needed to hook up with, as they offered a several-GB plan, and that there was supposed to be an outlet in La Goulette somewhere. Turns out, the outlet was closed, but we found another, and when asked if he sold Tunisiana SIM cards, he said yes. So, we went through the paperwork, until I realised he’d misunderstood (or something), and given me a ‘Tunisia Telecom’ SIM card instead. When I realised and told him I had been after Tunisiana and didn’t want the Telecom SIM, he umm’d and aah’d and made a fuss; He went out and fetched a girl from a neighbouring shop who spoke a bit of English. She told us confidently that Telecom were the only provider with the Internet, so I grudgingly agreed to proceed, and bought a 5DT SIM card but no credit, planning on getting the official word on it at the nearby Telecom outlet when they opened the next day.
Defeated, we decided to stay another day and try again tomorrow when more shops were open.
The next day, faced by blank looks at the Telecom shop when I mentioned the Internet (I knew it!), I decided to stick with Plan A, found a Tunisiana outlet, got two SIM cards and 45 DT of credit, and successfully set us up with mobile Internet, after a couple of calls to their support line (where, thankfully, there was someone who could speak English, so I didn’t have to try to get by in my mangled French).
We had a very tasty lunch of local fish and chips at a cafe on the main street, attended to by a hyperactive waiter/cook I am quite sure was either insane, or extremely high. He was quite friendly though, and the insanity was the entertaining kind. A cat miowed at me a lot from under the table.
On the walk back to Nettle, some youngsters hanging around on the foreshore called out “Welcome to Tunisia!” to us in English. Thanks guys! We met a slightly unkempt-looking Tunisian guy in the car park who greeted us and told us he was a fellow motorhomer, pointing out a plain-looking blue truck nearby. He asked us where we were headed, and I answered vaguely, making conversation. Oh, he knew the owners of the caravan park there, and would make sure they knew we were coming and would give us a discount. Cool! He had some immigration slips and “helped” us fill them out for when we left. That was a bit weird. Then he asked us for a tip of 10 DT, please (about $8 AUD, or something like €5) — Um. No. Actually, I was less assertive and for some bizarre reason went into bargaining mode, rather than just saying no outright. What is wrong with me? Katherine saved the day, and was much more firm — I still somehow managed to “tip” him with a dinar or two: I panicked, okay! Then he asked us if we had any whiskey. Disgusted, we got back into Nettle and bid him goodbye.
A more positive interaction was had a little later, when a familiar language caught my attention, and I came across a flock of Brits and Irish who were on a cruise stopover. They had a slightly shell-shocked look about them (they told us that La Goulette had been described to them as a “fishing village” onboard, which is a little amusing). We got talking with a couple of them, and showed them Nettle after they expressed an interest.
Anyway, happily, soon enough we left dirty La Goulette and headed north out of Tunis, stopping at a Carrefour supermarket on the way for supplies. Our vague plan was to do some sight-seeing in the north first, before winter set in and it got a bit chilly, then find a pleasant place to stop for a good while, so we could work on some projects.
So, with a vague clockwise route in mind, we headed first for Sidi Ali el-Mekki, a beach that our Lonely Planet guide waxed lyrical about, with a pleasant-sounding walking trail and promising-sounding wildcamp opportunities. It took way, way longer to get there than the relatively short distance had suggested to us, and night had fallen while we were still driving. We bounced off a stealth speed-bump that was hidden in the darkness, then slowed way down as we drove through the town of Ghar el-Melh — thinking that wow, these folks have very different aesthetics and cleanliness standards to us.
We found the road to the beach, and followed it along the edge of the lagoon to a big unpaved parking area. I swung Nettle around, aiming for the side of the parking area, then realised we were no longer moving — it wasn’t a parking area. It was the beach, and the sand was fine and deep, and we were stuck in it. In the middle of nowhere.
What idiot drives around an unfamiliar, developing country in the dark, having just arrived?! Me, I suppose. Hooray for me.
Swallowing rising panic, our eyes met with holy-freaking-shit-we’re-screwed expressions and we jumped out onto the sand with a torch to see how bad it was. It was bad, the sand was at least six inches deep and the wheels sunk down into it. Not one to give up so soon, I had had an idea, and jumped back into the drivers seat. I nudged Nettle forward, then quickly switched to reverse to add some extra momentum to the backwards-rocking, then switched to first gear again and rocked forward again, Nettle’s loose exhaust manifold making some godawful noises as it swung around. I don’t know how I did it, and it was probably just a total fluke, but I managed to rock Nettle out of the several-meter-long segment of deep sand; the feeling when her tyres gripped hard sand and pulled her forward was indescribable — we just hugged for a while in silence. Then, we carefully drove to the side of the road we’d come in on, pulled over, and called it a night. We were shaken but also euphoric with that unique feeling of averted disaster — whole horrific episodes had played out in our minds while we were in the sand, and we revelled in the fact that none of them would come to pass. Whew.
We awoke very early the next morning to banging and shouting outside. Blearily, I called out “un instant, s’il vous plait!“, and cautiously opened a window. Two young men stood outside staring in, and one of them said something in too-fast-French that included l’argent (money), and manger (to eat). I had a pretty good idea what they were getting at, but feigned ignorance, asking them in French to repeat themselves. You want us to give you a ride into town?…You want to sell us food?…Encore un fois?. They gave up and went away. Me: 1; aggressive beggars: 0, baby.
It was time to move on. We halfheartedly visited the beach, then headed back to the main road and took the promising-sounding drive towards Raf Raf, another vaguely interesting sounding town. The drive was reasonably pretty, lots of rolling green hills.
Raf-Raf itself was all closed up, and rather underwhelming; we drove through until we reached back-roads, and felt a little intrusive, driving around the residential area.
We fairly quickly came to the realisation that we were touristed out — and didn’t really have any remaining intrepid-ness stores to do any more challenging touring. We sought out a caravan park we’d read about near the town of Bizerte on Tunisia’s north-eastern coast, but found it closed-looking, mildly unpleasant and we couldn’t see any of the electricity hookup points we needed. So, a little discouraged, we found a beach-access car park (a real one, this time) at the end of the road, and decided to stay there for the rest of the day and night. We took a brief walk on the beach, watching the wild waves, until the cold wind chased us back indoors; a few kilometers down the beach, we could see the massing rusting form of a shipwreck — a big ship — which was quite interesting.
So, we stayed the night, and thankfully awoke in our own time to that happy sound of being left alone. There were several caravan parks on Cap Bon, the cape just to the south of Tunis, and we made a beeline straight there, slightly sheepishly.
Our first attempt was the town of Nabeul; the caravan park there looked okay. There were to to investigate, but we were buggered. So, we wild-camped on the foreshore and checked the options out the next day — neither particularly appealing, but we were desperate, and so we checked into Les Jasmins with its little patch of dirt and olive trees.
We stayed a couple of nights, but things weren’t looking too good — there was no drain to empty our grey water into, the water kept going off, one of the cooks tried to hit on Katherine, and the main street was kinda gross. Even the supermarket, when we stocked up on supplies, was playing the most intense, loud and harsh-sounding wailing music – argh! That day was the first of a Muslim holiday where families sacrifice a goat, and there were piles of goat-hides on street corners. Whoa – too much strangeness for now!
We took off again and found another caravan park — Camping Samaris — near Hammamet, about half an hour away. It was located on a fairly unpleasant, busy and dirty road, right on a roundabout beside a petrol station, but the grounds were spacious, liberally olive-treed and comparatively pleasant. The staff are quite friendly (but not too much so), and one of the grounds-keepers has even brought us a bunch of freshly-cut flowers from time to time!
One last little saga of note; I’ll write about the more positive day-to-day stuff in another entry. When we arrived in Tunisia, we were told that we could only get a visa for one month, not three like our research had led us to believe. We were told by an official at the port that we had to find a police station and get another visa for the next month, and another for the third month that we were here. A pain in the ass, but not too unmanageable.
So, six days before our visas ran out, we walked into a police station (actually, two — staff at the first directed us to the second, which could actually help us), and explained what we needed. The official told us he needed us to provide photocopies of our passports, as well as some documentation from the caravan park to show we were staying there. He told us they’d be open the day after tomorrow, and to come back then.
So we did, bringing the appropriate documentation, only to find that he was wrong — they weren’t open at all. What the? We were half-way home on the taxi before we realised that by the time they were next open, our visas would have expired. Shit!
So, we drove the 20 minutes back to the police station again, in Nettle this time, to ask their advice. They dithered about for a good long while, then told us we’d need to go to the airport in Tunis to get it sorted! We did so: Did the hour-and-a-bit drive in, found the police station at the airport and presented our case (all in French, of course!). He called up the immigration desk in the terminal, spoke for a while, then told us that we were all good — we didn’t need a visa at all! We simply pay on departure, 10 DT for each week of our stay. Warily, we explained that this was not what we were told. He put me on the phone to a woman in immigration who spoke English, and explained the same thing. I explained again that we were told something entirely different, and asked that if she’s certain she’s correct, whether she could leave her contact details with us so we could give them to any officials we came across later who disagreed! She asked me to give the phone back to the officer, who spoke for a moment then hung up the phone, and asked us to go and find immigration in the terminal.
Off we went, first to ask at an information desk, then outside the security doors to customs — we were told to go into Tunis, which wasn’t at all what we were expecting, so we went back to the police station again to seek further help.
We love administration ping pong.
The officer walked us back to the terminal, past the security official who had turned us away (nyaa, nyaa), and to the immigration desk, which was buried deep within the maze of security checkpoints — we never would have found it on our own. The woman there — the same woman who was on the phone — told us the same thing she told us before. Again, we asked for her contact details as a safeguard, and she said we could seek out the Ministry of Immigration in Tunis if we liked. We decided to do just that, and asked if they were open today — yes, they were, and yes, they were easy to find, just on the main street in Tunis.
Off we went, parked, and walked down the main street. No sign of the Ministry of Immigration. The two other Ministry buildings we found we closed; the people we asked — a police officer and a hotel clerk — both didn’t know where it was, but assured us it would be closed. Awesome.
So, we decided to try again tomorrow, and to spend a night at the car park in La Goulette — at least we knew it — rather than give up entirely, or drive to Hammamet and back, then back again. We pulled up at the car park, closed up and settled in.
Then there was loud knocking on the outside of Nettle. What now? I opened the window and peered out — two drunken-looking young men leered back, saying something incomprehensible, probably something about asking for money, I bid them goodnight and closed the blinds. Then there was a ripping, tearing sound — they were trying to force the door open! “Time to move,” I said tensely and jumped up looking for the keys. All our blinds were closed, but there wasn’t time — I started the engine, pulled aside the curtain in front of me, and teared out. A guy was hanging onto the door, as we drove, still trying to get in – our eyes met as I glanced back; I didn’t read anything on his face. I tried to drive close to a lamp-pole to scare him off, then swerved to avoid a parked car. I’d like to say I was expecting Indiana Jones music to start playing, but actually I was just almost-crapping-myself. Katherine said “Drive to the police station”, which was just across the road, so I did. No sign of our assailants; I jumped out and checked the door, expecting massive damage. The step was down, and the safety lock a bit loose, but nothing too serious. We were going to report the incident straight away, but the police station looked dark and there was just no way we were going to leave Nettle exposed, just across the road.
So, we drove, all the way back to Hammamet, stopping for fuel on the way (and being both asked for whiskey by one of the attendants, as well as having the I-found-some-Euros-would-you-exchange-them-for-me scam tried on me. Fuck off.).
No luck later trying to report the incident, so we had a record for our insurance — the local police kept us waiting in a cold foyer for about half an hour, then told us first that we should’ve reported it in La Goulette, then that you can’t report damage to property, maybe in your country, but not here. What the crap?
So, we have very mixed feelings about our first Tunisia experience — although most of that which has befallen us has probably been our own fault! Wild-camping at the docks in a city, not sounding like such a good idea in retrospect. I guess that’s that lesson learned!
Well, that was cathartic. I promise the record of our Tunisia adventure will be more positive from here on out!