26 Jan - 1 Feb 08
During our initial planning for this extravaganza we realised that we would most likely have to bypass Algeria to get to Tunisia because the border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed for more than 10 years. All of our experience told us that when we got on the ground and nosed around a little, the local arrangements would become clear and we would find our way through.
For once, however, our improvising ways failed us. Each plan investigated was found to be either too expensive or simply not possible. With all other options exhausted, we got a fast ferry back to Spain and headed north in a hurry to Marseille where we could get a ferry to Tunis. The Elephant is not the best machine for highway running but the1650km run was gobbled up comfortably in three days putting us unto Marseille on the afternoon of 27 Jan 08. This gave us a couple of days to kill before the next ferry and some important jobs to do.
"""Ice on the bike cover at an overnight stop near Barcelona was a sure sign that there be a long cold day in the saddle on the final leg up to Marseille."""
By the time our Moroccan leg was complete, the Elephant’s tyres were pretty much gone. What little rubber was left quickly disappeared on the freeways up through Spain and by the time we arrived in Marseille the backend was feeling decidedly skittish. Our first stop, therefore, was the bike souq for a new set of Michelin Anakees; say goodbye to $550! We also took the opportunity to look at some new riding suits.
"""What the fuss is all about! For our non-bike friends, tyres are very important to bikes. They are under great stress on a big bike and wear out much quicker than car tyres. Riders can tell the difference between tyres through the seat of their pants in seconds and never stop talking about it. For the record the last set of Anakees lasted 19K back and 28K front which is he best wear I have ever had from a big bike tyre. This set should get us home at that rate."""
"""Marseille seemed like a useful, rough and ready sort of city. It had some nice public spaces and some very elegant streets as well as some very run down areas and more than its share of beggars."""
Our investigations with other riders took us to the Hein Gerick outlet to see the suits that were recommended. They didn’t disappoint but at $1750 each for new riding gear we decided that the budget just wouldn’t stretch that far at the moment and that we would put up with what we had. In hindsight we skimped on this important clothing before the trip and shouldn’t have done so. After all, we wear these things all day, every day we travel.
"""This outfit was staying at the same pub in Marseille. I hadn’t seen one before but some of our outfit riding comrades may have. The photo, taken in a dark garage, is not so clear, but it shows the common bike and sidecar chassis with central diff and drive shafts to two wheels."""
"""The front end shows the hub centre steering and fully closed two seat car. It was as wide as a small sedan. I couldn’t see the engine and it had an alarm so I didn’t poke around too much, but it seemed to have a small car engine and auto gearbox. The final touch was the HUGE camping trailer being pulled behind."""
We used the remainder of our time in Marseille to organise our Tunis ferry tickets, do some banking, catch up on correspondence and get used to dodging dog shit on the French footpaths again. We also caught up on a little sleep as we had declined to pay the extra $200 for a cabin for the overnight ferry to Tunis. We expected the trip over to be tiring, but we didn’t plan on what happened next.
Our loading instructions were to be at the wharf by 1000 for immigration etc before loading at 1200 and sailing at 1400. As it turned out, we cleared immigration by 1010 and then sat in a queue for four and a half hours waiting to load. The day was bitterly cold and we were thoroughly chilled by the time we rolled on board. Seating conditions on board were similar to those on an aircraft, but as the ship was less than half full, there was enough room to sleep on the floor between the rows of seats and we both got more sleep than we usually do on a long haul flight.
"""Some cars got to these ferries loaded to the gunnels (to use a nautical term)."""
As I am travelling on an EU passport, I had no visa requirements for Tunisia. As an Aussi citizen, Jo was not so lucky. She had discovered that Canadian, Australian and New Zealand citizens could buy a 90 day visa at the point of entry for about $6 (all other non-EU citizens require a visa in advance). But when she presented her passport to the police onboard the ship, she found that it was not that easy. The police kept her passport and told her to report to the police post at the port to see about the visa.
"""A single strap over the seat is the best way to secure a bike. In this case I had to do it myself."""
Finding the police was no problem (they were everywhere) and Jo even located her passport again, but getting the visa was more difficult. We spent the next two and a half hours with the Elephant parked in the middle of the road and the two of us waiting while the problem (whatever it was) was sorted.
Eventually the passport arrived with a visa, at a price of $35 (for 30 days), and we were free to enter Tunisia. We rumbled up the causeway from the port and the Elephant wallowed into the teeming sea of humanity that is the city of Tunis.
1 Feb - 9 Feb 08
After our initial introduction to Tunisian bureaucracy, the country has lived up, and down, to our expectations. Jo and the Elephant (being aliens) could only get 30 days on their visas, and with the ferry schedule reduced in winter, we needed to keep moving to get a handle on the country and get out on time.
Tunisia has about 3000 years of recorded history, much of it Punic and Roman. I have always had an interest in these periods since studying Ancient History in school 40 years ago. The Punic wars, in particular, had been the source of great misery as I also studied Latin and they were the subject of endless translations from Latin to English.
Much of the history is contained in a large number of archaeological sites across the country. As these have been excavated, many of the important finds have been removed for display to the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Despite our dislike of most big cities, we decided to stay over in Tunis to see both the Bardo and the ruins of ancient Carthage which are now in the northern suburbs.
The Bardo was a well run, reasonably priced and interesting place. We found our way out there on the Tunis tram system that was cheap and efficient.
Jo finds out the true meaning of the expression of “toey as a Roman sandal” with this relic of a 7.5m statue of Jupiter from the Roman city of Thuburbo Maius. We visited the site later in the week and saw the temple where it was found.
Many Roman mosaics had been recovered from the various digs and displayed in the Bardo. Some are amazingly fresh.
We had a little touch with the familiar when we found the following mosaic depicting a scene from the Odyssey. The mosaic tells the story of Ulysses and the Sirens. In the legend, any sailor who heard the sirens’ song, or laid eyes on them, would be drawn to his death. To avoid this, Ulysses had himself tied to the ship’s mast while the Argonauts had their ears stuffed with wax and were ordered to look away. The cunning Ulysses was terribly tormented, but he and the lads survived.
Mike meets Ulysses. The detail in the mosaic, taken from Dougga, was amazing and true to the story, although John Cominos may not agree.
The detail of the sirens was a little disturbing. Good body, shame about the legs.
Further south in the holy city of Kairouan, we found a copy of a section of the Ulysses mosaic in a park.
Is there no end to the tackiness! Who would buy a knock-off copy of a Roman mosaic?
For the Carthage ruins, we caught a tram and then a suburban train. Once again the system was cheap and worked fine, although it was crowded.
At the Carthage Museum we had an encounter with another of our associates from home.
This Roman sculpture of Silenus, a follower of Bacchus, shows the effects of a lifetime of “excessive drinking and bad behaviour”. You can make up your own mind about who modelled for it.
In the south of the country at the city of El Jem, we found several other mosaics featuring Silenus.
Here Silenus is mounted on a camel looking the worst for wear, and…
…being carried to his waiting donkey and his nurse.
Although it was Sunday (officially a holiday) a few classes of school kids descended on Carthage while we were there. Jo reckons they were about as interested in the exhibits as most school kids on most excursions.
Our final stop at Carthage was the American War Cemetery located in the same area as the ruins. Our friend Russ Crumrine had told us about it. Like the many Commonwealth cemeteries we have visited, it was beautifully maintained and tranquil. In the summer, bus loads of American tourists descend on the place from the cruise ships that ply the Med.
Both these outings had been excellent and we had stayed at a comfortable, friendly pub in the city so our time in Tunis was enjoyable. We were, however, disappointed to find that the Tunisians are as hopeless as plumbers as the Moroccans and the Spanish (and to some extent the French who probably taught them everything they knew). Basically, nothing works properly. Drains don’t drain and everything that gets the water to the drain is ad hoc and poorly maintained.
Knowing how well the Romans had managed the hydraulics of their towns, we set out to discover some plumbing history on our way around. So, we headed out of Tunis for a quick tour of Cap Bon and our first stop was the Phoenician site of Kerkouane. On the way we started getting used to Tunisian road conditions.
At the first overnight stop in the village of Kélibia we parked the Elephant on the footpath outside the front door. We had already found out the horrible truth about road behaviour. In Tunisia, the only things with any road sense are...
…the camels, which hate Elephants and always give us a wide berth. To be fair, the sheep are also pretty good at staying off the road. The humans, on the other had, are suicidal!
2500 years ago, in an idyllic spot by the sea, the Phoenicians built a small trading town at Kerkouane (actually, its original name has been lost). It had…
…reticulated water from a spring through an aqueduct to a cistern and on to bathrooms like this one…
…with baths like these. Water was moved through standard sections of channel, like these…
…which were series, if not mass, produced. Laundries and commercial washing facilities like this…
…were joined to the system, while the poor had access to communal latrines and wash houses. Storm water…
…ran off through guttering like this, and collectors…
…like these. It all ended up at a sewerage outlet like this…
…some distance away.
Further south at the Roman site of Thuburbo Maius (home of the big foot) we were free to wander without restriction. We found…
…huge cisterns fed by an aqueduct from mountain springs 40 km away, and…
…wide streets with drains running under them. All manner of plumbing “fixtures”…
…with heated baths…
…for the winter, and non-heated for the summer.
Large areas of the “wet” floors were covered with mosaics (no, Jo didn’t walk on this one…honestly). And the storm water drains were sophisticated enough to filter the rubbish.
The same aqueduct that serviced Thuburbo Maius marched more than 130 km across the country to feed the mighty cisterns of Carthage. The cisterns are nearly 1 km in length and are truly impressive.
At El Jem we visited the huge colosseum…
…and the site of some Roman houses nearby, where we found an elaborate system of collecting and filtering rainwater using standard plumbing fittings…
…like this lead pipe, or…
…this T connector, or…
…this joining piece.
The water was collected in a series of ponds, like these…
…that overflowed one into another to settle and clear the water, with the residual flowing onto the gardens. To top it off, the pond surrounds were used as garden spaces and are decorated with beautiful mosaics…
All of which provided an elegant solution to the city’s shortage of water.
So don’t ask me why, 2000 years later, now deep in the Tunisian heartland, we are yet to find a pub with drains that drain.
10 Feb – 15 Feb 08
Having gotten our gripe about the lack of working plumbing off the chest, we can focus on the things about Tunisia that matter. Like whether we could get a cold beer at the end of a long ride or not. The answer, like many things in Tunisia, is yes…and no.
Firstly, Tunisia is a small country. It is about the size of Victoria, Washington State, or England and Wales combined. Too many long days in the saddle here, and you run out of space.
Next, there is not much in the way of mountains and, therefore, not much in the way of mountain roads. The high bits are in the north with the south given over to flat plains running off into the Sahara. The big cities and the population are all gathered along the northern and eastern coastlines along with the major tourist developments.
Our short exploration started with a loop around Cap Bon to the north east of Tunis.
South from Cap Bon, we ran down the heavily populated eastern coast in two deep breaths, before we crossed inland through the dusty towns on the edge of the Sahara. That’s half way around the country.
We punctuated our circuit of Tunisia with visits to most of the major archaeological sites.
Here are some thoughts on our Tunisian experience:
The coastal towns are geared up for tourists. In some towns German tourists are there in big numbers. They managed to dress for the summer while we were wearing puffer jackets. From what we could see, the usual tourist cycle is a holiday by the sea broken by organised bus excursions to the interior sites. The country is small enough to avoid many overnight stays in the smaller internal towns.
El Jem is one of the largest coliseums built by the Romans and is an amazing site. It is in the middle of the town…
…but there is not much accommodation nearby with most folk coming in from the coast on a day trip. The day we visited was bitterly cold and the one bus of, mainly English, tourists was not as well kitted for cold running as we were in our riding suits. They seemed happy to be getting back on the bus as we arrived.
El Jem has an excellent museum with some beautiful mosaics taken from private villas in the district. These show…
…many themes that are not seen in the mosaics taken from the large public buildings displayed at the Bardo Museum.
Some of the hotels had been built in French era before the coastal tourism boom and had fallen on hard times in the bus-in tourism age. They were inevitably helpful in securing the elephant, that is, if I could ride it fully loaded up a flight of stairs!
Riding in southern Tunisia had some specific challenges…
…but the camels were not one of them. They always cross under the supervision of an adult…
…and mom was always on hand to help the little ones. This is completely at odds with the behaviour of the people who have almost no road sense.
Tunisia has some very fertile areas, but much of the country is marginal for agriculture. This shot shows the use of compensation dams built across re-entrants and backfilled with soil. These trap the run-off with excess water running on to the next dam. It is an ingenious way to grow crops in the inhospitable central hills. In other areas…
…contour walls trap rainfall on the wet side of the mountains and move it to the side that doesn’t get rain.
Interestingly, Tunisia, used by the Romans as the bread basket for the Empire, has to import 40% of its food and doesn’t grow enough wheat for its own needs. The price of bread is subsidised and it forms an important part of every meal. Unfortunately, the bread is universally made from processed white flour so it is not a win for good nutrition.
Jo also discovered a peculiarity of Tunisian cuisine. She ordered tajine early in our stay, expecting the usual hearty dish of vegetables and meat, only to find that Tunisian tajines are like a frittata and are made of eggs and left-overs!
In some areas of the interior, e.g. Matmata, the Berbers built houses under ground (troglodyte pit homes) to avoid the summer heat. When we visited it was so cold we were looking for a place in the sun. Still…
Much of the landscape is pretty tough.
The further out we ran into the edge of the Sahara (boiling the billy in this case), the more it became sandy and bare…
…but that was before…
…we got to the salt plains further into the south west which redefined bare. We followed one track across the plains…
…to a small oasis at the end of the road. With nothing but the Sahara in front, we called it a day and decided we had gone south far enough. We got back on the road and headed west…
…across the plains to the desert town of Tozeur…
…famous for a type of brickwork that creates patterns by setting bricks out from the wall.
Tozeur also has a huge palmeraie with about 200,000 trees.
These small towns are gathered around an oasis (big oasis big town etc) and eek out a living on the edge of the GTFA.
In a demonstration of how precarious these towns are, unusually heavy rains in 1979 simply washed away the mud houses of this village. It was never occupied again.
After Tozeur, we explored to the west until we reached the Algerian border and could go no further. In these areas there is a big police and military presence and lots of road blocks. We didn’t take photos in this area. In general, we were waved through but occasionally we were stopped and questioned before being sent on our way with a smile and a “welcome to Tunisia”.
With nowhere else to go in the south west, we have turned north and are heading into the hilly north seeking out the important archaeological sites of Dougga and Bulla Regia and an interesting route back to the north coast.
10 Feb – 16 Feb 08
Well, three weeks into Tunisia and I still haven’t addressed the critical issue of getting a cold beer at the end of a long ride. We are pleased to report that the Tunisians make a quite acceptable local beer and at least one very drinkable red wine. The only problem is getting to drink them!
Licensing is expensive and only the up-market restaurants serve alcohol. We usually don’t eat at such places. When we do find one that is convenient and decide to treat ourselves, a couple of Celtia beers and a bottle of Magon vin rouge is just the trick. In most cases, however, the beer is cool but not cold.
Apart from the top restaurants, there are café bars in most towns. Unfortunately, these are just full of blokes and cigarette smoke. The only ladies we have seen in them have been “working”. They remind me of the working men’s pubs of the 50s when 6 o’clock closing was still in place.
The better option for us has been to buy a bottle of wine and have a couple of drinks in our room before dinner then a nightcap when we return. The only trouble with this option is finding a bottle shop! Most towns have one, but it is generally a non-descript shop in a back street and we have usually come across them by chance. In the big cities, some of the supermarkets also have a small selection. Unfortunately, we don’t have the capacity on the Elephant to carry supplies.
As we headed north from Tozeur on the edge of the Sahara, one of our objectives was to end three days of abstention in the southern towns so we arrived late into the town of Sbeitla with expectations. We selected the cheaper of the two available hotels (the only one in budget) and found the closest thing to a restaurant in town for a chicken and frittes dinner. Our hotel bar was full of smoke and pissed workmen, so I took a couple of cheap beers back to our (thankfully) warm room.
The catering arrangements notwithstanding, Sbeitla was high on our must-see list. It is the site of extensive Roman ruins with some very interesting features.
The ruins have some of the best features of Roman towns including…
…a grid pattern of wide streets, baths…
…which show clearly the arrangements for under-floor heating and…
…beautiful mosaic floors still being walked on after 2,000 years.
Like most of these sites, Sbeitla had a number of owners after its architects had been moved on. The Vandals came and, well, vandalised the place. Then the Byzantines demonstrated their comparative lack of skill as engineers and builders by rearranging the Roman stone work in most unfortunate ways. Later came the Ottomans and the Arabs, but the city had lost its lustre by then.
One interesting Byzantine feature was this…
…colourfully decorated baptismal font. It would have made a good plunge pool on a warm day.
Moving north from Sbeitla, we were chased into the town of Le Kef by some ferociously cold and wet weather. We used the weather as an excuse for a lay day and found a nice hotel in the middle of town…
…with heating (of sorts) and a nice sunny room. They were good enough…
…to put out a ramp for me to get the bike into the foyer. You sure don’t get that service at home!
The weather cleared overnight and we were able to use our lay-day to see the local sites and do some “make and mend”. Le Kef had…
…some old Roman ruins right in amongst the modern town…
…an interesting fort overlooking the city that was built by the Byzantines and has been upgraded by each new owner up to the current Tunisian Army. Here…
…the caretaker, who showed us around, points out the finer points of a Turkish bronze mortar. The town also had a very good folk museum with a range of Berber cultural displays. Once again, on a cold winter’s day, the caretaker filled in some time by taking us around…
…and showing off the traditional couscous steamer…
…and woven covers to keep the camels warm in cold weather to stop them getting grumpy; it’s true!
We also ran into some fellow travellers with whom we had crossed paths in three other locations. Trond, a Norwegian, and Ian, an American, were interested in many of the same aspects of Tunisia that fascinated us. Fortunately, the restaurant in our hotel was licensed…
…and we had a chance to find out a little about these two very interesting fellows.
Through all of this, you should gather that we have been rubbing along pretty well with our Tunisian hosts. Big bikes like the Elephant are very uncommon in Tunisia, so we certainly get noticed wherever we go. I am surprised that Jo’s arm doesn’t fall off as she spends so much time waving to folks of all ages as we pass through the countryside.
When we stop, young fellows come over to look at the numbers on the speedo. I don’t have the heart to tell them how optimistic they are with our entire luggage fitted. The guys always ask how big the motor is and the answer of 1150 leaves them with a stunned look on their faces. With our riding suits, helmets, incomprehensible language, GPS and communications setup, we might as well be space travellers in some remote villages.
A request for some advice on the best hotels in a certain town can end up with a 1 hour travelogue on Tunisia.
At the same time that people are very friendly and helpful, the Tunisians are also some of the most demonstrative people we have come across. Any two Tunisian friends having a chat over coffee are like 6 of our taciturn countrymen lining up for a fist fight! Until you get used to it, it seems like everyone is arguing with everyone else all the time. And that is just the women!
In Le Kef, I needed to do some repairs to our helmet wiring sets. We have worn out a set each because of the constant flexing of the cable where it exits the helmet. I went to a little hardware store and explained the problem to the owner with a little engineering drawing and a few words of French. He and his assistant went to work finding parts that I might adapt to my needs and after 30 minutes and several revised drawings assembled the selection of bits I would need.
When I asked him how much, he handed me the parts and said there was no charge and “welcome to Tunisia”. Once again, we are propelled on our way by the kindness of strangers.
North from Le Kef, with our newly repaired helmets, we set out to visit two important Roman sites in a single day so that we could find decent accommodation on the north coast. The site at Dougga was nestled into the hills near the modern town of Teboursouk. Like most of these settlements, the Roman inhabitants were replaced by a succession of others who mis-treated the original design in one way or another. Apparently, local farming folk had been living among the ruins up until the mid-1950s when they were resettled nearby.
The ruins were extensive but of particular note were some of the remaining mosaics, like this…
As always, I loved the plumbing best. This…
…12 seat public latrine was a hoot, as was this…
…wash basin that looked exactly like the one in our hotel room (this may explain something).
This manhole cover in the street looked as though it would still perform its intended function.
This photo of Jo in the orchestra pit of the theatre demonstrates how, if you were bored by the performance, you could still keep an eye on the slaves in the fields beyond! The Romans catered for everyone.
The site’s capitol also shows an excellent example of the type of construction used by the Romans in North Africa…
…where sturdy corner and reinforcing stones are used with rubble infill. It still looks solid.
We didn’t linger too long at Dougga as we had heard that Bulla Regia was worth a longer visit. We had a bit of lunch in the car park then scarpered over the hills and on to Bulla Regia with the weather closing in again.
The Bulla Regia site did not look too exciting at first glance. We noted the Roamin’ sheep of course (sorry Nick I couldn’t help it), but it wasn’t until we walked over the ruins that we found the secret.
The villas at BR were built with the living quarters below ground level to avoid the heat. These were classic Roman villas, with a central courtyard, but just sunk into the earth.
The bathrooms, latrines and kitchens (all the smelly bits) were above ground with the bedrooms and living areas below.
This very well preserved two-seater karzi would have allowed the man and woman of the house to sort out the day’s priorities while sorting out the morning’s priority.
This was also the site of the best mosaics we have seen outside the museums. The detail in some of them was bright and fresh and, seeing them on the floors where they were laid, gives an eerie feeling. Some, like this…
…were a little damaged, while others had almost complete detail like this…
…or this cheeky number…
By the time we got away from BR the bad weather had caught up and the rain had started. We headed up into the hills and through the cloud base, passed the old French hill-station of Ain Draham, with the rain chasing us down onto the coastal plain and into the town of Tabarka and a warm dry room.
Our road trip around Tunisia was over. We still had some business to complete, but it will be hard to top Bulla Regia. Our next objective is to take a few days rest to plan our departure and transit through Italy. There will be much to do. The Elephant needs a service, our high-tech stove needs some spare parts…………………
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