This is part of the fifth section of our around the
Complete Trip Overview & Map
Coming from Italy
8/2/99 A pleasantly easy time at customs, visas for Australians ($US 3.00) on arrival, money change office open and vehicle formalities easy, without payment or need for any insurance. The efficient service had us into the country in about one hour. Tunis closes and opens early and the streets were deserted on our arrival. After riding through the narrow laneways of the medina in darkness trying to find suitable accommodation we settled on a cheap hotel in the newer section of the city.
9/2/99 Business, the tourist office is open at 8.00 am, maps, brochures, embassy locations etc. very efficient. First to the Canadian Embassy (Australia's representative in Tunisia) for an Arabic translation of the details of our passport (necessary for entry into Libya) taking up two valuable passport pages, then to the Libyan Embassy. Azar Tours, our visa agent for Libya, had applied to Tripoli for our invitations which were to be sent to the Libyan Embassy in Tunis. Mine had arrived a week earlier but there was no invitation for Kay and despite the helpful staff she would not be issued a visa without one. Despite this they accepted visa applications for me. Hopefully the agent will be able to process Kay's invitation within the next few days. Once it is received only 24 hours and $US 20.00 for the visa. We wanted to see what the visa and safety situation was currently like in Algeria. Visas are being issued, application plus 4 photos, phone in ten days to two weeks to see if approved, and we were advised it was safe to travel. So the applications went in and we wait for two weeks. By the end of a tiring day we are in a heated room with ensuite, the day is warm and sunny, the food has been excellent and cheap, and paperwork is progressing. Already Tunisia feels modern and inexpensive without the hassles of Morocco.
10/2/99 Luckily we had not found accommodation in the medina, the narrow streets that we rode along two nights earlier became even narrower as the shops lining them had opened, their goods overflowing into the street reducing it to two meters wide, not enough even for the human flow. Our motorcycle would have been enclosed from dawn to dusk. This lively area of manufacture and sale (largely tourist goods) houses 1200 shops, workers and artisans, its mosques and restaurants and has done so for over 500 years. For our hoped for trip to Libya Kay bought a loose flowing skirt to be warn over her jeans and a plain head scarf to cover the hair. Both suitably reduce the shape of the woman's body. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the French style sidewalk cafes eating French style pastries.
11/2/99 Two more trips to the Libyan Embassy trying to get Kay's visa without success. Apparently it's usually not this much trouble but it seems Kay's invitation went missing somewhere between Tripoli and Tunis, and with our agent in Germany, and his contact in Tripoli, the operation to discern what is happening is mirrored only by events in Kosovo and the peace talks. What was left of the day was spent at the cyber cafe while the first snow (hail) in 17 years in Tunis was falling outside.
12/2/99 Two more trips to the Libyan Embassy to discover that they had made a mistake and that it was Kay's invitation and not mine that they held. Extremely apologetic they gave Kay her visa in 10 minutes but now we have to find out what happened to my invitation. The rest of the day we toured Carthage, the remains of the leading Mediterranean force before the Romans. The city of half a million was spread out on the coast with the usual fortifications, theatres and ruins. What was amazing was the wheel shaped man made harbour and docks. Large oared and sailing boats could pull up bow into the rim to unload and reload cargo. Presumably built in an old lagoon.
13/2/99 Having spent enough time in Tunis and with the Libyan embassy closed Sundays we decided to head into the desert regions of Tunisia for a week, resigned to having to return to Tunis later for visas. Straight down the freeway to Sousse. Visited only the tourist area north where the hotel complexes line the sandy beach. We were passed on the freeway by that great Arabic way of transport the shared intercity taxi. Here a Renault Nevada wagon, modified to accommodate a third row of seats allowing eight passengers. Operating from city stations, you just wait till they are full then they leave. If you want more comfort you buy more seats, if you are in a hurry you buy all the empty seats. Cheap and efficient. We ended up in Kairouan for the night, the first Arab base in Tunisia when they arrived in 670 AD from the East. While touring the medina the usual best view point was up through the inevitable carpet shop. It seems if you sell carpets you must have a view point to draw customers, then comes the mint tea or coffee, free, the display of carpets with the most expensive first, and lastly the small souvenir that you must want to take home. About our tenth carpet country, the routine, with small variations, is the same and a bit tiring.
14/2/99 Heading south west to Gafsa and Tozeur, the slowly increasing desert, with olive groves giving way to camel grazing with a few irrigated oasis dotting the almost treeless plains. Wind and the blowing of any topsoil is a problem, solved by "Prickly Pear" (cactus), operates a wind break, an impenetrable fence of prickles, the fruit can be eaten and grows well in the desert. The roads out here are what I have missed for months in Europe. While the road undulations keep speeds below 100 km per hour the lack of traffic means you have time to relax and ride, looking around, not having to keep a constant watch for other vehicles. A country that needs reasonable roads but isn't wealthy enough to have sufficient private ownership of cars to clog them up.
15/2/99 A full day spent touring the mountains along the Algerian border near Tamerza, the desert oasis and the edge of the Sahara Deserts salt lakes and sand dunes. Water from the mountains or underground springs supports dozens of date palm oases. The palms providing food and the fronds woven into a windbreak fence to help stop desert encroachment. We joined (by accident) the 9.00 am rush to the oasis, five day packaged tourists mainly from the French winter, being shepherded from site to site by their guides. Travelling in fully equipped four wheel drives that rarely see piste. The armchair desert experience. The salt lakes out of Nefta were still wet from recent rains. The salt forming a thin crust on the softer mud underneath. We rode across the salt till it became moist and braking slowly broke through into the muddy sand. With the rear wheel overtaking the front one and the motorcycle on its side we slid to a muddy stop. Luckily we hadn't travelled too far into the mud and could retreat easily.
16/2/99 Off to Douz, across the salt lake "Chott el Jerrid" and into the "Grand Erg Oriental", the eastern side of the Tunisian Sahara. We again avoided the tourist hoards of desert camel rides and headed south to El Faouar, the end of the asphalt road with strong winds and light rain showers between blowing fine desert sands. It is here you feel the beginning of the frontier of the desert. It is here the desert motorcycle riders come to ride, like the four Frenchmen and the eight Germans we met today about to head out into the desert sands. Having travelled from their homelands just to ride in the Saharan desert.
17/2/99 Good and bad news. We telephoned the Algerian Embassy and our visa applications have not been processed, they advise we now need an invitation. Phoned the Libyan contact and my invitation is now there. So off to Tunis to get the Libyan visa and we will have to visit Algeria another time. Passed through the town of Matmata where many of the locals live in underground houses dug into the desert and onto Kairouan for the night.
18/2/99 Tunis and back to Kairouan for the day, only stopping for a roadside oil change where we attracted some local onlookers. My Libyan visa was issued in 15 minutes. Two other Australians and four French people were not so lucky lacking the essential invitations.
19/2/99 Tataouine 350 km to the south and passing through the central olive growing region where today was market day. Here the number of donkey carts still outnumbers motorcars and a large proportion of women are traditionally dressed in a brightly coloured sarong type garment and wearing bead necklaces, their hands and faces partially tattooed with henna dye. The types of products on sale indicated the lack of money in this region, basic foods and cheap trinkets as toys or a small gift. The busiest stalls were the used clothing, western discards finding new life. The mix of traditional dress with western discards sometimes looked hideous other times an attractive blend. The closer we were to Medenine on the main road to Libya, but still 300+ km from the border, the more roadside sellers of cheap presumably Libyan petrol, were along the road. Some also had Libyan money for sale along the mountain ridge. Here alone but for two other tourists we explored the possibility of an exchange at 2.5 Libyan to 1 Tunisian. This represents about 2.8 to the US dollar or six times the official rate in Libya. A very tempting offer. They were genuinely nervous in doing business.
20/2/99 A "KSAR" tour. Built on hills or plains, being Berber or Arab in origin these squareish buildings with arched roofs, constantly being extended with more modules and used to store grains in peace time and as a refuge, a meeting place and for festivals but not lived in. We visited five villages, the most splendid being Douiret, perched on a mountain top with the semi underground town dug in below, now deserted homes, stables and granaries. Only 20 km away at Chenini, and as spectacular, were all the tour operators and tourists, it being the most accessible.
21/2/99 Out of Tunisia and into Libya. The last 50 km to the border again lined with money exchange and petrol sellers. The Tunisians seem to have their way of tourism/Islam worked out, with friendly people, modern conveniences, some bars, with everything at about half European prices. Certainly an easy country to visit with enough sights and Sahara for most tourists.
Move with us to Libya
or go to our next visit to Tunisia
Story and photos copyright ©
Peter and Kay Forwood,