Heading north from Gafsa gave us a major change of scene, as the landscape became greener, lusher, and generally much more European. We were definitely away from the desert, as we followed the west of the country, dipping towards and away from the Algerian border, north towards the Mediterranean again.
This stage of the trip’s been shaped by visiting a lot of Roman sites – and, to try to stop this post turning into another rambling epic, they’re all dealt with en-masse elsewhere.
Our first stop after Gafsa turned out to be El Kef. Or Le Kef, depending who you listen to. Although, for simplicity, everybody seems to refer to it just as Kef. The unofficial capital of the west of the country, we’d first encountered Kef in Kairouan, in conversation with a resident of the town. He’d not been over-enthusiastic about its merits as a tourist destination, to be fair, and the weather seemed determined to prove him right. As we approached the town, spread across the side of a mountain, the dismal dark skies opened. We weren’t totally sorry that, since the north of the country is almost utterly devoid of camping facilities, it was time for another hotel. We thought we’d start by looking at a cheapie recommended by the guidebook, and finally got our bearings sufficiently to dive down the small side road that led towards it. What we hadn’t noticed was that the small side road turned into a tiny tunnel through some buildings, with shops opening in on either side. Anywhere else, it’d be pedestrianised… But here – no problem, so long as the vehicle’ll fit, go for it. It was touch-and-go (almost literally), but we fit through, and were rewarded with a pleasantly shabby room overlooking the Kasbah fort that crowns the town.
We spent a (merely overcast) day wandering round Kef, and it’s really not that bad. It’s no Grade-A citybreak destination, for sure – but there’s definitely worse. The old town boasts some really quite pleasant streets to just wander aimlessly around, and the fact that there’s nothing to see inside the Kasbah doesn’t matter too much.
There is an attractive old mosque, and a decent museum of local life housed in a wonderful old Sufi shrine. Even better, though, the hotel’s friendly management also run a restaurant a few streets away – with an alcohol licence. We actually partook of our first bottle of wine since arriving in Tunisia!
Because of the utter lack of accommodation options, Kef served as a basis for a foray south again, heading for an impressive flat-topped mountain named after a pre-Roman king, Jugurtha’s Table.
Definitely border country, this – as you approach, there’s several police checkpoints, with varying degrees of attention being paid to documents, everything from a ten-minute pause whilst our passport details were checked over the radio to a quick handshake and “Bienvenue”… Then, as we rounded one corner in the road, we found an Army convoy parked up – out with the paperwork again, this time with automatic rifles clearly visible. A photo stop later saw us leap-frogged by the army, and – of course – our next catch-up with them repeated the checks… To be fair, it was a different squaddie, but even so. There weren’t THAT many other people around… In fact, I think the only other vehicle we saw was a battered old Peugeot 504 which passed us as we were stopped having some lunch. Passed us, stopped, and reversed towards us. The driver leapt out, and jogged over – to offer us a mobile phone he thought we might like to buy. The mountains were utterly beautiful, and well worth the loop around – even if we didn’t actually feel inclined to put the walking boots on and go for a trek.
The weather in this corner of the country was something we’ve been aware might cause us issues – back at the start of February, the mountains in the very north were hit badly by heavy snow, which caused terrible flooding as torrential rains helped it melt rapidly. So it wasn’t a great surprise that our next accommodation base (a thoroughly dull hotel, saved only by a big log fire), Teboursouk, quickly became known as Teboursoak. All night we were kept awake by the rain overflowing right outside our window, so loudly and consistently that we started to think it must be a burst pipe or overflowing sink.
Time for a slight change of plan. The weather in the North East was forecast to start improving a little earlier, and the roads heading that way looked more major, so we decided to make our rough loop of the country more of a very bottom-heavy figure-8. As we approached Tunis, we spotted that rarest of sights here – another camper, and not even a huge new Fridge-Freezer, but a battered and shabby old Transit on Italian plates parked at the side of the road. Unfortunately, though, as we passed we noticed the bonnet up. A quick reverse and a chat was called for. Lotfi (Tunisian) and Anna (Polish) were heading for that evening’s ferry back home to Italy but the pulley (with fan attached) had sheared off the waterpump, leaving them firmly stationary. Ooops. Tow-rope o’clock. The next small town wasn’t that far, and we left them outside a hole-in-the-wall garage, with the mechanic already diving in to see how he might be able to get them moving again. We’ve not heard any more from them, so we’re hoping they got going and caught their boat!
Skirting the edge of Tunis was slow, not helped by the heaviest traffic we’ve seen for months, flooded roads and disorganised roadworks. Eventually, though, we headed towards Bizerte, virtually the most northerly tip of the African continent, and proud possessor of the only campsite at this end of Tunisia. We found the campsite, quickly – it’s probably the best-signed campsite in the country. Unfortunately, the warm initial impressions pretty much stopped there. Then we headed off to look at the town, wondering if a hotel might not be a better option. Nope, the hotels in Bizerte are all dire, dull or massively overpriced – and most of them thoroughly deserve at least two of those descriptions. At least the campsite was cheap and in amongst trees, even if it was a big chunk out of town and with showers blessed only with solar heating – on another cold, wet, overcast day. Deep joy. Fortunately, the large number of scraggy dogs around the site turned out to be friendly (and the three puppies deeply cute), and the sun had at least taken the edge off the cold water, even if calling it “tepid” was more than a little generous. Happy Birthday, me.
The following day, the sun tried to appear, and Bizerte seemed a bit more attractive as a town. The stone of the twin 17th century fortresses, flanking the channel in to the old port, almost broke out in a gentle honey glow.
One of the forts houses the town’s medina – a real rabbit-warren of narrow twisting streets. It’s totally residential, apart from the odd small workshop.
We eventually started to get our bearings and head back out again, when we got into conversation with a local chap who promptly dragged us into his house and onto the rooftop terrace to show us the view from the Kasbah’s walls over the old port.
A wander around town found us a likely looking lunch stop, a small and lively restaurant. In we headed, sat down, and stared at the Arabic-only menu on the wall. Eventually, the waiter finished his many trips to give our table a quick wipe and find fresh cutlery, and sent the owner over to explain what was available. “We have couscous with fish…” Our reply – intended as a gently non-committal noise to encourage him to go on with the choices – seemed to be taken as assent, and off he headed, pausing only to take a couple of wonderfully fresh-looking silvery fish out of the dilapidated chilled display cabinet. A while later, two big bowls of couscous appeared. No sign of any fish. After staring at it and each other for a moment, we shrugged and dived in. Once they were emptied, our feeling of being thoroughly fed was rewarded with a big plate of grilled fish and all the trimmings…
So, now that we were on the north coast, time to head back west again. We’d been told by Aad & Marieke, the dutch Landie owners we met in Douz, that there was a restaurant at Cap Serrat where you could camp overnight – except they’d had to leave in a hurry due to the flooding, barely getting through – and the roads were marked on our map as being piste rather than tarmac. In the end, it turned out not to be an issue. The road through was utterly beautiful, heading through forested areas to a gorgeous secluded cove.
The view from our camping spot on the edge of the beach was stunning – a river wound across the sand, flowing fast and deep, meaning that the only way onto most of the sand was by boat or a loooong (probably about 10km) walk… Jamel, the patron, was out of food though for the evening – apart from the tail end of some M’loukia sauce, one of the Tunisian specialities that had evaded our tastebuds so far. Made from the plant that gives Jute fibres, Jew’s Mallow, it’s a thick green (“slimy” is a term we’ve heard) paste – and a saucer of it was quickly ladled out along with some bread to dip in it. Delicious. Our peace for the evening was invaded soon after dark, though, by a convoy of about a dozen big 4x4s on French plates. Half an hour of manouvering and general fannying about later, it went all peaceful for a bit – although that didn’t last, when somebody had the brainwave to use a red emergency flare to provide some late-night lighting…Still, at least one of them had the decency to apologise for the noise as they all left in the morning (eventually, after another half hour of manouvering and fannying).
The following day was an energetically idle one, if you see what I mean – the bikes came off the back, and we headed off for a little explore of the track heading up the mountain behind the village, for some wonderful cliff-top views as we approached the lighthouse.
We’d told Jamel that we’d eat in the restaurant that evening, so he headed off to the nearest town to stock up on ingredients. Not an easy task if you’re relying on the Louage minibus (or, in this case, a battered Isuzu pickup) to the nearest town, 30km away… A 10am departure saw him return at about 4pm, but the chicken couscous was delicious.
Our final major stop on the north coast was Tabarka. Our expectations weren’t that high, since it’s a bit of a resort, and we were mainly intending to use it as an accommodation base for visiting the mountains of Ain Draham inland. It turned out to be a gem of a place. Sure, there’s a fairly naff Zone Touristique row of big hotels on the edge of town, but the town itself was very pleasant. Fairly small, it’s dominated by a Genoese castle on an island just off-shore, with a row of spectacular rock needles facing it.
Ignoring the Zone hotels, the in-town options were mainly described in the guidebook as “overpriced for the facilities”, and all around the same (far higher than we’ve been looking at) price-band.
If that’s the case, might as well aim totally high, right? One of the hotels, the Dar Mimosa, looked to be a league ahead of the others, in what could easily have passed as a small French chateau on a hill overlooking the town. We wandered into reception with one of those “It doesn’t hurt to ask, but we know the answer already” feelings – only to find that it really wasn’t that expensive at all. Including a three-course meal, a night was no more than we’ve paid for a campsite. And as for the room we were given. Wow. Double doors, straight off the impressive main staircase, leading onto a huge room with a terrace facing the sea and castle. We could have easily got used to sitting on that terrace, as the sinking sun cast a golden glow over the town, with a cold beer in our hands and cashew nuts on the table. Our room, if you look at the pic above, was the left-hand and centre windows on the second floor terrace – yep, half the width of the building…
Ain Draham was the epicentre of the snow and flooding a month earlier, an “Alpine” resort established by the French colonists as a sort of escape-the-summer-heat equivalent to India’s Shimla. The views from the mountains, overlooking lush valleys with cork oaks a-plenty, were certainly something very special – the kind of vista that there’s no way you can come close to capturing in a photo. Maybe if you took about a dozen and stitched ’em together, but life’s a bit short for that sort of mullarkey.
As we left Tabarka for the mountains, though, we thought we were going to be stuffed – following the signs lead us up a road full of smooth sweeping bends as it climbed – a real driver’s joy, and with absolutely zero traffic. Then, suddenly, a couple of “No Entry” signs in the middle of the entrance to one corner – and a sea of mud, trees and rocks several metres high totally obliterating the road.
We returned back down the hill, to a junction that appeared to be being rebuilt, and decided to see if that road gave us a route – no “Diversion” signs, nothing. Confusion only increased, though, as the km posts at the side of the road revealed the same road number as the one we thought we’d been on. An explanation soon formed as the road passed along a valley floor through what appeared to be a war zone – a ghost village of gutted and half-demolished houses, trees roughly ripped up, and general devastation – and all against a background of a newly completed dam. Probably just as well that the new lake hadn’t actually been filled yet, with the new road closed. Further up, the road showed more and more signs of the aftermath of the weather. Landslips had twisted the crash barriers into knots, and in some places the road was totally missing up to the centre line. Other sections were hastily patched. This part of the country had definitely been hit very hard, very recently, in a way that our warm and summery blue-sky day made very hard to picture.