CHAPTER 7 - SALT LAKES AND HEARTACHES

 

May 24th, 25th

 

KM START = 15, 674 (Trip = 5,304 )

KM END = 15,933 (Trip = 5,563)

 

Route:  Sete > Ales (!) > Arles > Marseilles

 

36 hours of suffering on the ferry and we are released from captivity in Sete, France. A quick lunch in Sete (never did a ham and cheese baguette taste soooooo good) and its time to head off to Marseilles, a short trip along the coast to where our Tunisian ferry awaits.

 

Keeping with our desire to stay away from motorways, we set off on the superb Routes Nationale that criss cross France. A simple job to get to Marseilles via Arles, but captain compass here misreads a few signs and we end up 10 km south of Ales. No real drama though as the roads are fantastic - wonderful twisting tarmac going through some lovely Provencale countryside. Time is a bit tight so we correct ourselves, resign to the motorways and make it to Marseilles with enough time to buy our ferry tickets for tomorrow morning.

 

Our only expectations of Marseilles are of a dodgy port town with a need to keep an eye on the bikes at all times, probably based on stories my parents told of their visits to the south of France in the 70's. We are pleasantly surprised to find a hip and vibrant city which appears to have shaken off its sketchy past: Our search for hotels is however a reminder of bygone days, with the only 2 available rooms in town that night resembling neglected brothels. We choose for the one with the padded bedroom door - a nice feature we think!

 

Its Champions League Final tonight, so we sit back in a port side brasserie and watch the game with the company of a few beers. Liverpool vs AC Milan and its the Italians that triumph after 90 minutes - a disappointment for me, but Pierpaolo is happy with the result. The paper thin walls of the hotel and the sweatbox room will seek their revenge on his slumber!

 

May 25th

 

Ferry to Tunis

 

This is more like it! A cabin you can actually sit down in, complete with edible food and a choice of 4 bars!!! The luxury of ocean travel is now within our realm, but neither of us will go Judas and be a card carrying convert for the cruise ship holiday idea just yet.

 

Our travel plans for Tunisia are formed hastily on the boat. A quick squiz at the Lonely Planet and reference to some scribbled notes and a rough itinerary is planned. A French biker we meet and an expat Tunisian are of limited help, declaring that everything in the country is magnificent and worth checking out. Comments in our guide book declare otherwise, but in the interest of Austro-Tunisian relations I refrain from a counter argument. The litmus test apparently is the word "Djerba". If your would be travel advisor declares this a "must see" with "wonderful beaches" and coos about its endless charms, then promptly disregard all their other advice.

 

After a decent meal we repair to the night club on board, and sample a Tunisian disco. It is at this point that we sympathise with our Middle Eastern sisters who are campaigning for basic women's rights to be respected in the Moslem world. Yes, there are all the arguments and emotive Amnesty International type case studies that, in the Western World, you read with disbelief. But for me there is nothing quite as sad as an all male disco, a natural repurcussion of keeping all the ladies on board confined to the intimacy of their cabins. 40 guys drinking coffee and smoking tabs watching an empty dance floor, with a background music of someone strangling a cat with a warped electric violin... I'm all for World Music but tonight is a bridge too far.

 

 

May 26th

 

KM START = 15, 933 (Trip = 5,563 )

KM END = 16,182 (Trip = 5,812)

 

Route:  Marseilles > Tunis > Cap Bon Peninsula > Hammamet

 

Roll off the ferry and through customs and onto the roads of Tunisia. Comparing it to our previous North African experience, it all feels a bit "Diet Morocco" - less dirt, less character and with 80% less donkey. We head up to the Cap Bon Peninsula, on the cunningly engineered coast road void of any coastal views. An engineering marvel! At least they didn't overdo it on the name and call it Cap Splendide or Cap Incroiable - Cap Comme Ci, Comme Ca would be about right.

 

The Tunisians have had the dumb luck of living in an oil rich country, and with only 9 or so million inhabitants to spread the loot around everyone seems better off than their Moroccan counterparts. Driving on the roads and its noticeable that the car ahead, or cutting in front, or double overtaking you on that blind corner is a few models up from the ubiquitous Mercedes 240D's of Moroccan roads. And already we miss the old jalopies. We spent 2 weeks in Morocco without having to honk a horn or grabbing a fistful of brake due to dodgy drivers - the Petit Taxis, old Mercs and donkey powered carts were polite to the point of embarassing Jeeves. Its one of the nice points about road tripping in a country where fast means anytime before next week. But Tunisia is a different case - it would appear that the drivers have confidence and machinery in excess of their abilities, and it makes for some "interesting" situations.

 

Nabeul is our first targetted night stop, but it's a dump so we push on to Hammamet just down the road, which is marginally less crap. Our hotel is a communist inspired concrete bungalow beach resort, which we are assured is jam packed in July and August with unfortunate European kids that invoked the wrath of Santa last year. But its beachfront at least, and the manager is a nice old chap, so we debunk for the evening.

 

Town is uneventful, save for the shopping extravaganza embarked upon after dinner. Our firm resolution not to buy anything on this trip is blown away, and we are now probably the poshest memoir scribbling bikers on the planet. Ewan and Charley might get free Beemers and a full satellite supported film crew with them, but I bet they don't scribble down road directions and phone numbers with Genuine Replica Mont Blanc pens (20 Euro for the pair!)

 

May 27th

 

KM START = 16,182 (Trip = 5,812 )

KM END = 16,575 (Trip = 6,205)

 

Route:  Hammamet > Kerouane > Gabes > Matmata

 

A quick breakfast, an hour on the beach and its off in search of something interesting. Which at this end of the country is like Egon Ronay writing his chapter on great Dutch restaurants. Morocco was a land where Stevie Wonder could be the National Graphic Landscape Photographer of the Year, but Tunisia is definitely a harder nut to crack.

 

The day consists of gunning down straight featureless roads at 110 km/h, but the last 60 kilometres there is a sudden change and a roasting hot wind is trying desperately to blow us sideways off the bike. Le Tigre and The Hassellhoff are useless in these conditions - the heat is unbearable... like an atom caught in in the crossfire of Dolly Parton and Tina Turner's hair dryers on Grammy night.

 

The landscape has also become interesting - space like, to the point of saying "like the Set of Star Wars". Which is understandable, because this is actually where George Lucas shot the first Star Wars film. Rolling bald hills of terracotta, with occasional stretches of sand and the occasional palm tree. Our hotel for the night in Matmata is a real hole, in that it's dug 20 feet underground and all the rooms are caves. And to further stretch the Ewan / Star Wars connection, the hotel is the same one where they shot the famous bar Scene in Star Wars. Now for those of you who have not seen Star Wars IV (confusingly the first of the Star Wars series produced), the bar scene is a famous piece of cinematic history where our heroes share a drink in a cavern full of wookies, freight pilots and other odd looking creatures. If you can't be bothered to rent it out and you live near Brighton, just head on down to The Albert on any given Friday and you'll get a good idea of what I'm talking about . Disappointingly there is no Chewie or Luke in sight for our visit today.

 

May 27th

 

KM START = 16,575 (Trip = 6,205 )

KM END = 16,834 (Trip = 6,464)

 

Route:  Matmata > Douz > Tozeur

 

The road out of Matmata is a lovely 15km stretch of winding hill climb, and then we are on the desert plains pointing toward our next destination, Tozeur. The ride today is across the bottom of the country and across the great salt lake of Chott El Jerid.

 

If yesterday's wind was unpleasant, then today is a battle to survive. Crossing the desert (cue sand) and we estimate the gusts are reaching up to 90km/h. Riding a bike through this is torture - if you would like to recreate the experience, then take your ironing board down to your local wind tunnel, pour a semi trailer of ball bearings in at the top end, and try to hold on to the board at the other end, dressed only in your swimmers. The sand stings and fills the air, reducing visibility down to 5 metres. And all the while we are fighting the wind, trying to prevent it ripping the bikes from the grasp of our arms. This is one of the tough days.

 

But at the sight of Chott El Jerid, all of Tunisia's shortcomings and disappointments are forgiven. A seemingly endless stretch of white crusted surface, where the salt has solidified like quartz crystals. The road cuts across the middle of this lake 2 metres above either side, and in some patches a river runs alongside us, a bizarre scarlet incision on the surface. The photos should do justice we hope.

 

Its where we stop for a drink that a story of Tunisian heartache unfolds. Traffic is very slow and its not tourist season, so the nice young lad who runs the shop tells us about his girlfirend problems. Susannah Schmidt from Linz, Austria - you know not the damage you cause! To cut a long story short, this guy in the middle of nowhere has had his heart chewed up and spat out by a passing Austrian tourist. Things were all going rosy but now she no longer sends him post cards or returns his calls. He asks us to write a postcard to her explaining the situation (he's 100km from the nearest post office and cannot write in English or German) so Pierpaolo and I play Motocross Cupid and write a real tear jerker for our new friend with a promise to mail it when we get to Italy. If it works then next time you visit Chott El Jerid, say hi to the guy with the souveneir stall and fair skinned wife.

 

Arrive in Tozeur, the gateway to the Tunisian Sahara, and after the Moroccan Sahara it's all a bit of a non event. CRash for the night in a crumbling sweatbox of a room - a bargain at only 8 Euros!

 

A quick snack for the evening is an omelette sandwhich at the coffee shop around the corner. We are promised that the omelette comes "with the lot" and there was certainly no dispute as to the accuracy of that statement. Eggs, Cheese, Peppers, Onions, throw some chicken in, hey those fries have been sitting there for an hour, they can go...what's this can of tuna doing opened? In she goes...you get the idea!  A challenging gastronomic melange of scents and sensations is a kind way of saying a truly horrid meal.

 

May 28th

 

KM START = 16,834 (Trip = 6,464 )

KM END = 17,313 (Trip = 6,943)

 

Route:  Tozeur > Gafsa > Thala > Le Kef > Tabarka

 

I'm in a World War II Spitfire aircraft spiralling down towards the earth, the engine's flames are licking the windshield and the heat is coming straight through the firewall into the cockpit. Its sweltering, but the only thing I can focus on is the paralysing wail of the Air Raid siren...

 

"Location, location, location" as the real estate mantra goes. Well we certainly got this one right at least. The room may be a sauna, but at least its a convenient 10 metre trajectory to the town mosque's loudspeaker which today doubles as our travel alarm clock. The term "rude awakening" comes to mind, but I guess 8 Euros doesn't buy you a hotel on the Tozeur equivalent of Mayfair / Park Lane.

 

Strawberry juice and a pastry before mounting our trusty steeds and heading North towards the coast. The roads are fast and easy going, but short of memorable. The town of Gafsa is however worth comment. Riding into this town and there is an armed miltary checkpoint, followed by 2 separate police checkpoints... you get the feeling that something strange is perhaps going on in this place. Hummers passing us on the roads loaded with uniformed officers - then you ride over the hill and look down upon the town that has a massive dual silo structure taking up the whole of the Western escarpment, fenced off with handmade signs declaring it part of the Tunisian State Electricity corporations facilities. Ha Ha! Maybe I watched "Spies Like Us" a few too many times, but if ever there was a poor attempt to conceal a nuclear missile bunker and launch site then this has to be it! Thoughts of including Hans Blix on the travelpod updates come to mind.

 

300km into the day and we have had our fill of Tunisia. We know there is a ferry every 2 nights to Sicily and the idea of getting on it tonight are met with great enthusiasm. But a phone call to the port reveals that the seas are too rough (read not enough passengers to make it commercially viable) and this evenings sailing is cancelled.

 

Oh well, stick to the original plan and head up alongside the Algerian border to the coastal town of Tabarka. This final 100km is actually interesting and enjoyable stuff to ride - twisty mountain roads through cedar forests and even a spot of rain for a bit of variety. First impresssions of the beach resort are not great - this coastal jewel of Tunisia consists of a smelly port and a 50 metre stretch of dirty sand, but a ride up to the fort overlooking town actually reveals a slightly more impressive 1km stretch of beachfront on the other side. But it's very North African and won't be featuring in any Abercrombie & Kent brochures anytime soon.

 

 

May 29th

 

Rest Day: Tabarka

 

The rest day that is forced upon us as we wait for the next days ferry to Italy in anywhere BUT Tunis. A chance to walk around the town and make some observations on this place:

 

1. Architecture and Construction - from idea to realisation.

 

If you are a bodgy handyman who failed the "Spice Rack 101" course and find IKEA furniture a challenging DIY Project with variable results, then Tabarka is THE place to come for your next holiday. A short stroll around the buildings of town will fill you with a newly found confidence in your own abilities. Pierpaolo and I fail to find one straight angle on any of the towns newly erected apartment buildings, and the alleged cement holding it all together looks like what they served us for dinner on the Tangier - Sete ferry, with similar cohesive properties. Only this stuff is rusting days after being served. Labour is cheap in Tunisia, and boy does it show.

 

2. Cafe Society and the modern economy

 

Judging by the amount of blokes sitting in cafes doing sod all but drinking tea, smoking tabs and sucking on a hubbly bubbly then Tunisia is THE new cafe society, a burgeoning economy where labour productivity is so high that most lads don't have to work at all.

 

Well at least they're not out labouring to destroy the coloective vision of the nation's architects.

 

The evening starts off promising, as we share a sheesha pipe with some locals in an outdoor cafe. They are two nice guys that are keen to practice their English, so we oblige and spend an hour talking the usual rubbish with them. Then they have the idea to head off to a local disco bar (the magic words!) so we pile into a taxi and head 3km out of town to one of the resort hotels. What unfolds is a sad tale of Nightlife Lost in Translation. The happening disco bar has a decent DJ and some good music coming out, but the only dance floor inhabitants are a pair of Mid 50's European women strutting on the dance floor with 4 very obliging local men all at least 25 years their junior. Without passing judgement they have the appearance of toy boys, and by their movements and the assessed seductive abilities of their captors, you have to at least give the lads credit for being professional and committed in their chosen career.

 

It's an easy decision to pay for the beers and grab a taxi back to town with haste. But not before our 2 friends have tried the old "Can you give me 20 Euro to catch a taxi back to my place?". They have already told us they are locals that live 5 minutes from the town centre! We drop them off at the cafe where we met them and tell them to pedal home on the bikes they came in on.

 

I can already feel the makings of a Blues song for this part of the trip - a simple 12-bar ditty titled "Tunisia, I won't miss Ya".

 

 

May 30th

 

KM START = 17,313 (Trip = 6,943)

KM END = 17,602 (Trip = 7,232)

 

Route:  Tabarka > Mateur > Sidi Bou Said

 

The ferry is held up again? Arrggggghhhh, this country is holding us captive!!! Tonight's planned crossing has been rescheduled to tomorrow morning, but rather than stay in Tabarka we opt to head for Sidi Bou Said, a reputedly nice whitewashed town just 10km from Tunis itself.

 

To spice it up we take a few back roads and get a little bit lost in the hills around Mateur, but the country is lovely and an indication on why these lands were referred to as the bread basket of the Roman Empire. Rolling fields of golden wheat, and endless stretches of orchard and erupting vegetable gardens.

 

Into Tunis, get beeped at and brushed past by manic people giving us the thumbs up... is it acceptable to reply with a single raised middle digit? Too late! Buy the ferry tickets and head off to our night stop. Sidi Bou Said actually lives up to its billing and is a good place to spend an evening. And the hotel is a waterfront timewarp marvel! There's space for 500 odd guests and the decor is all completely intact (or just tacky?!) early 1970's. Not to everyones taste even then, but its fun to giggle at some of the features scattered liberally throughout the building.

 

May 31st

 

KM START = 17,602 (Trip = 7,232)

KM END = 17,614 (Trip = 7,246)

 

Route:  Sidi Bou Said > Tunis > Trapani (Italy)

 

A large luxy ferry withan open deck to Sicily, and the chance for us to get our first Mediterranean sunburn.

 

Its a short day hop, with the only hiccup in the voyage being the dinner menu options on board. The pizzettas we choose are, on analysis, a NASA developed polymer of cardboard and styrofoam infused with the pungent stench of stale anchovie. Inedible yet memorable!

 

Land in Trapani and we are surprised to find a very relaxed town with a friendly bustle of life in the air. Check into our hotel and head out for a pizza and a beer - truly magnificent after its predecessor! After 3 weeks of Northern Africa it feels good to be back on European soil, and we are happy to trade the infrequently lethal driving of the Tunisians for the frequently poor driving of the Sicilians.