Dave the motorhome is facing a sea of olive branches, devoid of their tiny rugby-ball fruit, hiding us in greenery from the road. We’re at the somewhat plush-looking Hotel Thougga (N36.45765 E9.25572), on the outskirts of Téboursouk, staying in the car park for a fee of 15TD (about €7) per night. Not sure if we were looking for the Hotel Dougga (referenced in a database we have) or Thougga (mentioned in the Rough Guide), we pulled in anyway and chanced it. The chap behind reception understood immediately what a camping-car was, gave us a reasonable price, and handed over the ‘fiche’ registration cards in English. He’s also offered us a Wild Boar tea in the restaurant; oddly a pork meal in Muslim Tunisia, but we’ve not decided yet whether to indulge.
Since deciding to come to Tunisia, we’ve been aware of the fact Julie’s grandfather (her Dad Malcolm’s father) is buried here. Since arriving in Tunisia we’ve felt the weight of the fact. There was no way we would leave the country without visiting and paying our respects, but as the grave is in the centre of Northern Tunisia, we have circled around to it so we could have a look at the north of the country first.
Yesterday as I looked up the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, I realised that we were probably in the same valley through Northern Tunisia he’s likely to have travelled 70 years ago. It was a sobering thought. The Allies launched an attack on North Africa, Operation Torch, coming in through Vichy French-controlled Morocco and Algeria (who were technically obliged to fight against the Allies but put up little resistance), under pressure from Russia to help prevent the Germans from crushing them. The idea was to form a platform from which Italy could be attacked via Sicily, a plan which was ultimately successful. As far as I can tell, David would have sailed from the UK into Algeria. Once the task force touched down, the Axis powers responded immediately, landing troops in Tunisia the next day.
As I said above, from what I can see (please anyone correct me if I’m wrong), the 1st Battalion Scots Guards formed part of the fighting units which attempted to race across Tunisia, through the same wet-season mud which now encrusts Dave, to get to Tunis before the Axis could fully organise themselves. As we drove along from our sleeping spot last night, the Medjerda plain opened up to the south, the same one David would have had to fight his way through around late March/ early April 1943. Just to our left rose a high bank of hills, presumably great defences for the Axis, and each would have had to have been cleared somehow.
The road for us was, of course, an easy ride. Wide and for the most part smooth, we cruised along, with a feeling of foreboding building. Passing through Beja, we hardly looked at the place, it looked grim in the grey rain. After an hour or two on the road, thanking a deity for our washers and wipers functioning as intended as the rain came down, and mud came back up, we spotted the huge 20km long lake created by the Sidi Salem dam. By this point the plain had punched back up again, the lake forming from the river which used to flow through the valley created by the hills. Lush and green, we could have persuaded ourselves we were in the Lake District. As we rounded a corner in the road, a green sign appeared, much like those we’ve seen across the whole of Europe, but this time it was personal. Ju’s eyes had been tear-filled for a while, stopping once she had something practical to do, organising Dave in his roadside parking spot below the unsealed mud track leading up over the hill and out of sight. A man on a 100cc bike man-handled it up the slope, ignoring us but for a lifted hand.
Climbing the hill we grew a few inches, the soil was clay-like from the days of rain, and our feet grew heavy. I tried to make light of it, scraping my feet on whatever stone I could find. Topping out, we could see the head stones assembled off to the left, the odd sight of a church tower framing them behind. We trudged the rest of the path.
The graveyard was, of course, very well kept, an oasis of order and cleanliness in a country where these things are far more rare than our north European homeland. A clean boot-scraper at the solid metal gate was put to good use and we walked in to read the plaque and find David’s spot. Ju was by this point breaking down, I was unsure whether to leave her alone or to comfort her. I tried a mixture of both.
The grave stands proud, shoulder to shoulder with Scottish countrymen, looking out over the hillside and down towards the still water of the lake. Ju never knew her grandfather, and I think she felt the loss of it, kneeling to touch the cold reminder of his presence on Earth and weeping.
Walking around the rest of the stones, we saw George Ellis, and said hello from Pat and John, a couple who’d provided Malcolm with information on the cemetery. More Sherwood Foresters reminded us of our Nottingham-Derby border home. Towards one side six Indian soldiers were honoured, their graves facing, we presume, towards Mecca.
I wonder how David (who died two years younger than I am now) and (I’m sure he had one) his fellow band of brothers, coped with the idea they were in Africa, fighting against German and Italian men in the rain and mud of a Tunisian winter. It’s impossible to answer, but I am fairly certain I could not muster a tenth of the required courage.
Once we’d taken photographs and video of the site, we clomped our way back over the hill, inevitably filling Dave with mud as we climbed back in, even though our football-shaped boots stayed at the door. We had heard that the cemetery register was in the Oued Zarga Guard Nationale police office down the road, and set off to find it. We found the police office, and inside it three very confused policemen, but they didn’t have the book, or a clue what we were on about, so we left. Oued Zarga itself had something of a wild-west-in-the-pouring-rain look about it and we skipped it, topping up on fuel out of town.
The rest of the day’s been a blur. Having some idea we could stay safely at a hotel near the Roman ruins at Dougga, with a fallback of the ruins themselves, we turned back west, taking the toll road for a junction (cost: 0.4TD, about 16p). The motorway, which is in great condition, currently stops at Oued Zarga, but a giant scrape across the land past the cemetery hill indicates it won’t stay that way for too long.
The red road South-West cut through a few mud-splattered, nondescript towns. In one of them Ju jumped from Dave to grab some more cash (everything’s done with cash) and to buy a fresh, warm baguette (0.3TD, about 12p). After driving over a rough unsealed length of road, at a snail’s pace the same as everyone else, we pulled over and ate it, with some Tunis Carrefour cheese remarkably tasting like mature cheddar. From there to here. We’re safe, a couple of beers chill in the fridge, and we’re now firmly looking ahead, over the next range of mountains and into the salt flats, dust, rock and sand of the Sahara. Oh, and a glut of campsites, fantastic.