Dave the motorhome has his tyres on grass, for the first time in months, under the palms of Gabès at the Youth Hostel (N33.88876 E10.09040). We’re near the centre of town and all but silent but for an occasional ‘the muezzin’s in here with us’ blast of the call to prayer from two adjacent mosques. Without the Rough Guide map, we’d have never found the place, neither it nor many of the streets in Gabès are signed.
Our free camping mojo took a serious knock on our second night here in Tunisia after the midnight policeman incident at Sidi Bou Said. Last night was our first real ‘free camp’ in the country, and although we didn’t mention it to each other we were both nervous. The few fishermen and shellfish foragers who turned up during the day took zero notice of us, and we were in the back of beyond, we needn’t have worried and slept fine. Until 7:30am that is when my ‘you’re in Africa, get the hell up’ clock kicked in and I took a sunrise walk along the beach as Ju and Charlie snoozed.
The sky rang out a clear blue, the air a little cool but crisp and fresh. The tide was in and a few fishermen’s motorbikes stood clustered together leaning unlocked on palms as their owners cast nets a hundred or two metres offshore. They were close enough to pick out faces, but no-one raised a hand, too busy working. A white mosque stood on the rocks in the distance, tempting me along the shoreline to get a closer look.
Although we’d found a fabulous and free parking place, our time on Jerba was naturally coming to an end and we set off south. Our Michelin map, which is the latest available, shows the track on the west coast of the island to be an unsealed piste track. It’s been tarmaced for a while though, judging by the fact it’s well pot-holed in places.
George Lucas loved Tunisia, judging by how many of its natural buildings and landscapes he used. A few miles south we pulled off the road to take a look at the small shore-side whitewashed building used as Obiwan’s house. As I can’t recall that bit of the film(s), it was all a bit lost on me as we wandered about the doorless place, which had a few bags of concrete laid about inside, along with an actual door waiting to be fitted.
And again, we managed a few more miles before we enter Ajim and find this:
The tourist board of Tunisia (described as ‘lazy’ by one campsite owner we met) do nothing to advertise these places as far as we can tell. There are no signs, no locals flogging entrance fees or memorabilia, no leaflets with Star Wars logos brandished on ’em. It’s perfect. Our next stop the ferry off the island, is as usual unsigned, so we just followed our noses towards the water. At 3TD (€1.50) it beats driving all the way back down the causeway and threw us the added bonus of some comical chaos into the bargain, it being completely unclear to everyone which of the several waiting ferries we should head for.
The Med here is flat as a pancake. We cruised over stood among the locals and a full size tourist coach, everyone tussling for space (me included, it’s quite fun) at the other end in a mad rush to leave first. Off the boat a police checkpoint (we’d seen none of them on the island) reminded us the place is still in a state of emergency. The police seemed really eager to nod and wave to us and were stopping no-one. Once past them we pulled in for yet another filthy-cheap fill of diesel before hitting the straight road north, across an olive tree lined plain, a pretty forgettable drive.
The Mareth Line is, or was, a band of military defences built by the French before the outbreak of WW2, worried that the Italians in neighbouring Libya might nip over and claim Tunsia for themselves. Events overtook the French, who found their homeland occupied by the Axis powers, and with the invasion of North Africa by the Allies, the Mareth Line came under control of German and Italian troops. Their intention was to use it to fend off the Allied troops advancing from Egypt up into Tunisia, with the aim to link up with Allied armies further north and eventually invade Italy, all of which came to pass.
The line was made up of about 100 concrete bunkers, the weird French one-man Darlek-esque armoured machine-gun posts and a shed load of mines, all laid out along a river bed (which incidentally hasn’t been wet since 1996). We drove over the modern bridge and pulled into the museum and a chap in his green Army uniform came over to greet us, eyeball Charlie with a slanted grin as I let him out for a wee.
This chap, we’ll have to call him Mohammed as we both forgot his name, gave us a great tour of the little museum. It’s a collection of flash-back black and white photos of men running about killing each other in shorts, guns, uniforms and maps. With his running commentary in English (he’d accidentally throw in the odd French word to keep us on our toes) he explained that the Axis had been heavily outnumbered, listing off exact numbers of tanks, heavy guns, airplanes and troops on both sides. The Allies made a direct attack on the line, but defeated it by sneaking around the end of it, much like the German forces did to the French Maginot line at the start of the war. Will those Frenchies ever learn?
Once we’d been guided about the place (once again, there were no other punters) we headed north into Gabès, passing a kilometre long row of shops selling stuffed camels and gawdy pottery. Maybe a hundred tat shops, who on Earth is buying all this stuff?! WARNING: Gabès, should you come this way, a natural maze. The streets aren’t named. Cars and bikes go the wrong way up roads. Vans pull up giving you inches to squeeze through. Horns honk. Our first Tunisian city and although hot under the collar, and requiring some on-foot scouting, we made it to the youth hostel, happy to pay all of €6 a night for the safety.
To avoid the intense attention attracted by our mutt, he stayed in Dave while we took a look around, taking advantage of our temporary dog-less-ness to get some chicken and chips at the Tunisian equivalent of a greasy spoon (only 6TD, €3 for both of us!) in the shadow of the Grand Mosque. Rammed busy, our grub arrived with only a fork. Looking about the locals were eating with fingers, so did we. After a wander through the quiet near-hassle-free medina, managing to figure out the Krypton Factor post office queuing system, buying spuds from a delighted grocer and getting some batteries for our alarm clock (so we know which day it is), we headed back to Dave.
A chill out later I took Charlie out for a walk, returning about 10 minutes later with maybe 30 local nippers strung out behind me. As soon as I exited the gate a small group of boys, maybe 6 or 7 years old spotted the little furry fella and legged it over the road to touch him and ask for my name, his name, whether he’s a boy and how old he is. We’ve all the answers ready in French now, I reeled ’em off, not realising I’d have to do it about ten times before I could get back into the youth hostel. Maybe it was school finishing time, but there were so may kids! Some spoke perfect English. One chap asked me my name over and over, eventually as I chose to ignore him he started to shout F**K YOU as loud as he could, which I again chose to ignore. I laughed off a couple of requests for money and most of the kids were delightful.
Our wine stocks are getting low. A Skype to a friend back home had him brandishing a pint of Old Speckled Hen as I reached out mentally to sup at it. I’m not sure I could live in Tunisia, not without alcohol aid parcels being flown in or at least someone telling us which supermarkets sell booze!