Escape from Jerba, The Mareth Line and The Pied Piper of Gabès!

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.

Dave on grass! Parked in the Gabes Youth Hostel, Tunisia.
Dave on grass! Parked in the Gabes Youth Hostel, Tunisia.

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.

Wild dogs inhabit the west coast of Jerba. This chap yapped out an alert to the rest of the pack as I exited Dave, at which point they all legged it into the trees.
Wild dogs inhabit the west coast of Jerba. This chap yapped out an alert to the rest of the pack as I exited Dave, at which point they all legged it into the trees.

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.

I found out later this was used in Star Wars, as the entrance to Mos Eisley. The place looked still in use for worship, although deserted but for the couple of vans and motorbikes of working anglers.
I found out later this was used in Star Wars, as the entrance to Mos Eisley. The place looked still in use for worship, although deserted but for the couple of vans and motorbikes of working anglers.

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.

The west Jerba coast road, bits of it are bad so locals have taken to the earth alongside, and so did we.
The west Jerba coast road, bits of it are bad so locals have taken to the earth alongside, and so did we.

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.

Obwan's house, Jerba.
Obwan’s house, Jerba.

And again, we managed a few more miles before we enter Ajim and find this:

More Star Wars! This time the bar at the space port of Mos Eisley. The Rough Guides says it is 'barely recognisable'. I didn't recognise it at all, more film watching required.
More Star Wars! This time the bar at the space port of Mos Eisley (the one with the cool music). The Rough Guides says it is ‘barely recognisable’. I didn’t recognise it at all, more film watching required.

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.

Waiting to leave Jerba at Ajim. Turned out only 3 of the 6 ferries were running so we had to wait for one to come back, by which point the queue behind us was honkin' horns.
Waiting to leave Jerba at Ajim. Turned out only 3 of the 6 ferries were running so we had to wait for one to come back, by which point the queue behind us was honkin’ horns.

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 road north to Mareth from El Jorf. A bit dull but for a few locals harvesting olive trees.
The road north to Mareth from El Jorf. A bit dull but for a few locals harvesting olive trees.

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.

A bunker at the Mareth Line.
A bunker at the Mareth Line.

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.

Tunisia tourist attractions are incredibly cheap - 45p each to get in. They have a weird approach to cameras though, you have to pay extra for them and then usually you get no stamp/ticket to say you have paid for the right to take photos, making you feel like you should have lied. Not here though, you get a nice little receipt.
Tunisia tourist attractions are incredibly cheap – 45p each to get in. But they have a weird approach to cameras, you have to pay extra to use them. Then usually you get nothing to say you have paid for the right to take photos, making you feel like you should have lied. Not here though, you get a nice little receipt.

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?

The insignia on the uniform shocked me.
The insignia on the uniform shocked me.
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Exterminate!
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Smiling Allied commanders…
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And their stern-faced Axis counterparts!
Fighting over dust. What must have the soldiers thought?
Fighting over dust. What must have the soldiers thought?

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.

The Gabès YHA camping area.
The Gabès YHA camping area.

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.

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Gabès Grand Mosque. A few Japenese tourists outside smiled as we passed, fellow folks in a strange country.
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Since the murder & unrest of a few days ago, all has gone quiet again. Straining to understand French on the radio there’s continual talk of politics, religion and democracy, and what’s on telly.
The Gabès medina, an easy-going place on a Friday afternoon.
The Gabès medina, an easy-going place on a Friday afternoon.
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Gabès
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After Jerba, which is generally devoid of rubbish, Gabès has plenty of it.
Gabès, looks rough to us, but then does half of the country so I guess it's just a work-a-day kind of place and certainly feels welcoming, folks gently saying Bienvenue to us in the street.
Gabès, looks rough to us, but then does half of the country so I guess it’s just a work-a-day kind of place and certainly feels welcoming, folks gently saying Bienvenue to us in the street.

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.

Locals in Gabès. There are two types of photo of people. One up close where they know you are taking a picture (this one takes front and an affinity with people). This one is the other kind - using a long old lens!
Locals in Gabès. There are two types of photo of people. One up close where they know you are taking a picture (this one takes front and an affinity with people). This one is the other kind (using a long old lens!).

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!

Cheers, Jay

 

Charlie takes Sfax Medina by storm
A St. Valentine's day sunset and we're still on Jerba!
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