Dave the motorhome is behind a security guarded barrier and hooked up to the electricity in the camping area of the car park for Hotel Sufetula in Sbeitla (N35.245689 E9.1117).
After the emotional roller coaster that yesterday was I didn’t feel much like socialising, or rather sitting in a hotel restaurant on our own, so we skipped the offer of the wild boar house speciality and had hot dogs in Dave followed by more of our monster (yet very tasty) Christmas cake.
This morning was a slow start for me as I’d stayed up late to use the unlimited data (between 11pm & 8am) on our dongle package to send the photos we’d taken yesterday to my Dad. But we were still on the road before 10am, even after an omelette cooked breakfast.
Today was always going to be a big driving day, but the smooth wide road we trundled along would at least make it an easy drive, or so we thought!
Around towns speed bumps are used to slow down the traffic, which isn’t a bad thing as the pedestrian appears to have right of way here – they amble across the road without a single glance to see if there is traffic. The bumps vary from a collection of very large rumble strips, designed to shake your fillings out, to massive, steep sided jumps, designed to empty your cupboard contents on any unsuspecting pooch lying beneath them. And of course, they aren’t signposted, if you’re very lucky you might spot so faded yellow paint on the biggest ones, now dark brown with dirt.
We crossed over many of these speed controls today, keeping Jay on an ultra high state of alert so he could slow Dave down to reduce the amount of cutlery changing compartment in its draw – these things were never designed for motorhomes to go over! In addition to the people and the bumps the smooth road we set off on turned out to have been laid to lull us into a false sense of security. Soon huge pot holes, broken surface and dips appeared requiring Jay to weave Dave through them as we all hold in our breath waiting for the creaking thump as a wheel catches. It seemed that in most towns we drove through today it was market day, so the streets were narrowed by stalls along either side, milling shoppers and a larger than usual influx of traffic, both motor and donkey driven.
We turned off the road we were on to head due south, instantly the width of the tarmac narrowed to a car width with crumbling edges. We stopped frequently, pulling onto the gravel sides to let huge, overloaded lorries rumble past heading north.
I missed our satnav today, she would have picked her preferred route and we’d trundle along it swearing at her if the road surface was rubbish. Instead it was me who picked the route, so I could only curse at myself as we turned onto an unsurfaced road. On the map it was a nice wide yellow line whisking us to the next town on our route, in reality someone had (quite some time ago) removed the tarmac and left us with 30km of bone shaking. Our maximum speed on this stuff was 20kph, so you can work out how long I was cursing at myself for. Jay took it all in his stride, gently ushering Dave towards the smoother areas and releasing the wheel to let Dave sort himself out on the worst parts.
Reaching a town the ‘road’ split and marked on our map to our left was a piste road; unsurfaced and potentially impassable in adverse weather was the warning on the map, so we went for it. The piste turned out to be narrow, surfaced and while bumpy, a million times better than the other option. We settled in behind a van massively overloaded with straw, held on with bits of string.
The piste took us into the next town by the backstreets, over a section of road where the burnt out remains of a tyre barrier had recently blocked it – where on earth were we? Sticking to our straw hauling friends rear bumper we made our way through alleyways where a crouching BBC reporter in a bullet proof vest and helmet wouldn’t have looked out of place. With relief straw man took us to the main road, Charlie danced around whimpering with excitement, then we realised he was telling us he needed the loo, so we pulled in for a rest break.
Once again it was market day in town so I nipped out to pick up some supplies. When I returned back to Dave Jay asked if I’d heard the man nearby shouting the announcement of a tourist in town, fortunately I was too busy thinking about the job in hand to hear him.
The place was starting to pack up so I walked quickly and purposefully through the town to the food stalls – they tend to gather together. Like a local I weaved across the road my first mission was to find some potatoes. There were loads of fruit stalls brimming with oranges, apples and pears but it took a while to find a spud seller. When I did I made my first bit of eye contact since leaving Dave and pointed to the pile. The stall holder wandered over a grabbed a plastic bowl which was so worn it was almost in two pieces, then he stood by the potatoes with it. Unsure of veg buying etiquette (in Italy one is frowned upon for not wearing a disposable glove when selecting) I took the bowl from him and threw in some of the better looking crop, followed by a few peppers for good measure. When I mimed that I had everything I needed the stall holder weighed the bowl and contents on his scales, swapping various shaped weights to get it to balance, then tipped the bowl contents into a plastic bag and handed them over. The cost, 1.200 Dinar (about 50p).
Spying a shop with a good number of people going in and out I joined the throng. Behind the large metal doors a chest height counter evenly cut the room in two, on the other side a family, including three children, served the shoppers. No picking up what you want here, you have to ask for it. Fortunately the man at the till spotted me as I couldn’t work out if there was a queuing system among the shoppers crammed together on my side of the counter, even better the bloke in front of me (as all the other shoppers were men) bought a carton of milk! I pointed at it and held up three fingers, which was greeted with a questioned look to make sure I really wanted three, once confirmed the smallest child was taken from serving and sent to get my milk. At 1.100 Dinar each they were about the same price as in Europe, no wonder he questioned how many I wanted, that’s a lot of money here.
Buoyed by my successes I dived into another shop for a couple of fresh baguettes 0.500 Dinar (about 45p) which were snapped in half and shoved into a bag for me by the shop keeper who had just crouched down to eat his spaghetti lunch from a bowl balanced on boxes of eggs. Mission accomplished I headed back to Dave stopping to pick up a bonus item; a cooked chicken – 3.500 (about £1.50). Charlie went nuts when I got back, although I suspect it was the smell of the chicken rather than having missed me.
The last 40kms flew by with the smell of cooked chicken and fresh bread wafting around Dave. Now though people are waving to flag us down as we drive through the towns, we must be truly on the tourist trail. We’ve been charging gadgets as we drive and while I was in the back checking on the status of charge on stuff a white Isuzu pick up truck overtook us, its passenger staring into Dave. Once in front of us he continued to stare making Jay feel uneasy, we slowed down. The pick up slowed too, so we waited until a couple of cars had overtaken us and were between Dave and the pick up before slowly pulling off the road and stopping. The pick up carried on slowly, we watched until it eventually went out of sight over a hill. Setting off again our eyes were peeled looking for the pick up, the only problem being nearly every pick up here is a white Isuzu! Eventually we spotted them, pulled over by the roadside – the passenger leading out of his window, still staring at Dave. Not knowing what to make of them we charged past, our eyes fixed on Dave’s rear view mirror until we reached our hotel.
A burly man with a clipboard approaches Jay as he heads towards reception to see if we can stay. Pointing to his name badge he assures Jay he is security and asks him to move Dave to the camping area, a block paved section on the other side of a low wall. This is good, after the long drive it’s a relief not to have to explain that we want to sleep in the car park. The cost to do this seems to be going up as we get further south, here it’s 25 Dinar but that includes electric hook up and water. Too tired to haggle we fill out the obligatory paperwork, pay up and tuck into our cooked chicken.
A quick nosey around the hotel gives a great view of the Roman ruins which put this town on the map, tempting us to walk into town for a better look. As we approach the edge of the town a group of lads about 8 years old spot us and cross the road towards us. They follow us down the street calling to Jay ‘Monsieur avec le chien‘. We might have stopped and spoken to them but they flanked us on both sides, the one closest to us carried a large stick and picked up stones, probably to fend Charlie off when he went savage. Their constant calling and running around us, coupled with the town not looking too inviting (the new town that is, we didn’t get far enough to see the whole of the Roman town) had us hot footing it back to Dave wondering if we’ve gone soft.
Maybe we’re not fully over our culture shock yet. People say that you can free camp anywhere, but right now we prefer to pay to be behind some sort of a gate – it also helps that the hotel is full of hunters wandering around dressed in fatigues carrying their shotguns!