Through the Featureless Tell to Gafsa

A sight for sore eyes.

Dave the motorhome is alone, the broad gates of Camping El Hassan a few km outside of Gafsa were opened earlier just for us by some surprised-looking chaps (N34.40903 E8.75068). We, on the other hand, were just plain old relieved to find the place, in among the palms and olive trees.

The ‘Tell’ in the title refers to an area of Tunisia, rather than some sneaky method of sussing if someone has a straight flush. As far as we can tell, from peering out Dave’s dusty windows and reading the Rough Guide, there are two reasons to come to this region: to look at Roman ruins, and to look at scenery.

Not sure why, but I love this photo.
Not sure why, but I love this photo.

The towns are pretty much universally decried as being drab, ranging from near-slums, half the place a literal rubbish dump, to just plain, architecture-less, dusty functional places. The ruins are impressive, but we’ve seen so many of these sites now, we’re sadly becoming ruin-immune, passing them by with a glance. The security guard at the hotel we stayed at yesterday was clearly a bit confused when we returned after only half an hour: “aren’t you going to visit the ruins?, many tourists visit them, very famous”. Maybe tomorrow, I lied.

We drove past the forum this morning, Ju leaned out the window to take a look at the upright slabs, somehow avoiding the fate of becoming part of someone’s house like much of the rest of the empire’s stonework. It’s an impressive sight, mirrored on the other side of the road by the modern-day town, all water-stained grey concrete and fluttering plastic bags. Our map shows a glut of campsites around the south of the country, and we’ve pretty much discounted wild/free camping (we’re too fearful of it here), so we’ve plotted a course towards the Sahara.

A sight for sore eyes.
A sight for sore eyes.

Dave needed a break after yesterday’s suspension hammering, teeth grinding, eye watering 10mph progression across miles of unsurfaced ‘corniche’ road. (They’re either autoroute – motorway, Parcours – A road, Corniche – B road, followed by a spectrum of minor roads to 4×4-only dirt tracks). Taking a longer route, we followed a parcours east for forty minutes before turning south west, along the World’s Dullest Road. Pretty much dead-straight for hours, through a desert-like plain studded with a forest of olive trees, artificially watered through an ingenious but low-tech irrigation system. Maybe I was a bit harsh, it wasn’t dull compared with, say, the M1. Although we’d bypassed all the larger towns (those on the map seemed to have achieved this status by virtue of being at a junction in the road), there was always something to see.

The P3 to Gafsa.
The P3 to Gafsa.

A few of the sights on the road south:

  • A rough metal grill, billowing smoke from its grilling contents, located next to the bloody hanging carcass of a sheep (a sign of freshness?)
  • Sheep skins, not exactly ready to be popped on the living room floor, being sold for somewhere between €1 and €3, we couldn’t work out the Arabic
  • A pick-up loaded even more stupidly high than usual with hay, anything more than a slight bend and it’d be over
  • Tractors bobbing along towing huge water bowsers
  • Road-side truck-high water filling pipes, resembling those used to fill steam-engines in the Wild West
  • Police roadblocks, stingers across the road, machine guns swung across their backs. They either totally blanked us, half waved us through, or cheerily saluted
  • Smooth tarmac, 100km of it, with hardly a pothole in sight. Ah, bliss!
We joke about what the cows must think, speeding along the roads.
Mutton on the grill tonight dear?
Like much of Morocco, all the doors here are metal. Wood’s too expensive as it’s all been cut down since the days Hannibal was here with his elephants.
MacDonald’s watch out, Fast Food Tunisia is on the rise.
Be serious!
Be serious!

Finally pulling into Gafsa, we’d already sussed there are two campsites here, which seems odd for what is basically a phosphorous mining town in the middle of nowhere. Not complaining, we’d read a German chap’s comments saying El Hassan is the cleaner of the two, grabbed the GPS co-ordinates and set up our laptop-phone google maps GPS thing. Entering town, into the usual organised chaos. There are so many roundabouts here, most complete with ‘give way on entry’ signs, but all road paint has long gone, and everyone seems slightly confused on who gives way. The system works though, hesitation buys time for those who’ve cocked it up or are plain mad.

Err? The road to the campsite?
Err? The road to the campsite?

We drove around a couple of time, our system working more like a ‘spiral in on the target’ than ‘guided missile’, but we eventually found ourselves on the right road. Not that we knew it. A single track running out of town into the palmerie (places far less exotic than you might think), locals stared slack-jawed at us, as if to say ‘what the …’. Holding steady, we slowly drove on to the point where the phone said the camping awaited us to find, dust, and palms. Erraarar. No worries, we have a plan B for the other site, or we could even ask someone. No need as it turns out, we ploughed on further and the place appeared, our first Tunisian campsite!

Yeah baby! Camping El Hassan.
Yeah baby! Camping El Hassan.

Seven foot high walls are deemed necessary for any North African campsite it would seem. This one is at least nicely decorated with painted reliefs. They’re actually really pretty. This small thing, which repeats itself around the site, is the most aesthetically appealing thing I’ve seen in Tunisia, beating the ‘blue and white for the tourists’ villas of Sidi Bou Said. The campsite guys seemed as surprised to see us as the locals up the road, giving Ju a price when she asked (20TD a night, about €10), and directing us to the next set of doors in the castle-like fortifications.



Parked up, plugged in to the olive-tree mounted power socket, next up washing. Having utterly failed to wash clothes in Sicily, we’re cruising around with an ever-growing pile of laundry under the table. The go-fer campsite chap gave us a tour, pointing out the toilets/showers and the two, free of charge, washing machines. Once he’d gone Ju loaded up a bag of the must-wash stuff, and we walked over to poke the once-white wrecks. One was clearly out of action for ever, unplugged, the drum full of please-bin-me sponges. The other wasn’t much better, the powder drawer stuck in and broken, the drum half full of water. Ho hum, the washing went in, it washed it, it refused to spin it, Dave’s full of dripping socks and undies, being ‘milked’ like cows of their wetness. Yep, they’re in here, as it’s been raining, in an oasis.

We’ve had a quick walk around the outside of the site, as always this feeling like stepping out of a barricade into the wild world outside. It’s all palms, flowing concrete water and pick-ups, one of which was being driven by a chap swilling beer. Perhaps explains where there are so many beer cans and bottles strewn along the roadside.

The vista's a pretty desolate one to be honest.
The vista’s a pretty desolate one to be honest.

Back into the site, the smiling go-fer chap collected our paperwork and has managed to sell us some grub in the restaurant. At less €5 a piece for chicken, chips, salad, bread and soup, it was a bargain. The room was empty but for us, and cold. Ju knew this would be the case and sported several layers of clothes. We were fetched a half hour early, or a half hour late, we’re not sure what ‘half-seven’ means here, but the food was succulent (watch this space for any hygiene-related fall out). The place was interesting, with black and white photos of camels and white-robed men, only 50 or 60 years old, but of a time and place long gone.

Gafsa in the 50’s.
As we left, the staff turned the lights (such that they were) out. We guess that’s ’em off home.

Chilling out time now, maybe a sneaky beer of my own, or should I save it and have one on the road tomorrow to calm my nerves?

Just kidding about the beer. Above piccy shows prickly pears, the stump was where I picked one. With my bare hands. Not a good idea, they deposit hundreds of tiny spikes, which are now driving me nuts.
Just kidding about the beer. Above piccy shows prickly pears, the stump was where I picked one to sniff at it (you can eat them). With my bare hands. Not a good idea, they deposit hundreds of tiny spikes, which are now driving me nuts.

Cheers, Jay




    • Hi Bob, we’re not the Tunisian Tourist Board fella! It’s getting better for us, but maybe we’re just too soft? Heading south now, which seems more geared up to tourists, watch this space. Cheers, Jay

      • Err, a bit odd replying to myself, but just a note to say we’re both absolutely fine this morning: the salad, chips and chicken all tasted beautiful and have had no ill effects on us whatsoever. Jay

  1. Very telling that you are wary of free camping. Reckon the deal we saw advertised in England for 42 nights full board at £450 inc flights was a real steel and may be the way to go for this country coupled with a once off tour to the Sahara etc.

    • Hi Glen, it’s odd, we just found a French blog post showing they stayed in exactly the same car park as us on the coast at Sidi Bou Said, with the police aware, but we were advised to leave. Seems like things change fast here. That does sound like an incredible bargain you’ve seen, 42 nights, wow! Jay

  2. Prickly pears are delicious. Use bbq tongs or wear rubber gloves to help with the picking. Peel the prickly outsides with a sharp knife and eat the juicy centres.

    • Hi Paul, yup, same process. We only used campsites and hotel or guarded parking in Morocco, which are few and far between like here, and you can get good books describing them. No such books for Tunisia yet, but if there were I suspect we’d have started to relax here much quicker. Met round a round the world biker couple last night who are off into Libya, so now we feel like right wusses. Jay

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