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'98 Trip Around the Mediterranean Sea
Fourth Leg: North Africa. 

Part 1: Libya and Tunisia

 

Tunisia
Libya


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Tunisia '98 Tunisia map

 

Mon, June 22, 98. ITALY: Palermo, Trapani / TUNISIA: Tunis.

 

J.: Drove to Trapani and took a ferry to Tunis.

Most of the “travelers” on the ferry were Tunisians living in Europe. It looked like they were serious importers/exporters.  

Ferry to Tunis

G: Every car was fully stuffed with things, rugs etc. All cars also had loads of stuff on their roofs and on trailers. Are things actually cheaper in Italy? 

J.: The ferry ride was 6 hours long. We were entertained first by interesting view of the islands around and then by the Pom-Pom girls (kind of cheerleaders) who were travelling to Tunisia for a dance festival. We also met a Swiss man and his Dutch wife who were planning to go through Tunisian and Algerian desert to Morocco. He must have been insane to go to Algeria with that beautiful blonde woman she was. Good luck! We also met 3 French travelers in a camper who were planning to reach South Africa in 8 months.

G.: It took them a year to prepare all necessary papers and equipment. It seemed like they were prepared for the worst. Real trappers. Their camper-truck was totally prepared to withstand any terrain. It had a very tall reinforced suspension, extra tires, ropes and pulleys, shovels, sand-rails, light guards and inside all the amenities. Good luck guys!  

 

Tunisia.

J.:   First impression was positive. The roads were dry but slippery. After a desperate search, we found a campsite in Hammam Lif (half hour outside the city). We were the only guests. Nights 22/23/24/25 Mon/Tue/Wed/Thu there.

 

Tue, June 23, 98. TUNISIA: Tunis.

 

J.: First item on the agenda was to get Libyan visas. The Libyan travel agent, Hussein Founi that Greg contacted early in the spring, was to send our invitations to the Libyan embassy in Tunis. All the invitations were filed with a number. Because we didn’t know the number, the embassy official refused to accept our passports to issue visas. We had to call Hussein to record the number. Only then we were able to submit our passports. We paid US$ 20 each.

 

The old and modern buildings had a similar taste. 

Modern part of the medina

We saw: Bab Bhar (Porte de France), the Great Mosque (the Zitouna Mosque or the Mosque of the Olive Tree—9th century), etc.

 

We noticed quite an interesting fact about Tunisian women. They were smiling very warmly to all foreigners (or maybe to the handsome ones like us). Even a policewoman returned my smile! Both men and women were dressed like Europeans. Another surprise was the presence of the red light district. Suddenly we found ourselves on a street with men walking from one window to another and women waiting for customers. How is it possible? It is a Muslim country! Later on one of the Tunisians explained: “I am a Muslim when I want to.”

Another European thing was a huge Pinky Mall on Avenue de Carthage just across from the Carcassonne Restaurant where we ate (great food).

 

Wed, June 24, 98. TUNISIA: Tunis.

 

J.: The next day we went to check out our visa applications. Libya uses Arabic script only and all the documents including passports had to be translated into Arabic. Greg was travelling with his Canadian and Polish passports. I was using my Polish passport only. Because Canada is a multicultural country, the Arabic translation of the Canadian passport (a stamp in the passport) was quite easy to obtain. A case with my passport was more difficult. The Polish Consulate General in Toronto informed me that they would never translate my passport into Arabic because there was no procedure pertaining to this kind of situation. So I decided to do my own translation. Still in Canada, using my old typewriter, I translated all the necessary particulars with assistance of a friend who spoke Arabic. Now in Tunis, they told me that my translation was not good enough, because the stamp was missing. The official sent us to a translator on the other side of the city. The translator looked at the translation, complained about mistakes made, but finally stamped my passport at no charge! Back at the embassy, the officer looked at the stamp, and smiled warmly. This was what he needed. The visas were ready the next day.

That day we visited Carthage and Tunis again.

 

Carthage.

A disappointing archeological site. Founded around 814 BC by Phoenicians. In 146 BC Carthage fell and the city was destroyed by Roman conquerors. The only slightly interesting sites were: Antonine Baths or rather what’s left of them, Roman Villa and Byrsa Quarter.

 

Back in Tunis.

While walking around the city we were approached by a hustler. He was much less annoying than his Moroccan colleagues. He took us to the top of one of the shops. The view of the city was very nice, a sea of TV antennas and minarets. Down at the shop, we had a chance to see the ancient way of knitting traditional carpets.  

Women are knitting the carpets, Tunis

In the middle of the street, we met our French friends with a camper-truck from a ferry. They just got off the ferry after over 2 days in the customs! They were missing some documents for the truck and the officials kept them this long! Oh, guys, you will really need a lot of luck to cross Africa…

 

In the evening we stopped at a store near our campsite to get some water and food. Two young Tunisians approached us and asked for a ride to a discotheque at a resort. They surely knew that with European tourists it would be much easier to get in. We said: Sure! Since we were in the mood for some fun, we went with them. The club was a major disappointment. We tried another resort, just next door. This place was much busier. Unfortunately, our new friends were wearing shorts and the staff didn’t let them in. They let us in, though. We missed a fashion show by few minutes but were lucky enough to witness a belly dance performance (very interesting). Right after that, we attended a disco. There was a catastrophic shortage of young Europeans (most of the tourists were people in their 50s and 60s), so the six beautiful Tunisian models from the show we just missed, were very happy to find two handsome guys. We were happy too and had a very good time. Yeah!

 

Thu, June 25, 98. TUNISIA: Tunis.  

 

 

J.: We got the Libyan visas. Yeah!

We visited the Bardo Museum—a superb collection of items organized in sections, which covered the Carthaginian, Roman, Palaeo-Christian and Arab-Islamic eras. An impressive collection of mosaics from the Roman era made up the most interesting part of exposition.

 

Back at the camp: the manager was expecting a large group of Tunisian tourists and suggested that we leave. Well, we left in the afternoon for Nabeul (50 km or so outside Tunis) where we slept at a campsite by a hotel (night Thu/Fri 25/26). We met some German tourists who were coming back from a desert safari in Libya. They told us interesting stories about Libya.

 

Fri, June 26, 98. TUNISIA: Nabeul to Jerba.

 

J.: After four days of resting, our bikes were finally on the road again. The ride was very pleasant. We visited…

… Kairouan (as a  religious centre, it is the most important place in the country founded in 7th century). 

The Great Mosque in Kairouan built in 670 AD; the 35-metre minaret is the oldest standing minaret in the world (8th century).

Here we asked a carpet merchant to watch our bikes for us. After touring the city, which was very quite because it was Friday (Muslim holiday), the merchant was trying to sell us some carpets but we really had no room for anything.  

Beautiful carpets

… and El Jem. In El Jem there is a colosseum (230-238 AD) not much smaller than its famous counterpart in Rome (138 by 114 metres; capacity: 30,000). 

Colosseum in El Jem

A great thing about travelling on a motorbike in a Third World country was that the bikes were very noticeable and it was very easy to find people happy to watch them for few hours. For free or a very small tip.

 

Then we drove to Jerba. Last portion of the trip was at night. Same as in Morocco, drivers use headlights in a very strange fashion. They either keep their high beams on or turn the lights off completely.

 

Ferry to Jerba.

On the ferryboat we made some friends, again. Boys age 12-15 were making money selling gum. Some of them were very obnoxious, some very nice. Interesting, every boy beside Arabic spoke a different language. Tourist influence, I guess.

We spent the night Fri/Sat/Sun/Mon 26/27/28/29 at a campsite in Aghir.

 

Sat, June 27, 98. TUNISIA: Jerba, Matmata, Douz, Jerba.

 

J.: The next day we took a day trip to Matmata, Douz and back to Jerba.

A rough ride on a stony dirt road over very treacherous hills, led us to Matmata. We stopped for a break in a desert village. A group of boys appeared. They were very happy to have a chance to talk to strangers. So were we.  

Friendly Tunisians

 

Matmata.

The Berbers of the Matmata area went underground centuries ago to escape the extreme heat of summer. 

Matmata, Tunisia

The dwellings of very simple and neat construction, were dug deep in the ground what made them more bearable to live in. Outside temperature in the low 40s, inside – in the middle 20s. Matmata was selected as a location for the movie Star Wars.

 

After Matmata we kept riding through even more deserted areas. At one point there was road construction. Its only indication was a single blue sign: an arrow pointing to the right. For about 3 kms we had to ride in the soft sand. The motorcycles were dancing right and left. It was easy to get lost. Detour was so badly marked that I kept driving in the sand while Greg got off the track back to the hard surface road simply because he noticed the construction zone ended.

 

Douz

Douz was great. Huge sea of sand, this time white-yellow (red dunes in Morocco).

White sand in Douz, Tunisia

We came across “package” tourists, who were Polish too. Numerous buses flock to Douz for a desert experience. The tourists are chased out of the buses, then dressed with some “authentic” Berber gowns, put on camels, 

Package tourists

driven for an hour and chased back to the air-conditioned vehicles. If you go in a “package”, that will be the only desert ride you experience. We spent few hours just sitting and enjoying the heat, dryness and the view.

 

In the evening back on Jerba, we visited a disco in the Royal Gardens Hotel. 

Typical beach resort - this is NOT Tunisia

The lineup was long (mostly consisted of Arabs) but as soon as the security noticed us, we were rushed inside like VIPs. We were subjected to racism. Inside there was lots of European tourist as well as Tunisian men looking (some quite successfully) for amorous adventures with older European women.

 

Sun, June 28, 98. TUNISIA: Jerba.

 

J.: It was our day off. We spent the whole day on “Beach entertainment”.



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Libya

 

Mon, June 29, 98. LIBYA: border to Tripoli.

 

J.: In a city near the Tunisian-Libyan border, we bought some Libyan money. There were literally hundreds of moneychangers around. Of course, we bargained. 

The Tunisian border procedure was quick and simple. On the other side, were Muawe (our travel agent’s partner) and his driver were waiting for us. Muawe paid for our plates, insurance, Carnet de Passage, and customs. Everything lasted for over 3 hours. Later on we reimbursed him with US$175 each. The black-market value of the dollar was 10 times higher than the official rate. We would have probably arranged the border crossing by ourselves but it would cost the same plus huge headache and extra time. For example, we would have paid US$200 each for the plates instead of US$20 each. On the border we could see the meticulous work of the customs. All the cars leaving Libya were checked. Custom officers were confiscating all types of food: eggs, onions, pasta. There is a shortage of food in the Jamahiriya. We on the other hand weren’t even asked to open our bags, but the officer asked us politely if we had any alcohol or pornographic magazines (!). The answer for both questions was No.

Finally we enter The Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (State of the Masses). Yeah!

The highway (the only west-east highway) was good, straight and well surfaced. One of the characteristics of Libya was that it was dirty. On both sides of the road, regardless whether it was 5 or 105 km from a bigger city, there was garbage all around: old tires, rubble, junk.

 

We were following Muawi’s car (20 or more years old Japanese make). He was driving very slowly (90 km/h). If not for him we wouldn’t know where to go: all road signs were in Arabic only. Libya suffers from air embargo imposed by UN. As a result, the automobile parts are impossible to obtain. That’s why, you can see all kinds of half-dead or completely dead cars on the road.

 

Sabratha.

We stopped at a restaurant and had a pizza (!). Before we reached Tripoli, we visited the archeological site of Sabratha. Our hosts were so nice to take us inside and they actually enjoyed the site with us. The city was first settled by the Phoenicians, but as seen today, dates from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. 

Sabratha, Libya  Theatre: built in the late 2nd century AD. 108 Corinthian columns.

 

We arrived in Tripoli and with the help of our friends were placed in a youth hostel. It was filthy but the staff and guests were very friendly. They probably never had any European tourists in the hostel especially since one night’s stay cost 3 dinars (US$ 1).

 

G: The only guests were some workers and some migrants from different African countries. A very pleasant man approached me. He spoke good English, he was black and he was from Nigeria. He explained to me his situation: it was very sad, and virtually begged me to “loan” him 100$US. His story was so touching that I was almost convinced. I was also a bit afraid, he was very big too. Finally I gently concluded our conversation. We ended up exchanging addresses. Thanks God, he wasn’t hurt.   

Night Mon/Tue/Wed 29/30/1 there.

 

Tue, June 30, 98. LIBYA: Tripoli (Tarabulus in Arabic).

 

J.: In the morning Muawe gave us a tour of Tripoli. We visited The Jamahiriya Museum—a very interesting set of exhibits laid out chronologically starting with prehistory and early Libyan tribal history up until the times of Gaddafi’s revolution. Then we had a walk around the city centre. The streets were very dirty. 

Typical Lybian street

Impressive communist-like sculptures “beautified” the city. Even postcards were ugly. There were no women on the streets. It’s truly Islamic country. All the signs were in Arabic so we had to guess most of them. I called my parents in Poland. In order to make international call, I went to the post office. I had to submit my passport and fill out a form. The charge was around US$ 2 per minute. Tired of walking around we decided to have a drink. We ordered beer! Beer in Libya! Sure! After all, “it’s a rich country”. It was a non-alcoholic Bavaria.

G: When sitting at a table we were approached by two young guys. They could speak only few words in English so we used mostly sign language. At one moment one of them said: “you are beautiful”. I was totally confused. I tried to explain to him that a man does not say that to another man but it was too difficult. I knew and I saw earlier that Arab men sometimes hold hands when they walk and it is a widely accepted sign of male bonding, but these two boys were definitely going a different way. But who really knows.

Finally we met our agent, Hussain. He took us to a very nice pizzeria where we talked and got to know each other better. It was quite a surprise when a beautiful woman walked in the pizzeria. I was very curious so I asked Hussain. He stroke a conversation with her. She spoke very good English and was a former flight attendant. Hussain later explained that after dark some women have the courage to walk out on the streets dressed in modern cloths. She could have been the perfect example of that trend. But, who really knew who she was. 

 

Wed, July 1, 98. LIBYA: Tripoli, Leptis Magna, road to Sirt.  

 

 

J.: Hussein insisted that we stay another day, but we decided to go on. He provided us with “translation” of major road signs in Arabic. Holly cow! This language was so different from the Latin script! Somehow we managed to figure out all these scribbles.  

 

Leptis Magna

The next place to visit was Leptis Magna, the MOST IMPRESSIVE of all the archeological sites we visited. Because of the minimal number of tourists in Libya, we were the second group that day to visit the place. At the end of our visit (over 3 hours), we met 6 Libyan tourist, the only people walking around this stunning place.

Theatre in Leptis Magna: with Lybian tourist  Severan Forum. 60 x 100 meters. Leptis Magna, Libya

Because each visitor had to sign the guest book, just out of curiousity we checked previous days. On average, there were 5-6 tourist a day in Leptis Magna. I predict that as soon as Libya opens up (if ever), Leptis Magna will become at least as busy as Ephesus in Turkey. The former overshadows the latter by far.

Facts: Roman city from  1st and 2nd century AD. 

  Severan Basilica  Leptis Magna: MAGNIFICENT!!!

 

The driving in Libya was interesting and boring at the same time. Boring because the road was straight and the distances between settlements were huge (50-100-200 km). Interesting, because the desert landscape was always different. The cost of gas: US$0.05 per liter. “It’s a rich country.”

It got dark and we were looking for a place to sleep. We rode around 500m off the road and found a quiet beach. Night Wed/Thu 1/2 there. We didn’t pitch the tent; it was so warm. The sky was full of stars. The air was definitely clean. To the north it was at least 500 km to the nearest land, to the south it was Sahara desert for at least 2000 km, to the west there was a small settlement 100 km away and to the east there was the city of Sirt 100 km away. What a view! Millions of stars!!! Goodnight. Let’s hope nothing will bite. 

 

Thu, July 2, 98. LIBYA: ride from the beach near Sirt to the beach near Bengazi.  

 

J.: In the morning we found lots of “balls” (kind of sea plant tossed away by the water). We “played soccer.” Without usual garbage, it wouldn’t be an authentic Libyan wild beach. Well, all around there was plenty of trash. It’s Libya. I took a morning swim in the sea sharing environment with lots or of the jellyfish, and skillfully managed to avoid being stung. 

Great place to spend a night, Libya

We set off. The next stop was to be Benghazi.

 

Salt lake.

We stopped at the salt lake that stretched several km along the sea to take few pictures.  

Salt lake

 

The ride

After few hours of riding, we came across a tiny village. There was even a small restaurant or rather eatery. We ordered kofta and agreed on the price. Suddenly, an elegant black Mercedes appeared in front of the restaurant. A seriously looking man in a black suit got out of the car. He talked for a minute to the waiter (owner?) of the restaurant and left. The waiter said that it was a government official and that he paid for our meal!!! “It’s a rich country!”

G: The waiter was an Algerian working in Libya. He asked if it was possible to sponsor him. What is it with everybody wanting to leave Libya? It is a rich country! We exchanged addresses.

J.: The highway was in good condition. Every now and then there was a stinking spot with remains of a camel. At night, these animals look for warm spots (asphalt keeps the temperature longer than sand) and many of them get killed by highway vehicles.

 

Beach near Benghazi.

Again, we were looking for a place to sleep. It was easier to find a beach than a hotel. Signs in Arabic! To get to the beach we had to cross a garbage field. I don’t think it was a planned dump—just a convenient place for trash.

We found the beach. We shared it with several Libyans for whom it was a night out—the next day was Friday, a holiday for Muslims. That night the humidity was unbearable. In the morning the brake disks were covered with rust as if we didn’t touch the bikes for at least a month. Night Thu/Fri 2/3 there.  

Beach near Benghazi, Libya

 

Fri, July 3, 98. LIBYA: from Benghazi to Susah through Green Mountains.

 

Green Mountains.

Kept driving.

G: The best breakfast one may have in a hot country is a watermelon. We stopped at the fruit stand beside the road (not for the first time and not last) and chose the juiciest melon. It was divine, very wet and filling.

Watermelon! The best!

J.: In the middle of the Green Mountains, Greg’s bike odometer hit 50,000 km. We reached Sousa in the late afternoon, found accommodation in a resort for Libyan tourists and went to see Appolonia and Cyrene, two ancient sites. The resort was nice; the beach—clean; the room—basic. Cockroaches outnumbered people by at least 50 times and their size was “African”. I killed around 20. (Night Fri/Sat 3/4 there).

 

Appolonia.

The site was empty, except for the sheep but strangely there was an attendant who opened the door for us. Today the ruins represent only half of the former city. The rest is already under water. Looking on the sea one can spot remains some 200 meters out in the sea sticking out of the water. Slowly we were getting tired of ancient excavations. 

Ancient Appolonia, Libya

 

Cyrene.

There were few tourists, including some from Sri Lanka! The city was founded by Greek immigrants around 631 BC. In the Forum of Proculus we met some local children. Greg played soccer with them—in the museum (!) among 2½ thousand years old structures!

Forum of Proculus (colonnaded with Doric columns), Cerene, Libya



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