Chilling out with a homestay on an Oasis in Tunisia


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Africa
November 19th 1974
Published: October 8th 2021
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The ferry from Trapani in Sicily across to Tunis left at 11am, and while the day was overcast, the sea was relatively calm for the trip. We mixed on board with a number of people, including Kiwis Nev & Liz, Ed & Heather, the brothers Leek whose old man worked with my father at the AMP in NZ around 20 years previously (pure coincidence!); German Gert, who didn’t quite seem to know where he was heading; and Brit Martin, also a strange fellow – plotted travels, chatted, and even had a few games of Ricketty Kate. We reached Tunis right on time at 7.30pm to a most unpleasant surprise – we were refused entry as we had no visas. We stayed on board for at least a couple of hours arguing the toss with local Customs before begrudgingly being granted a 3-day transit visa only. Not so lucky was our Japanese friend, who was still arguing (in French) as we finally made our way to the port. It was a grotty area around the port, so we took a bus into Tunis proper, meeting up, and making a future rendez-vous, with local Saadi. We had a late snack of a chicken sandwich then encountered a few problems getting a cheap hotel in the new city area, before finally settling on the Hotel Milano in the medina.

We had a late start next morning, but there was plenty of activity once we got going. First, we made it down to the Tourist Bureau, then to the Algerian Embassy for visa applications, before a leisurely breakfast/lunch of chicken and tomato sandwiches in the park. There was a lot of frigging around at various Police Stations, endeavouring to get our Tunisian visa extensions, without success at this stage. The only consolations were that it was a pleasant sunny day and our walking around gave us a good look at Tunis. Later in the afternoon, after returning from the Algerian Embassy, we strolled around the Parc du Belvedere and had a great hour at the local zoo. We returned to the hotel via the PTT, where we both sent some postcards, before making it down to the Public ‘Douche’ for a really great scrub-up (0.150 TUD each). We celebrated our cleanliness with a night out for dinner at M’Rabet Restaurant in the Medina, with the local menu of Ojja (tomato puree plus extras) and Merguez (spiced snags), served by waiters in plus fours pyjamas and caps. This was accompanied by some lively local music, with an Omar Shariff likeness catching Joan’s eye. All round it was a fun night, and we finally hit the cot around 11pm.

We got smartly into gear next morning, with a brekky of fried batter and fresh orange juice, before hopping on a train to Carthage. After what we had witnessed in Turkey, it was pretty disappointing, as very few ruins were still in place, and it was totally disorganised. However, they still had the hide to charge an admission, probably more for the history than the sights. We stayed about an hour or so and then moved on, via a hitch in a Citroen, to Sidi Bou Said, an attractive little whitewashed town built high on a hill. Most notable was its colour scheme, with almost all houses built with white stone, but with blue trimmings for the windows and doors. We strolled around for a while and had a great picnic lunch in a secluded spot by the sea, before returning to Tunis by 3pm to pick up our Algerian visas. We moved on then to the local Police Station where we had further hassles with the extensions to our Tunisian visas, but hoped they would come through the following day. We missed our rendezvous with Saadi, so returned for a mediocre medina meal, followed by a great banana shake and the remains of our lunchtime ‘dates on a stick’.

The next day was one of those incredibly frustrating days you get periodically when you are travelling. After another great shower at the public bath, we made it down to the bus and train stations to check out timetables for onward travel. This took up most of the morning, before we strolled round the medina then went up the top where we sat in the sun and had a lunch of cheese and banana sandwiches. We visited the Police Station, only to find the visa section closed for the afternoon after promising us delivery then. We waited almost 2 hours for some action before finally I did my block (en francais, no less!) – this produced action, but no positive outcome. So finally, we marched down and saw the Vice Consulate at the British Embassy, who was hopeful we would get a better showing next day. We changed money at the Hotel Africa then had a soupe and viande meal down at the medina. We went back to the hotel early but learnt later that during all this time, we had been unaware of all the drama occurring at Tunis airport, less than 5 kms away. A British Airways jet had been hijacked by four Palestinians and force-landed into Tunis, where the hijackers threatened to kill one hostage per hour if their wishes to free 13 comrades weren’t granted. They finally surrendered after killing a German banker.

The police were remarkably efficient the next day, and the visas were all ready for us on arrival at the station at 8.30am. We decided to split Tunis right away and made it onto the 11am bus, heading south into the Sahara Desert to Gafsa. An almost brand-new bus made the journey quite pleasant. The weather was slightly overcast but warm, and the trip that took us through Kairouan and Sidi Bou Zid was through flat countryside that was barren but not really desert. We had a brief stop at the former, giving us a chance to stretch our legs and stroll around for around 15 minutes. In the countryside were many trees that looked like gums, plus olive trees and lots of cactus. The people were a real treat. In the towns, we saw men with Muslim hats and towels etc wrapped around them, with the women fully cloaked up as usual. It was amazing to see men dressed in heavy jumpers, coats and cloaks on what we would consider a warm day. Outside the towns, we saw brightly coloured nomad groups, herding sheep of riding donkeys and camels. We finally reached Gafsa around 6.30pm, and were directed to the Youth Hostel by our new best friend Habib Belhoula, who we’d met on the bus and I had spent considerable time chatting with him, en francais. He was studying at the University of Tunis, where he was leading a relatively liberated lifestyle, but was returning briefly to his home, where his life was anything but liberated! We had a local meal of meat, sauce and peas, supplementing our bread and cheese lunch. We had a quick wander around before making it back to the hostel for an early night, with Joan joining the boys in the men’s dormitory.

It was certainly well worth making the trip of coming all this way into the desert. We spent half the next day as the guests of the Belhoula family, Habib & Akila, Othman & Laila (my favourite!) and Moncef & Houria. Fortunately, I was able to chat with them in reasonably comprehensible French (with poor Joan relegated to observer status!) on various aspects of Tunisian life. We also got a good perspective of Tunisian family life, with all the relatives living together, by looking around their home and those of the various in-laws. We were offered a typical lunch of soup, couscous (with a spinach-type top), meat and potatoes, with frequent very concentrated cups of tea or coffee. We finally took off on the 3pm bus for Nefta, passing through some great desert countryside, where there was no real vegetation but huge tufts of grass to break the smoothness of the sand dunes. We reached Nefta late in the afternoon, after a brief stop off at Tozeur, with the cloud and rain looking as though it might clear for a good day the next day. We stopped for the night at the Marhalas Touring Club, a really great spot just outside the oasis. We dined a luxurious meal with local Tunisian cuisineand wine, at an unknown price, but what the hell – it was a great experience!

It was really cold over night, but converted into a sunny morning, even if a little fresh. We had a breakfast of bread and jam, with hot milk and coffee, before paying the bill, which turned out a very moderate 1.500 TUD for the accommodation and 3.060 TUD (7 bucks) for dinner, wine and breakfast. We left around 10am and got directions from a Belgian couple camping outside the club but did even better with the services of a young guide picked up along the way. He took us first to La Corbeille, the central oasis of Nefta, with a magnificent view down in the hollow, surrounded by the mud and white brick maribous. We checked out the water sources and flow through the oasis, the vegetable gardens and the general shrubbery, and were given a taste of the syrup obtained by a local from the stem of the date palms. From there, our guide took us to the outer part of the town amongst the Bedouin and their nomad tents. Yours truly went beserk with the camera, snapping tents, children, camels, oases, date palms – the works! Joan and I each had a 90-minute trip across the plains on a camel (1 dinar each) and checked out the ‘grand oasis’, which lay just this side of the nearby Chott el Djerid (salt lake). It was starting to get overcast by this time and became damn cold. Back from there and on foot again, we saw through a couple of the homes and then watched three giggling local lovelies at work weaving blankets. It was then back to the Marhalas Club for a big lunch of salad, then malssouka (egg batter), before meat and chops, followed by dates. The latter, along with my present of a huge bunch earlier, certainly kept my system well-tuned for the next couple of days!

We split from Nefta on the 4pm bus, just in good time as it started to rain. We had an interesting view of a herd of camels, some 200 in all, on the way home through the desert. We arrived back at chez Belhoula around 7pm, where we watched TV for a while before retiring to ‘our bedroom’ with Habib and Moncef for dinner and ‘cross-cultural discussions’. ‘Our bedroom’ just happened to be their parents’ bedroom suite, which they had vacated for their guests of honour, having told their parents that we were a young married couple. We had most fascinating discussions (en francais, with poor Joan again thrust into the role of observer) about the recent hijacking, the role of women in society (theirs and ours), their families, and why they marry young, and were destined for, and resigned to, arranged marriages, with no monkey business beforehand. Again, it blew them away that a single Western guy and girl were freely travelling and overnighting together. We tried some Berber herbs for our stomachs, but they certainly didn’t do too much for Joan’s! Our late evening entertainment was viewing Moncef’s wedding photos, as well as their stamp and my foreign banknote collections. By the time we retired to bed around 11pm, we really welcomed the break after a pretty solid 3 hours of French conversation. It was pretty nippy by this stage, but the room was warm, and we felt totally safe surrounded by all their Tunisian ‘nic-nacs’. However, Joan didn’t get too enthused about the night visit to the outside toilet!

We had a late rise next morning after a really good night’s sleep, and were offered another eggs and bread breakfast. We spent the latter part of the morning in Gafsa, hassling with banks over their refusal to change back our surplus Tunisian dinars. Then it was back to Belhoulas for a chat on the roof in the sun and a lunch of soup, spag, meat & veges, before farewells of a million handshakes and even some cheek kisses from the boys – ugh! We were lucky to run into Nev and Liz at the bus stop on our way out to pick up a bus for Algeria, and after a quick chat they were good enough to give us a fiver for our 5 dinars.


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10th October 2021

Tunisia on our short list
We really would like to see Tunisia. When it opens again we may consider it depending on how much of the population can get vaccinated. It may be years for some of these nations.

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