Tunisia  - 2010

We left Marina del Sole in Cagliari on Friday 11th June, and motor-sailed overnight  through  a challenging shipping lane and, as we neared the African coast, a lot of fishing boats .  I had the night watches from 2100-2400 and 0300-0600.   We always find it difficult to sleep off watch and think/know it would be better if we were able to get into a routine with more than one night at sea – wait for it!! I think we’re going to do Malta to Greece next so at least a couple of nights.


We arrived in Tunisia at Sidi Bou Said just north of Tunis, by this time I had developed a terrible headache and was being sick so didn’t even notice as we went through the immigration and customs shenanigans and then parked the boat in a particularly tight spot without a murmur – Andy knows how well, or not, I am feeling by the decibel level – it was very low.  So I missed all the baksheesh arrangements, sweeteners, presents of whisky (cheap bottle to the customs who neatly disappeared it down his trouser leg) and 5 euro notes.  This is the expectation – we had been told that this would happen and should really have bought some cigarettes because everyone asked for something – the marina guys who helped us tie up, the police, customs, the boy at the fuel dock etc.  As we left we had to check out of the country and yet again the customs came on board.  He missed the drink cupboard but opened my fridge and spent a long time fondling the top of, and looking longingly, at a bottle of Prosecco – no way!  I was not going to let that one go!  Later we had a call on the VHF from the Tunisian Coastguard - oh no, not a recall, was the Prosecco at risk again? No - a simple check of our position and course.


We took the train into Tunis, a rattling graffitied affair whose doors failed to shut and whose open windows served as a spittoons – first class was no different.  I had been concerned to dress appropriately but I needn’t have worried - there is a great mix here.  I saw only one full burkha,  many hijabs with accompanying long skirts or tunics/trousers and then western dress, jeans and t shirts, strapless tops and short skirts.

We had noticed people with flowers behind their ears, both locals and foreigners alike and then saw a small stall where they were being manufactured, lots of guys sitting around tables under shade to make supplies to sell to the tourists.    They take the unopened buds of jasmine and bind them together at the end of a wooden ‘stem’, a labour intensive job – it is a Tunisian tradition apparently but you have to be careful to wear them correctly - over the left ear if you are married and the right if you are available.  The idea is that they open up in the evening and impart their heady smell – they smelled good anyway just the way they were.

I was disappointed not to be feeling one hundred percent as I was so looking forward to sampling Tunisian food and enjoying the new smells and sensations, after all we were in Africa!  At the first stop, I spilt fanta on my skirt.  It left a bright orange stain so I went to the loo and rinsed it off, now I had a very wet skirt which clung to my legs in a most unattractive fashion.  I took another paracetomol and headed for the first clothes shop which happened to be a Benetton, grabbed the first pair of trousers I saw and had the lady cut off the security tag in the changing room.  So now, decorously dressed in olive green harem pants which just happened to match my t shirt – we set off again and I was feeling better – amazing what a bit of shopping will do.  

The great game of the Souk

We dived into the amazing colourful, crowded and noisy narrow lanes leading in apparently haphazard directions.  I later read that there is an order to the lay out and that traditionally food is sold only outside the city walls since it is considered less “noble” and potentially polluting.  They are grouped together according to trade; leather workers, in one area, metal workers in another, jewellery down one lane and perfumes down the next; wood workers here and musical instruments there and that’s not all – there are fabrics, rugs, shoes and copper and much, much more.  People jostled, sellers called – the game was on.  If you caught their eye you were lost – first point to them.  If you looked at something in particular – second point to them and so on – “I give you good price” “come into my shop” “you my mother” – wasn’t quite sure of the implication of this last one but the guy thought I could do with another son!  The noise and hassle was constant and we had to learn to bargain.  Andy is very good at it and I am hopeless, lost when flattered!  And if you are not being persuaded into a purchase then you are being offered someone’s brother to show you the sights or you are asked where you are from and amazingly he knows someone who lives in your very street, or you are hailed as having been in the man’s taxi that morning – only the mistake here was that he said he picked us up from our hotel – Ha! We won that one!


Dido (the wanderer) queen of Tyre came here accompanied by virgins and some nobles and made a canny bargain with the locals.  They said she could have all the land that could be covered by an ox hide so she cut one into very thin strips, knotted them together and so obtained the area that Carthage was built on.  What a wonderful setting - on a hill, catching the breeze, a wonderful climate, an elegant place altogether we walked under a shower of yellow blossoms and the scent of jasmine filled the air.  We didn’t visit everywhere but were followed by a taxi driver who was sure that we should and that he would be the man to guide us.  We were getting quite good at saying no by this time.  We visited the museum, the remains Punic and Roman, the roman villas and the Acropolium ( ex St Louis Cathedral) now a centre for the arts, there was a rehearsal going on for a fashion show, the girls were so thin and on heels so high I think they must have been grown specially for the business with shoes already moulded to them.  They were working out their routine a little shyly, the music blaring while we tourists wandered.


Kelibia is a fishing port but also a point of entry/departure to Tunisia.  The yacht facilities were nil but we rafted up to one of the five other yachts already at the quay.  Towering above the town was a beau geste style fortress, floodlit at night and which made a nice afternoon walk listening to the plaintive wail of the muezzin calling the prayers.  Because this came over a loud speaker you heard the collective sighs and responses of the gathered worshipers – this gave it the feel of a black spiritual church where they interject with cries of ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Praise the lord’.

We had an amazing meal at a cafe in the port ‘Au Vieux Port’, which is owned by an artist named Raouf Gara.  It was covered in vegetation, deserted of customers but two friendly boys  encouraged us in and took us up to the rooftop where the table was set for us.  The plates we ate off all individual and painted by the artist.  Everywhere you looked there was flotsam, hanging from walls and ceilings, arranged on shelves, stacked against walls.  The dominating theme unsurprisingly, was the sea, bones of whales, decayed turtles, shells, driftwood, glass and then the canvas’s covering most of the wall space and piled on tables or leaning against the side.

We left Kelibia with the intention of stopping at the island of Pantelleria but decided early on that the weather was such that it would be better to go on to Malta.  As we came in sight of Pantelleria we took advantage of my Italian internet key and hurriedly connected, received and sent emails and had a quick look at the internet weather.  The journey from then on was epic – we had heard North West Force 7 on the radio and so got prepared.  Three reefs in the main, storm jib forestay rigged, which later got in the way, was unmanageable and complicated the use of the genny, we’d have been better off if we’d never bothered.  Andy has never been happy with this arrangement and it’s about to undergo yet another change.  We sailed the whole way.  It is EXHAUSTING doing these sails – I know I’m getting boring saying it but we just don’t sleep – how do single handed long distance sailors do it?  They must be very special.  The seas got huge and for a couple of hours it was indeed force 7 coming from behind, the boat was racing along led by Odin’s Valkyrie’s, wonderful under sail, pounding through the waves being born aloft and then dipping into the troughs, each time you thought that you might be overpowered by a wave the maidens lifted her up and carried her along.  Never quiet because there is the constant thrash of the hull on the sea and the waves on the hull, the breaking seas around and the howling of the wind and the sky fantastic black, the moon a wedge of watermelon with the colour drained out shedding its light across the waters, the stars so plentiful and bright, the milky way a feathered arc above and as the instruments kept sounding an alarm (subsequently thought to be spurious) we put them off and soon I was watching the relationship of planets, moon and other stars to guide me on the right track.  And as they faded or changed relationship I chose others until finally they were gone and I was left with the grey monochrome just before dawn, the only white, the brightness of the tops of the waves breaking at their peak.  And it’s not quiet when you are down below for a rest, everything that wasn’t wedged is rattling banging crashing and of course you can hear the sea and the waves from here as well.

For those who might follow

Of the three marinas in the Bay of Tunis, two, Bizerte and Goullete, are closed so only the most expensive, Siddi Bou Said is available.  It is small but offers good access to Tunis and Carthage.

The bureaucracy of entering and leaving is protracted and blighted by the request for ‘presents’ (bribes) and while not obligatory ease the way. If your principles allow you to bend to accommodate local practice then a supply of European cigarettes, low denomination euro notes and cheap bottles of whisky (for the customs men who will undoubtedly search the boat), will serve you well.

Although we never met the Tunisian coastguard on the shore we were intercepted by a patrol boat off shore.  On another passage we were called on VHF by name and asked for our position and course - suggesting a close surveillance of coastal traffic.  Friends who anchored before clearing into the country were moved on by the coastguard.  However once in the country it seemed to be OK to anchor (but not go ashore) although even day sails require clearance from the police – a bit of a hassle really.

We had both O2 and vodaphone mobiles which between them provided sufficient coverage.  There were internet cafe’s in Tunis and Kelibia and probably in most medium sized communities throughout the country.


We are moored in Msida Marina in Msida Creek not far from where young Andy used to live – we made a pilgrimage today!

We’ve also made contact again with Nicole and Dominique on Houbibi last seen in a cala in Ibiza, so nice to be hailed by them on arrival and later by Silver Fox last seen in Mahon – amazing and pleasurable to catch up with people.

Links to Photos and goggle in next update !!!!

Jinti, Msida, Malta, 21 June 2010

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