Log #20d Monastir to the Sahara Desert

July 8, 2001 in Log Series 20 - 29, Logs by Series, Series 20 Tunisia, The Logs

Log #20d Monastir to the Sahara Desert

Written at Sliema Creek, Malta
July 8, 2001
Covers the period June 10 to 13, 2001

Monastir has an excellent and economical marina, and because of its good service and low rates is getting more and more boats wintering there. For our 10 metre Veleda, daily high season rates were only TD 6,420 (the Tunisian Dinar was approximately 96 cents Canadian) or about $6.40 a day. Water and electricity was another $2.00 Cdn. The monthly low season rate was only TD 77,000 or about $75.00 Cdn. In addition there was a 20% discount for SSCA or CA members. No locked gates, but they were closed, and no problems with theft reported. Locals are not supposed to go on foreign yachts. There is also a Police station on the dock. I talked with a French gentleman who has kept his boat there for 10 years, and doesn’t lock it unless he is leaving it for several weeks. The people were quite friendly and helpful, especially Corrinne in the office. They were not looking for handouts or charging for every little task.

The set up of the marina reminded me of Olympic Harbour in Barcelona, a large modern marina fringed by public walkways lined with restaurants, boutiques, night clubs, a dive shop, and condominiums. They had a work yard with a good sized travel lift, a dozen yachts up on the hard, and space for winter storage of boats on the hard. The fuel dock had the most economical diesel we have ever purchased, about 25 cents Canadian per litre. There were boat rentals, car rentals, and a couple of large mock brigantine party boats.

From the marina could be seen the sandstone ramparts of the Rabat, a couple of minarets, and the gold dome of the mausoleum to Habib Bourguiba, the first president, who fought for Tunisian independence. Through an arcade of small shops the land entrance to the marina faces on a major traffic circle a few minutes walk from the Rabat and the souks of the Medina within the walls of the old city. The money grubbing hucksters are still there, bothering you and trying to lead you into their shops.

However, there is a state operated craft centre which has fixed standard prices for most things one can buy in the souks. This centre gives you a chance to shop unmolested, or to get a frame of reference of the cost of many of the items being flaunted at outrageous starting prices in the souks. The best advice I heard about “bargaining is to start at about 25% of their initial asking price, and don’t go above 35% of the start. I found some tiles that they started at the equivalent of $15.00 each to get them down to $7.00. Another shop started at $5.00, and they could probably be had for $2.50. In the craft centre they cost $1.50 to $2.00. It is definitely buyer beware!

Monastir is an upscale tourist town, not as bad as Hammamet, but has many amenities and interesting sites, an airport, train and bus connections, lush sandy beaches, markets, parks and ancient fortifications and ruins. The island that we had to sail around in heavy weather to get to the south entrance of the marina was a fascinating archeological experience. It had ancient ruins that possibly went back to Phoenician times, then structures dating back to the Moors, and the French fortifications and major dockyards of a couple of hundred years ago, right up to the tennis courts used up until the 1970’s. The dockyard had a wide 100 metre inclined hard that could have accommodated the maintenance, repair, or careening of major wooden warships. The remains of a massive capstan were intriguing to figure out. The slots radiating from it at right angles suggested it would be used to haul ships onto the hard, but the slots going uphill to a ruinous stone shed suggested that it might have been linked to engine power in the later stages of its history.

We found a useful cybercafe in the medina, but no telephone connections for our E-mail. Here we learned the first bit of transferring from disc to the internet AOL site to send E-mail. However, on our own we couldn’t go much farther as the instructions were French or Arabic. After a few frustrating wrong key strokes we gave up trying to find out details of saving onto the disc or printing from the screen.

We arranged a private car for a day trip south. It was expensive, and we could have shared it with another couple, except the few boaters we knew were tied up that day. However, we think it was worth it as we may not be that way again, unless we leave Veleda in Monastir for a winter before we leave the Med. This is a possibility as we liked it there, and the weather is warm all winter. Maybe???

Anyways, we had a fascinating day starting at 0630 until 2200, covering close to 1000 kilometres. We first went to the Roman amphitheatre at El Jem. It was not as large or well preserved as the one we visited in Arles, but this one had its subterranean caves and openings intact.  There was also the Museum of El Jem with fascinating Roman mosaics of intricate patterns, hunting scenes, Roman warriors and senators, all in vivid multicoloured stones.

We continued south to Sfax and along the coast road, getting into arid semi-desert terrain relieved by more verdant oases as at Gabes. Outside the oases, Gabes is a dusty grey town in which we had a nice full meal of lamb, chicken, potatoes, salad and water for less than $12.00 Cdn for the three of us. Crowded, noisy, simple, and moderate level of hygiene, but quite acceptable, the food tasty, and the price was good. From Gabes we went inland, southwest through more hilly, rocky desert, sparsely inhabited with primitive buildings, the sand blowing across the arid fields, reducing visibility. Other than a few isolated palm trees, there was only some low scrub vegetation that looked like black moles on the landscape. These were hillocks of scrub brush that accumulated in a cluster, and being rooted more heavily were not blown away by the severe winds that blow across the desert. It was a barren depressing landscape, and we hadn’t reached the “real” desert yet!

Troglodytes! As we wound our way up the 600 foot level of these hills, we saw several cave openings with sheds outside, and in some cases power lines going into them! When we reached Matmata we stopped for a look at the cave dwellings still used by some of the Berbers. They were not organized in fortified villages or on rocky peaks, but separate cave dwelling homes, dug into the sandstone hundreds of years ago and still housing families and livestock.

These cave houses had open air courtyards entered from the hillside through open cuts or tunnels. The open courtyard would be about 10 metres below surface level, a large circular opening up to 15 to 20 metres in diameter. Radiating off this courtyard would be the entrance passageway, and four to six “rooms” dug into the rock wall, and entered through a standup size doorway (but no door; perhaps curtains). Each room would have a different function. One might be a food, grain, and utensil storage. Another would be a kitchen, while others could be personal bedrooms. In one of the “houses “ we were in there was a second level room dug into the rock wall about two or three metres above the floor, with a rope ladder for access. The courtyard and some of the rooms were whitewashed, others left with the natural soft rock walls.

The government has provided water and electricity, and the pipes and wires entered through the entrance passageway, and were strung over to the appropriate rooms. The only daylight In the rooms came from the doorways, as no windows were carved into the rock faces. Some of the rooms were partitioned off with curtains as I saw in one room where a baby was sleeping. The furniture was primitive, some of the walls and floors decorated with colourful carpets, the electric lights were just bare bulbs with a switch to turn them on or off. I don’t know what they used for toilet facilities.

Walking on top of the hillsides, these courtyards were not protected with any kind of fencing, but were just open holes in the sloping terrain. An aspect that struck me as funny was that an occasional TV antenna could be seen sticking up from some of these courtyards (I didn’t notice any satellite dishes). Near the entrance was a reed shed for the animals, a few goats and a donkey. Some of the houses had paintings of fish on the outside walls for good fortune, and beaded curtains in their entrances. Only  scarce scrub vegetation broken by the occasional palm tree, rocks, dust, and bleak ancient hills made up this desert landscape. The Berbers have lived this way (minus electricity and TV) for hundreds if not thousands of years.

As we drove on we noted many of these cave houses, several far from the road, some now being used for animal shelters rather than residential accommodations. Without trees, the panorama expanded over each crest and around each bend, vistas of rocky hills, canyons, dry brush, a periodic small oasis with some palm trees and greenery, but everything else a brown grey wasteland. No wonder some of the desert scenes from Star Wars were filmed in this region, including the cave dwellings of Matmata.

Driving westward now towards the desert proper, the hills were reduced to dry rolling plains, the dust, being whipped up by force 5 or 6 winds, drifting across the road blurring visibility and starting to accumulate on the tarmac in places. It reminded me of snowstorms in Northern Ontario, with the fine dry snow drifting across the roads, piling up at snow fences, making moving patterns as it swirled across long straight stretches, then curved into little cyclones, starting to dangerously pile up on the roads, making them slippery and reducing visibility. The sand storm that was brewing was like that too. In some stretches there were long fences of palm tree trunks to protect the road or buildings from the accumulating sand dunes. Even the sun was hazed out, making it look like an overcast day due to the sand swept high in the air.

Westward we went to the fringes of the Sahara Desert at a small town called Douz. We drove through the windswept streets, over accumulations of sand at corners and around the bases of the buildings. A few locals were out, but wrapped up in flowing robes with hoods pulled over their faces for protection. Through town we came to a long white wall with an arch in the middle, grandiosely proclaiming itself to be the Gateway to the Sahara Desert. Rather presumptuous I thought. However as we slowly went through the arch, a grand uninterrupted vista of nothing but sand dunes, and blowing sand magically opened up! The Sahara Desert!

I could almost hear the theme song from Lawrence of Arabia playing in my head as I looked in awe at this remarkable landscape of nothing but rolling sand dunes as far as the eye could see. No more scrub brush or rocky hills; just undulating soft curves of windswept sand. We drove several hundred yards out into this sandy kingdom, ironically following a track made from old tires standing up, their bases sunk into the sand, to indicate a more solid route for vehicles. Again it reminded me of the branches that would be planted on the snow and ice in Northern Ontario winters to safely guide vehicles across frozen lakes. We got out of the car. The sand was extremely fine, almost like flour. Our feet would sink into the road only a couple of centimetres, but when we walked off the marked roadway, we would sink in ten centimetres or more as we tried to walk up some of the small hills. The sand blew in our faces, eyes, and mouths. Goggles would definitely be needed for anyone travelling in the open. I was concerned that the fine sand would get into my camera, and shielded it as I tried to take some pictures. The blowing sand was so uncomfortable that we stayed out for only a few minutes, as we were not prepared for desert walking. I can see that survival clothing and skills in the desert would be just as important as the survival skills and clothing in the arctic.

As we left the desert and went back through Douz, we passed an ornate hotel with traditional desert arches with crenellated battlements that used to be a French Foreign Legion outpost. On the streets we saw columns of camels, and several roaming loose in open fields. We declined the suggested camel rides.

The rest of the trip back to Monastir will be described in the next log, as well as our departure from Tunisia, and a short stop at Lampedusa, an Italian island half way to Malta.