I’ve always dreamed of riding my motorbike in Tunisia and this year I managed not one trip but two, in the same year. Here’s the report of our official motorcycle tour to the amazing country of Tunisa, which left on 14th October 2019
I rolled up at the Eurotunnel in Folkestone, all the customers were already there, which surprised me, as I thought I was early. Clearly they were excited, so excited to get going that I hardly had time to introduce myself before we’d decided to grab an earlier train. I already knew most of the customers, they’d ridden on other tours with me before. The day started a little cold, though it was early and it looked like we were going to encounter rain, not a great start to the tour, so I picked up speed a little having seen on my rain map on my sat nav that the road ahead looked clearer and free of the pixelated blob that was hovering above me on the screen.
My plan worked and we stayed dry. A few stops later and riding throughout the day, we arrived in the Vosges Mountains for our first night overlooking a lake. The temperature had warmed up and it was a pleasant evening, which entailed dining in an Italian restaurant just up the road. It was good opportunity to get introduced to everyone. My first impressions was that I had good bunch of people on the tour and I was excited about the next couple weeks.
The following day we headed through Switzerland and over the Grimsel Pass. Unfortunately, when we neared the top, it started to rain, heavily, which then turned to snow. The temperature fell to 3°c and most of us were getting wet through. It’s was bitter and hard to think we’d be in a desert in a couple of days, sweating our arses off. We didn’t stay around on the top for long and made our way down. It was impossible to see, the snow was sticking to the helmet visor like wet tissue paper, even the inside of my Pinloc visor misted up but all I had was a small window to see through that I had managed to wipe away with my thumb. Eventually we got to a lower altitude and the snow on the visor, screen and us, thawed out but the rain continued until lunch.
We continued, riding through Italy for the rest of the day to stay by another lake in Arona. Whilst we dined in an Italian restaurant just around the corner from the hotel, the heavens opened up, and a tropical storm thundered down upon us, causing localised flooding. It was quite a fascinating show and the lightening continued for most of the evening. Hilarity ensued trying to get back to the hotel without getting soaked, dodging the rain using a tactical effort of sprinting from the cover of one shop verander to the other. I couldn’t help stop to pause for breathe due to the laughter caused from our hilarious effort. We made it back to the hotel foyer without getting too wet I’m pleased to report. I sat in bed for a while watching the lightening storm, hoping by morning the storm would have blown itself out and it’d be sunny and dry.
The next day we headed for Genoa, where we would catch the ferry to Tunis. Our ferry wouldn’t leave till 1800 so we had an easy day to ride the 140 miles to port. Thankfully, it was dry and the storm was long gone.
When we reached the port we went through the necessary security checks but not until we finished negotiating the heavy traffic and ending up on the freight port due to road works. We all had to check in, get our prepaid tickets and clear customs. Fortunately the whole process took less than hour and we were then immediately allowed onto the ferry. Bikes parked and being strapped down using four anchor points we headed for our cabins.
The ferry left on time, which was a relief. Back in March this year, Tom (a friend) and I did a recce of Tunisia. We sailed from Marseille, not Genoa, due to our limited time frame. However, when we arrived on the Dock, having cleared customs, we were told there was a delay. The ferry arrived 6 hours late. Like a couple of rookies, Tom and I hadn’t packed any snacks or drink, we only had what was left in our hydration packs, which, was less than a litre of water. We struggled, even a Tunisian took pitty on us and offered us wine and cheese, which doesn’t help much when you’re dehydrating. Nonetheless, it was welcomed and passed the time now we had someone to talk to.
The ferry crossing is fairly uneventful, there’s no way of jazzing it up. So most of us spent time watching downloaded films on tablets or phones, reading books and sleeping.
We docked in Tunis at 1700. I couldn’t get off the boat quick enough. Swarms of people headed for their cars and fired up their engines to engage full air con mode. The boat was beginning to fill with smog. As I gingerly made my way down the steep ramp, hitting tarmac, we headed around to the vehicle import control area to get the bikes imported into the country. Passport control was quick and easy, a simple flash of our passports was all that was required, mine received some more souvenir stamps across the cluttered pages of other countries signatures. My best interpretation of “Thank you” (Shukran) in Arabic also went down well with the customs officials. I always get a different look when you try and use their language. A look of respect perhaps, a, smile or just gratitude that you’ve at least made an effort, even if your translation may mean something entirely different. As long as its not rude!
There was commotion and confusion at vehicle import control. No one seemed to know where to go or what to do. Despite being here months earlier, there seemed no rhyme nor reason to how things are done. Its a case of grab your documents, find someone in a uniform, get him to stamp your import card, find a kiosk, ask for import form for the motorcycle, wait, get pushed by other impatient motorists, listen to shouting in Arabic and eventually you can go.
Once you have all the required stamps and paperwork you can then head over to the insurance kiosk and grab your green card. Sold as a two week, 3rd party Insurance cover at a cost of approximately £15, it doesn’t take long. Grab some local currency and we were good to go, well, some of us were. We’d somehow lost a few riders in the commotion, so I went in search of them. Luckily they were all good and just waiting their turn to get through import control.
We headed out of the port and showed our passports and papers for the 6th and last time to the final customs officer, as if they’re reluctant to let us go. As we exited the gate, swarms of Arabic homeless people huddled together on the roadside, they didn’t bother us but it wasn’t the warmest welcome. Sadly its real life, a life almost never portrayed in travel brochures. My customers bought some Tunisia flag stickers from a street seller before heading off into the darkness of the night. It was pitch black now and I was struggling to see behind me if the group were all together. After a short distance I jumped off my bike and ran to the back, asking only one rider at the very back to put his fog lights on and for everyone else to turn theirs off. This way I could identify if we were all together and would prevent me from thinking a Boeing 737 was coming in to land behind me! Special thanks to Andy and Deb’s for your help.
The plan worked. We negotiated our way through Carthage, a bustling town in Tunis, with mopeds whizzing past as if they were in a death race, cars pulling out from every angle and pedestrians not realising the consequences of being hit by a large motorcycle. It was slightly stressful on the mind and concentration but somehow fun at the same time. It’s an environment we rarely encounter and it somehow becomes exciting. We started to head away from the busiest part of the traffic chaos, only to realise my back marker wasn’t with us, so I pulled over immediately to wait for them to catch up. Unbeknown to me, we’d pulled up outside the Kings Palace, which, caused some panic amongst the guards. A guy in a suit at first came towards me, wearing a sidearm on his belt, shouted and screamed at me, I couldn’t hear him through my helmet and I was too busy looking out for my back marker so didn’t give him the full attention he was demanding, this made him become angrier. It wasn’t until I saw a military guy in camo gear and a machine gun walking over to join him on the dimmly lit street that I realised something was wrong. I suddenly got the message, having looked up and saw the entrance to what looked like a palacial home and quickly moved off. Phew!
Luckily the others had caught up and no one got shot or mowed down by machine gun fire trying to protect the King. Long live the king!
A few miles later and we arrived at the hotel for about 7.30pm. It was a 5 star complex with security guards out front who verified with reception on walkie talkie that we were guests and had reservations, before being allowed through the barrier. There was no need to secure the bikes tonight, I was certain the armed guards would keep them safe!
We had a good first evening in the hotel. We ate well from the buffet restaurant and drank beer, wine and Mohitos.
We left the hotel next morning and headed on the highway to El Jem. Taking a back road off the highway to break up the monotony of riding on motorways. Stopping for fuel and drinks at a service station we became the centre of attention. People loved us, and asked where we were from. Small children wanted photos with the motorbikes, it was lovely and a warm feeling passed through me.
We arrived in El Jem, where the customers would go off and explore the impressive Collesuem for a while. Whilst they did, and I kept watch over the bikes and their gear, I sat with a man who managed his stall selling souvenirs. I drank cola, he drank thick gritty black coffee and we shared cigarettes whilst he repeadetly made me get up and try and buy some of his dust covered souvenirs. I gave in eventually, buying an old coin and a cheap bracelet for the sum of 12 Dinar (£3)
Jsut before the customers started heading back to the bikes, a policeman pulled up, taking a keen interest in the bikes. He approached me and asked if we were from Britainia (UK), I obviously said yes. He then went on to tell me there was 8 motos in the group, again I said yes. He shook my hand and said welcome and then asked where exactly we were going. So I told him some of the towns and cities. He was pleasant, polite and spoke with a smile. I didn’t think much about it at the time as it was usual behaviour from police in North Africa.
We headed to Sfax and arrived at the Ibis hotel in the centre of town, about 500 metres from the Medina. As we neared the hotel the staff opened the barrier for us to gain access to the underground car park, which I thought was a nice gesture as clearly he knew we were coming. So far, everyone we had spoken to had been extremely helpful, polite and friendly.
We had a good evening in the hotel. The staff were great and the food was lovely with a help yourself buffet meal
We were on our way now to see my friend “Slim” in Tamazaret but first we stopped off to see Luke Skywalkers House. The one filmed in the movie. Hotel Sidi Idriss, in Matmata.
An old guy with his camel wanted to join in and offered camel rides but I don’t think anyone was keen. I gave the old guy a few Dinars anyway to put a smile on his face. After Hotel Sidi Idriss we stopped to look at the Trogoldye dwellings, cave houses built into the hillside. Finally we arrived in Tamazaret, in the desert. Slims place is like a guest house. Its his home and is traditional Tunisian style living. It’s like a mini paradise though, amongst the vastness and desolate lands of the desert. With a swimming pool, delicious food and some beers! We had a great afternoon and evening relaxing here. Laughter and sunset set a very relaxing mood for the evening.
On route to Tatouine we stopped briefly in the market town of Medinine, another location used for the filming of star wars. We stopped at some old Grainstores and even had selfies with the locals.
Negotiating our way through tbe narrow market place, scraping panniers against the stalls we finally exited the chaos and continued onwards to Tatouine. Fuel was running low so I looked out for a petrol station but as the miles ticked away on my odometer, all the garages we passed were closed. The only fuel available were barrels full of it on the side of the road being sold and delivered through a hand pump. Cloths were hung over funnels as the fuel was poured into vehicles as we passed. Determined not to fill up with dirty fuel, I carried on, hoping no one would run out before we found a garage open. But with just 20 miles of fuel left we stumbled across a Shell garage. Phew.
We headed into the desert, riding out of Tatouine and heading south, we ended up in Ksar Ouled Sultane, a Grainstore used for the filming of Star Wars. Its an amazing place but one can’t help being aware that we would now be just 40 miles from the Libyan border. When we arrived we were mobbed by children, being a Sunday, it must be no school day. They were becoming menaces, trying to get in the bikes and undo our panniers, begging for money and generally very hyperactive. More so than most kids. We decided to leave now we had taken pictures and video and handed out snacks to them. They even tried to jump on the back of bikes as we left. I’m not sure if it was funny or just bloody dangerous.
Chenini, was our next port of call just outside Tatouine in the desert. An abandoned Berber village that was once a fortified granary. The scenery was incredible but the heat had risen to a baking hot 37°c. As we rode through the desert, miles from our freezing encounter on the Grimsel Pass, the scenery became even more dramatic. Palm tress lined the roadside and the mountains in the distance made the ride feel incredibly adventurous. With a newly laid tarmac road heading back to Tatouine, it was a smooth and pleasant ride on Black ribbon like tarmac.
Our route then took us through the salt lake of Sebkhet el Melah 30 miles north of the Libyan, border on route to Djerba. This wide open area is beautiful, with salt forming on the lakeside. The road cut through the middle of the lake with the salty water just yards from us either side. As we reached Djerba, once again, we were stopped by checkpoint officials, asking if all 8 motorcycles were together, were we OK? Where were we heading, “from Britiania, yes? ” followed by smiles, handshakes and “welcome to Tunisia”.
For some, paranoia could easily set in, especially when you’re forced to pull over to strangers in uniforms at checkpoints and they call you by your first name without me having to say a word or even showing my passport at that point. Clearly the police had their eye on us, I suspect, from the minute we left the port back in Tunis. However, despite the apprehension, the rest of the group and I felt humbled by their curorsity, as much as their concern and consideration towards our wellbeing, our safety and security. We were being looked after from a distance. We weren’t being pestered, we were free to travel wherever we wanted, just as long as they knew where of course! We’d been stopped 3 or 4 times now, sometimes the checkpoint official just asked to look at only my passport, he’d greet me by saying “hello”, and “welcome”. I’d just sit astride my bike hoping he hadn’t had a bad day, and decide to use the pistol attached to his utility belt, or his mate standing next to him, with the big machine gun, didn’t accidentally pull the trigger. I would look back in my mirrors, my customers gazing on, leaning froward to see what’s going on down the front of the group, concerned perhaps. But each and every time we were stopped, they waved us on our way. As we’d pull off, they’d be on their radio or phone making calls, no doubt telling the next checkpoint we’d made it safe and sound and that we were heading their way, so they could keep tabs on us!
We arrived at the 4 star Hotel in Djerba. It was okay but a little rundown and in need of some upgrades. We were here for two nights, just to take hold of being in Tunisia, relax and spend some time off the bikes. The pool was large, we were by the beach and we had all inclusive, so drinks and food were all part of the package. The food wasn’t too bad to be fair, I quite liked it.
We rode from Djerba across the desert, wind blew from the south in Libya, coating the road in sand. It made for some interesting patterns on the tarmac but nothing to get concerned about. We had a couple of road diversions as well, where the workers were doing roadworks and had to negotiate our way through soft sand and washboard effect surfaces. It all made from some interesting riding.
We eventually ended up on another salt lake, Chott El Djerid over on the west side nearer to Algeria. This expanse of salt water covers a vast area and everywhere you look you see crystallised salt with a mountainous backdrop. It’s stunning.
Our day ended in Nafta. Here we stayed the night in a quirky spa hotel, it reminded me of a funky University, an intricate complex of narrow steps, bare concrete mixed with modern day materials and water running everywhere. That, night I slept outside on a sofa, it was far too hot in the room. But I had the view of the hillside and an almighty lightning show.
The following day we headed out to Ong Jmal, also known as Mos Espa, or to you and me, the film set for The Phantom Menace. The road to it runs through a desert of sand with the only vegetation being the odd small Bush. Camels wandered around freely, but the road was like a black ribbon of tarmac taken straight off a race track. It was immensely fun to ride the 7 miles out there and back. Once we reach Mos Epsa the road ends and the last few hundred yards is desert sand.
We now headed east, our plan was to divert around an area the FCO (Foreign Commonwealth Office) considered too risky, being as it was so close to the Algerian border and then head north to Kairouan. It meant missing out stopping in Sidi Bouzid to visit the Roman settlement but we had to consider safety first.
On route to Kairouan, we were stopped in the road by two uniformed officers in a beaten up 4×4. One of the officers approached me just before we entered a town up ahead and said “follow me”, I had no idea why. I asked him but he reacted by shouting; “you follow us now”. Reluctantly, we all followed the 4×4. At first, I was questioning if we had done something wrong, perhaps we were being taken to a police station, or even to an abandoned house to be kidnapped or tortured. I was puzzled. However, soon after heading back in the opposite direction and then turning off the main road, we started heading back the way we were going on a road that ran almost parallel with the main route. Despite being bumpy, pot holed, along with lose surfaces in places, we kept up with the 4×4 as he waved oncoming vehicles to pull over and out of our way. Battling with the dust being thrown up from the 4×4 we struggled to see ahead. Finally, we ended up back on the same main road, just 3 miles ahead of where we were stopped. Clearly there was some problem and the police were there to divert us. I felt quite humbled by this and glad we weren’t being kidnapped. I waved to the officers in the 4×4 as they held up traffic on the main route so we could rejoin the road and we continued without any fuss to Kairouan, where we stayed for two nights in a 5 star hotel.
Despite Dave’s Suzuki V-Strom’s rear wheel spokes deciding to try and leave his rim, up until now we’ve had no bike trouble at all. For some reason, his rear wheel spokes had almost all shaken lose, with three of them actually fallen out. Mind you, he was two up with a lot of luggage, perhaps the Suzuki rim just couldn’t take the strain (Sorry Dave and Ali).
With the repairs done on his bike, we headed back to Tunis. Our route was planned to go to Monastire and Sousse but having bumped into some Italians on the trip we all decided to dich that idea and head for Dougga, a Roman settlement, which has been inhabited right up to the 1950’s. So off we went heading north west to Dougga through some gorgeous countryside.
Once again we were stopped by heavily armed police. This time because there was a problem in the next town we were heading, called Siliana. The police kindly showed me an alternative route that took us around, avoiding the town altogether. This time they didn’t escort us but entrusted us to make our own way. The road it led us on was somewhat bumpy, potholed and in desperate need of repair but incredibly fun.
Finally, after our detour, we arrived in Dougga and it was as impressive as the Italians had promised.
Unfortunately, upon exiting the site, rain had been falling for sometime and the road leading into the site was now wet with clay mud over the surface. It doesn’t sound much, but there was a nasty camber on the road, I led and rode over the wet slippery mud but my front wheel slipped and despite all my effort and skill, I couldn’t keep the bike upright. I fell hard on my shoulder.
A few of us tried to lift the bike but it was so slippery it was like ice. I was hoping, despite the bike and I sliding down the road on our side, that there wouldn’t be any major damage, the Honda Africa Twin Crf1000l has more protection than an ice hockey player. But sadly the right footrest had snapped, clearly it was just higher than the camber and, well … wrong place, wrong time I guess.
We faffed about with a few other parts to free off the front brake, the barkbuster handguards had fowled the lever and cut through the brake light cable. Otherwise everything was OK. Apart from being cacked in mud, a little sore and slightly embarrassed. I rode the rest of the way annoyed and angry with myself and rested my foot in the rear pillion footrest.
The following day we made some repairs and I’m terribly thankful to Dave and Kelvin for helping out with the temporary fix. After all, we still had 900 miles to reach home.
We fashioned a stirup out of a strap and using metal putty, zip ties and a bit of ingenuity we made a temporary foot rest. I split the brake cable and twisted the wires back together, sealing then with some insulation tape until I got home, where I’d solder them back together, at least now I had brake lights, a front working brake and a stirup for a footrest. Despite using my rear brake as much as my front I had to change my mindset and put up without it for now and just be thankful.
Our last day in Tunisa and we head back to the port to catch our ferry to Genoa. Having checked in and been hounded by street sellers we waited for our ferry to depart, reflecting on our mini adventure.
From Genoa, we headed back to Vosges and then to the Eurotunnel in Calais. Marking the end of the tour.
I and I’m sure I speak for the rest of the group, had a wonderful time and to experience this amazing country with such a nice bunch of people made memories that I’m sure will last many years. As for the authorities of Tunisia. They were amazing, taking care of us every mile of our journey to ensure we stayed safe.
As for my Honda Africa Twin, its now all fixed and ready again to start adding more miles to the 62,000 already on the clock.
I’m looking forward to the next one
This experience was made possible by the effort and team work of everyone involved. Their patience, trust and faith in me and the company ensuring their safety as well as providing an adventurous memorable experience.
So big thanks to;
Dave and Ali, Andy and Deb’s, Martin R, Mark S, Mark W, Kelvin and John, you guys were awesome, thank you for your company.
For more details on this tour please see www.guidedmotorbiketours.co.uk/Tunisia