All at Sea.

All at Sea. Negotiating Foreign Ports in search of Adventure.

Love them or loathe them, ports are usually the first and last contact points with a country when travelling overland.  Be it the relatively simple roll on/roll off car ferry linking the UK with the rest of Europe or the more complex process of extricating your Land Rover from a container in a country where you neither speak the language or know the rules.  They can be trying times - wondering who to trust and whether various fees demanded are real or bogus.  Far too many unknowns to be juggled with when one is usually tired, stressed and unable to make clear decisions.

The UK ports are relatively straight forward.  Clearly sign posted with a big picture of a ship and the words ‘Car Ferry’.  Within 15 minutes you are on board where you promptly forget both the number of the car deck you are parked on and the colour code of the stairway you used, but the bar and restaurant are welcoming you with open arms!  Getting off again in Calais can be a bit daunting, especially for the first time, but within a few minutes you are heading south on the Autoroute marvelling at the quality of French motorways until you pay your first toll and realise that our car tax system is not such bad value after all.

But what of those really foreign ports where you arrive drained of life having thrashed up country to make the once a week sailing and have just an hour to negotiate all the red tape, hawkers and thieves between you and the ship?  Most of the big ports are far more used to handling freight with car ferries being a rather annoying side line.  They are rarely pretty and tend to comprise large dilapidated buildings, pot holed roads and masses of lift trucks whizzing backwards and forwards with exotic looking loads.  

Even the Port of Marseilles, in essence European, but in character North African is tricky.  I must have caught the Marseilles to Tunis Ferry a dozen times, but have yet to master the approach - even with an accurate GPS Waypoint from the previous years' debacle!  It is essential to come off the Autoroute at the correct (unsigned) exit, then bounce along an internal port road scarred with ruts, pot holes, scrap cars and rubbish to find, quite by chance, the gate that announces SNCF Ferry Tunis/Algiers.  Taking the Tunis option you then join a long queue of mainly Tunisian cars loaded up with all manner of stuff, bought in France for some kind of grey import loophole into Tunisia.   Waiting patiently are small groups of Overlanders.  Mainly French, with a smattering of Germans, Austrians and Swiss with whom you exchange small talk whilst admiring their rigs and adaptations to suit their own needs.  Finally after 3-4 hours of this entertainment you are on board and waving good-bye to France.



The Port of Tunis 24 hours later is clearly visible from deck as the ferry berths and the heart beats faster knowing what's in store.  The embarking area is remarkably tidy but figuring out who is who can be tricky in a sea of peaked caps.  Generally those who seem most helpful and make all sorts of offers to steer you through the procedure are the people you do NOT need. They are just after your money.  You need the smart chaps in uniforms. The Customs Officials poke around the back of your Land Rover and ask what you have and where you are heading and the Police check that you have all the paperwork correctly filled in and stamped at a small office where you have queued with everybody else.  The feeling of achievement as you clear the port gate and head south is fantastic, for that is probably the last time you will need those papers until you return.

Certainly my worst port experience was the docks at Alexandria last year where, extracting our two jeeps from a container, took 3 days of the most exasperating bureaucracy imaginable in dust filled offices staffed by men who were rarely there and anything but helpful.  But as my fixer pointed out, it was the English who introduced the rules when we administered Egypt before the War!

At the south-eastern end of Tunisia is my favourite port; the tiny jetty at Jorf where a small ferry takes a maximum of about 20 cars over to Ajim on the island of Djerba.  When it’s dark you see the twinkling lights of the island and unless you sit in your Land Rover you have to stand outside on deck as there is no inside.  The smell of the sea and the gentle rhythm of the boat and lapping of small waves reminds you that, at last, you can relax after all the frustrations of 'the system' you really are on an expedition!



Toby Ports A  Departing from Ajim in southern Tunisia is a breath of fresh air after the bureaucracy of the bigger ports.

Toby Ports B  Queuing to catch the Tunis Ferry is a long process, but in the warm sunshine not a hardship.

Toby Ports C  Admiring others rigs is always a good pastime.  These were French off to Tunisia.

Toby Savage 2013-05-02