Against Foreign Office advice.
North Africa, I was faced with a real problem.
For the first time ever on my various trips around North Africa, I was faced with a real problem. Not some annoying mechanical gremlin, or even issues with paperwork and visas... this time it would be access to a whole country that could leave me stranded in the Desert!
We had enjoyed a pleasant ferry crossing to Tunisia, stopping for an early lunch in the port of La Goullette enjoying the warm sunshine, having left the frozen wastes of England just after Christmas. We sat outside and ate freshly grilled fish overlooking the centre of the town. Dominating the veiw was a 20m x 30m poster depicting President Ben Ali, - his stern expression a metaphor for the tight rule he imposed on his subjects.
Further south the following day, we called in on Tunisian friends for lunch with a stunning view of the sea from their balcony. It would be hard to paint a picture of a more peaceful situation. We always enjoy the Tunisian leg of the journey, comfortable hotels, good food and on the return journey, a cool beer evokes that ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ moment! There was no hint of the trouble that was about to erupt and completely change the government of the country.
A week into our work in Libya, news filtered through of the riots in Tunis and as the violence spread we became concerned, but not really worried. As the story unfolded and changes happened very quickly it was obvious that a week was a long time in Tunisian history. I was planning to head back to the UK solo, the rest of the team having additional work in Libya and we thought it prudent to look at alternatives to driving back through the troubled country. A quick check with the Forign Office web site confirmed that travel through Tunisia was not recommended and flights had been laid on to repatriate UK citizens on holiday there.
I could leave the Land Rover with friends in Libya, fly home, then fly back when the dust settles, or maybe look into driving to a port in either Algeria or Egypt. All of these plans would be time consuming and wildly expensive. The news was worsening, however, with reports of petrol shortages and a curfue in the major towns and I had just a week before departure. Then, as is so often the way with dictators, Ben Ali fled, along with members of his family, bringing a swift end to most of the trouble, though it would clearly take a while for things to return to normal.
The petrol shortages, I knew, would not be a major issue. A lucrative network of black market fuel distribution exists based on Tunisians crossing the border to Libya, filling up with cheap Libyan fuel, then returning to Tunisia to sell it at a mark-up! These illicit fuel stations exist on the main road into Tunisia for the fist hundred kilometres or so and their expansion would be a commercial certainty. The sharp Tunisian never missing the opportunity to profit from a situation!
With so many snippets of information, I decided to check all the available information the day before departure and weigh up whether it was viable to drive the 600 km’s north to the ferry port, just outside Tunis. The F.O. was still advising against visiting Tunisia, which could invalidate my Travel Insurance, but various posts from fellow travellers on the Sahara-Overland forum said it was okay and the ferries were running. In preparation I carried four jerry cans of diesel, giving an adequate range to get back to Europe and plenty of food, so at least I wouldn’t starve!
Entering Tunisia at the Libyan border all seemed normal and a poignant text message popped up saying ‘Welcome to Tunicell and Thank You For Your Confidence’. The Border Police were friendly and all seemed normal. Approaching Ben Guardana I saw alarming clouds of black smoke coming from near the town centre, but this was just someone burning a load of old tyres. Nice timing! As I made my way up country there was certainly a greater military presence, but all greeted me, the only tourist on the road, with cheery waves and smiles.
On reaching Tunis, I couldn’t resist pulling into the centre, where I sat in the sun and enjoyed a coffee, the only evidence of past troubles being various heavy army trucks and armed soldiers outside the Government building and locals photographing their children as a record of the month when their country was to change forever.
Back at the Port I had lunch at the same restaurant with a noticeable change in the view. Gone was the poster of Ben Ali. The waiter looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and poured me a well earned beer. All was well!
Copyright Toby Savage.