A spiritual journey and a diehard love of Star Wars draws Stuart Cooper to explore the Dark Continent by bike
“I’m going to Tunisia to become a Muslim. Do you want to come too?” Africa, a spiritual journey and motorcycles – it seemed like the perfect combination to me, so when my best friend Marzio invited me to join him on a trip to Tunisia, I was packed before you could say “Salaam alaikum”.
Admittedly, it wasn’t quite as spontaneous as it sounds. Marzio was engaged to Imen, a lovely Tunisian girl. Muslim girls aren’t allowed to marry Christian men (although the reverse is possible), and for the marriage to be recognised in Tunisia, Marzio had to convert to Islam – which meant a trip to the Dark Continent and a date with the Imam.
Setting off from Sicily…
Our trip didn’t get off to the best start. We had arranged to meet at 6am at a petrol station on the edge of Siracusa (the town where we both live in Sicily), and from there ride up to Palermo to take the ferry to Tunisia. The weather was awful, the rain coming down in sheets and winds so strong they were blowing my bike into the oncoming traffic. By 6.30am, there was still no sign of Marzio, and I was starting to get worried. Just as I had decided to go and look for him, blazing headlights signalled his arrival. The wind had blown down several trees and power lines, which had blocked his route, forcing him to take a long detour.
We set off towards Palermo, into the teeth of the storm. My knobbly Metzelers weren’t built with 90mph journeys on waterlogged motorways in mind, and I found controlling the bike difficult. The front wheel felt as though it was aquaplaning, refusing to change direction until I slowed down and overtakes were a little fraught! Eventually we arrived safely at Palermo and boarded the ferry, glad to be out of the elements and dry.
We disembarked eight long and bumpy hours later, the storm following us over the ocean and making the journey uncomfortable. The weather was friendlier than the Tunisian custom officials however. They informed us that we could enter the country the long way, which would involve taking everything out of our pannier and stripping down our bikes, or the short way, which involved giving the guard a ‘gift’ of 20 euros and having our visas stamped on the spot. Needless to say we contributed to the Custom Officials’ pension fund and were on our way in record time. It was the first time I’d ever bribed a border guard, and it brought home the fact that we had left Europe. We were definitely on another continent, with different rules. With this in mind we opened up the bikes and headed for the capital, Tunis.
We had an appointment that evening with Imen’s mother and Joseph, one of Imen’s brothers – Marzio’s soon-to-be in- laws. It was the first time we had met, so the four of us went for dinner. We spent the evening talking about our plans for the trip and getting to know one another, before Marzio and I headed off to our hotel. We left the bikes outside the hotel for only a few minutes while we registered at reception, but when we returned to get our bags, Marzio’s GPS was gone, ripped from the cockpit, and all that remained was a gaping hole. The hotel receptionist couldn’t have been more helpful, insisting that the bikes be brought inside the hotel for the night, and wheeling them through the lobby and reception, much to the amusement of the other guests.
Mint tea and history
The next day, Marzio kept his appointment with the Mufti (the head Imam in Tunisia, rather like the Archbishop of Canterbury in status). I passed the time wandering the Medina, the walled old city of Tunis, getting lost in its maze of passageways and haggling over trinkets, and, when it’s colours, smells and sounds overwhelmed me, drinking deliciously refreshing mint tea.
Marzio later told me he had experienced a deep sensation of peace in the presence of the Mufti. “It was incredible, like it was filling up my soul,” he explained, his eyes bright with the memory of the encounter. His next appointment with the Mufti was in two weeks’ time, so until then we were free to explore Tunisia.
We left Tunis under a grey sky, although the rain had now stopped. We passed crumbling Roman villas which looked down from their hillsides on the remains of the ancient city of Carthage. The Romans had completely obliterated the Carthaginian Empire, and utterly destroyed their capital city of Carthage, even going so far as to plough salt into the earth so nothing could ever grow there again.
We stopped for mint tea at the beautiful town of Sidi Bou Said, where by law all houses must be painted white with blue doors, before moving on to Hammamet, a famous beach resort that attracts tourists from all over Europe. As it was the middle of winter and raining again the town was empty, and had a desolate, out-of-season feel to it, so we pressed on, eager to get on the motorway and put some miles on the bikes. The city of Kairouan was beckoning.
The motorway, like all the motorways in Tunisia, was excellent, far better than I expected. Contrary to the picture painted by the guidebooks, Tunisian drivers are also very good, rarely speeding and always giving us right of way – certainly a pleasant surprise after the daily battle of riding at home in Sicily.
The dark clouds kept pace with us as we headed south. We arrived in Kairouan, soaked and hungry, but not at all tired. I could have happily carried on down to the border with Libya, but we had come to Kairouan on a mission – to buy a carpet!
The city of Kairouan was the first Arab capital of North Africa, and its Great Mosque is the 4th holiest site in Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. As well as its Islamic architecture, the city it also famous for the quality of its carpets. So, while Marzio went in search of spiritual delights in the stunning fortress-like Great Mosque, I was tempted away by more earthly pleasures. I wandered around the white-walled old town, and spent the next three hours drinking tea, haggling and eventually buying myself a beautiful carpet, which now graces my living room floor.
From Kairouan we headed south-east to El Jem, site of the largest amphitheatre outside Rome. Rising up from the centre of the city the amphitheatre towers over all other buildings and dominates the skyline. Inside the banks of seats rise up sharply, and the arena floor feels hemmed in and claustrophobic. It’s not hard to imagine the terror felt by those sent out here to fight for their lives in front of 40,000 Romans all screaming for blood. The arena was also once graced by the famous gladiator Russell Crowe. Scenes from the Ridley Scott classic were filmed here, and the holes in the arena floor where animals could have been brought up from below to attack the fighters are still clearly visible. Marzio and I had the arena to ourselves, so we staged a mock battle; this time Rome versus Britain ended in a TKO for Britain.
The road from El Jem to Gabés introduced us to one of the joys of riding in Tunisia, the roadside food stalls, especially those that sell lamb. The first sign of one of these stalls was a cloud of aromatic smoke drifting along the road that instantly set our stomachs rumbling, so that when we pulled in at the stall itself – easily identifiable by the fleece of a freshly slaughtered lamb hanging from a pole – our hunger had reached fever pitch. The freshly killed lamb was chopped up, sold by weight and then barbequed while we waited. The meat was served with homemade olive oil, bread and the spicy chilli sauce called harissa found everywhere in Tunisia. After eating a kilo of lamb each, we left the stall full and happy.
Passing through Gabés and heading further south meant we left the clouds behind, and for me the best part of the trip was about to begin. A warm sun and blue skies meant we could shed the waterproofs and change into summer biking jackets. Like the weather, the landscape began to change too. We were leaving behind the more industrial north and heading into the desert, although this desert, known locally as hamada, is not the classic desert of great sand dunes that would come later. Here the road cuts through a landscape of dry, deserted rocky outcrops and low hills, with only the occasional palm to add colour to shades of brown. Settlements are sparse and traffic very light. As we climbed the twisting roads higher into the hills it seemed that we shared the desert with only the birds.
It was in these small, nameless desert villages that we experienced the real warmth of Tunisian hospitality. At every stop we would be surrounded by people asking questions about the bikes, our destinations and our families. Offers of tea were always forthcoming. In some places, where the noise of our coming must have carried for miles in the desert silence, dozens of children would be lining the streets to wave to us as we passed through.
One of the larger of these desert villages is Chenini. From a distance it looks like nothing more than the side of another mountain, but as we approached we saw that houses were carved directly into the mountainside. We left the bikes by the roadside and began climbing for a better look. We were joined by a local Berber boy of about 15, who introduced himself as Youssef. He accompanied us on our tour of the houses, which are now largely abandoned. The houses have existed for over 1,000 years, Youssef told us, but now people were moving out and down into the village at the bottom of the mountain where there is electricity and running water.
We poked around some of the abandoned dwellings. Among the rubble of broken pottery and rusting metal Youssef explained that most young people from the village leave for Tunis, or even further away to France, in the hope of making a better life, so only old people remained in the village. “What about you?” I asked him, “Will you leave too?”
“No” he replied, “I like the life here, the desert, the mountains. And besides,” he continued, giving me a cheeky smile, “I want to marry a good Berber girl!”
He explained that although the people of the village are Berbers, they worship Islam. He took us to the village mosque. Mud-built and whitewashed until it shone in the sunlight, it’s clearly a focal point in these mountains. “I will get married here one day,” exclaimed Youssef proudly.
A Galaxy far, far away
From Chenini it was a short hop to Tatouine, a place I had marked with a big X on the map before we left. If the name rings a bell, it’s because Luke Skywalker’s home planet takes its name from the town. I grew up with the original Star Wars and was itching to get my photo taken there. Tatouine is a lovely place in itself, a laid-back market town that started life as a camel watering stop because of its freshwater spring. With photo taken and tea sipped, we left Tatouine and headed towards the town of Matmata, an even more important pilgrimage site for me because many scenes from the original Star Wars movie were shot there.
Aside from its Star Wars pedigree, the town is an interesting place in itself, famous for its curious troglodyte houses which are built under the ground. A 7m-wide, 10m-deep pit is dug to form the central courtyard, and several caves are excavated from this central pit to act as rooms, with the benefit that the soft sandstone keeps the rooms cool in summer and warm in winter. We were invited into one of the houses to see how the people live and I asked the lady of the house what the advantages were of a house such as this. She replied with a twinkle in her eye, “Living in a pit, people are always dropping in…”
Several of the houses in Matmata still have parts of the original Star Wars set attached to them. Futuristic airlock doors adorn 400-year-old walls, and strange tubes protrude from windows. Ewan McGregor (who played Obi Wan Kenobi in the later Star Wars movies) stopped here when filming Long Way Down, and the underground bar is festooned with photos of the original Star Wars cast. After a couple of hours happy wandering, no Jedi appeared and my camera battery was drained, so we engaged our hyperdrives and headed towards the most southerly point of our trip, the oasis of Ksar Ghilane.
Sand and Salt riding
We were in classic desert country now. The road to Ksar Ghilane skirts the northerly tip of The Great Sand Sea and cuts through the sand dunes which ripple away to the horizon. We stopped and shut down the bikes and there was no sound other than the tick-tick-tick of our engines cooling. The sand spreads as far as the eye can see, its golden expanse broken only by the occasional herd of camel, which pass by in their hundreds.
We decided to try some off-road riding among the dunes. Marzio has a lot of off-road experience so had no trouble blasting around the dunes, but I’d never ridden on sand before and I found it very difficult. The bike itself has a dry weight of 250kg. Add to that petrol, side panniers, top box and pilot and it must weight close to 500kg. My first few attempts ended in the bike sinking in the sand and Marzio and I having to dig it out. I soon realised that to make progress I had to keep the throttle open and the speed up. As soon as the speed dropped the back wheel started to sink, so I had to power along, but the front wheel was sliding constantly, and it was all I could do to keep the bike in a straight line. Finally my nerve gave out and I headed back to the road to watch the camels while my heart rate slowed. Paris-Dakar will have to wait.
Arriving at the oasis of Ksar Ghilane just as darkness was falling we stripped off our clothes and waded into its thermal waters – the perfect way to wash off the dust of the road. We relaxed under the palm trees and watched the stars as the night drew in.
We woke early the next morning after a broken sleep. It gets very, very cold at night in the desert in January, and the Berber-style tent accommodation wasn’t up to the job. A dip in the oasis soon warmed us and after a leisurely breakfast we were saddled up again. However, this time the saddle had a difference… there was a camel attached to it.
A camel trek is the perfect way to pass a day in the desert. Our Berber guides took the reins and off we plodded into the dunes. The rolling gait of the camels combined with the warmth of the sun was very relaxing, and I had to try hard not to doze off. I concentrated on watching the sand. It was a very eerie feeling watching it whisper along beside us, and it’s easy to see how the position of the dunes can change completely. We stopped for lunch at an abandoned fort. The oasis was such an important centre centuries ago that the Romans built the fort here to control trade. The sand is already piling up inside, and in time the desert will swallow all traces of its existence.
We rose early again the next day, keen to get back on the bikes after our day off. We were heading north now, on our way back to Tunis but planning to take in the eastern side of Tunisia. Our first destination was Tozeur, and to reach it we had to cross the Chott El Jerid, a huge salt lake that for 10 months of the year is completely dry. Nowadays the lake is traversed by a causeway, but in former times it was not unknown for herds of camels and their attendants to disappear into the black mud under the thin salt crust. We arrived before midday to find a flat white expanse stretching to the horizon. Both Marzio and I were desperate to take the bikes off the causeway and onto the salt pans, but neither of us were sure if the crust would hold our weight. Thoughts of sinking camels held us back until we found a place where clearly visible tyre tracks headed off into the salt. We dropped off the causeway and onto the salt pans, carving huge figure of eights into the pristine white canvas and whooping for the sheer joy of it.
We passed the night at Tozeur, the main gateway to the Sahara for those coming from the north. After stopping to enjoy a meal of first-class couscous and the city’s famous dates, we continued north the next day. We’d planned to pass over the Khroumirie Mountains in daylight, as their forested heights are rumoured to be beautiful, but a leisurely lunch stop at a roadside lamb stall meant we were running late, climbing up into the mountains in pitch darkness and lashing rain. The only lights on the slopes were our headlights and the roads were torturous, twisting back on themselves, climbing steeply or plunging downwards. We slowed to a crawl. I checked the thermometer on my bike at one point and it read 7°C. Finally a car passed us, and we used its headlights to guide us down off the mountain and into the town of Le Kef, where we revived ourselves with mint tea and couscous.
The next day dawned grey and forbidding, light rain spattering and smearing our visors as our engines gunned into life. We didn’t have far to go; 50 km would bring us to the Roman city of Dougga. As we rode into the countryside, it felt as though the landscape had changed overnight. On this side of the mountain everything was green and lush. The forests and fields were a world away from the barren, lunar-like landscape we’d ridden of the desert yesterday.
It was drizzling as we pulled into Dougga. The ruins of Dougga, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are situated on the high side of a valley, and were definitely worth the hike. The beautifully preserved theatre has amazing views over the valley and still stages shows every year in July and August. We spent a good three hours clambering around the city, exploring its houses, baths and temples. Before we left we looked out over the city from the massive Capitol building. I’d imagine the golden stone from which most of the buildings are constructed must shine in the sunshine, but today, the sky was bloated with black clouds and the surfaces dulled by the drizzle. The bleak weather had kept all the tourists at home. Apart from us and the sheep the ruins were empty, and there was a sense of melancholy to this abandoned city. The last outpost of a dead empire, standing forgotten in the rain.
From Dougga, it was an easy ride back to Tunis though green fields and apple orchards, and we were welcomed like long-lost friends at our hotel. I had a lie-in the next day, while Marzio went to keep his appointment with the Mufti.
It clearly went well, as when we met for lunch he was officially a Muslim. We spent our last evening in Tunisia with Imen’s family. This time Imen’s other brother Mohammed joined us too and we ate and chatted long into the night, recounting the fantastic experiences we had had in their country and celebrating Marzio’s conversion – he could now officially marry Imen! The next day we packed up the bikes, and under black skies and heavy rain we set off to the ferry terminal, to catch the ferry to Palermo and give Imen the good news.
Marzio Giuliano, 41 Sicilian-born Marzio is the founder member of Vento Del Sud Motorbike Chapter. Other members are Stuart Cooper, Imen Bousbiaa (Marzio’s wife) and Sebastiano Giuliano (Marzio’s eight-month-old son). Marzio rode his first motorbike at the age of seven and never looked back. When not out riding, he is a successful entrepreneur who owns a restaurant, a pub, a kebab shop, and a bed and breakfast all in Siracusa. His ambition is to sell them all and retire!
Stuart Cooper, 34
A Brit living in Sicily, my job as a Hydrographic Surveyor means that I work on a one-month-on /one-month-off basis, so I have plenty of time to indulge my passion for travelling. I’ve lived in Sicily for six years, and met Marzio three years ago when we founded the Vento del Sud Motorbike Chapter. My ambition is to master the Sicilian dialect.
Top 5 Tips for riding in Tunisia
Arrive with an almost empty fuel tank and leave with a full one. Petrol in Tunisia costs roughly a third of what it costs in Europe
There is no need for off-road tyres unless you’re going specifically with off-road riding in mind. The roads are excellent, and the road network will take you anywhere you need to go
If you’re going in winter, take waterproofs and warm clothes. Even in summer, it can be very, very cold in the desert at night
French and Arabic are the two main languages, although Italian is spoken widely. English is almost non-existent. Try to brush up on some language skills before you go
Remain calm and keep smiling when things go wrong. Cultural and language barriers can be frustrating but getting angry never helps the situation
BMW R1200GS Adventure (2006 model). I chose this bike purely for the go-anywhere touring aspect. Its huge fuel tank, vast panniers, comfortable riding position and excellent wind protection mean that it fits the bill perfectly. The downside to all this is its weight. It’s very heavy, making it difficult to manoeuvre in tight city traffic. Modifications:
I added a lower seat from Touratech. Although I’m 5’11” I found it difficult to get my feet flat on the floor with the original seat. With a bike this heavy I wanted to be in complete control of it at a standstill, and the lower Touratech seat gives me that control.
“Infernalia”sticker on the wind screen – international advertising for my friend Fabio’s death metal band.
BMW R1100GS (1998 special edition model) affectionately called Terrore! Again, Marzio chose this bike for the go-anywhere touring abilities, and this bike has travelled, with over 100,000 kilometres on the clock. Modifications:
Marzio had the front mudguard spray-painted with the Italian flag just prior to this trip.
Extra headlights. Jealous of my small off-road fog lights, Marzio went one (actually two) better. He now has so many headlights that at night the bike resembles something from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Both bikes are equipped with Metzeler off-road tyres and Trax aluminium panniers and top boxes.
El Jem: The biggest and best preserved Roman monument in Africa. Stunning amphitheatre that rivals the Colosseum in Rome Matmata: Fascinating underground houses and Star Wars sets The Matmata – Ksar Ghilane Road: Cuts straight though the desert and gives easy access to the dunes to try out your sand-riding skills Ksar Ghilane: Palm-fringed thermal oasis on the tip of the Great Sand Sea. Great for relaxing and star-gazing The Kibili – Tozeur road: Leave the causeway and go for a blast over the salt flats. It’s nerve wrecking but brilliant fun
Due to the recent unrest in Tunisia, there is the possibility of being caught up in protests and demonstrations, although the number and frequency of these has diminished. Travellers are unlikely to be targeted simply because they are foreign nationals.
At the time of going to print, a state of emergency still exists in Tunisia, however, and if you’re planning to travel there it would be advisable to carry a passport or other photo identification with you at all times.
In general, the people of Tunisia are extremely warm, friendly and welcoming, and will go out of their way to help you if you are in difficulty. Be careful, but don’t be paranoid. For the most up-to-date information on travel to Tunisia visit the Foreign and Commonwealth office website www.fco.gov.uk and type ‘Tunisia’ into the search bar