Touring Tunisia

Come to the Casbah for some winter sunshine with Nina Galen.

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The days before our scheduled departure it rained so hard and steadily that I decided the trip was off and did the weekend grocery shopping. Then Friday afternoon the radio announced a break the following day, the Nice met service confirmed this, and sure enough, not a cloud in the sky Saturday morning as I flew from my home airfield, Fayence, to Cannes to meet my passenger. We got off at eleven-thirty, destination Tunis via Ajaccio.

The chief formality before leaving the French coast, aside from the flight plan, is signing a piece of paper promising to pay for the massive search-and-rescue operation in case one goes down at sea. This is required of all aircraft not carrying a dinghy.

Considering that the French armed forces have little to do all day but sit around waiting to make brave sea rescues, I've always felt this was a bit much. Also, I've long had the suspicion that if a lady pilot were to weep as they presented her the bill, no Frenchman could do otherwise than tear it up gallantly and invite her to supper instead. Thus I never sign the paper with feelings of foreboding other than the natural ones that pilots of single-engine planes not carrying dinghys feel before heading out over 100 miles of cold water.

Cannes is notoriously difficult to get met information out of, but taking off that day you could almost see Corsica lying out there in the middle of the gulf, so it didn't matter. The VFR procedure is to contact Nice after taking off from Cannes, maintain 1,000 feet until just south of the two little islands off the coast, then rise to your flight level of 55, 75, or 95, etc. At the middle point you contact Calvi or Ajaccio, neither of which ever reply until the fourth or fifth attempt, though you are quite sure when they do that they heard you all along.

Fuel is no longer detaxed between France and Corsica, so it can be a good idea to take it on in Ajaccio for the hop across Sardinia to Tunis. If you didn't manage to get any met information in Cannes, you can forget about it in Ajaccio too, as there is seldom anyone in the met office. Fortunately, upon take-off from Ajaccio that day we could practically see the Sahara, and with full fuel tanks the weather concerned us little.

Ajaccio can't get you off their frequency fast enough, so feeling that we were on our own and that nobody really cared where we were or what we did, we streaked directly across Sardinia toward the Carbonara VOR. Cagliari, which we did contact well in advance of their zone, passed us off to Tunis immediately, then thought better of it and waited until we'd left the Sardinian coast before telling us to leave their frequency. We headed out over the next 100 miles of water with the feeling that if they hadn't asked us to sign a paper agreeing to pay for search and rescue on this leg of the trip, that was only because no one had the least intention of looking for us if we did go down.

Tunis/Carthage airport was right where our charts and its beacons indicated it would be. They had built a new airport since my last visit, and told us to land long and taxi toward it, then had a change of heart and had us taxi back a few miles to the old airport. This was done so that the Follow-Me car could drive us back to the new airport for a fee of a pound per passenger which, however, they forgot to collect. Friendly aeroclub people helped us push our aeroplane into the club hangar and drove us into town.

Our plan was to head toward the warm south, but we did spend Sunday at Carthage wandering around with the other tourists, all looking for a piece of ruin large enough to photograph, but not finding anything. (Those Romans!) Like some of the others we did, however, find a nice seaside restaurant where we had a delicious fish lunch before taking the little train back to the city.

The next day we filed a flight plan for Djerba, an island off the southeastern shore. I'd already been to Monastir, a seaside resort consisting of miles of hotels. Two years ago they were building an international airport there, which is now, presumably, completed. One thing you ought to keep in mind in Tunisia is that Avgas 100 is found only at Tunis and Djerba – no longer at Monastir.

The Djerba VOR wasn't working, but we flew outbound on a radial from Tunis and then faked it the rest of the way with the ADF. For one panicky moment I discovered my RAF en route supplement didn't have the Djerba airport frequency (later found it listed under Jerba/Mellita) but was happy to get same from Tunis Information, which was still with us like some angel voice crackling faintly in the blue.

Djerba is a lovely place. While it was too cold to bathe in the sea, the hotel had a large, active, thermal pool. But we found it more to the point to rent bicycles in the village and take to the byways. There’s a lot of sand between the date palms, and recent floods had left some wet areas, but bikes are easily pushed and if you get lost there are always children to guide you back to the seashore or road. By the way, French is the second language in Tunisia and just about everyone speaks it. Another thing to keep in mind is to take along a monkey wrench or pliers in case your bicycle starts to come apart in the sand.

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One of the locals

From Djerba it’s possible to go by rental car or tour car to visit the fascinating camel market at Mareth, the enormous oasis at Gabes, and the troglodyte homes at Matmata. There you can lunch in a hotel that is built underground like the homes, and even rent a room that is in the basement and on the first floor both at the same time and that you get to by climbing a knotted rope. It's easier to fly down there and take a look than explain it.

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A troglodyte hotel

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A troglodyte woman

After leaving Djerba we flew to Gafsa. Gafsa airfield has no control tower, only a met office and a newly refinished gravelly runway. The plane is parked on the sand. As the place is quite desolate except for the met station, a guard was put on the plane. He looked after it for three days and nights, not only making sure it was securely tied down in the severe winds, but even securing an umbrella to its nose to keep out the blowing rain. One could not complain about the service, but it is best to make a deal in advance about the cost of a guardian. We learned rather late that ours felt a guard should be paid in direct proportion to the price of the object he is guarding. Ours was unfortunately able to tell the difference between the price of an aeroplane and that of, say, a herd of goats.

The town of Gafsa, which has little to recommend it to the tourist besides its dramatic location as seen from the air, rests at the feet of mountains rising sharply from the sandy plain. These no-nonsense heaps of rock are completely bare of vegetation, except for a kind of wild thyme scented of lemon, and some other infrequent weed. Aside from climbing up the slopes there is absolutely nothing to do or see at Gafsa, and the one good hotel is far out of town, outrageously expensive, and no one we met had wished to stay there for more than the one night they were committed for.

From Gafsa we hitched a ride with other tourists (no cars were available for rental) to Tozeur and Nefta. Tozeur has a lovely oasis and is a very agreeable town. We were fortunate to arrive when their famous dates were available. These can be bought either by the box or by the branch, the latter weighing about five kilos. The day of our departure from Tozeur we caught the five am bus to Gafsa (we caught it trying to get out of town without us at 4.45), took the umbrella off the prop, had a serious if unenlightening discussion about the relative worth of planes, goats and guards, and with a strong tail wind flew from Gafsa to Tunis in an hour and twenty minutes, arriving at nine am.

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Oasis at Tozeur

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Oasis at Tozeur

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Tozeur's main drag

By the way, you might hear that there is an airfield at Tozeur and even find one indicated on the map. We heard of it in the excellent met office at Tozeur and kicked ourselves for having left the plane at Gafsa. Wanting to see what we'd missed, we took bikes and rode out there, a local chap on his bike kindly showing us the way. Peddling like mad to get there and back before dark, we soon reached the runway, only to find ourselves up to our spokes in wet sand and clumps of weed. Noticing our disappointment, our guide took us a little further to show us one of the famous local sights. This was a place beyond the end of the 'runway' where apparently some pilot had been so eager to visit the oasis that he hadn't bothered to stop his plane and get out first. He had landed amidst the palms, plane and all, and the spot is still identifiable by some charred grass. I would say that Tozeur is a good place not to come by plane until (or unless) they build the international airport which the government has promised for 1975.

Wary now of the Follow-Me car 'swindle' at Tunis airport, we asked to park in front of the main terminal and got clearance for this despite a bitterly disappointed Follow-Me car. Tunis airport is a quick airport to get through in all departments – flight plan, met, customs, etc.

Fuel, although they give dire predictions of a two-hour wait, we got extremely quickly both times. The Tunisians, by the way, are the nicest people you could want to visit: friendly, helpful and quick to smile.

We left Tunis on special VFR but the weather rapidly became IFR as we headed across the water toward Cagliari. I preferred staying up in cloud rather than flying low over the sea, but eventually it began to get very rough in the stratocumulus and I contacted Cagliari and requested a radar letdown. They soon had us identified and brought us down out of the cloud near their airport.

I have only good things to say about the Cagliari radar men, who spoke excellent English and were helpful and efficient. As the haze was quite thick near the ground they kept us on radar and guided us toward the coast. The wind was a very turbulent east wind, and the sea white with blowing waves. This continued along the coast of Sardinia, though Ajaccio reported wind calm and CAVOK [ceiling and visibility OK]. We asked the Ajaccio controller for the wind and weather between Corsica and Nice, but he never did find this out for us and we got no met information until we'd taken off again and had contacted Nice itself. As it turned out, the wind was favourable, and an hour and twenty minutes later we were announcing our arrival to our glider pilot copains at Fayence: "Ici Courrier Sud avec un cargo de dates du Sahara . . ."