We spent about three weeks in Tunisia. Our main purpose was to finish the upgrades to the boat, cutting the inlet for the water maker, rebuilding the fridge, installing the keel cooling elements, and applying copper coat. In Malta there was a long waiting list for haul outs, urging us to find alternatives. Reviews on noonsite raved about Mohammed’s boat services, next to the Monastir marina. An appointment for a haul out was made and we set out. The strong winds made us decide to cut straight across from Lampedusa to Mahdia, and then on to Monastir.
Some observations from our time in Tunisia:
Smells like Africa
As soon as we set foot on land in Tunisia, our olfactory bulb notified us we had arrived in Africa. It is said that Northern Africa, is not really Africa, as the effects of colonization and proximity to Europe are stronger there. Our noses, however, were convincing us that Tunisia is definitely part of the African continent. Dusty roads with a faint smell of live chickens and their byproducts, fish gut, and sewage, conjured up memories of Mozambique. Good ones. Fascinating how some smells can be quite penetrating, yet remind us of happy moments and pleasant experiences.
Apart from our noses, another sign of having landed on African soil were the huge cockroaches (or interestingly enough, ‘cafard’ in French) scuttling around kitchen floors, moist nooks and crannies, as soon as the lights are flicked off.
Hustlers and self-proclaimed guides for one day, that insist on showing you their version of the town, are also part of the experience.
Most ATMs are only geared for the local bank cards. Some take VISA and Mastercard as well. But it is better to be prepared and bring cash Euros or US Dollars along to change into Dinars in the exchange offices or the local banks.
Even though some streets smelled of ‘our’ Africa, there were clear differences. The Middle Eastern influence could be observed in several ways:
- The typical building style consists of white structures and complete complexes full of smaller subdivisions with lots of arches, domes, blue doors and shutters.
- Local markets are Souk-style. They are based in single storied, wide buildings that are interconnected. Here you can buy anything, ‘from a bosluis to a Ferrari’. Need a few fresh meat cuts? We got it. Fresh bread? No problem. Dates and almonds? Special price just for you. Some anti-hair loss shampoo? Only 10 dinar. We happily strolled through the meat department, with sheep and cow heads staring right back at poor Gitane. We sloshed through the fish department (making it a priority to buy flipflops – easy to wash smells off). Then on to fruit & veg, where the items on sale don’t look perfect but smell and taste great. The joy of eating a tomato that tastes like tomato!
- Skinny, vicious looking street cats could be found everywhere. Meowing for dear life when you walk your groceries to the boat. Or giving you hell when you clean calamari. There were no dogs to be seen on the streets. We suspect dogs are as rare as pigs…
- Even though the predominant religion in Tunisia is Muslim, Tunisians seem to take on a more pragmatic approach. This is where the Arab spring started. When it comes to dress code, pretty much anything goes. Ranging from full Muslim dress to skinny jeans, tank top or even hot pants. It is quite normal to see 3 local girls in complete different styles strolling the streets together. Or taking a swim. One wears a burkini, the other one is fully dressed, and the last one wears a sexy bikini.
- Alcohol is not found in the ordinary supermarket. It is served in restaurants. Supermarkets based in the marina, or close to big tourist traps always have stock, except on Fridays. On Fridays supermarkets are prohibited from selling alcohol. Should the need for a drink arise, do not despair, as restaurants do not keep to this rule.
Upon arrival in Tunisia, Winnie was promoted to spokesperson for our boat as her French (and hearing) is best. It was actually the first time she enjoyed speaking French. Like all Flemish speaking Belgians, she started learning French in school at age 10. She ended with reading Lacan (most famous psychoanalyst after Freud and Jung) and some of his followers in their mother tongue at varsity. She has a fair understanding of the French language but always felt overly self-conscious dealing with French people. Especially when they push their slender noses in the air and one of the following scenarios take place: they pretend they didn’t hear you, they laugh and say you are so cute, they switch to broken English. You are lacking the fluency of being submerged in a language, but know the language well enough to be fully aware of all the grammar errors you make. In Tunisia, a lot of the locals don’t speak perfect French, and don’t care much about funny pronunciations or grammar glibs. It served as an ideal training ground, and boosted confidence enough to have decent conversations with other French yachties we met.
By the time we were ready to haul out the boat in Monastir, we had already become acquainted with 3 different types of winds:
On the way to Tunisia we learned why ‘Cirrocco’ is also the name of a popular but hair raising rollercoaster in a Belgian theme park. It sure made for a speedy trip from Lampedusa to Mahdia, giving us winds in between 17 and 27 knots and big swells throughout the night.
The Hamad welcomed us our first day in Monastir, colouring the sky in dusty yellow, and chasing the temperature up to 40 degrees. Trotting around getting things organized, made us sweat like pigs (pardon if this sounds insensitive to the local culture), making it difficult to breathe. Luckily it did not last longer than one day.
We also got to know the Khamsin, which blows straight from the hot deserts, and gives you the feeling you are being blow dried.
Fascination with pirate ships
Mahdia is a small fisherman’s town, not too used to tourists, and their boats. Monastir has a big marina and several tourist hotels in town, so completely different ball game. But what we noticed in both spots is that the Tunisians have a real fascination with old pirate ships. They replicate the designs of Spanish galleons, brigantines and frigates to the dot. Gilded ornaments inclusive. They put in entire restaurants and offer 3-hour sea trips with on board entertainment ranging from Spanish-Mexican music to rope climbing acrobats. The predominantly Algerian tourist and local revellersseem to be quite happy with the package.
Some food and household items are state-subsidised so that each family can meet their basic needs. A large French loaf costs the equivalent of 0.15 Euro. A roasted chicken, ready to eat, costs about 2.15 Euro. Ideal chance for a cruiser to stock up on pasta, rice, couscous, flour, tomato and tuna cans, milk, and washing soap.
Mooring spots and formalities
Tunisia was our first country out of the EU zone, which meant getting used to all the formalities that go with it. When you enter Tunisia, you have to go into the first port. If they have a marina, their office will assist you with the different steps to take. If they don’t then your first visit will be at the Garde Nationale. They can stamp you in and give you a visa if you need one. They alert the customs. La douane will visit your boat, turn it inside out, and make a list of all the things you carry with you. This document is referred to as ‘manifeste’. You need to keep this document with you at all times and present it in each new port. Clear rules on what the officials are supposed to do with the paperwork (Stamp it? Photostat it? Sign it? Complete it?) are lacking, leaving you at the grace of the individual officer to do what is deemed necessary.
The Tunisians might seem rather disorganized; but they do keep track of who goes where. Each foreign vessel needs to report where it goes (in person) and cannot leave until it has notified the 3 different offices. When we left Mahdia, we had notified the police maritime the night before. When we were 3 miles out of the port, we got called back because we had to formally let them know we were leaving at that moment. Over the radio was not good enough. So we drove back into the port, jumped on the kayak and did what was asked of us…
Unlike other countries we passed, the authorities use their radio and call you. Responding depends on whether they have someone in the office that speaks English or French.
Arriving in Monastir was a completely different matter as they have a proper marina. They are used to having sailing boats, pleasure craft and foreigners. They have a large visitor’s quay (mind the pirate boat’s bowsprit, though) and some pretty good and helpful staff that assists you with mooring and explains clearly which uniforms to visit first.
From Monastir we sailed to Kelibia, another small fisherman’s town, on the north eastern edge of Tunisia and exit port from where we could leave for Cagliari (Sardinia), our next destination. We arrived at Kelibia at 4 a.m., anchored outside the port, and moved into the port at first light. When we surveyed the port, we saw rows of big and small fishing boats as well as a some pleasure craft. Everything looked packed to the brim. We asked a few times where we were supposed to moor, were sent to moor alongside some fancy fast looking motor yacht, and told off by the guy polishing the deck. Getting tired of circling the port, we resorted to a sideways mooring maneuver amongst the fishing trawlers. Kelibia is clearly not a popular stop for sailing boats our size.
After our visit to the Garde Nationale, we were referred to the ‘quai the plaisance’. Sounds impressive, but turned out to be a very uneven quay side with strings of small pleasure crafts tied on it. There was no place for us, but we were told not to worry. Habib aka ‘Che’ is the 24/7 guard there and he would make space for us. This ‘space’ meant an even tighter fit than the sardine can we had squeezed ourselves into before. Opposing the ‘quai de plaisance’ was another string of local boats with anchors and bow sprits sticking out. We had to jump right left and center a few times to avoid crashing into other boats or the quay side and finally got in with a scrape to the port stern. In the boat yard in Monastir we spent quite a bit of time fixing dents on the stern. Evidently this was not to last and we got out our repair kit once more…
Whilst fixing the scrape, zillions of small fish in different shoals came to have a peek. When we went for a stroll in the port we discovered why. Kelibia has a big retail fish market. Fishing boats bring in their daily load that is sold in bulk on the spot. What can’t be sold goes back in the water, making the port waters look like milky fish soup. Instead of the usual clear waters, there are many things floating in there, all on their way to become fish food.
When you clear out to leave Tunisia, customs will come on board again and check for any discrepancies between the paper and your boat. A slight display of authority and a hint of baksish digging are not strange to this scenario.
In our case, we got a visit from 2 custom officers. This duo consisted of a young guy in uniform speaking French, and an older one without uniform with sunglasses on announcing he speaks English. They checked the whole boat, desperately looking for anything illegal. Exodus is quite packed and has a lot of storage places. The captain had also been clever enough to draw up a full list of all the electronics and valuables on board, which we had attached to our manifeste in Mahdia. Not only would it take forever to double-check everything, it would most probably turn up with no gain for the customs officers. They picked out a few items for us to show and then gave up.
The older guy, however, was on a mission. He started talking to his younger colleague in Arabic, who would then occasionally translate to French for us. They tried by saying that the manifeste drawn up in Mahdia is all wrong. It is not authentique. It is signed by the customs officer but has no custom stamp. It is not completed at back. Also, the Iridium sat phone we have on board is illegal in Tunisia.
We retorted that we received these documents from the officials in Mahdia. We also double checked in Mahdia if the back needed to be completed, and again in Monastir. The officials there were of the opinion that the back does not have to be filled out. We suggested that if we don’t have the right paper we can’t really help it. That it might be better for them to sort out the problem internally. We pointed out that the satellite phone is marked on our manifeste and that nobody alerted us that having it on board is illegal.
After this the customs officials lost interest and we got off with a ‘no problem’ and the correct stamps.
Last stop were the port authorities ‘pour payer la pipe’, to pay for the mooring spot.
Getting into an anchovie can is one thing, but getting out is another. We had set up with the French Beneteau that moored alongside to move out by 10 a.m. It took some to and fro to explain that we do not have bow thrusters, and therefore need more maneuvering space, especially as reversing to starboard is not our strongest power point. They got the message, put their bow thrusters on and easily cast off to go and circle the harbor while we tried to get out. It took quite a bit of maneuvering, trying not to wreck the strings of small boats and the quay. We ended reversing out full throttle, missing the small boats by a hair!
But we were rewarded for our effort by having a beautiful coastal day sail. During the night on stronger winds blew us to Cagliari, arriving several hours earlier than anticipated.