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Leaving Malta, Early Winter in Houmt Souk, Tunisia

December 21, 2014

Bienvenue mes amis! Yes our French is improving by leaps and bounds, but it is hard still to hold an extended conversation.
We stayed in Malta another couple of weeks, with a few excursions to raid chandleries, went out with Jean Jacques and Mary a few times and generally sorted out the boat. It took me a week to unpack everything I had brought back from the UK and find places for them! Mary writes children’s books, so I brought an ancient nursery rhyme book from my childhood for her. It was a bit battered but I hoped she might find some rhymes that she had not heard before. Jean Jacques got the Happy Lion book which was about a French lion! I think Mary will pass it on to more appreciative recipients…

Renzo Piano's new Valletta Gateway

Renzo Piano’s new Valletta Gateway

I had looked for the book that the sunsets out here always remind me of – about two trains going from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo. A double page spread has a wonderful picture of a sunset with the two trains trundling across the landscape with appropriate train sounds. Strange what you remember from one’s youth! However I could not find it. A determined search on the internet finally found one that had been videoed on YouTube! ! Here is the link if you want to see it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrTREbo3MnM . I found that it had been written by an American author – very old but still a goodie. I wondered whether I understood what a caboose was when I was 5!

Cable laying ship in Grand Harbour

Cable laying ship in Grand Harbour

A few days after my return, Lino at Old City pub/shop brought the new perspex window for our front cabin porthole. The next week was spent stripping the cabin wall down (all the books, bookshelves and then the wooden lining had come out while I was away, so Brian could give Lino the old window as a template). It was very messy and we had to sleep in there as well! The rest of the boat was full of all the stuff we had to move out. However it was the perfect opportunity to get it done as we were alongside a pontoon, so access was much easier.
The window fit perfectly, we managed to get it in without any problems. The headlining had, of course, become loose, so there was more stripping of foam and dust. Trying to get it back in place, we had then to take the ceiling wooden lining down as well, then glued the lining back to the hull before putting everything back in place. Our big 1 litre tin of Evostick began to feel rather empty, but I managed to get another one at the local hardware shop.

Grand Harbour Marina

Grand Harbour Marina

I had started the process of getting the dinghy rowlock and oar replaced (it had broken in Taormina). After many very frustrating emails to and fro with Plastimo dealers with no success, I finally realised I should have looked on Ebay. Of course the perfect solution was there, at half the price. However the cost of getting the parts out to Malta (by this time I had spent almost a month searching) before we were to leave put the cost back up. However better that than having to buy a new dinghy! Then of course the shipment got stuck in Germany for some reason – but eventually it arrived. Brian fitted it a couple of weeks ago when we were able to get the dinghy pumped up again here in Houmt Souk.

The couple of days I sent the last blog, it was so wet and windy we stayed in the boat all the time, apart from one expedition for Brian to get soaked as one of the bimini attachments broke (just a bit of string) and had to be reattached. He has now made a better fitting using eyebolts so the string doesn’t chafe. We ended up with cabin fever, so eventually put on all our wet weather gear and headed up to our favourite bar in the St Lawrence Music Society building. We disrobed inside and put our dripping clothes on chair backs but the bar staff didn’t mind. Then put everything back on to return to the boat again after a couple of beers.
The people who made our new bimini had given me the left over fabric and some redundant cushion covering.

DSCF3758When the weather improved I got out the sewing machine and made a new bag for our shopping trolley – very smart. I always ask for the left over fabric so I can use it for patches and other things! We now have a good selection of red, stripey maroon and beige and maroon waterproof fabric strips. I mended a few clothes and then sewed the furry velcro strip onto the bimini to attach the flap that keeps the rain off between the bimini and sprayhood. At the end of one length, the sewing machine just died – it had been misbehaving for a while with tension settings going haywire. I remembered that there was a Pfaff machine repair shop in Mosta (about 5 miles away) that I had used before. I rang up and John Vella very kindly arranged to collect the machine, repair it and deliver it back to the boat within two days. When I next tried the machine it purrs quietly and works perfectly! Fantastic. Now it has a good horizontal slot in the “wet cupboard” on the shelves we built in Turkey, it shouldn’t go wrong so much.
One Sunday, being warm and sunny, we went to the wildlife refuge (only open November to February and only on Sundays!) hoping to see some birds. It took a long time to get there, so we only had a couple of hours. We saw stonechats and a couple of resting flamingos, and a chameleon, so not a lot really. However it was a lovely day and we had a good lunch on the beach at Mellieha. Lots of people were out sunbathing and swimming.


We organised for our hull and propeller to be cleaned by a diver, cognisant of the fact that we had been sitting still for a while. The propeller was quite crusty apparently. We duly informed Jean Jacques, who was preparing to leave the next day – so he spent a couple of hours the next morning cleaning his own propeller and was grateful for the advice. A bad year for propeller fouling methinks, as he had only done his and ours in Rocella Ionica in September.
They duly motored round to Grand Harbour Marina to take their leave of us and headed for a 48 hour trip to Crotone where they have taken the boat out of the water before heading to Naples and Rome by train and then home to France.

Bye Bye Mary and Jean Jacques

Bye Bye Mary and Jean Jacques

I finally dug out our winter duvet on 14th November. It was still a bit warm for it, but the weather was cooling down despite the fact that I was still in shorts a couple of days later. The duvet bag makes a fine storage place for some of our summer clothes.
We finally paid a visit to the Maritime Museum – only a few yards away from our pontoon! It was fairly interesting but not as riveting as I had hoped.
During our morning tea and coffee breaks, I noticed two and then three young athletes using the long (300+) set of steps on the opposite bank as a training area. It made us tired just to watch! They didn’t just run up and down, they hopped and jumped too – up and down almost the entire stretch several times. Whew.
Finally it was time to leave on Tuesday 18th November – a flurry of last minute activity to stock up with pork products, wash the boat, put the TV back on deck for navigation, pay the marina, pay Lino for a bottle of gas etc.
We had been waiting for a favourable wind, which we got for a while and managed to sail for much of the first day. Then it died down, and the engine went on for the rest of the time. After getting round the south side of Malta (avoiding large cargo ships at anchor and exiting Marsasloxx) the course was a straight line to Houmt Souk, Djerba – 238°T for those in the know!

Dawn yet again

Dawn yet again

The two day trip was pretty uneventful, apart from a night time meeting with a bevy of small trawlers and fishing boats – the same as the last time we did this trip. It was just at dinner time too, so Brian and I had to take turns cooking, eating then steering to avoid the boats. Their navigation lights left something to be desired – more like Christmas trees than proper lights, so you couldn’t tell front from back!
The night watches were lovely, with clear star spangled skies, the milky way and lots of shooting stars too. There was little moonlight and we had folded the bimini back, so it was very easy to see (although getting neckache).
As we passed the last gas platform, a patrol boat picked us up with its searchlight, but didn’t do a radio check. Then at dawn we saw gannets diving and a warbler stopped off briefly for a rest. Finally we were hailed by a grey warship and gave all the right answers, then as we approached the entrance to the long channel coming into Houmt Souk harbour a smaller coastguard boat approached and waved at us! They probably wondered what we were doing as we dropped the mainsail – we missed the channel entrance so had to reverse our route a bit to get to the right place! The pilot book and electronic charts have the entrance in the wrong place. We knew that, but hadn’t remembered to put the coordinates in our pilot book the last time we were here! Now we have and have posted it on the Cruising Association website too for other visitors.

Channel marker, Houmt Souk

Channel marker, Houmt Souk

It was exciting to get here – I was really looking forward to renewing our acquaintance with Djerba. A reception committee was waiting on the hammerhead where we tied up. The marina manager is still the same as before – Anis is his name – and I remembered him from before. We waited a half hour for the very friendly police, coastguard and customs entourage to arrive, then filled out the various forms, they did a cursory inspection of the cabin and we were free to get off the boat.
Anis and I went to the office – I booked in for two months and was given the princely bill of £160 – wow. We got the toilet and shower block key (and got another one cut later for 30p). I took our stamped papers to the customs office who kept them pending our departure.
We took a snooze in the afternoon, then went to hunt for an ATM – which would only give us 200dt (about £70) at a time – then went to our favourite hotel bar at the Arischa, had a few beers, returned for dinner and bed. Phew.
It was great to see the Djerban people again, some in their hooded long coats (which were the inspiration for some of the Star Wars costumes), walk along the sandy streets and generally get back into the spirit of desert life.

Anis is proud of his fish

Anis is proud of his fish

So we arrived on Thursday 20th November, then after a rest on Friday beavered around and hired a car for 2 months, got our 3G and phone sim cards sorted out (about 1/3 the price of European ones) and re-oriented ourselves. We found an ATM that would give us more money at a time, which was useful as we had to pay for the car hire in cash.
We have swapped the clamour of Maltese church bells at all times of the day and night for a more regular timetable of the calls to prayer that, with the wind in the right direction, echo out from the town and mosques along the shore.

Mosque

Mosque

I went hunting for fresh milk after failing to find it at the big supermarket, and the nice man in the local grocery store directed us to a small shop near the middle of town. There I had to ask for a container, as it comes out of a big churn! We now take empty water bottles for our refills. About 40p for a litre, so a good bargain as is almost everything here. They do a roaring business in yoghourt drinks and ricotta sandwiches as well as cream cakes.
We spent a lot of time the first few days washing the film of Maltese soot and mud off the boat. As we were alongside for a while, Brian managed to clean some strange stains off the side of the boat too. Eventually Anis was ready to put mooring lines in place for us (he dives and attaches them to the big chains and blocks on the seabed). We moved to the north side of the pontoon, between a big dilapidated motor boat and a large catamaran. Our cockpit faces south into the sun – lovely for our morning cups of tea, lunches etc.

Houmt Souk Harbour and Marina

Houmt Souk Harbour and Marina

Several of the 8 or so other occupants of yachts here welcomed us (they are all French), reminded us which days are market days and reassured us that we could park on the road next to the pontoons. They also pointed us to a new Carrefour supermarket that we found on the 2nd attempt. Wonder of wonders, it stocks ham and bacon products (although no fresh pork) and pork sausage. It is quite big and well stocked, but we do try to use the local supermarket and street market when possible.

Mast repairs

Mast repairs

The laundry situation here has not changed in 4 years – there aren’t any! So all our washing has to be done by hand in the shower block – fortunately lots of lovely hot water which ameliorates the situation somewhat. Francois, on one of the boats, offered the use of their washing machine at their apartment, but it would have been an imposition so I regretfully turned the offer down.
The week after we arrived, Mimi held her 70th birthday party on the pontoon. She and Daniel occupy a catamaran at the land end of the pontoon. I made some little tartlets (bought the pastry cases) of ham, crème fraiche and spring onions, and bought a fruit flan in Carrefour. Everyone had a good time and I made a list of who is who and on which boats they live. About half of the residents have apartments in town but turn up on the pontoon on a fairly regular basis.

Mimi's birthday party

Mimi’s birthday party

44? No, born in '44!

44? No, born in ’44!

Afer that we went bird hunting. Just around the harbour there is a good variety – stonechats and pipits on the rocks, and kingfishers, egrets, grey herons and some wading birds around as well and the cormorants swimming and sunbathing. A spotless (yes, doesn’t have spots) starling chatters at us from the rigging. But along the coast we only saw moorhens, a masked shrike and a thekla lark that day.


Further east of the harbour there is a big group of flamingos, augmented by spoonbills and hundreds of curlews. Redshanks and dunlins scurry around the shore and marsh scrub, plus numerous other plovers. However we find that everything changes to basic grey/brown and white in winter, so distinguishing them from each other is almost impossible! Sandwich terns (big) and various gulls make up the rest.

Flamingos in Houmt Souk

Flamingos in Houmt Souk

We topped up the diesel tank to prevent diesel bug getting a hold – about 44p a litre! Michel on the boat opposite us was interested to know what would clean stainless steel (and iron) so Brian told him about phosphoric acid. He went and found some in Midoun (about 8km away) but doesn’t seem to have used it yet apart from an initial effort. However what he found was very cheap so we should find out where he got it.
The only detraction from enjoying Houmt Souk is the rubbish situation. Apparently the local council cannot find anywhere to dump rubbish (or has the incinerator broken?), so have stopped collecting it. Therefore all the communal rubbish bins are now surrounded by huge mounds of bagged rubbish which someone periodically sets fire to. Unfortunately they burn the bins too. The smell of burning rubbish and plastic can be overpowering at times. The cats and rats are enjoying it though and rats have been seen on our pontoon.

Rubbish problems

Rubbish problems

In the evenings we head out to either the Lotos Hotel (just outside the marina), or Arischa for a couple of beers. The Lotos Hotel has a TV which is usually tuned into Tunisian news (in Arabic of course). When we arrived Tunisia was holding elections for a new president – the first since the revolution 4 years ago. With 27 candidates it was unlikely to have a clear winner, so the next stage is to vote for one of the two highest polling candidates at the end of this month. There is a good discussion on Al-Jazeera news about which will be best and also outlining the big steps towards democracy that the country has taken. The moderate candidate however is 87 years old! Brian noted that at least that would prevent too long a period in office! He is such a cynic.


Most Sundays we go out and tour the island. There was a huge sandstorm for a couple of days. We went to the lagoons on the east side of the island and could barely see from one end to the other. We walked up the beach in the storm with big waves coming in from the east. The boat got covered in a fine layer of dust of course.


The following week we had a huge thunderstorm with torrential rain and gales from the north (54knts) – so it washed most of the sand off again – hurray! It has taken over a week for some of the “lakes” in the roads or on open ground to disappear. The roundabout just outside the marina was inundated with cars edging past on the wrong side of the road.
Market days are fun – there seems to be a market on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Initially there didn’t seem to be much choice apart from oranges, tangerines and dates. It is a pity we don’t like dates. The fruit selection is still a bit limited but the vegetables are now more varied with spinach, chard, beetroot, cauliflower, cabbage.

Houmt Souk Market

Houmt Souk Market

The variation of people in the market is amazing, with Berber ladies in their stripey togas and straw hats, men in their hooded coats, some with turbans and keffiyah. A few men have small cylindrical caps (taqiyah) in either white or red which are just a Muslim custom according to Wikipedia. The rest of the women’s clothing is a mix of European fashions or just long robes with or without headscarves but very few if any in full burqa. The younger men wear the usual jeans and leather jacket uniform.

Houmt Souk Market - Berber couple shopping

Houmt Souk Market – Berber couple shopping

As ever there are heaps of carrots and Florence fennel. I will have to dig out a recipe for carrot cake having renewed our flour stocks – I discovered a few wriggly black mites in the bag! Some got eaten in a pie, but the rest went into the bin. The flour is now stored in a sealed plastic tub.

Houmt Souk Market

Houmt Souk Market

A good half of the market space is taken up with 2nd hand clothing stalls – they seem to do a good business. I suspect the stock comes from all the charity shops in Europe!
The two big supermarkets supply most of the rest of our food with excellent meat and fish counters in both the Tunisian and French shops. We had a huge goat stew the other night which is lasting for a while! Brian likes to have chocolate chip biscuits with mid morning coffee. However we also treat ourselves to baby Africans – really! I found them near the mini chocolate croissants (my breakfast treat). They are a kind of pastry covered in honey and nuts and dipped in chocolate. We couldn’t believe their name – not very PC but then we are in Africa after all.

Baby Africans!

Baby Africans!

Other stuff we have discovered or rediscovered – Enzymax which is an acid based cleanser that is great for bleaching our decks back from yellow to white (and cleaning other stuff). I also found silicon baking sheets which are great for rolling out pastry without sticking – recommended by my sister when I visited in October. The one we have is too big for the oven, so I could get another one and cut it up.
We were discussing searching for other bits and pieces – the kind of stuff you find in pound shops, but Brian commented that here a pound shop would be overpriced!
The small fishing boats in the harbour are busy cleaning and roping together the octopus pots for the new season. We haven’t had octopus yet, but it is in the shops.

Preparing Octopus Pots

Preparing Octopus Pots

In between shopping and bird watching excursions, boat work continues apace. Brian stripped off all the starboard guardrails and we spent a “fun” time replacing stanchions and stanchion bases that were bent or broken. This again involves taking down all the wall linings (big wooden boards) having removed books, shelving and racks, then burrowing under the dusty headlining to find the bolts, removing same and then cleaning it all up, silicon sealing and replacement. Yuck. Brian had to cut a hole in the kitchen cabinet to get at one of them so was grateful for his new Dremel tool collection.

Making a hole in the kitchen cupboard

Making a hole in the kitchen cupboard

He also worked out how to clean the aluminium anodised toe rail that had got very mucky with corrosion. So we (mostly he) spent a happy few hours scraping, brushing, acid bathing and rinsing, then polishing that. I have to say that it looks much better now, if still a bit pitted.
And Brian has fixed our stereo too! He had made an amplifier that fit on our electrical panel, but it got fried in an electrical storm at some stage last year. So one of the things we had ordered and I collected from the UK was another chip to replace the broken one. He has now put a surge protector in place to prevent further damage!
I used the stormy days to get the sewing machine out and have made some very smart replacement tool rolls for Brian’s pliers and screwdrivers. I have bought some stretchy fabric too to make fender covers – next task after finishing this blog!
But before then we are going to take a “holiday” and have booked a few days in one of the posh hotels along the coast for Christmas week. We will be back on the boat for New Year. We plan to head up to Monastir towards the end of January for two months, then head north to explore the western coast of Italy next year.

Beached fishing boats

Beached fishing boats

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