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Tunisia – Sun, Sand and Scenery

February 19, 2015

A rainy day, so a good idea to start writing this blog. The months slip by all of a sudden.

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We booked in to the Djerba Plaza hotel for a luxurious Christmas break. The previous week had been fine and sunny, enough that we could sit out in the cockpit most of the time. The first two days at the hotel (about 8 km from the marina) continued with fine weather and we even managed to get on loungers around the pool for an hour or two of sunbathing! There was a mixture of French, Germans and Tunisians or Libyans in the hotel which meant that with Brian’s white blond hair we were most often greeted with Guten Tag etc. We steadfastly responded in French.

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The pool and gardens, Djerba Plaza

We scooted back to the boat the first couple of days too, so Brian could finish repairing the cracked autohelm mounting (lots of fibreglass, resin and the odd bit of cut up stocking!) and regluing the inner ring which had come loose again. A regular browse of alternate autohelms doesn’t encourage us to go for a new one just yet – all are between £2,000 and £3,000. Eventually though we will have to do it.
The hotel room was lovely – although planned for summer visitors with no sun on the balcony. We took our own kettle for decent sized cups of tea which worked out well and we have now continued the habit.
The food (we went for half board) was excellent – there were enough people there to ensure a huge selection at the buffet breakfasts and dinners. We ate far too much especially treating ourselves to sticky deserts which we never indulge in on the boat. Christmas Eve though took us by surprise. The restaurant was reorganised and a set meal of about 8 courses was laid on. It took so long between each course (with a band and dancing opportunity) that we gave up at about number 6 – it was getting on for 10pm by that time. The presentation of the food was lovely, with little batter trellises and drizzled sauces etc.

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I took pictures of the normal buffet decorations – very novel uses of local vegetables.


Jacques and Anne Marie came to visit one morning, to check out the hotel. We had coffee and then lunch in the restaurant – again a buffet option. We learned a bit more about their history and plans – to sail to Brazil! Their boat was brought over from Martinique last year (they took ownership when it arrived in the Camargue) so it must be feasible.
We managed a couple of walks along the long beach in front of all the huge hotels, down to a headland and then back. Walking back to the road past a rubbish dump cum scruffy lagoon we spied some very strange birds in the grass and scrubland with stary eyes (as in being stared at, not starry). Brian had been looking out for them for a while it appeared as he immediately identified them as stone curlews! The android now has a picture of one as its wallpaper.

Stone Curlew (courtesy of the web)

Stone Curlew (courtesy of the web)

We returned to the boat on 28th December in time to make sure it survived some strong (50knt) winds. It was very cold too, so indoors jobs were mandated. I started to make stretchy fender covers from some good fabric I had found in town. They turned out so well I went and bought some more and made enough covers for all the main fenders! They are now all a pretty maroon colour to match the new sprayhood.

New fender cover

New fender cover

Why do we need fender covers all of a sudden? Well, the plastic does tend to degrade – sometimes just getting scratched and dirty, other times the UV effect makes them very sticky too. So it will hopefully be easier to wash the covers than to clean the fenders themselves – the latter is a horrid, messy and tedious job involving various solvents and scrapers as well as soap and water.
A small party of French people had been working on the boat opposite us – dropping the mast and fixing a new aerial. The fixing bit seemed to be a bit dodgy, so a fair amount of insulating tape was wound around to keep it on. Three weeks later – after the winds – the aerial had disappeared! Oh well…… And now we have noticed that our aerial wobbles a bit too so a trip up the mast is on the cards for yours truly.
Brian continued to improve the stereo amplifier he built, which broke possibly due to lightning and he then repaired. It now has a surge suppression system and a metal box to protect it!
The poor weather continued for more than a week. I was driven to make orange and carrot cake and some orange flapjacks (oranges and carrots being in abundant supply)! This was the first time I had tried baking in our oven and it turned out fine. However I haven’t done it again as we don’t really eat cake much. Brian does like chocolate chip biscuits (and those Baby Africans) but they don’t sell chocolate chips in the shops and it is easier to buy them.
Finally the clouds parted and the wind died and we enjoyed a few more days of sunshine, although the air temperature was a bit icy (for Tunisia).
We even bought an octopus and after Brian gutted it I thought it might be a good idea to hang it up to dry a bit!

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I had a bit of an adventure to get our gas bottles refilled – being told to take the car and the harbour assistant (non English or French speaking) to guide me to the shop. It turned out that he didn’t know where the shop was either! Eventually he managed to find someone who did know and after being turned away at the central gas filling station and by dint of much gesticulation he managed to get us to the right place. I wish everywhere would sell gas at 80p a kilo!
A funny thing I noticed. The popular footwear for a majority of people is what we would call carpet slippers – the backless tweedy variety for men and velvet for women with rubber soles. Of course there are a lot of people in other sorts of shoe, but in the markets and on the streets in towns the slippers are the most common sight!
During December we had been getting information about a new genoa. A sail company (Elvstrom) has a Tunisian manufacturing base and buying the sail here gives us a 25% discount. Even so it is still the best part of £3,000 although that is with all the new technology bits and pieces to make it work better when partly furled. The Elvstrom rep in Tunisia, Hedi Chafroud, travelled all the way from Monastir in early January to take measurements. We had to take the genoa down, then haul up his long tape and he took every measurement, shook our hand and disappeared to rejoin his family who had come with him as they had never been to Djerba before. The sail is due for delivery by the end of March.

Strange rock formation

Strange rock formation

That weekend our friends John and Gill on Petronella, with their daughter Jenny and boyfriend Marcus set off from the Canary Islands for their crossing to the Caribbean. They had a satellite phone and managed to upload a daily blog of the trials and tribulations – fascinating. It took them four weeks. Our hearts were in our mouths as they endured strong winds, big waves, a few breakages and then flat calm! The last day John and Jenny worked all night to re-route diesel to the engine as pipes had got blocked by sediment during the rough parts of the passage. We felt for them.
Meantime Brian got busy washing all the ropes he could find on the boat, and we both worked on polishing the accumulated crud off the anodised aluminium toerail. Brian managed to catch his little fingernail on one of the holes – it finally fell off completely – yuck.
Shopping takes up a bit of time especially if we don’t have transport. As mentioned before, oranges and carrots are in great supply. Now Florence fennel is a big seller too – big lorry loads of it can be seen on the roads heading for market. Bananas are the other kind of fruit always available, but imported. Sometimes we find melons. Quinces are available too. The big oranges are Thomson – like a navel orange, then lots of clementines but with pips. Now blood oranges are making an appearance – very sweet.

A pity we don't like dates!

A pity we don’t like dates!

Bread is very cheap (subsidised), with the staple being a kind of baguette but more solid than the French variety. When we have the motivation we go to the special breadshop that does a lovely onion and olive bread – very nice. Here in Monastir a similar shop sells very nice small round brown loaves.
One night in the Djerba Plaza I had a very good beef stew called Mulukhya, with an interesting taste and texture and a dark green appearance. In the supermarket we saw pots of green powder called Jews Mallow, and on looking it up (trusty Wikipedia) found that this was a constituent of that stew. I later saw big branches of the stuff with big leaves like bay leaves. In Tunisia these are powdered, but elsewhere I think the leaves are just cut up. It takes 5-7 hours to cook though!
Having seen and bought a silicone baking sheet which is now in service to protect our galley surface, as well as being a great pastry making base – no flour required and non-stick, I decided that another one would be very useful. We have now searched every supermarket (including the one I found them in before) without success. This underlines the yachtie bible that if you find something useful anywhere, buy two or three! You may never see them again.

A little grebe in Houmt Souk harbour

A little grebe in Houmt Souk harbour

Brian found an app on the android that you can tell to listen to any music and it will search its database and tell you what it is. Great fun. So we told it to find out what the tourist pirate boats play (mostly) when leaving harbour – turns out to be Vangelis’ sound track for a film about Columbus (called 1492). Not a great success as a film, but I guess quite appropriate for this purpose.
One day Jacques and Anne Marie took us out to lunch. We selected our fish at the market then took it to the restaurant close by, where they cooked it and served it up with salad and chips. Very tasty too. A lad at the next table was intrigued to know where we were from – listening to our mixture of French and English conversation! We in turn took them to Hotel Arischa (the caravanserai) and we had post prandial coffee in the courtyard – they had never been before and liked it very much.
Our time in Houmt Souk was drawing to a close. We took a final trip along the coast to the harbour at Ajim where we saw great crested grebes with their summer plumage just starting to come in, and little grebes too. Stonechats everywhere along with crested (or Thekla) larks, flamingos, spoonbills, curlews and cormorants but not much else.


The weather forecasts settled down a bit (they had been quite wrong a lot of the time) and we settled on leaving on Tuesday 20th January. We put the boat back together for sailing. Anis, the marina manager, dived down to remove the plastic bag he had put over the propeller to prevent it fouling up, I retrieved our boat papers from the Customs office and told the police what we were doing. Because of the tides, and because we wanted to get away early, we had to leave the marina on Monday afternoon, anchor outside in the shallow waters about 6 miles out and then set off the next morning. Explaining all this in stilted French was a bit of a trial, but we got there.
A big crowd from the French boats waved us off, and we finally found a spot not covered in octopus pot buoys, dropped the anchor and settled down for a very peaceful night. We were up early to set off at dawn. The wind behaved itself and we had a great trip. The engine was on most of the time at low revs just to keep our speed up, but we were able to sail without the engine for a few hours. Brian got a bit of a flurry of squalls on one of his watches, and we had to avoid some trawlers but it wasn’t too bad.


It was my watch as we approached Monastir. I saw some cardinal (warning) buoys in the distance which weren’t marked on any charts. I negotiated our way past them and we headed up around the island off the headland south of Monastir doing a bit of a detour to keep the wind in the sails – but gave up eventually. We set a course into the harbour into the wind and then noticed a series of fish farms ahead of us. The big buoys around them seemed to indicate that we could go through the middle, but then we saw a scattering of smaller buoys all over the area, so we turned left rather sharply and negotiated our way round the obstacles – nothing marked on the charts as usual! The coastguards snuck out in their new rib, surprising Brian as they emerged behind us, waving cheerily!
We arrived in Monastir at lunchtime on Wednesday 21st January and were given a very nice berth near the shower and toilet block after a very brief visit to the office and the police. We are tied up next to another Beneteau Oceanis 390 too – nice to be able to compare ours to that one. It is all covered up for winter though.

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Our Pontoon – facing south

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Jacques, Anne Marie, Michel and Anne Laure decided to drive up to Monastir to check out the carenage (lift out) facilities. I had sent a text to Jacques about the fishing port travel lift being out of operation until March, but Michel got a very good price (about £300) for his lift out, cleaning and painting. We were paying more than that just to be lifted out in Turkey!
They turned up to see us on Thursday morning – we were just about compos mentis – and we went out for coffee with them once they had been around the marina. It was nice to see them again! They came on board rather gingerly – our gangplank is narrower than what they are used to!
I reminded myself of where everything is. When putting our mainsail away the big zip that closes the sail bag broke irreperably, so that was something to get repaired here. We headed to our favourite bar (Calypso) – one of many around the marina – and enjoyed a few beers which come with small plates of olives, carrots (again) and chips! Excellent.

Flying fish - flew too far

Flying fish – flew too far

I dropped in to see Rose – the Scottish lady married to a Tunisian who runs the marina chandlery and had helped us back in 2010 with postal voting forms! Then we went to the yard, booked our lift out for 23rd February (early so that we can get 2 weeks on the hard standing), paid for a month and a bit in the marina, took a big load of washing to the laundry (hurray!) and generally got organised.
We toured the marina and found a catamaran that we had originally met in Kalamata, Greece. I later went to say hello to Rob Smith, his partner Amanda was preparing for a trip to Kenya to climb Kilimanjaro. He forwarded a list of other boats in the marina – four or five other English speakers – and invited us to the English speaking Saturday night get together in the bar at the posh hotel just next to the marina.

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Monastir Marina

We went into town and reminded ourselves (with a bit of effort) where everything was. It took a long time to find the better supermarket – it had changed its entrance layout! The fruit, meat and fish market is as exciting as ever – very loud and excellent produce.
The good weather of the previous few days disappeared and we settled in for a week or two of cloud and wind. At the Saturday night get together we all agreed that it had been an unusually cold and wet winter for Tunisia. It is probably about half and half cold and windy interspersed with some sunshine. Occasionally we get a strong hot southerly or westerly wind that brings desert sand with it and coats all the boats with pink dust. Then it rains and it all sticks down until we get a hose and brush to it.

The castle at Monastir

The castle at Monastir

I had emailed a French couple – Jean Paul and Dany on “Tom” who we had met in Brindisi and subsequently Roccella Ionica. They had said they would be in Monastir, but it turned out they had gone to El Kantoui instead, which is nearer Sousse. However they play golf and the courses there are better apparently. Anyway they also turned up on Saturday night and bravely joined in the English conversation.
Another couple recognised us from Kas! They are great friends with a couple who live on land but have a boat in the marina there. They had visited once and met us at the weekly drinks gathering. They had been in Finike I think.
We had bought a length of suede leather in Gouvia (Corfu, Greece) specially cut to size and spliced into a single length, with holes pre-drilled to replace the steering wheel cover. Made in Scotland I was told. I hunted around for whipping twine to stitch it on but ended up with some rather shiny nylon string – Tunisia doesn’t do rope and twine apparently. It took me three afternoons of a few sunnier moments to cut off the old cover and stitch on the new one.

New steering wheel cover

New steering wheel cover

Then I decided that using insulation tape to mark the top of the wheel (essential for ensuring that the rudder is in the right place after making turns etc) would not be acceptable on our lovely new cover! So I started to look at making Turks Head knots instead. It took another three days to get it right! Our knot book didn’t really help – I couldn’t work out the sequence of where to thread the string, so I had to resort to various YouTube demonstrations. I finally found a good one and eventually managed to get it right practising on a broomstick! “Over two, under one twice then over and under” is embedded in my memory now. It is the second “over two, under one” which is tricky to sort out especially when hanging upside down over the wheel. I succeeded, after another few mistakes, to get the ones on the wheel done! Whew. They are still sitting there loose, waiting for us to decide whether to add more strands or leave it as is.

At last! Turks Head knots

At last! Turks Head knots

We need to replace our mooring lines that we had bought in Gocek, Turkey at about 60p a metre and had been doing excellent work for at least two years. Now they are a bit worn and stretched. I also decided that the new genoa needed to have new sheets (ropes). The helpful chandler in Monastir marina (Rose’s husband Fethi Bergaoui) said that he was unlikely to be able to find these in Tunisia but would be going to the UK to pick up a pile of new stock and could collect them then or get them sent to him to clear through customs. I sent him the list of what we wanted and the supplier information, but he found that they will not send to Tunisia. So we hope he will make the trip before we leave – otherwise we will have to get the stuff in Italy.
Brian meanwhile was working on a new electronics board that will tell us if the shorepower is working (fairly straight forward) and whether the polarity is correct (i.e. the live and neutral wires are the right way round). This took some time as it didn’t work – and even blew the trip switches a couple of times! Once it was done, he replaced the indicator board with new LED’s and a new layout. Then it all got labelled – that is an excellent development!

The master electronics expert at work

The master electronics expert at work

The next electronics project has been to make a panel that shows what the actual shorepower voltage is. This might prevent overload or indicate a bad connection. We had melted the shorepower plug and socket at Houmt Souk marina, only finding that out when we left and had to tug hard to separate the two! Oops. We had noticed that the fan heater and kettle weren’t operating at full power but didn’t think anything of it…..

Brian's electrical status panel

Brian’s electrical status panel

We booked our liftout for 23rd February for two weeks. I wanted to see a bit more of Tunisia, so we hired a car and set off on 9th February to Bizerte on the north coast. There is a big inland sea south of Bizerte and then a huge lagoon next to it called Lake Ichkeul which is a wild life reserve and renowned for wintering birds.
The trip was interesting – a mixture of craggy mountains, forests and rolling hills and plains. The hills and plains were all cultivated in huge fields – grain of some kind and broad beans mostly. As we approached the park entrance we saw fields full of lapwings – the first we had seen for a while. There was a flock of house martins too on one of the dykes. Everywhere there was standing water in the fields – a lot of rain must have fallen recently.

Ducks on Lake Ishkeul - very small black dots

Ducks on Lake Ishkeul – very small black dots

The reserve has a gatekeeper who was very friendly, booked us in and pointed us to the parking spot 3 kilometres further on. We stopped on the way to have our lunch and saw a big flock of very bright greenfinches. It was pretty cold and windy (the north of Tunisia has had snow!) but we wrapped up and climbed to the eco museum on the top of the hill. The displays were a bit dusty and dark, and all in French and Arabic, so not much use to us. But we walked back along a dirt track and saw thousands of pochard and tufted duck out in the lake. Coots too and some unidentifiable brown ducks. A few grebes (small and great crested) paddled around the edges. There were a couple of raptor sightings but as usual we couldn’t really say what they were. Probably Bonelli’s Eagle as well as kestrels which we could identify. A marsh harrier flapped lazily around the reed beds.
As we came back to the carpark we caught sight of a very bright red and black bird – a Moussier’s Redstart! Wow.

Moussier's Redstart

Moussier’s Redstart

Thermal springs are here – a few decrepit buildings hide them but I found one bubbling out – very hot
We set off for our hotel just outside Bizerte – a lovely warm room but very cold bar and restaurant but good food. It was right on the edge of the sea with big rollers powering in from the north east, and breaking almost into the hotel veranda.

Bizerte hotel view facing east - storm dying down

Bizerte hotel view facing east – storm dying down

We fell asleep to the sound of the waves – something we hope not to do on the boat!
The next day we went back to the park and took a very long walk around the edge of the big hill it is based around. We didn’t see much else that we hadn’t seen the day before, but it was good to get a bit of exercise. On the way we had seen a different falcon – possibly a Levant Sparrowhawk – but a bus came up behind us on the narrow road and we had to move on.
On Wednesday it dawned bright and sunny with no wind. We drove into Bizerte to check out the marina there which has been partly built and not open for some years.

Bizerte Marina

Bizerte Marina

However the site was a hive of activity and we were introduced to the manager who was very friendly and told us that he hoped to have the marina open in May this year! It looks very nice too and is huge. I have put his details on the Cruising Association website so hopefully he will get a few members visiting.

 

Raf Raf seafront

Raf Raf seafront

From there we headed to Raf Raf beach on a headland north of Bizerte and walked up the sandy track through pine forests towards the end of the headland. It was a lovely day and it was good exercise plodding through sand dunes with a bit of a rocky scramble at the end. We saw sea shells embedded in the sandy rock, showing that this headland had been under water in previous eons. The views from the top were great, out to sea in all directions and over the bay of Bizerte.

View out to sea at Raf Raf

View out to sea at Raf Raf

An attack of twittering on the way back revealed a flock of serins – yellow green and a nice change from the omnipresent sparrows.
I wanted to see at least one of the ancient Roman sites so the next day we headed to Nefza where I had booked a hotel for a couple of nights. Again the route took us through rolling agricultural land interspersed with rocky outcrops and forests. The land along the coast is all sand dunes and pine and eucalyptus forests – a few other scrubby areas too.

Beach near Tabarka

Beach near Tabarka

Nefza is at the southern end of a huge reservoir behind the enormous Sidi el Barrak dam.

Sidi el Barrak Dam

Sidi el Barrak Dam

The water from this reservoir is piped via another reservoir (265 million cubic metres a year) and supplies Tunis, Cap Bon, the Sahel and Sfax. (Thanks Wikipedia). That is a lot of water and a long way to send it! It was pretty full when we visited with water lapping at the top of the overflow channels.
However, in common with most reservoirs there wasn’t much wild life to be seen, although the waters apparently sustain fresh water bass and zander.
The hotel room again was well appointed and warm and a log fire burned in the small reception area – lovely!

Towels folded into a swan!

Towels folded into a swan!

We met a German man employed by a German automobile wiring harness manufacturing company (Kromberg & Schubert) with a factory in Beja. He has been sent in to try to improve performance. He finds that the local labour seems to have no concept of efficiency, quality or pride in work and is finding it hard. Beja is in the middle of nowhere, so they can’t get better skilled managers to move there. They were warned apparently, but the boss of K&S wanted to build his factory there for some reason.
We were there because it was the closest hotel listed in Booking.com to the Bulla Regia Roman archeological site – our destination the next day. Google maps sent us the long way round via Tabarka – the last port on the coast before Algeria and where we had first landed in Tunisia in 2009. The road south from Tabarka was very scenic – hills and forests – but in serious disrepair. The snow and rain had washed away huge pieces of road along the way so it was a long slow journey around roadworks.
Bulla Regia was excellent – both in terms of remains and birdlife. The richer Romans had built their houses half underground. The remains have been well preserved so at last you see a full example of Roman domestic architecture and more mosaics than you can count. We were accosted by a guide who insisted on showing us the main points. Initially we were reluctant to follow, but he did have some interesting information to convey. Later we wandered around ourselves up and down the very well preserved roadways and through the rest of the ruins.
We found the warm spring bubbling out of the ground and rushing down the hillside, which presumably was the basis for the settlement in the first place. Certainly there were a lot of Roman bathhouses – the main one being the usual huge construction.

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And the birds were abundant – we found another Moussier’s Redstart, a hoopoe, a little owl, a common bulbul, black redstarts and the usual selection of chaffinches, stonechats etc. A possible sighting of a Rock Thrush but it might have been a colourful chaffinch as the size was difficult to establish.

Hoopoe

Hoopoe

We returned via Beja – a much quicker route than the morning. We keep finding that Google maps suggests routes that turn into muddy tracks and footpaths! It also assumes you can keep to the 70 or 90 kph speed limit where in fact every small village has sleeping policemen, 50 kph limits, sheep and goat herds crossing roads, and the roads themselves are sometimes full of potholes. So an estimated 1½ hour journey can easily be 2½ hours.
Our short holiday was over and we returned to Monastir via Tunis where we had seen a huge shopping complex on the outskirts. A bad decision in the end as the place was packed with people and there were queues to get in and out of the parking areas. We did find a few things in the big supermarket but no silicone baking sheets yet again! A large hardware store was just next door but when we entered it was almost empty. Again we picked up a few bits and pieces but not enough to justify the length of time it took to get there. On the way back to Monastir there were massive queues through Tunis itself and at the toll booths south of the city. We finally made it just before dark and treated ourselves to pizza at Calypso restaurant.
Since we returned on Saturday we have been catching up with domestic and other chores but took a couple of afternoons out while we had the car. We found the nearest Carrefour supermarket in a town south of here, but it wasn’t much better than the Magasin General in Monastir. On Tuesday we went to find the Flamingo Golf course which Rose had recommended for walking and bird watching. We were able to walk around the paths there and saw yet another unidentifiable eagle or buzzard, a hoopoe, laughing doves and Sicilian warblers. A crowd of tufted ducks floated on the nearer salt pans and flamingos on saltpans further north. It was a pleasant afternoon and again we enjoyed the exercise. The car has now been returned so we are back on foot again.

I must apologise to ornithologists who might have read the last blog – I should have said the pictures of the shrike is a grey shrike – not a masked one. There are lots of them!
Our mainsail was finally collected yesterday for cleaning and small repairs . That took a while to organise as I had to get a customs declaration for it so that the repair people (Hedi Chafroud again) didn’t get done for acquiring non-taxed goods – sigh. We had taken it off a while ago and taken the sail bag to the upholstery people to replace the zip. That has been done and is now ready for installation once the sail is put back on.
Now we are preparing for our lift out on Monday (although the weather forecast looks a bit grim). I have booked an apartment in the apart hotel block that surrounds the marina. We will move our stuff in there over the weekend and start work on things we can’t do while in residence on the boat.
So March is going to be busy, but maybe we will have a chance to get another few day’s break before leaving on our 2015 summer cruise. The plan is to visit the west coast of Italy, South East France, Elba, Corsica and Sardinia. In which order we do it is still undecided as is our winter destination next year.

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