Max Williams does Tunisia and Sicily

Steve is a gem

We leave our luxury hotel behind in El Oued and cross the Algerian-Tunisian border 80km away with hitchhiker Steve, an American foreign aid volunteer. It takes another two hours to get through both border posts with the usual forms, passport and van checks. Steve offers to put us up in his home in Kasserine, 300km north of the border for two nights. Yes please!

On the way north we drive over Spanish like terrain – hilly, barren, rocky with flat plains where “there are many Bedouin’s about in their colourful garb”. A stop-off at the well-preserved Bulla Reggia Roman ruins (with subterranean heat-proof homes) almost requires a change of undies when I nearly stepped on a live snake. Most likely a cobra. Yikes!

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Kasserine

At Steve’s place there’s only a ‘starting block’ dunny out the back. However, his rooftop is a great place to catch some sun, read a book, play chess and just chill. Steve even prepares a homecooked meal for us. Onya Stevie!

Rewind 31 years and Kasserine was a war zone where 12,000 soldiers died in the WW2 battle of Kasserine Pass. US forces were defeated by the Germans under the command of Rommel.  Fast forward to 2015 and Kasserine was purported to be a breeding ground for ISIS militants.

Tunisia is a treat

The terrain is scenic further north – undulating, green and wooded. We stay at Steve’s friend’s place in Ain Draham 20km from the coast – a summer retreat village. Oh wow, this is great – sitting next to a fire, reading, sipping on a nice Tunisian wine, chatting, and enjoying a lovely inhouse dinner. The sandstorm in Algeria is now just a memory!

After driving east through beautiful green countryside, we arrive at Bizerte.

Lunch is great. As Dana relates, “Tunisian style eggs – deep fried in batter. Delicious.” About 80km south, on the outskirts of the capital, Tunis, is the beautiful clifftop tourist town of Sidi Bou Said, a blue and white themed artist retreat town. Coffee at a hilltop café overlooking the Mediterranean is special. 

Lifetime friends

In Tunis we look for a campground and spy a few vans on a vacant plot of land in the middle of the city. We pull in beside a Pepsi-Cola van. Marty is off chasing a knife-wielding guy who just threatened his wife, Carolyn, in their van. This sliding door moment is the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Throughout Europe we keep catching up with our new American friends in their ‘can’t miss’ Pepsi van. Many catch-ups and holidays have followed since.

We have no toilets or running water at our ‘camping ground,’ and it’s next to a smelly sewerage outlet – but hey, it’s free and central, and even though the cops say it’s dangerous, they let us stay there. We form a safety in numbers van quad arrangement. Think ‘circle the wagons’ in the Wild West. A lazy day is spent doing some van maintenance and just chilling out.

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Loop tour

A decision is made to head off touring for a few days. Dougga, some 120km SW of Tunis, is a well-preserved 2600-year-old ruin, high on a hill and housing 25,000 people in its day. It must have been cosy chatting to everyone in the communal long drop crapper. We continue to Kairouan and Sousse and check out some rug shops – nice but expensive, even for Tunisia. The coast road heading north towards Tunis, from Sousse to Hammamet, is very narrow and windy but the scenery is beautiful. Back in Tunis, the day is spent doing some last-minute shopping, but now it’s time to leave North Africa for Europe. Our late-night ferry to Sicily awaits.

Waiting for the ferry

There are about 30 vans lined up for the 11.30pm crossing. The haze in the air and the odour is unmistakably that of cannabis. We hear that there are going to be border searches. The mostly ‘hippyish vanners’ are making the most of their last tokes, and by 10.30pm everyone has thrown away their hash stash far and wide. At 11pm we hear that the ferry has been delayed until tomorrow. Oops! The torches are out and people are trying to find their throwaway treasure. Quite humorous!

The following day is rather boring – reading, chatting and playing Frisbee. We leave at 7pm for our eight-hour sail. The rumoured security checks don’t happen!

Sicily

We have cabins but don’t get much sleep and are dead tired when we arrive at 3.30am in Trapani. Just outside the port we stop for some more shuteye. Sounds of traffic and lots of people wake us early – in the city square. Bloody hell!

We load up on Italian coffee and pastries for brekky and exchange Aussie dollars for lira. Wow, first time since England. Our journey continues around the southern coast to the 2600-year-old Agrigento Greek ruins – quite different to Roman structures. The museum is fascinating.

Our food quality improves – great coffee, pasta and clean butcher shops! It is raining most days on and off – just bloody annoying. The route from Gela to Syracuse is mountainous and picturesque. The Greek and Roman ruins there are spectacular, but the catacomb tunnel maze tour is a bit claustrophobic. We are still travelling in tandem with Marty and Carolyn and camp on the beach nearby the ruins. Further up the coast is Catania.

We drive through and camp on the side of a lava hill below Mt Etna – a poor choice made in desperation.

The split up

It’s the 6th of April and with the need for personal space, Michael writes,

No more sightseeing for now! We head directly to Messina and get a ferry to the ‘toe’ of Italy. The countryside in Italy’s south is beautiful. We are on the Superstrada.

We drive all day and camp just south of Salerno. The next day we bypass Salerno and Naples and arrive mid-afternoon at the Monte Antennae campground in Rome. I spend the next three days looking for a van. As luck has it, we find something suitable in the campground. Dana and Michael leave a week later to continue their journey through Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Living so close 24/7 has its ups and downs. When four people live in a ‘shoe box’ with their own ideas and personalities, something must give. Together we last 100 days. The split is inevitable but there are no hard feelings. We have had a fabulous time and experienced so many things in our travel naivety. We have become more mature, more accepting of cultural differences, more tolerant, more arty farty and much more travel savvy. It’s been a bloody hoot!

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The last word

This is the end of series one, the travels of the ‘DUMM syndicate’ – Dana, Ursula, Michael and Max. I trust you have enjoyed the many tales of our journey. Maybe the stories have sparked your memories of the ’70s or have rekindled your travel desires. I hope so.

My prime goal has been to entertain and excite you about travel experiences through the eyes of four travel novices in their 20s. Travel in those days was generally unrestricted but is now becoming more difficult because of the increasing prevalence of autocrats wielding their big sticks, making it unsafe to travel in some countries.

My takeaway message is to say that every day is a bonus. Get out and travel and live everyday as though it’s your last. Finally, live life to the Max!

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Written by MaxWilliams

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