November 13, 2016
The nerves start setting in about five hours before the ferry is set to depart from Palermo. For an extra €30 the hotel has let us stay in the room until 6pm which allows us some time to try and relax without having to contend with lugging bags around, storing them and hoping everything is returned just as we left it. In other words, it’s totally worth it. With little effort, the time flies by and we soon find ourselves loading the bikes – almost as if we’re on autopilot. While we’re both excited, I think we’re also hoping for a smooth transition to Africa. Hope for the best, plan for the worst and all that.
It’s only a few minutes ride to the ferry and, after a brief chat with the same security guard from a few days prior, we’re directed to a green and mauve paddock. Inside the courtyard are two small temporary buildings, one of which has a line of men waiting outside and the other clearly marked “Tickets, Pick-up and Passports.” Taking our printed tickets in, a man quickly exchanges them for the real tickets we’ll need to get aboard and sends us on our way with barely a grunt. Once outside we have no idea where to go next, though we notice the line-up to the unmarked building is growing. Nita wanders off to find someone to talk to while I watch the bikes and soon returns with a dock-worker who’s very helpful – we have to join the line outside the unmarked building and get our passports stamped for the ferry.
We arrived at the site at 6:30 which we thought was far too early for the 11:30 sailing to Tunis, but as we wait the cars quickly start to form a line by the bikes and it’s not long before they extend outside the paddock itself. Finally the line begins to move and after about twenty minutes we make to the front – which is exactly when an Italian policeman asks us to return to our bikes for inspection. Gah! He goes through our paperwork, makes sure they’re registered to us and that we have valid insurance. He also asks to see the tickets – the original web-tickets. In fact, throughout the process of getting ferry tickets we’ve been under the impression that our printed copies are only useful for picking up the actual tickets – which turns out to be completely wrong. At every step along the customs process – both in Palermo and in Tunis – the guards always want the web tickets and could care less about the official ones.
Satisfied with our documents he smiles and asks us to rejoin the line-up, and we head straight to the front which seems to annoy the next person in waiting. We all have to wait at some point and I feel fairly unapologetic since he’s occupying our previous spot! Inside, a customs official checks the tickets and stamps the passports. With a smile we’re through! Checking the stamp we’re disappointed to not see any description or country designation but really pleased at the ease of the process. The dock-worker who helped us earlier is standing by the bikes and after asking him where to park he leads us to a spot at the front of the ramp. Feeling far more relaxed we park the bikes and watch the action as ferrys unload and load all around us.
There’s a small bar fifty feet from our bikes and we decide to grab a celebratory drink – we have hours to go and time to kill. While we watch the line continue to grow any tension seems to melt away; we’re all set for the ten hour ferry and the process has been pretty straight-forward. A group of five BMW GS’s appear in tight formation before disappearing behind the mauve gate and we smile knowing that we’re going to have some company in Tunisia! After a while they emerge with all of the required documentation and stamps then park their bikes at the front of the line next to ours. It’s one of the joys of having a bike – with ferries we’re often first-on and first-off.
The group hovers around our bikes, takes some pictures and then, just as suddenly as they appeared, they hop back on their rides and head back into Palermo. They’ve likely decided, with hours to go, that dinner in town is a better idea. Nita and I settle into our bar table and watch the ferry that’s currently using the dock finish loading before moving into the darkness leaving a void of activity in it’s place.
A younger couple grabs the table beside us and stand there for quite a while talking between themselves. Realizing that we have the only two chairs in the place I offer them a chair which sparks a conversation. Mudy and Lorena are a beautiful couple who moved to Tunisia from Spain for work and it doesn’t take long before we’re sharing a good laugh at the table. Perhaps too good a laugh as my helmet rolls off of my tank-bag shearing the nylon bolt that holds the visor in place. Damn. A wobbly visor for the next three-weeks in North Africa doesn’t sound like a great time. Using my Leatherman to get the remaining threads out of the recessed nut, I find the bolt is long enough to attach the shield and, with the help of a little Duct tape, I re-fasten the visor as good as new. Sort of. Hopefully it’ll hold up to the desert.
Talking to Mudy and Lorena is a joy and soon hours have passed with no sign of our ferry. Mudy tells us that they arrived on the ten-hour ferry the day prior to spend the weekend in Palermo, but it left seven hours late so their trip has been cut to a single day! Hoping that we’re not in for more of the same we all anxiously glance at the dock. Still empty. At about 11 pm it finally arrives but with unloading and loading to still take place we know we’re going to be here for a while. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that long-distance ferries are rarely on time. Mudy explains that people will find anywhere they can to sleep – that it’s a race to chairs once the gate opens. Walk-ons get the best choices and after them it’s a fight to the death to find a cushion! Since they’re walking on, Mudy and Lorena offer to save us a seat for as long as they can – if we can find them once on board.
We exchange contact info with Lorena and Mudy before saying a “…goodbye for now…” and head to the bikes to prepare for boarding. The gaggle of GS riders have returned and there’s a lot of commotion around the bikes. The five riders are all Greek; they’ve ridden to Palermo in a couple of days and have a nine day journey planned through Tunisia. All of them met through an online forum called GSforum.gr and they’re a great bunch of guys! Alesandros and Jon speak English which makes the conversation a little easier and it’s not long before we’re sharing a good number of road stories. One older gentleman has seen a good portion of the world but his bike looks brand new – a real counterpoint to our desire to get the bikes as dirty as possible. Spending time with these guys really makes heading to Tunisia feel like the right thing to do – we’ve been told repeatedly that with it’s current political climate it’s a dangerous place to visit – even some veteran travellers have warned us not to travel here. Still, to balance out the warnings there’s been a number of people who’ve told us that it’s an amazing country to travel and even now, with some research and smarts, it’s a great country to ride through. Nita and I are called over to the back of the older mans bike and with the pop of his lid, he pulls out shot glasses and some ouzo. A round for the ship and a wish for safe travels is shared by us all. Opa!
The line of cars now extends into the hundreds and almost all of them are loaded in ways we couldn’t imagine. Mini-vans are literally doubled in height with all manner of product strapped to their roofs. One car looks like it has an entire dining room suite attached to it! Some have scooters laying on their sides and others have complete offices strapped to them. Most of them look like they’re about to topple over and all of us have a good chuckle at the spectacle while also hoping they don’t get to park by the bikes.
A couple of other folks stop by the bikes to say hi – one is Kaled, an older Tunisian man living in Palermo who invites us for dinner in Tunis, and the other, Paul, is a Canadian teacher now living in Tunis and working at the American Cooperative School – the same school that was extensively damaged during an attack last September. He said of the three countries he’s taught in, the situation in Tunisia has been the most challenging which seems to be the sentiment of many people we’ve met working and living there. Sharing our love of bikes, he changes the subject and tells us about his own motorcycle adventure as a younger man travelling through South America, before wandering off to admire the different machines.
The dock is a whirlwind of socializing. The atmosphere is more “Nervous party” than “Painful wait.” In what feels like no time, we get the wave from the dock worker, the tickets are scanned and we’re riding onto the boat. A quick u-turn, over some chains for lashing and we’re in position for the journey. There’s room for two bikes side-by-side but the loader is ambitious and gets us in three-wide and resting on the center-stand – something every other ferry we’ve been on has categorically disallowed. Lashed down properly they should be fine and with less than an inch separating them, they’re pretty snug. Our Greek friends are busy tending to their bikes and we make our way up to the main deck hoping to see them during the journey – though with the help of a Gravol we’re already feeling sleep fast approaching.
Deckhands check our tickets intermittently and guide us through the corridors towards an area with some chairs. We opted for deck passage rather than cabins on this ferry since the cost for a berth was quite expensive. One room seems fairly empty and we quickly look for a seat though it’s not as easy as we hoped. People take the cushions from the seats and use them as a bed on the floor – so four chairs to every person – which leaves pretty poor odds at finding something. People are strewn everywhere on the floor of the ferry; families are curled up in the main corridors and every carpeted spot is spoken for. We see a group of three chairs together and, as we quickly move towards them, we see the faces of Mudy and Lorena in the row ahead! Unsure as to whether they’ve been saving them or it’s serendipity, we’re happy to see them again and to have a place to rest our drowsy heads.
We chat for a little while before settling into our chairs – which recline – and hope for a deep sleep to follow. The room smells like a locker and it’s a good couple of hours before the boat is loaded. All the while, people rush into the room hoping to find a spot for the night and the sound of velcro tearing plays like a soundtrack to every stolen cushion leaving it’s place. Eventually when there are no pillows left, a dim hum of Arabic and the rumble of cars along the decks below can be heard. I close my eyes but sleep is hard to find.
Eventually, the rumble of the engines lets me know it’s time to try the floor; it’s 2:30am, the ship is three hours late leaving and I’m going to need some rest for tomorrow. Nita joins me on the floor and soon we’re both asleep using our riding jackets as pillows.
The morning light on the Mediterranean pours in through the windows and wakes us without much struggle. It’s only about 7:30am but the idea of falling back to sleep is already long gone. People are stirring, the din of Arabic is increasing and all around us plans are being made. Our first ride in Africa will be a short one; the plan is to make it as far as Hammamet, a resort town on the east coast of Tunisia and only ninety minutes from the port. We’ve been told that, on a good day, customs can take thirty minutes and, on a bad one, up to four hours. The riders from Greece suggested we all go through customs together, a “strength in numbers” idea that seems like it could work and we’re keen to meet up with them when we reach the dock.
Mudy returns carrying a coffee and I’m immediately in need. Taking a walk down the corridors I keep an eye out for our Greek friends and enjoy both the sun and casual nature of the people lining the halls. Men sit as they would in a sheesha lounge talking in circles, while young children play outside along the deck. Some corners are home to men huddled with cigarettes and secret conversations while others are quiet spots where people can get away from the crowds. We grab a coffee and a croissant before heading back to our seats where our friends have been watching our bags.
The conversation is lovely and they share some insights into the country that are welcome. It’s illegal to remove currency from Tunisia – the money needs to be exchanged into Euros on exit so Mudy offers to change up some Tunisian Dinars for us which will help with fuel and tolls if it’s needed. Lorena also offers us some more croissants in case we’re still hungry – which we are surprisingly! Nita has also found a customs card that needs to be filled out – though we find out about it’s existence purely by luck. All documentation for entry into Tunisia is in French and Arabic only, so Nita and I spend a good amount of time trying to decipher every lines meaning before filling out the details. Some we know, others are just decent guesses.
As we continue to talk, two small islands pass by the window on our left and before long we can see the shores of Africa in the distance. Covered by a gentle haze, the sharp lines of the coastal mountains cut a mark just above the horizon. As we approach the shore we say goodbye to our friends, exchange information and they offer us a place to stay in Sousse if we need it! Just lovely. The stairwell to the car-decks is packed and the throngs of people wait patiently for the gate to be raised.
With the boat completely still it seems to take forever for them to begin letting people down the stairs and with patience wearing thin, the raising of the gate creates a stampede for the exit. We take the stairs to the left but have to cut across an escalator on the right to make it to the deck. For some unknown reason people stop at the base of the escalator and block the exit and it’s not long before there’s a substantial pile up at the bottom. People are yelling, stuck with nowhere to go as the escalators’ revolving steps keep delivering people into the fray. The deckhands aren’t doing anything and, with us having to cross the mayhem, I simply block the stairs until the pileup clears. This creates outrage behind us as people start trying to push us past those desperately trying to clear their luggage and their feet from being trapped. I motion for one particular man behind me to hold on but after a few shoves to my back he gets an elbow in the chest which seems to settle him down for a moment.
With the tiniest of breaks in traffic we make a run for it and, just like that, we’re reunited with our bikes. Moments later we’re joined by the Greeks who we help with their forms, before Nita pulls onto the ramp and leads the charge onto African soil! Dodging the trucks as they’re unloaded, all seven of us find a place dockside to gather our thoughts and celebrate where we are. The Zeus Palace has gotten us here safely and now the real challenge begins: Customs. We all feel it, and perhaps it’s a tinge of dread that keeps us at the dock a little too long for the officer in military fatigues who, machine gun at the ready, yells for us to move along. We do!
All of the bikes are sent into a single line together and free of the over-stuffed vehicles that are bringing plenty of goods back into the country. In less than twenty minutes two men begin asking questions about where we’re going and how long we’ll stay. Seeing the seven bikes, he asks for a list of names in the group and explains that for tours operating in Tunisia it’s very important that they have a list. The tallest of the Greeks, Jon, tries to explain that we’re friends, not a tour, and that Nita and I are Canadian – which seems to be the only thing that sinks in. Realizing that we’re separate from the group we’re whisked to a kiosk to talk to a different man, which seems to help our cause simply because it means less work for him! This part of the process goes smoothly – except that where we thought the form was asking for a VIN, it was actually asking for the license plate number. A simple mistake and the huge number in the tiny box elicits a laugh from the guard.
He returns our paperwork, stamps the customs sheet and says we’re free to go! That was easy – until we round the corner and see another, longer line flanked by some very grim faces. Immediately a man hands me a form and tells me to start filling it out but he doesn’t look official. Guessing that he’s a “Fixer” I tell him I’ll think about it for a minute. There seem to be uniformed men walking up and down the aisles, talking and smoking, and inspecting the vehicles in no particular order. Some people are required to show them their engines, others are ordered to uncover the stack of goods on top of their cars. There are no clues as to what we’re supposed to do here.
A younger man approaches us and hands us another set of forms and begins telling us what to write and where to write it. He seems more official with the words PORT STAFF on his back, but we soon find out he’s just another fixer working a more organized scheme.We fill out the forms, hand him our documents and insists that Nita go with him to the processing center. Before I can object, they’re gone. He returns a moment later without her and, while the guards are looking the other way, asks for a “Tip.” Ah, our first “Special fee” in Africa. It’s costly – I’m embarrassed to say – but with the whirlwind of activity around us I honestly just feel overwhelmed. On the bright side, Nita appears ten minutes later and we’re all set to leave.
We say warm goodbyes to our new Greek friends and wish them the best on their whirlwind tour of Tunisia before handing over one set of documents, keeping a green form and having a chat with a police officer. With a left turn we’re alone, for the first time, in Africa.
It’s hard to explain the feeling of being here for the first time. The heat isn’t overwhelming like we may have imagined; it’s early in the season still and in the north by Tunis we’re still getting mid-twenties for a temperature. The light seems whiter on the landscape and seems to bleach even the colours of the surrounding mountains. The roads definitely have more gravel on the shoulders and there’s a sealant on them that makes them almost slick in the heat – just like Paul told us on the ferry before he invited us to stay with him in Tunis. The butterflies in our bellies are surprisingly sparse as we first head east, then south – towards Hammamet – and soon the frequent waves and incredible smiles we get from people on the streets banishes any fears we may have had. The people here are wonderful.
Rather than take the main autoroute from Tunis, we stick to “B” roads and find ourselves rolling through small town after small town, often to the smiles of kids and parents alike. People pull their cars next to us and ask if we’re really from Canada – first in Arabic, then in French. Our answer always gets a thumbs up – sometimes even a cheer. It’s an unbelievable welcome to this country – this continent – and more than we could have ever expected. The roads here are straighter than anything we’ve seen in months and the rhythm of the wheels on the tarmac relaxes us into the moment. Warm air fills our suits and the ride to Hammamet is a truly joyful experience. We need a place to be still for a few days – somewhere we can take everything in, look out over open water and let the sun warm us.
As we pull into our home for the next few days, we realize that this place on the eastern shore of this small country in Africa is the perfect spot.