The Ruins of El Jem, a Man and his Oasis in Ellouza

May 28, 2013

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

Our destination for the night is El Kahena, a hotel and campsite just outside of Ellouza, a small town about half-way between Sousse and Sfax. The route begins to feel more distant from anything we’ve ridden with long straight roads taking us along open stretches of landscape heavily dotted with brush, olive trees and cacti holding their large spiky paddles in the air. The garbage along the road is worse than ever and it’s hard to believe that people are so willing to do so much damage. In some areas the air is thick with the smell of rot and it’s impossible to not feel disappointed at the human penchant for laziness and it’s ability to destroy the planet.

Infrequent roadside vendors are beginning to appear along the route, some are selling containers filled with fuel smuggled in from Libya and others are simply holding a couple of freshly caught squids in the air. But more and more the spaces between towns are feeling less populated. The sun is high in the sky and the heat begins to climb into the high twenties before we begin heading east towards the coast.

Before Ellouza we want to head inland to visit the town of El Jem which is home to the largest Roman amphitheater in North Africa – second only in size to the famous colosseum in Rome. We’re not exactly sure how to find it in El Jem since our maps are incredibly limited but as we approach the towns outer limits it’s hard to miss. Down a long, straight street the amphitheater towers over all buildings here and looks remarkably well maintained.

Pulling into a large lot it’s hard not to just stop and take in how beautiful it is. In all of our research we’d read about many of the Roman archeological sites in North Africa being in better condition than those in Italy – and with less restrictions on access. The amphitheater here definitely seems to back up those claims. It doesn’t take long for a shop owner to make his way over to the bikes offering us postcards, pens and maps – but what we really need is someone to watch the bikes – a job he’s happy to take on while we wander about the area.

It’s the middle of the afternoon and the sun is hot. With trickles of sweat running down our backs we decide to relax in the shade of a café before walking the ruins in full gear. We meet a group of fifteen Italians on motorcycles who make up the Avventure GS group. They’re another incredibly friendly group who all speak very good English which makes trading stories and contact info so much easier! 

After a few lively moments of chatter, Paola who’s been riding pillion on her boyfriends bike asks to sit on Nita’s F650GS which has been factory-lowered allowing her to stand almost flat-footed on her machine. Always sympathetic to the plight of those short in stature (women and men, I might add) Nita’s happy to let Paola try it out. With both feet firmly on the ground the entire group erupts into a cheer! With a huge smile on her face, it’s easy to see that the days of being on the back of a bike are quickly coming to an end for her.

Having only arrived this morning, the group is on a cannonball run to Matmataon the northern edge of the Sahara in a single day! At this rate they’ll be getting in well after dark which leaves us hoping they don’t try to make up the entire distance in a single trip. After a great visit, Nita and I find some shade in a nearby café and enjoy a thé à la menthe.

Looking around, it’s the first time in Tunisia that we really notice the dominantly male presence at bars and cafés during the afternoon and evening. It’s an interesting feeling for both of us. Nita is much more aware of how she’s presenting herself – smiling enough to be polite, not enough to be misunderstood. I’m becoming more aware of the staring – at us both. With me it’s my tattoo and with Nita, well, she’s a woman riding a big adventure bike! Always a stand-out. Regardless, it’s all harmless curiosity more than anything and we’re getting better at dealing with it.

With our teas done and the afternoon marching on, we decide it’s time to make our way to the colosseum before it gets too late. First, it’s time for a bathroom break and, after a truly horrific bathroom experience on our route to Sousse (which was unwittingly recorded on her still-running GoPro and later erased to prevent further emotional trauma!), Nita’s a little gun-shy about asking to use the facilities at this tiny bar. For a moment she considers taking in her Freshette – a brilliant little funnel that’s saved her twice on road-side breaks. Getting to “stand and go” seems incredibly liberating to anyone who doesn’t get to do it daily! Daring the loo, she emerges a few minutes later with a thumbs-up and a smile which means we’re good to go.

With the air-cooling, we make our way around the amphitheater to the entrance; it turns out that our parking lot is at the rear of the building and by the time we make to the gate the sweating has returned. Still, walking the circumference of the building is a joy. The stone is in wonderful condition and walking the narrow streets to the gate leads us past another mosque just as the call to prayer begins. As we enter the amphitheater at the entrance we see our Italian friends still preparing to leave – it’s after three and now we’re really hoping they reconsider the long journey south!

After shaking off a couple of offers for a camel ride, we pay the ten dinar entry fee plus a one dinar camera permit – an extra fee that’s common at many of Tunisia’s historic sites. Finishing up the ticket purchase I decide to try using shukran rather than a merci with the teller – something that elicits a lovely smile from him. He explains that, while grammatically correct, shukran isn’t really used by Tunisians and that aaeshik is. Leaving the counter a little wiser, I meet Nita by the gate and we make our way in.

This really is a grand amphitheater. We’re free to roam anywhere within it’s wall – there are no ropes hinting at dangerous spots and no fences to stop us from climbing its well-worn stairs. Shade covers and inside ledge and a few people retreat from the heat in the giant arches that support the outer walls. We make our way to the grand stage and imagine what it would have been like to be released from waiting areas under the arena only to find ourselves in a whirlwind of violence. Out of the frying pan and all that…

Some of the stonework looks as if it could have been completed only a few years ago – the cutting is still that sharp. We make our way up the stairway toward the middle tier and walk the circumference of the amphitheater which provides clear panoramas of El Jem and the surrounding landscape. We can see our bikes in the distance and the outline of the shop keeper; he’s sitting directly in front of them, keeping kids at bay and keeping his word. It’s no surprise honestly, a verbal agreement here seems to carry more weight than at home.

We make our way down the far side of the amphitheater and, just as Mudy and Lorena had mentioned, the stone contains the shells and figures of ancient sea-creatures. These stones weren’t dug from the ground in the surrounding area, they were heaved from a quarry and brought 50km to this spot – and incredible feat for any time. Unlike the bustling lines and constant murmur of the colosseum in Rome, this place is quiet – there’s a peacefulness here that remains unbroken by the few people who take the time to explore it. Time seems to slow down and before we know it an hour has passed and it’s time to make our move towards our home for the night. We say our goodbyes to the wonderful amphitheater, pay our watchman five dinars and make begin our journey back towards the water and it’s cooler air.

The road to Ellouza definitely feels like it’s off the beaten path – mostly because an early turn has us travelling along the dirt agriculture trails which is plenty of fun. Folks are laying in the shade along the road enjoying an afternoon siesta and staring at us with looks of wild curiosity. They know we’re taking the long way to town and they’re finding us pretty odd. Seeing us approach, a young boy breaks away from him mum and makes a bee-line for Nita’s bike causing her to swerve out of the way. Firmly back in the grips of his mother, he gets an earful from her in Arabic before being hurried back inside. Other kids ride alongside us on their mopeds cheering and motioning for us to pop a wheelie; it’s seems the further south we venture the livelier the people get! It’s becoming obvious they’re as used to us as we are to them.

We pass through Ellouza before heading south along a dirt road towards the campsite and, from about 500m, we see the shape of a man wearing a red chéchia and waving to us as we approach. This is Ismail or Smile as he prefers to be called. It’s a fitting name as he doles the smiles out with complete abandon. With the bike barely turned off, Ismail is shaking our hands and welcoming us to his fabulous home.

With our helmets off he offers to show us the campground, which is decent and is currently home to a German couple in safari-kitted Land Cruiser. A pitch is twenty dinar a night – about ten dollars – but Ismail offers to show us a room with a shared bathroom that comes in at 35 dinars a night and includes breakfast! The rooms are simple and clean, come with wifi and a spectacular view of the water – pretty amazing for eighteen dollars. It’s really not worth thinking about and in no time we take his offer of a room. He also offers to move his car from the garage and let us park the bikes out of sight – something that’s always nice when we travel.

In the lobby we see a number of stickers and cards from visitors stuck to a bulletin board. It’s a bit of a tradition here with adventure travellers to leave a token behind – something for the hotel or restaurant to display, and something that lets other travellers know the place has been vetted. Nita and I love checking the stickers to see who’s been by but this time it’s not the sticker wall that excites us, it’s the hotel log book; our Greek friends from the ferry were here just a couple of days before! Lovely.

Once we’ve settled into the room, we crack open the bottle of white wine from Mudy and Lorena and catch up on some writing while taking in the water and the cool breeze as it blows inland. This spot is wonderful. Taking a restroom break, I hear my name being called from the hallway and, upon returning to the room, I discover Ismail has delivered some fruit to tide us over until dinner – which, for fifteen dinars, his wife Sonja will cook for us. We grab a coffee on the deck and chat with Ismail for a little while and it’s the first time we here him say “Thank you for you.” It’s a phrase he uses over and over again during our stay and it’s obvious he means it every time the words pass his lips. Ismail is a wonderful man.

At dinner we meet Monika and Helmut, a German couple who’ve been travelling Tunisia in their stunning adventure-spec Land Cruiser. It’s something we love about these bed and breakfasts or camping spots; a communal table often means dining with strangers and offers one of our favorite opportunities to meet new people – if everyone’s open to it. These moments provide a great chance to share food, stories and a little learning from fellow travellers while also making (usually) for a fantastic evening.

They tell us they’re heading north after taking lessons driving their camper in the dunes with a five other 4×4’s and have plenty of advice to share with us for our journey south. Contrary to what we’ve been hearing in the news regarding safety for travellers in the south of the country, they’ve heard the opposite; that the northwestern part of the Tunisia is currently a trouble spot and the south is relatively safe. Either way, none of us are too worried – so far the people we’ve all encountered have been nothing but gracious and for all the din about security we’ve seen nothing to believe that we’re exposed to anything more than the normal risks of travelling by motorcycle.

Sonja’s meal is fantastic. Everything’s been prepared fresh using ingredients from the area – it’s simple and delicious. Often, dinner here is set – and tonight it’s fish that’s been caught in the afternoon – great for me but not so much for Nita who doesn’t eat fish. Soon, Ismail returns with a plate of merguez and chicken for her which is perfect. We spend the evening at the table with Helmut and Monika pouring over maps, marking GPS coordinates and sharing some wonderful stories. They’re a great couple who are incredibly generous with their knowledge of the south.

Ismail joins us for a while and, with a sadness in his eyes, lets us know that he’ll miss us in the morning as he has a meeting in Sfax with the bank. Post-revolution Tunisia seems less about violence and unrest, and more about the difficulties of dealing with the aftermath – especially an uncertain political future which is harming the economic stability. People like Ismail who depend on tourists are not only being hit hard by the slump in tourism, but also by changing bank policies that are making it more difficult to keep the doors open. There’s something special about El Kahena and it would be sad to see a place like this go. We promise to do our best to spread the word about this jewel and, with the sound of crickets outside, we all retire to our rooms and quickly fall asleep.

Breakfast is set on the patio which is now drenched in a bright, morning sun. Helmut and Monika join us and soon we’re enjoying yogurt, a basket of bread and a perfectly cooked egg. For a moment, we all lament Ismails absence when a phone call brings Sonja from the kitchen to put Nita on the phone. “I’m driving 150kph! I see you!” Ismail’s finishing early in Sfax and on his way back to say goodbye.

Once again the maps make it to the table for another round of planning a story-telling with our friends. After identifying a few more places we need to see, they whisk us away to show us around their camper – and it is really something. It has all the comforts of home and comes fitted with a bed that can move between two levels (upstairs and downstairs), a full kitchen, satellite TV and about four-hundred places to store things. One of the most intriguing additions is a gas sensor that’s powered by a cigarette lighter. Helmut explains that in Germany people have been robbed while sleeping in their campers by thieves that release gas into the cabin and this little device starts beeping should it detect any!

Suddenly, Tunisia is feeling pretty safe.

It’s nearing noon and we haven’t even started to pack yet; the time is flying by and Helmut and Monika have been so gracious. This is their home after all and we’ve gone from dining with strangers, to being barefoot in their bathroom. It’s become another great day of firsts.

We head back to our room and notice that Ismail’s returned to greet us at the door. Letting him know its time for us to get going, he seems genuinely glad to have made it back in time to see us off. He leaves us for a moment only to return with four little cakes for us to enjoy with Monika and Helmut on the patio before we go – part of the reason for his fast and furious drive home, and another lovely gesture from this kind man.

The high sun over the Gulf of Hammamet has us once again feeling that the amount of time we’ve allotted for Tunisia is simply not enough. We’ve already changed the ferry once for an extra week and it’s not long before we decide to do the same again – up-ing our visit to a month. A couple of emails later, the dates are changed (to my mums birthday!) and the fine folks at the ferry company let us know that it’s the last change we’ll be allowed to make. A month it is!

When we let Ismail know of our plan to stay another night, he throws his arms high in the air and exclaims “Thank you for you!” before giving us huge hugs! He’s a wonderful man and we’re incredibly happy to have another night in this place, it’s a pleasure for us and a little good news for it’s owners.

With everything settled and a new plan in hand, Nita and I decide it’s time to take a stroll along the beach which proves to be an eye-opener. Much like the roads that brought us here this landscape continues the trend of using any open space as an impromptu landfill; it’s unbelievably sad. Our path is lined with bags filled with trash and, strangely, hundreds of shoes that line the beach itself. All the stories of shoes washing ashore in Vancouver with feet still in them suddenly rush to mind but these shoes are quite empty. Even surrounded by the refuse, there’s something about walking by water that settles our souls and returning to El Kahena we feel ready to get tackle more work for the site.

Sonjas dinner is another wonderfully tasty affair that starts with brik au thon – a deep-fried warka pastry with tuna and another perfectly cooked egg inside – a traditional dish and something we’d like to enjoy more of. As the evening comes to a close, Monika and Helmet tell us they’re leaving early the following day, so with the sun long vanished from the sky, we say our goodnights and make our way to our room. For us, it’s time for movies in bed before finally surrendering to sleep. The beds here are comfy and it doesn’t take long for us to slip into our own dreams.

Ismail has had to go to Sfax again this morning; in his rush to get back the previous day, he didn’t finish everything he needed to which means there’s a good chance we wont see him before we set out to Mahrès. He’s hosting a luncheon for about eighty Tunisian doctors and, after breakfast, it doesn’t take long for them to begin arriving. Seemingly impervious to the growing din on the main floor, Nita and I enjoy a wonderfully relaxed morning, getting our gear together and slowly making our way through the crowds to load the bikes. We’re happy to see so many people here; this will have been a good week for Ismail and he deserves it. We see Helmut and Monika make their way from the camping area towards the gate and share a wave before watching them disappear down the rough road and into the distance. Perhaps we’ll see them again in Germany!

Suddenly, we hear our names being called from the lobby – Ismail has returned and there’s more cake in hands! “My friends! I drove faster today to make it back before you left!” He’s really everything good wrapped into one little body. We enjoy our treat and one last coffee before finishing up the bikes. The doctors conference is in full-swing and lunch is about to be served; we figure it’s a great time to leave and let Sonja and Ismail attend to their guests. Saying a final goodbye, Ismail asks if we’d like to stay for lunch – a final gesture that’s just so indicative of his generosity. With a smile we decline, he’s very busy and want his luncheon with the doctors to be a great success – without any Canadian distractions!

With one last “Thank you for you!” we head down the dusty road and back into Ellouza before turning south for Mahrès.

The road to Mahrès may be somewhat unspectacular but we’re having a great time regardless. The lanes are straight and we’re joined by a throng of cars who timeline is obviously shorter than ours. Sitting inches off of our bumpers, they pass barely missing our panniers and never leaving our lane, before moving in front of us – barely missing our wheel. It’s a dance that goes on and on. We’d be more angry about the drivers apparent desire to kill us if it wasn’t for many of them smiling, waving and giving us a thumbs-up as they pass. Riding in Tunisia isn’t for the faint of heart.

Finally, after a long stretch riding on dirt through a construction zone and a check-stop outside of a prison, we make it to our hotel in Mahrès surprisingly incident-free. The owner, a Frenchman, greets us by the bikes and offers us a spot behind a gate for parking. It’s a generous offer and one were keen to accept; Mahrès, while not out and out shady, has a feeling about it that keeps us alert. It’s a passing-through town – much like a border-town – and that has us simply wanting get a good nights sleep in before getting out of Dodge.

The Hotel Tamaris is the best we can find here and, to be honest, if it were anywhere else it could be a pretty decent place to stay. The owner is nice enough and his initial offer to lock-up the bikes is generous. Inside, the concierge is surrounded by men in leather jackets who seem to do nothing but stare. It’s all a bit odd. We go through the process of filling out our ID cards – a requirement at all hotels here and soon enough we’re being shown to our room by the groundskeeper who’s quite lovely.

Once we’re settled, we grab a drink in the pub that’s blasting some kind of hybrid dance/traditional Tunisian mix, and along with a cheap rum and coke (rare here) and a Celtia beer, we’re brought a plate of strange pink processed meat that has a slight, well, grit to it. Nita doesn’t like it too much but it seems to remind me of bologna and since dinner isn’t available for a while, I’m happy to enjoy a few slices of it.

The strangeness of the hotel continues through dinner. Immediately after taking our seats, the head waiter actually waits for us pick a meal – an awkward few minutes indeed. After choosing, three waiters seem content to hang out right behind me, one of them with an uncomfortable fixation on Nita. The fixation doesn’t seem to break even after the food comes out and, after eating as quickly as possible, we rush through paying and head back to the room.

Then, suddenly, a seed of doubt consumes me.

I realize that instead of giving the waiter forty dinars, in my haste I’ve given him forty euros. I check my wallet and indeed the euros I’ve been saving for an emergency are gone. Realizing my mistake I rush downstairs and approach the waiter asking to see the bills I gave him – which of course he refuses. I’m furious but there’s little I can do and, with a lesson learned, I head back to the room angry at myself and the hotel. Nita, always the voice of reason, chalks it up to experience and reminds me that it all goes around. Sometimes, even when we unintentionally put things out there, good can come from it. I feel marginally better, but it’s enough to let me sleep soundly.

The next morning the hotel doesn’t prove itself any better. The included breakfast is made up of croissants so stale they’re inedible, cold coffee and an empty plate where boiled eggs once sat. It’s hard not to laugh about it and soon enough we have a bit of a giggle at the place we’re staying at. They’re all first-world problems and at least that’s not lost on us; we have it incredibly good even when things aren’t quite as we’d hope.

We pack up quickly and make our way for the edge of the city, stopping only for some snacks at the gas station. Soon we’re back on the road and deeper into the sand. Our destination for the evening is Matmata, a town famous for Star Wars sets, beautiful roads and an entry point to the Northern Sahara.


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I’m a Canadian writer, adventure motorcyclist and world traveller of British and Libyan descent. I’ve spent the past two and a half years travelling the globe by motorcycle as one-half of We Love Motogeo, following a route that makes little sense to anyone else, while supporting our non-profit organization, the Lost for Good Project. I’ve been chased by all manner of animal, detained as a spy in North Africa and waited out a hurricane in the bowels of a ferry. While I’m no spy (honestly), I am a lover of decent coffee and great yarns sewn around a campfire.


  1. Comment by Beela

    Beela May 28, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    I want to hug Ismail!

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish May 29, 2013 at 7:56 am

      He gives *great* hugs :)

  2. Comment by Tim

    Tim May 28, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    This is a great entry. Photos and commentary keep me wanting more. Thanks again.

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish May 29, 2013 at 7:56 am

      Thanks again Tim!

  3. Comment by Jan Thain

    Jan Thain May 29, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    Ismail! I have to agree with Beela’s comment on the Hugs!…what a lovely man for sure. So great seeing all the waves and smiles from everyone as you were passing by :) Some amazing pics and I particularly like the camel outside the amphitheatre…really great shot! Oh yes and mustn’t forget the “little camel” who is now accompanying you on your journey:) Thanks once again for all the insightful moments! Keep eachother safe and warm xoxo

  4. Comment by Courtney

    Courtney June 25, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Freshette! I’m obsessed! Brilliant! Great writing, as always. XO

  5. Comment by Roch

    Roch August 24, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    I visit from time to time your blog.
    To be honest, I don’t really read the stories but I enjoy watching your pictures. They are just great.
    I wonder what kind of setting or filter you are using, but the result is fantastic.
    I also wonder if Nita has Japanese origins?
    I am myself a biker (r1200r), mostly on week-ends.
    I wish you a safe ride and I hope you will continue to feed us with interesting images.
    (french man married to a japanese living in Romania).

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish August 25, 2013 at 8:12 am

      Hi Roch! Don’t worry about the hours of work I put into writing… LOL! Just kidding – sometimes the pictures tell all the story we need to know :)

      We use Canon G12 cameras with no filters – Nita *does* post-production work on the images in Photoshop and Camera Bag – and I have to say we’re pretty happy with the results.

      Nita’s origins are a well kept secret. She’s not of this world! Did you manage to see any of the Romaniacs event?

      Thank you for sending us a note – it’s always nice to hear from folks!

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