The good news came by text that our Covid-19 quarantine period had been revised, and we were to be released a day early. We were itching to get off the boat and back on terra firma – the Skipper to catch up with a friend and me to head down to El Djem for some exploring. The morning of our release we walked down to the police station, which was attached to the marina complex, to retrieve out passports.
The senior police officer, a bloke in his fifties wearing a black leather jacket, chain smoked while giving us the Spanish Inquisition. Regardless of the fact that having complied with quarantine regulations we were now free to move about Tunisia, old mate wanted to know all our plans: when, where, and with whom. Although the cop had a superficially friendly disposition, he was a suspicious bastard and it was all a bit intense. After twenty minutes of interrogation, we left the station clutching our passports. The police wished us a happy stay in Tunisia.
One of the marina staff had organised us a couple of hire cars, and after signing the contracts (which were in French, bien sûr), we went to check out our mounts. I have to say, I was underwhelmed.
In addition to being filthy, my chariot also came with battle damage, and about 300 milliliters of fuel.
Shortly after jumping into the Dzire, I also found that although I could apply for reverse gear, there was no guarantee that my request would be granted. Even for a hire vehicle, it was in pretty bad nick for a car that was less than two years old.
Prior to leaving for my three and a half hour drive south to El Djem, my crewmates had given me some advice regarding driving in Tunisia. The Skipper told me that when I drive I must not, under any circumstances, show any fear. Our new crewman had grown up in North Africa, and informed me that no-one considered the road rules mandatory, and that regardless of the colour of the traffic light I should always just go. This advice, plus the fact that I had to drive on the right hand side of the road, left me brimming with confidence.
To my relief, I soon discovered that driving in Tunisia is not as chaotic as driving in south-east Asia. Every time I got in to any form of transport in Indochina I feared for my life. However the Tunisians don’t seem to have quite the same fatalistic approach to road use. Still, gunning the Dzire through the dusty streets of Bizerte and onto the freeway to El Djem was not without excitement.
Although the lack of adherence to road rules may endanger both vehicles and their occupants, it can also work in your favour. After realising I had taken a wrong turn, I pulled an outrageous U-turn across the median strip and three lanes of oncoming cars and no-one so much as beeped their horn.
Feeling a little cavalier after my successful trip to El Djem, I decided to drive into the capital Tunis on the way back to Bizerte. Although El Djem was a busy town full of things to run over and crash into, Tunis was a whole new level of mayhem.
The freeway got me to within 600 metres of my city-centre hotel, but getting the car into the underground car park was borderline impossible. Manic traffic, seething humanity, narrow lanes and one way streets had me wondering if I had made a big mistake.
At one point I unknowingly entered part of the Medina; old Tunis’ market district. It’s a maze of winding, narrow streets chock-full of market stalls, people, noise and bedlam. Grid-locked, I thought the Dzire may never move again.
Perhaps a local would dismantle it on the spot and open an auto parts market stall. Then miraculously a small gap appeared, and I charged through it and made my bid for freedom. Eventually I managed to squeeze into the hotel carpark, and was very relieved to check in knowing I wouldn’t have to drive again for a couple of days.
My return to Bizerte felt somewhat triumphant, having driven nearly 600km of Tunisian roads and avoided any damage to the car or myself. It was with a sense of satisfaction that I handed back the Dzire in the same shithouse condition I received it.
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