Tunisia is a great country to visit and we loved it there, even though it was not what you could ever call a relaxing place in which to travel independently. I loved the countryside, the people and the food. I hated the way most people drove and the amount of litter about the place. Tunisia has no real system for garbage disposal. If the local authorities collect it at all (and that seems quite rare) they just dump it at the edge of town, consequently there are loads of rubbish nearly everywhere. I know many people in the UK spend an awful amount of time worrying about the number of carrier bags they use, but if could see the sheer volume of rubbish wafting around and being washed out to sea, it might make you feel a little less guilty. I was quite perplexed about how commerce worked;businesses of a certain type always seemed to cluster together, so that you find a whole strip of, say, butchers or pottery shops along side the road. How do they survive?
Here are a few things that might help you, should you decide to tour independently.
If you bring your own vehicle into Tunisia expect it to take many hours to clear customs.
On the boat
You will need to fill in an immigration form for each person and one for the car.
Make sure you know the address of the first place you are heading to, as you will be asked this by all kinds of people. They may question you in quite a detailed manner, but that seems to be normal. They should stamp your passport for you and your car. You should be given a blue form to fill in about the car, if not ask for one from an official in the customs area.
They will put you with everyone else off the boat and you will be expected to more or less empty all of your personal belongings out. Pay attention to the customs limit (2 litres of wine or beer or one litre of spirits per person). The directions to where you have to go can be very vague- we followed the heavily laden Tunisian vans until we got to a big old shed. Empty everything out and open your bags.
You will be given a form and be told to list everything you have on it. It is in Arabic and we were lucky to have a local that filled it out for us. We just listed things like computers, cameras and high value items, together with more vague things like 6 bags assorted clothes and bedding, 8 boxes camping and cooking equipment. The customs people are probably more interested in security at the moment. You will then have to wait for someone to come and check your stuff and to sign and stamp your forms. The security inspectors then may come round and peer under your bonnet and tap the side panels (for some reason they skipped this bit with us).
Eventually they will let you go and you may be lucky like us, as they cleared people out of the way so we get away, or it may take ages more. We got out in just over five hours, but our friend Mohamed was stuck there for over eight hours and a German chap with an expedition truck was stuck there for over two days.
You now have to get all your paperwork signed at the office- look where everyone else is queuing near the exit- and to buy a stamp. You then go to the kiosk on the way out where you are finally given your licence to drive in Tunisia. Make sure you also have evidence of insurance.
As you leave the docks you will be stopped by an official who will take most of the paperwork away and you are free to go (after answering the same old questions).
Expect to be stopped coming out of the docks and to show evidence of car insurance. The policeman accepted evidence on my iPad.
Driving in Tunisia
The guidebook said it is like Italy. Nope, it is much more like India, I gather. People generally drive on the right, but it’s every driver for himself. People do not give way, they will cut you up, undertake you, nip the wrong way round a roundabout, overtake when the traffic is totally gridlocked, force you to slow down, squeeze you in a queue. You have to be pretty forceful and not lose concentration for one second.
When you drive through any town or village or past any building, expect there to be road humps, some of which are quite vicious. Some of the humps are marked and signposted, but a sizeable proportion are not. Expect there to be potholes and for lorries to swing out unexpectedly to avoid them.
As nobody lets pedestrians across, they will tend to cross at any time at all. People walk up the road, rather than on the pavement. Expect to come across herds of animals in the road and horse drawn vehicles anywhere. Cyclists and moped riders will come at you from any direction, including the wrong way down the road, along with the odd car.
Most of this is at quite low speed in the towns, and, on the whole things are a bit more predictable on the motorways and the open road, but many drivers are totally unpredictable. We were relieved to get out of the country without a dent of any kind!
There is one motorway that goes from the north coast down to Sfax, but there are many very reasonable roads that link all the major towns.
Expect to be stopped by the police whenever you enter or leave a town, they don’t just wave foreigners, like they used to. Don’t leave your passport with your hotel, there is no legal requirement for this and we were asked for ours at least once.
All that being said, it’s perfectly possible to cope if you are assertive and aware of the risks (or you are driving a tank) (Tim said it required the same level of concentration as riding a motorbike fast through London).
On the upside, diesel is only 42p a litre and the only toll road (the motorway) costs very little, as did the ferry to Djerba.
Camping in Tunisia
We found very few actual campsites, although there are a couple in Tozeur (Beau Rives is lovely but too small to get a car in and the other on the road between Tozeur and Degache is extremely basic with a lot of feral dogs, but quite a good cafe). We found an absolutely first rate site in Gabes called Camping Alhassan (www.camping alhassan.com) There are several glamping sites down near the Sahara, with ready made ‘Bedouin’ tents. Many campsites that are listed on the internet are now long gone.
There are a lot of very nice, good value hotels in Tunisia (which is probably why most of the campsites are gone). We paid about £25 for two people bead and breakfast in several places, and in the winter, there was plenty of choice. You can generally get a better deal and a better atmosphere (even if they are a little tatty around the edges) if you find one outside the zone touristique.
Most places do not take credit cards (some, even in Tunis), but it was relatively easy to get Dinars from cash machines in larger towns. Not all smaller towns have an ATM and we found several in the larger places had run out of money. You can not get Tunisian dinars outside of the country and you are not allowed to take any Dinars out of the country.
The check-in place is right in the port not, as we thought, by the offices for GNV outside. Luckily some nice Tunisian man came up and showed us where to go, literally running in front of the car and then personally taking us to the passenger terminal and explaining what we had to do. We were a little worried because we had changed the date of our passage, but there were no problems.
Here is what we did: (we had already bought the required ‘solidarity stamps’ for 30 dinars each at our last hotel)
1 Parked Camel by the relevant port gate (look for a queue or ask someone, if stuck)
2 Took my iPhone with the booking email to the GNV kiosk (up the ramp) in the passenger terminal and queued until it opened at about 5pm to get a piece of paper with the ticket details
3 Went back to the car and hung around for the bloke with the stamp to confirm we had the right car and it wasn’t too tall
4 Went back to the check-in desk at the other side of the passenger terminal to pick up our tickets and other paperwork (make sure you take the vehicle registration document with you). We had to fill in another immigration/embarkation form with our personal details to leave the country.
5 we went back to wait for the gate to open, which it did at about 8 pm
6 Someone looked at our passports and car paperwork and sent us on to passport control
7 they took back our car permission document and leaving the country form, stuck in the stamp and passed us on through.
8 We were searched and our passports checked about four times before we got on the boat (although the locals were given a much harder time). Nobody checked if we had brought the same equipment back out that we had taken in (though I am pleased to tell you that nothing got nicked!).
9 the boat was meant to leave at 11pm but we finally got on at nearly midnight.
All in all it was much easier to get out of the country than get in, but make sure you leave plenty of time.