Monday, 2 April 2012

On to North Africa - Mahdia, Tunisia

Mahdia – Tunisia

6 – 14 March 2012

Sailing out of Malta’s Grand Harbour certainly had us experiencing mixed feelings. It was little hard leaving somewhere we’d enjoyed so much but we were also very much looking forward visiting Tunisia and setting foot on the African continent for the first time. The weather forecast indicated we would again be heading into varying conditions ranging from good sailing winds of over 25 knots to light breezes and rain on our overnight passage. The forecast proved accurate and we experienced a spirited sail west-south-west past the island of Lampedusa before the wind died away and the rain began half way through the night. The temperature was everything you’d expect in the Mediterranean in February, very bloody cold and the rain certainly didn’t help.
Rob hasn't really put on 30kg. It's just the
combined effect of 22 items of clothing.
Rather than the more usual port of entry cities in the north with well equipped marinas, Richard and Jayatma had chosen to make the fishing port of Mahdia half way down the coast our North African landfall. Tourist guides spoke of Mahdia as having an interesting history dating back to 2,000 BC and beyond, a well preserved fortress and old city precinct. It was also just 37 kilometres from a major Roman amphitheatre in nearby El-Djem. The sailing pilot books spoke of a well protected harbour which welcomed visiting yachts but with few facilities for cruisers.
Approaching Mahdia we passed a number of large floating pens where they farm tuna for the Japanese market growing them to quite considerable size apparently. For us they were simply another hazard to avoid. The rain continued in the form of constant drizzle as we edged into the stone wharf reserved for visiting yachts right beside the police headquarters.  They obvious don’t get too many yachts in as Moksha took up the majority of the dock space even with her bow hanging past the end. The dock was fairly rough and as some strong winds were predicted later in the week, we had every fender available between Moksha and the unforgiving concrete and had her trussed up with a cob web of heavy lines ashore to make sure she stayed put.
Moksha berthed in Mahdia Harbour
Our neighbours on the dock were a small power boat and two replica pirate ships that were tied up awaiting summer and hopefully an influx of European tourists. Tunisia was the starting point of what has become known as the Arab Spring and had a near bloodless revolution last year that on the upside, got rid of a dictator but on the down side all but destroyed their usually vibrant tourism season. The rest of the harbour was full to the brim with fishing boats of all sizes.

The Police building was a large, if a bit tatty, white washed concrete building and perfectly placed to provide us some shelter from the expected northerly winds so we were feeling fairly comfortable despite the lack of usual marina facilities such as shore power, amenities block etc. Tunisia was a French Territory for many years and French is spoken as the country’s second language so Tim got the chance to polish up his Franco skills doing our customs clearance in the Police Station and more formalities with the harbour master. Despite horror stories we’d heard about officials demanding large baksheesh (bribes) Tim reported no such problems. So far so good.
The next challenge for his language skills was a visit to the nearest mobile phone shop to organise local phone and data simcards. Moksha is a boat full of people that live to be connected to the outside world via the net, so much so, the boat even has a special masthead antennae to pick up any available wfi signals nearby. Crew are often assigned to visit particular cafes to order a quick coffee, whip out the i-phone and ask for their wfi password. Mission accomplished, the boat is then duly connected and an onboard server allows everyone to log on with their various PCs, I-pads, I-phones, netbooks etc. Karen’s quick count came up with sixteen such devices onboard but she may have missed a couple. Sad, but we are addicted.
The bad news for us in Mahdia was that there were absolutely no wifi signals available to us at all where we were moored. The good news was that there was good 3G signal and a local simcard including a full gigabyte of download, plus good voice call and sms allowance only cost Ten Tunisian Dinars (quickly nicknamed dingbats) for the card and another ten for the top up. At about $12.50 Aus total, we were loving Tunisia already.
Onboard we all take turns in the galley helping with meals etc but that evening Richard shouted us all to a good meal and bottle of wine in a local, waterfront restaurant. That’s the way he prefers to do his galley roster and it suits all of us just fine. Thanks Richard. Things just kept on getting better.
Cow's head soup anyone?
As after all sea passages, next day was dedicated to thoroughly cleaning down the boat to remove as much of the salt as possible, any maintenance jobs that crop up, and sorting out provisioning needs etc. The local markets were well stocked with fruit and vegetables and a huge range of herbs and spices. A big range of fish was on offer but mostly smallish in size. Lamb and beef was plentiful at the butcher’s stands but we weren’t too sure about the cows head hanging over the counter. A long row of places offered chicken and turkey meat which all looked fine but if you wanted something absolutely fresh you could pick a live chicken or rabbit out of the cages and they’d do the job on it for you right there on the spot. Can’t imagine that sort of service back home in Woolworths, the fresh food people.
Tim was having a few days off the boat as he had arranged for his girlfriend, Rebecca, to fly in from Egypt where she works to spend some time together. Both are Star Wars devotees and were heading south to visit the locations where the movies were made. They had even booked to stay in Luke Skywalker’s house which is now a motel. So after getting done what he had to do Tim left us with our cleaning and headed off into the desert sun so to speak.
Phil wandering the streets of Mahdia's old city
We crew actually take great pride in making sure Moksha looks her best for all the interested sightseers she attracts to the wharf and enjoy basking in the reflected glory of sailing on such a magnificent boat. The previous day’s rain had actually made our cleaning job a bit easier this time as it had washed a lot of the salt away. After much scrubbing, rinsing, wiping and polishing, on finishing our big clean we kicked back looking over our gleaming decks, spotless windows and shining stainless steel work feeling very satisfied with our efforts.

Now that's how to buy herbs and spices

We crew had decided we’d share a hire car to do some exploring and get out to El-Djem to see the Roman Amphitheatre and other sights so Rob and Phil headed off to the place Tim had obtained his magnificent looking seven year old Renault. Entering the office of Orca Auto Rental through the haze of cigarette smoke we find two gentlemen that distinctly resemble the movie’s stereotype of the local underworld boss and his muscle bound minder. Oops. Problem one, they speak no English and Phil’s French is very  marginal while Rob’s doesn’t stretch past “Garcon!” and “Mercy Buckets”. Things aren’t going well. Enter the waiter from the café next door and we have an interpreter with rudimentary English skills, for a kickback from the rental company of course. He explains what all the hand waiving etc had been trying to convey. Problem two, they want a minimum of three day hire when we really only wanted one maybe two. How much? Forty Tunisian Dinars per day, one day deposit now, rest when we pick up the car. This was the same price as Tim had told us he was paying for his car and we quickly worked out that it was only $75 Australian for the three days, figured if we didn’t use the car everyday what the heck, gave the thumbs up, handed over Forty dingbats and arranged to collect the car at 10.00am next morning.
Just can't understand what caused the problem.
As we returned to our recently scrubbed, gleaming boat, a group of workmen arrived at the Police building towering over us just four meters or so across the dock. Why are they carrying long handled paint scrappers and ladders? Why are they setting up scaffolding? Please tell us they haven’t chosen this particular day to start scraping off decades of old whitewash.

And so it came to pass that Moksha endured a virtual whitewash blizzard for days as every flake dislodged from the building, by either scraper, wire brush or the 60 knot wind and rain that began to blow from the north, experienced an almost magnetic attraction to the boat’s hull, teak decks, stainless fittings, carbon fibre rig, blocks, pulleys, sails, upholstery etc, literally leaving no surface untouched as it landed, semi-dissolved, streaked, stained and did it’s best to make its own permanent mark. Even if there had been an alternative place to moor, moving Moksha in such winds was not an option so we simply had to watch and wait for a break in the weather to get out the cleaning gear and start again. ARGHHHH!!!!!

Sixty knot winds and rain were also far from ideal for touristing around the place but as it would be far too hard to communicate a change of arrangements with the Mafiosi at Orca Auto Rentals, we decided to get the car anyway and park it while we delayed our tripping until the next day or day after. Away went Rob in the rain to collect the car only to return on foot half our later, soaking wet and with no car. Everything had seemingly been going well when he got to the office. A fine looking little Renault hatch with only two dents in the front and not too much rubbish in the back was waiting at the door and smiling bossman copied all the details of Rob’s driving license onto an indecipherable rental agreement which was duly signed, initialled and countersigned. Then the wheels fell off the deal as Rob handed over the Eighty dingbat balance of the money. Bossman no longer seemed happy. Stern words, much more hand waving, gesturing and pointing to figures on a calculator ensued, seemingly suggesting the hire charge was Eighty per day not Forty. With Rob having none of it the waiter from next door was summoned again and surprise, surprise he insisted that eighty was indeed the price agreed to the previous day. Despite fearing he may not escape alive, Rob said no deal, insisted on getting all the money back and sat in his chair until he got it. Only as he was departing did he notice the marine creature on the Orca Auto Rentals signwriting outside did indeed look more like a shark than a killer whale.

$50 Aus for ladies leather boots
Eventually the weather broke, we got Moksha back somewhere close to her former appearance and spent a few days working around the boat in the mornings and having a wander around Mahdia in the afternoons. The old city was really interesting with traditional architecture, cafes, mosques and rows of shops selling the usual range of tourist junk. Good quality clothing was quite cheap though and for fashion divas, the shoes were incredible and just tiny fraction of Australian prices. We’re on a budget, on a boat and travelling light so of course our wallets stayed tightly closed. Phew!

Karen and Jayatma also visited a Hammam (bath-house) to experience the full traditional treatment. Just finding the Hammam was the first challenge, as there is no opulent signage suggesting a relaxing spa house or beauticians at work outside the nondescript blue door they were directed to. Lady’s hours are between 1pm and 7pm and only a lot of giggling and laughing coming from somewhere beyond the arched bougainvillea vines and behind more numerous blue doors indicated they may be in the right place. After finding their way through the maze of doors a warm welcome was given to the obvious strangers. Twelve dingbats (Tunisian Dinars) were handed over for what the girls hoped was the full treatment but at so little cost they were doubting that their communication skills had been able to convey what they were after.

Mahdia's ancient fortress
Each was handed a key and directed to yes more blue doors, these however were lockers where they realised that all belongings and clothing were to be stored. Towels were presented to the girls once naked. Now handed two buckets, one for toiletries and one full of water, and complementary rubber slippers, they were lead through another maze of corridors, ornately tiled in mosaics from floor to domed ceilings, to the sauna. The sauna was quite larger than expected and again decorated beautifully with a continuous bench running around the room for women to laze about in various stages of undress, massaging, scrubbing, but most of all gossiping and laughing. The girls were not ignored but on the contrary many of the women enthusiastically tried to engage in conversation and, with much sign language and laughs, some success.

Cafe Medina served serious crepes for $2.70 Australian

After thirty minutes or so of following suit and just lazing about using face masks and dousing themselves in the warmth in the sauna, the girls followed the rhythm and moved to the next room for the traditional scrub down. Laid upon marble benches, doused in hot water and scrubbed back to having baby’s skin, the girls were then washed down in showers and returned to the marble  benches for a full massage and body mask. The massage was firm and the mask was a very thick whitish clay. With mask still on they were sent back to the sauna to rest (not again) and for the steam to work with the mask. About half an hour later they and their buckets were collected and sent to the shower rooms where they had unlimited hot water from over head showers to clean away the mask and wash their hair. Pure heaven after the very short, water conserving showers aboard ship. Their towels were returned and they were ready to wind their way back to the reception area to dress. Where did 2 hours go, and when are we going back???? Laughing all the way back to the boat, the girls agreed much secret women’s business is discussed in the Hammam. A must do in Tunisia. We’d love to be able to include some photos here, but despite the boys’ urging back on the boat, cameras would have been definitely frowned upon.

We discovered an excellent café, the Medina, in the old city with spectacular crepes, very good coffee and huge omelettes all very cheap and became regular visitors. It is a Muslim country and while very open and far from extremist, alcohol was scarce. We only found two restaurants amongst the scores in the town that offered wine and beer.
Karen, Phil and our personal archeologist guide
We particularly enjoyed a guided tour of the fortress with an archaeology lecturer who moonlighted as a tour guide to  supplement his modest income. He was able to tell us much about the long history of Mahdia, the various occupations and incarnations it experienced over the centuries and point out from the fort’s ramparts what parts of the city dated from what periods. A small boat harbour on the point and its gateway ruins date back thousands of years BC. It was well worthwhile the ten dingbats we paid him for his time.

Market day was a real hoot.
Friday was market day and well over a kilometre of the waterfront road was closed to traffic and became continuous lines of stalls selling everything from fruit, spices and herbs, intricately embroidered traditional clothing, latest style skin tight hipster jeans so popular with the local girls to pots, pans and Nike shoes and name brand sunglasses of suspect origin. It was great wandering through being the target of much good natured spruiking. “Best quality, cheap price mister. Just look. Just look.” Not quite sure what we would of done with the five foot high ornamental camels he was offering though.

Tim returned from his Starwars escapades with great news that he’d gone on to bended knee as the desert sun set in the west and proposed marriage with an enthusiastic acceptance from Rebecca. He’d even managed to arrange for a guide to photograph the special moment discreetly from a distance and was rewarded with a fantastic shot to cherish.
Even with the bad weather and whitewash blizzard Mahdia was an extremely pleasant stop. Apart from our encounter with the car rental Mafiosi, everyone we met had been extremely friendly and very, very helpful but by now we were ready to move on further up the Tunisian coast to our next port of call so plans were made to cast off and sail for Monastir the next morning.
PS: The new city of Mahdia features a modern jet airport and the long and beaches stretching for kilometres to the north and south lined with modern high resorts but we weren't that interested in going there.

The interesting history of Mahdia

Situated on the headland of Cap d'Afrique the old town is surrounded by sea on three sides. An ancient Punic port, Mahdia followed Carthage and Khairuan as the capital Of Tunisia in the 10th century. A small coastal town, Mahdia is the second largest fishing port 60km south of Sousse, a charming little town has escaped the tourist mania of the rest of the coast. The town goes back to the early 10th century and was founded by Shiite Fatimid dynasty as a jumping off point for their conquest of Eygpt. The town had defensive position and the Fatimid utilised a small harbour which was pre-existing from times well before Christ. The history of Mahdia is closely linked with Shiite branches of Islam. After 7 years of war with Ahghlabids, Ubaydallah known as El Mehdi for whom the place is named, the founder of the Fatimid Dynasty finally secured victory and sought to establish his own capital.

Mahdia was founded in 912AD on an early defended site and El Mahdi settled in this still unfinished town in 921AD in order to reinforce this power and protect himself. In 944AD the city was besieged unsuccessfully for eight months by the army of Abu Yazid. Eventually the 3rd Fatimid Caliph moved the capital inland to Khairouan. The inhabitants of this abandoned capital turned to the sea for their livelihood.

In the medieval Mediterranean world, with its ever shifting frontiers, reprisals were not slow in coming, with first unsuccessful Christian expedition to dislodge the pirate in 1088AD, then occupation by Roger of Sicily from 1148-1160AD. Later various other attempts were made to rid the town of the pirates by a joint French forces in 1390 and in 1550 by Charles V of Spain. The Spanish were finally successful in 1550, but when forced to evacuate in 1554 resorted to destroying the city.The Turks then arrived shortly after and used the stone blocks left behind by the Spanish demolition to build the current fortress.
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The ancient boat harbour dates back many years BC
Locals playing chicken with the seas at the ruins of the original "Visitor's Gateway" that dates back to the 10th century
What Mahdia look like with its defensive sea walls before the Spanish demolition

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