It’s a tabletop experience. Quite literally. And until a few moments later, a highlight of our Tunisian travels. We’d arrived at the car hire place in Tunis to the amazement of the hirers.
“Where is your tour group from your hotel?”
“Um, we don’t have a tour group. We’re alone.”
“But where are you staying?”
“Wherever we find a place to put up our tent? We have some money for hotels too, just in case”
“Oh. You are crazy. No-one does this. Why do you want to travel like this?”
“Well, because we think your country is beautiful and worth exploring”
And so our journey round Tunisia had begun after a short but pleasant stay in the capital. Little did we know that a few days later we’d be up a plateau with a gunman standing behind us, blocking our exit to the only way down the mountain. Welcome to Tunisia!
Jugurtha’s Table, on the Tunisian border with Algeria
I mean, we had been warned that the Algerian border territory was rebel territory where anything goes. But driving through it on a nice summer day seemed so normal. The music beating, and the craic still flowing from when I’d tried to ask for directions in French out of the last town we were in, from women who clearly only spoke Arabic and thought we were the biggest amusements to walk into their shop in a long while. Either I wasn’t on form understanding Arabic sign language, or they were enjoying clueless westerners, but we went round that town several more times before managing to find an exit on something that might have been considered a road in west Cork a few decades ago.
It was 6pm already when we managed to pull up to the Guard Station in the next village a few miles from Jugurtha’s table. Officially we needed to register that we were going up this mountain, so they knew whether we were ok or not. I did wonder what they would do if we got confronted by Algerian rebels up there. I mean, we were miles from this small Guard outpost. But that was assuming that we’d even get registered at this hour. After wandering up and down the street a few times to find the Guard on duty, and searching for a passport in the boot of our car (we hadn’t been asked for that in a while!), we finally registered and set off….under armed escort!
A fairly hilarious scene.
A bright red Kia Picanto with two lads messing around, with a Guard truck in front and another armed car behind.
At the road towards the foot of the mountain, one of the cars pulled off and signalled we were to go on. The other followed. Reaching the closest thing that resembled a car park that we ever saw in Tunisia, we parked and got out. The other car wished us well, and suggested we take their local guide to escort us up safely. We looked at each other. Neither of us particularly wanted our hike to be spoiled by a random old man who barely spoke any French and seemed incapable of helping us fight off any Algerian rebels who were rumoured to be around. We shrugged – what harm could it be? Easier keeping him than trying to explain that we didn’t want him. After all, what could he do to us when we went to sleep if we didn’t let him escort us? Tell the rebels where we were?
And so we headed up. Reaching the top a while later, we explored the kilometre of plateau, put up our tent, raked around with a ball (and with Dan jumping insane gaps over cliff edges, that I had far too many fears to navigate!) and then sat down to dinner and sunset.
It was then we noticed we weren’t alone. And it wasn’t our guide, who was now nowhere to be seen. “I’ll see you in the morning” being his last words about 40 minutes ago. The one way up the plateau was steep and out of sight, and no approach could have been seen by us. Maybe we’d been too cocky after all.
Particularly when we saw the athletic build of a man who was walking over the rocks to us holding a gun. He was in plain clothes. There was nowhere to hide. Thoughts rushed through my head: we were nobodies….who would ever want anything to do with us? Just simply two lads having fun travelling. Though we did rather hope that he (or should I say “they”) hadn’t already “looked after” our car, sitting as the only brightly coloured object for miles in a barren landscape.
“‘Salaam!” came the voice, towering over us. We scrambled to our feet to at least meet this man on a similar level. His calm Arabic words that followed were not ones that I chose to remember in my state of panic, from my few Arabic classes I’d had one summer a while ago. Obviously my face showed that. Phew. French now.
“What are you lads doing up here?”
“We are camping. We’re travelling round Tunisia”
“Is that your car below? I’ll take your passports”
I mean, I don’t know who he thought the car might belong to. “No, I think bright red Kia Picantos must be how the Algerian rebels get around these days”. Or at least that’s what I might have said if I hadn’t been panicking and actually sure that he wasn’t himself an Algerian rebel. The hire company had obviously thought that giving us the only bright red car in the whole of the country was a fun joke to play, as we hadn’t seen one for most of our trip. Supposedly black was the only colour for fast cars to be that year in Tunisia.
Similarly, there didn’t seem much choice as to whether to give him our Irish passports. It was in these moments that I was grateful that I’d two passports, at least leaving me with an escape option, should the worst come to the worst. And with British records of colonialism and war, there was no doubt that it was my Irish one that would be shown.
Our hearts were drums amidst an otherwise silent dusk. Did he understand the English on the passports?
We didn’t care to ask. And the next few words (still in French) were not said with a smile from his lips.
“Very dangerous. Very, very dangerous up here”
“Um…sorry Sir, but why is it dangerous?” we hesitated to ask, unsure of whether the gun butt would move closer to our questioning lips as a reward for our answering back.
“Very Dangerous. You have two choices. You can escape the danger and I will take you down the mountain. Or you can stay up here and risk everything.” Or at least that’s what I got of his thick Tunisian French.
Dan and I glanced at each other. If we were to leave, we at least wanted to know what we were leaving because of. So we nervously tried again: “what is the risk?”
“There are many wild animals here. Wild goats. Wild birds. Wild creatures. And “des anes sauvages”.”
Well I didn’t know what “des anes” were, but I tried hard not to splutter into laughter at the animal list that we were supposedly to be scared of! Wild goats and birds? There wasn’t a moving thing in sight! And even so, I doubted any would merit the “very dangerous” telling off that we were about to receive. Was my French really correct? Dan clearly hadn’t followed. It was my basic French that would be the deciding factor to whether we stayed or went.
We stood at a standoff. He still had our passports and clearly wasn’t impressed that we didn’t respond more to his stern words. He asked again, hoping to add weight to his confrontation.
But we continued to stand. Slowly giving us our passports back whilst not taking his eyes off our eyes, he gave us the kind of look that I’d get from my parents when they clearly disapproved of everything I’d done, but wanted me to learn the hard way.
And as quickly as he’d been there, he walked away to leave us alone again with a stunning sunset, miles of North African landscape, and fears that I should have paid more attention in French class. After watching him leave in silence, we whispered: did he really just warn us about wild animals? The doubts were nagging. But we hadn’t travelled all this way for nothing. This was stunning. And not to be missed. And besides, the Plateau even had a mention in the Lonely Planet Guide (albeit with a caution), so it couldn’t be that dangerous!
And so the craic soon flowed again. The sunset one of my most memorable. And our sleep much needed, even if nervous. And waking to this over Algeria made it all worth it:
Our guide appeared out of nowhere, as if by magic, just as we were thinking of leaving in the morning. He laughed when we told him about the armed man and our conversation the night before. We laughed with him. Until he declared:
“I laugh because you do not need to worry when I am here. I protected you all night”
Ah yes…of course. An old villager who could barely fight off wild goats was secretly watching over us all night. How very noble.
And so we gave him a suitable generous donation for his “work” and protection services and made our way back to our bright red rebel vehicle. Happily sitting in the sun, our adventure continued….for now.