Although Tunisia is famous for its package deal holidays, big beaches and big hotels, off the beaten track a whole new world reveals itself. A country of contrasts, from the historic Roman Ampitheater of El Djem to the space age desert terrains of Matmata, Tunisia is a melting pot of cultures, people and landscapes, and a mixture of all cultures and religions; Judaism, Islam and Christianity of the Arab Berbers, Jews and Europeans. Half the size of Italy with a mountainous north and flat south, Tunisia lies on the North coast of Africa dwarfed by neighbouring Libya and Algeria. It’s known for wonderful French food and wine, and the Oasis that is the Sahara, the largest hot desert on earth. Much of the country is a fertile landscape of olive groves, sheep pastures and glorious beaches, but towards the South are sand dunes as far as the eye can see.
Tunisia has a typical Mediterranean climate: hot dry summers and mild wet winters, with occasional snow in the mountains. The further south you head, the hotter and drier it gets, with parts of the Sahara sometimes going for years without a drop of rain.
Libya is a dry country and suffers from ghibli, a sandy wind which can make the temperature shoot up and can last several days. The steamy heat of summer can reach up to 50C, and is best avoided. It is fortunate that the desert oasis with acacia, fig and date plants provide a little shade in this wilderness.
In Tunisia dress modestly; for men and women, scanty dress is not outlawed but may attract unwanted attention and created a poor personal impression.
Libya is a Sunni Muslim state and the religion is conservative but not fundamentalist. Modest dress and covered arms and legs are recommended for women, who are advised against travelling alone.
One Tunisian Dinar = $1 or £0.75
The Libyan Dinar has a higher exchange rate:
One Libyan dinar = $3 or £2
Exchanges rates vary all the time, so check with your local currency exchange bureau.
You can change your money in Tunisia, most major currencies except for the Australian Dollar are accepted. Don’t change too much in one go – it’s a non-convertible currency so you could end up severely out of pocket. Cash is the only option in Libya as credit cards and travellers cheques are rarely accepted. US dollars, Sterling and Euros are acceptable cash currencies to exchange.
Tunisia and Libya are not particularly cheap for visitors, the people have a high standard of living and it is one of the wealthier African countries. Expect to pay at least $10 a night for a basic single hotel room, and at least $30 a night overall for accommodation, travel and food. Tunisia is well catered for tourism with a range of hostels and up to 5 star hotels, however Libya is not. Hotel accommodation can be expensive, around $100 US a night. Luckily, camping is recommended and acceptable.
EU, USA and Canadian visitors need no Visa, although Australians and Kiwis may need to obtain one before travel. Tunisia is generally welcoming of travellers from most nations.
Visas are required for all international visitors to Libya. Those from or bearing visas for South Africa and Israel are not permitted entry to the country. You must also have your passport translated into Arabic, obtainable from an embassy or passport office. Apply at least a week before travel. Single women travelling alone are unlikely to be granted a visa. It may sound tricky, and indeed it is, but if you can’t deal with the paperwork, you can apply through a tour company.
Tunisia is a bilingual nation, with Arabic ruling the roost as an official language but nearly everyone here speaks French. English and German are taught in schools, but not so widely spoken socially.
Arabic is the national language. A few people may speak English in the main cities, and older people may speak a little Italian. Berbers and Tuareg groups often speak their own tribal languages.
The majority of Tunisians, who outnumber Libyans 2 to 1 in a land one tenth of its size, are mainly Arab Berber. Like Libya, the youth outnumber adults causing many social and economic problems. There’s a very different ethnic mix here from other North African countries – withPhoenicians, Jews, Ottoman Turks and Spanish Muslims all adding to the ethnic melting pot.
There are only 4 million people in Libya, half of whom are children. The majority of people areArabs, with an ethnic mix of Berbers, Tuaregs, Turks and Sub-Saharan Africans. The tiny population of just half a million who live outside of the cities are intensely tribal with strong family bonds.
When in Libya and Tunisia, expect simple food, it’s not a country for gourmet and there are few restauraunts, most of which will sell international cuisine. Alcohol is banned in public but can be taken privately in a home and acquired if you wish it. Favourite specialities include Lebi Lebi – A stew made with chick peas, egg, sea food and spices served in a ceramic bowl. It’s traditionally a poor man’s food but is now in fashion where it’s served in trendy nightclubs at 2 in the morning. A bowl will cost 70 cents and keep you going all day. Lekmi is a local brew made from fermented sap from the palm tree, and quite alcoholic. It is supposed to be one of the oldest forms of alcohol known to man. It is featured in the novel and film ‘The Beach’ as the travellers get drunk together for the last time in a terrible and sickly orgy.
Tunisia has a well developed transport system, and everything is so close anyway which makes it easy to get around. Festivals and holidays put a big strain on public transport, so during August and September you may need to book in advance. There are daily buses several times a day between most major towns and most start from or pass through Tunis. The train network is limited but refreshingly reliable, which will be a welcome treat for British visitors.
Long distance shared taxis called loages take 5 people and are pretty cheap if you’re travelling in a group. These distinctive station wagons with a roof-rack, red stripe and white signs are perfect for getting a lot of luggage around.
Libya‘s roads and bus system are also of a good quality. Bus is the most reliable and safest way to travel internally, and air conditioned buses leave Tripoli to just about anywhere daily. You’ll probably need to book in advance. You may need to hire a car or motorbike at some point as many of Libya’s top attractions are off-road. This can be an expensive business, and you’re better off bringing your own motorbike. Hitchhiking is a risky but viable option to see the sights without your own vehicle. A word of warning: Since the Lockerbie bombing of 1988, the UN have imposed an air embargo on international flights entering Libya, which looks set to remain in place for some time. The only way to enter the country is by land routes, particularly from Cairo in Egypt.
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