Laura and I hauled ourselves out of bed as early as we could and jumped a taxi for the short ride to the Algerian border. Now, if this was anything like the border into Panama, Ukraine or Belarus, it would be possible to get through the first set of border guards (the ‘home nation’ if you will) and talk to the second set (the country you wish to enter) and by doing so step foot over the border, which invariably runs half-way between the two.
That’s not the case in Tunisia, though, as I was about to discover…
We arrived at the border around 7am. Laura stayed in the cab (best not filming stuff on borders – gets you into trouble!) and I went to speak to the guard – would he let me pass to go and speak to the Algerian guards?
Would he hell!
‘Interdit’, he kept saying, and no amount of pointing at my pocket and offering to pay a ‘fee’ would sway his stance. This was the start of my fortnight of disaster, and why it has taken so long for these blogs to go up online (sorry!).
There was no arguing with him, so I just had to turn tail and get back in the taxi. This is a very, very bad thing.
Algeria is as remote as remote can be, it’s one of those nations that nobody, not even its jolly Muslim neighbours, likes (brotherhood of Islam – ha!). You can’t get in there from Morocco (the border is closed) and you would be hard pressed to find a way in from Mauritania, Mali, Niger or Libya. The only easiest way in is through Tunisia or by getting a boat from Spain or France. Back in Tabarka (Chewbacca), Laura and I grabbed the next Louage to Tunis while I tried to work out how on Earth I was going to get in to Algeria.
We arrived in Tunis around midday, and made a beeline for the Algerian Embassy, to see if I could get a visa. Thanks to a combination of Lonely Planet marking down the Algerian Embassy, when what we needed was the Algerian Consulate (Embassy, Consulate, High Commission – what’s the difference?) and two different taxi drivers who didn’t know where they were going, by the time we got there it was past 1pm and the Consulate was closed. We spoke to the guard and he assured us that I could get a visa on Monday.
This put me in a pickle – do I stay in Tunisia until Monday and try to get a visa then, or leave with Laura tomorrow on the ferry back to Sicily? Working it out logically, it would put an extra week on my journey to return to Algeria after finishing Africa. Two more days in Tunisia seemed like a better bet.
I just hope that the guard wasn’t lying to us…
So now for the Libyan border hop, through the Medina (market) in central Tunis and into another Louage (we got to sit in the front of this one) and the rest the day spent travelling south to Ben (Obi-Wan) Guerdane on the Libyan border. Laura and I ran down the batteries in my ipod and fought over who was being DJ (me, obviously – it was my ipod!).
We got in very late and headed over so some nasty, nasty border hotel and bedded down for the night.
Dja recommended that I try at the Algerian Embassy here in Tunis. I wasn’t optimistic, but any port in a storm and all that. The guys on the border reckoned I could ‘easily’ extend the visa for free. I believed that as far as I could spit. I spent a good hour in a taxi fighting through the traffic going to the wrong place (the Algerian consulate moved last month!) and eventually, at 10.30am, I was at the embassy waving my passport about and pleading for an extension. It expired on my birthday, for heaven’s sake… my birthday!!
I was left waiting for an hour or so, and then I was told I needed a hotel booking, so I headed over to the café across the road and prayed that they had wireless. To my immense relief, they did. Lindsey Bennett, my most excellent chum from my schooldays, was conveniently visiting Mandy in Oz, and she speaks much better French than I, so I found the hotels on the internet and set her loose on them. It took an absolute AGE, but eventually, we had email confirmation from a hotel in Annaba, the first big city after the Algerian border. By this point, Claire, who was only working half day, had finished work and had come to meet me (work just being around the corner – you see, sometimes the island conspires to help me out) and so we rushed over to her school and got the hotel reservation printed out (god knows how I would have done that without Claire).
I presented my reservation, passport size photos and photocopies. The lady in the embassy told me to come back tomorrow and ‘a decision will be made’. It sounded ominous.
I knew from bitter experience that the Algerians will not dole out visas unless you’re a resident here. I hoped against hope that they would make an exception for me, since my visa only expired 48 hours ago. I did not like the idea of a decision being made any more than Doug likes the cone of shame.
So Claire and I had an afternoon in Tunis with nought-else to do and so I suggested a little trip to Carthage, the third great city state of the Med, forming a trading/fighting partnership with Ancient Rome and Athens. It was a fairly short trip on the train, but I (sadly) must report that, just like the Temple of Artimus at Ephesus, there ain’t much left to see. But squint your eyes, use a bit of imagination and maybe you’ll see it as it was before the Romans razed the place to the ground and then (for good measure) sew salt into the Earth so nothing would grow.
We were on top of a large hill overlooking the harbour, which was once housed a circular colonnaded dock with a smaller covered boat depot in the centre, also circular, with long thin wooden vessels sticking out the middle like bicycle spokes. The city would have risen up via shops, dwellings, bath-houses and amphitheatres until it reached the now-ruined palace in which we now stood and as perhaps Hannibal once stood before setting out with his army of elephants to cross the Alps and eating a census-takers liver.
Just imagine for a moment what it must have been like for the hapless Romans when this brilliant nutter turned up on the Northern Frontier with a load of elephants looking for a fight and you’d never seen an elephant before. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I’d do is get all Legolas on Dumbo’s ass – I’d run for the hills and hope they couldn’t climb trees.
So after a quick scan around the museum (as always I love the sculpture, hate the broken bits of pottery) we headed back to Tunis. Claire had to go teach her night-class, but as she had a hot shower in her gaff (Dja didn’t) she let me use the facilities while she was away. Bad move! The place was a one-room dwelling and as such I managed to flood her entire flat! You see when you take your glasses off to have a shower, you can’t see too well and you really can’t see that the water is leaking out all place, and when you notice that the water isn’t draining as it should, it’s already too late. Nightmare!
So I did my best to mop the mess up and sheepishly opened up my laptop to check my emails and read the news.
What THE HELL?
“BBC to Axe 6music.”
What? Seriously, WHAT?
A few months ago, I was invited to a facebook group called “help save 6music!” or something. I dismissed it out of hand, wary of the far too many daffy emails saying that hotmail/Wikipedia/the child abuse section of the South African police force/the UN was being shut down and that only my digital Hancock at the bottom of the list could save it from oblivion.
But there it was on the BBC website: my favourite radio station, BBC 6music is to close. At first I thought I was seeing things. Maybe my brain was just aching from all the Algerian nonsense, I don’t know. But there it was, unarguable… the BBC were going to close down 6music.
ARE THEY MAD?!
It would seem so. The thing is this: there is no alternative radio station to 6music. There are awful local commercial stations that provide a decent alternative to the chundering ego-fest of bad DJs and worse music that is Radio 1. There are local BBC stations, such as Radio Merseyside, that might as well be called Radio 2 and a bit. Radio 3 is in direct competition with Classic FM and Radio 5live covers the same ground as every talk radio station in the realm.
But what of BBC 6music – the ‘alternative’ music station? The truth is that there is no alternative, I guess that’s why we call it the alternative station. I suppose Xfm or MTV2 back in the 90s could have held a torch to it, but these days, forget it – the only British radio station that plays the music I like (and I like a lot of music) is Radio 6.
Apparently, this is to save money, all the £8,000,000 a year that is spent to keep things up and running. Don’t forget – the BBC pays a blanket fee each year to PPS and PRS so they can use all the copyrighted music they want, that money just goes on wages and production costs. A bargain if you ask me – it breaks down to less than £1,000 an hour of broadcast. Compare that to, say, EastEnders, and you’re easily looking at £1,000,000 for each hour of broadcast.
Anyway, the BBC are now going to have one hell of a fight on their hands, on the day of the announcement 100,000 people joined the facebook group to get this dumb decision overturned.
What’s funny is that if the beeb suddenly announced it was closing the BBC3 television channel, I reckon the facebook protest group would consist of about ten people and a lost dog. I can’t see too many people having their nose put out of joint at the loss of such must-see TV as “Snog, Marry, Avoid?”, “Three Non-Blondes”, “My Penis and Me” and an utterly superfluous repeat of that night’s Eastenders.
Anyway, if you’re not from the UK, I guess you won’t have a clue what I’m on about, but if you head over to bbc.co.uk/6music, you might get a hint at how much this plucky little radio station has become a national institution in less than a decade. If you are from the UK, please join the facebook group.
Whilst I was still Raging against the Machine, Claire returned to the flat with a young student who was getting some extra English tuition as I walked over to the front door to let them in my foot went SPLOSH into a rather large puddle of water that I had somehow missed when I was cleaning up earlier. God, how embarrassing. I apologised profusely to Claire and then got out while the going was good.
You can’t do a lap of Africa. It’s impossible, I think. You could try to, as you can try to get across the Darien Gap that separates Central and South America, but you’d be very lucky to make it. You see you can go like this (off the top of my head): Morocco > Western Sahara > Maurtania > Senegal > Gambia > Senegal > Guinea-Bissau > Guinea > Sierra Leone> Liberia > Cote d’Ivoire > Ghana > Togo > Benin > Nigeria > Cameroon > Gabon > Congo > DR Congo > Angola > Namibia > South Africa > Swaziland > Mozambique > Malawi > Tanzania > Kenya > Ethiopia > Sudan > Egypt > Libya > Tunisia > Algeria…
But then you’d get stuck in Algeria… the border between it and Morocco is closed, has been for years, and is very unlikely to open any time in the future. You could probably make it through to Western Sahara, but there are so many Moroccan police checkpoints there, I think the only way you could do it would be with forged papers (never a good idea). Which is a shame, as driving a lap of Africa could become the new adventure holiday extravaganza.
If you’re frickin’ insane.
I guess your best bet would be to come over on the ferry from Spain to Morocco and go back on the ferry from Tunisia to Italy and just leave Algeria out of the equation. Which is a shame as the people of Algeria would probably quite like to see you.
I got to the embassy first thing in the morning and handed over my passport and another thirty quid. Things were looking good. I had to wait an hour or so (typical) but presently the lady returned with a my passport, and in it was my visa, the illusive access-all-areas pass to Algeria.
I rushed back to Dja’s place to pick up some stuff, and then (after a major argument with my taxi driver who purposely took me all around the houses) I jumped in a louage back to the bloomin’ Algerian border for the THIRD time of asking. I didn’t want to be hanging around, so as soon as I arrived in Tabarka I was in a cab and on the border. I got there at about 3pm.
The border between Tunisia and Algeria is up in the mountains and boy was it cold and wet and miserable. The Tunisian border guards laughed at me – silly English bloke going back and forth. The jolly Algerian border guy who spoke English was excited to see me, but a little perplexed as to why I could just, you know, extend my visa. I told him that I was just as perplexed as he was. He asked me how long I was staying. I tried to explain that I’d only be here for a few hours, but he was having none of it – he had already set me up to get a lift in a shared taxi to the town of El Kala, a few miles down the road. It dawned on me that I was going to have to bite the bullet and stay the night. After all this palaver, if I left tonight they would think I was up to something, and I have no intention of being thrown in an Algerian detention centre.
THUMP! Down came the entry stamp. I was in.
Halfway to El Kala we got stopped by the Algerian security forces. ‘Oh god, here we go’ I thought, wishing I had got out the taxi 100 metres down the road and walked straight back to Tunisia. They took me out of the car and took me to a small building at the side of the road and asked me a ton of questions. For some reason they were completely convinced I was an American, so my British passport didn’t half weird them out. Yes folks – my LAST Francophone African country and LO AND BEHOLD I get a ton of grief of the Powers That Be. What a SURPRISE!
Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cameroon, Congo, Djibouti and now Algeria… what is with the old French colonies, man? I can see the meeting of the Algerian Liberation Army in the 1950s:
REG: What have the French ever done for us eh?
Barry puts his hand up.
BARRY: Squat toilets?
REG: Yeah, well, they did do that…
STAN: Introduced dizzying levels of bureaucracy?
REG: Okay, bureaucracy… and…?
JUSTINE: Unjustified arrogance?
REG: Fine. Okay. Apart from the squat toilets, the dizzying levels of bureaucracy and the unjustified arrogance, WHAT have the French ever done for us?
STAN: Incompetent plumbing?
After half and hour they let me go and I arrived in El Kala before nightfall, checking into the Marsa hotel. My room smelt of effluent and the television only had one channel, but for four quid including breakfast I wasn’t going to start complaining. Something you should know about Algeria – everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) closes at 6pm. I went out at seven to try and find a bite to eat – all I found was a ghost town. I wandered about in the dark for about an hour before I stumbled over a little café which was showing the football – a pre-World Cup friendly between Serbia and Algeria. Serbia won 3-0. Bodes well for England eh?
I grabbed a hamburger (traditional Algerian dish I guess) and after the final whistle, returned to my lonely hotel room and fell fast asleep, dreaming of the day when I can tick the last that one last country off my ‘Africa’ list. At this rate, that day may well be many months away.
The town of El Kala was undoubtedly a rather pleasant one, a sleepy fishing village that would have gone down will with the tourists before the civil war of the 1990s that ripped Algeria apart and set the tourists packing, presumably for Morocco instead.
In the centre is a dilapidated old cathedral, beautiful in it’s worn, craggy features and down in the water are hundreds of little wooden fishing boats, much as it would have been in the past and yet still is today. I filmed some kids playing football (they demanded!) in the streets and grabbed myself a cup of coffee before jumping a taxi back to the border. No Algerian Security Services this time, just a clear run back to Tunisia.
A boat would be leaving from Tunis for Italy at 8pm tonight and it had my name on it.
At the border I was thankful that my English-speaking friend wasn’t there, it would have been just too awkward to explain that I couldn’t stay in his country any longer, he was so keen for me to come in, stay for a while and have a great time. In the shared taxi back down the mountain to Tabarka in Tunisia I got chatting with a lovely guy called Achraf who worked in Algeria and told me that I had really missed out not seeing Annaba – apparently, nothing new had been built there since the 1950s. Sounds like my idea of heaven. Could you imagine a concrete-less town? Hell, I’ve been around the world and (I-I-I-) I can’t find my unmarred city.
But that will have to be an adventure for another day. By the afternoon I was back in Tunis. I met up with Claire, giving her a towel I bought to say sorry for flooding her flat. We then went on a most excellent adventure in search of food and beer. After saying my goodbyes, I headed back to Dja’s place, catching him when he finished work to say ta-ra and grab my backpack.
A taxi to the port and a purchased ticket saw me doing all I needed to do to get on with The Odyssey – I was FINALLY heading back to Istanbul after a completely unwelcome, immensely costly and time-consuming back-track.
Well it’s taken me the best part of a year, but I’ve done it, I visited every African nation it is possible to visit overland. Eritrea will have to wait until I manage to find some way to get there on a boat, but for now I’m done with in this infernal, infuriating place.