The following is a transcript of a diary kept by my Partner's Father, Joe Atkins, of a 'back-packing' holiday with his friend Jack through North Africa in 1938.

Thankfully Joe's Secretary typed this story shortly afterwards as his handwriting is very difficult to decipher from pencil entries in the diary itself. Even so, there are several words which are 'missing' (marked by '?????') and numerous grammatical errors which I've decided not to correct, leaving the story as it was written at the time. Any Reader should bear in mind that this diary was written long before the era of political correctness and no offence was intended by the original Author.

I offer this story as an interesting historical and geographical document and I've added several original photos (enhanced by our friend Peter Blowers) to this page.


The Saharan Venture

Le Soliel est bon sur le bateau 'El Bias' quand jecris ceu.

Once more the Gods have been good and the troops set forth from Victoria, London, in search of adventure. The route was the usual one from Newhaven to Dieppe and the 'Rouen' was boarded without a hitch. It was April 9th and although fine, was very cold and the time was mainly spent in the bunk.

At Dieppe we boarded the train and managed to keep out all-comers by an effective smoke screen. At times a foul pipe is a distinct advantage. There was one moment when a Frenchman, more valiant than his fellows, paused on the threshold but the fumes drove him back.

With the compartment to ourselves we were able to sleep a little and arrived at St. Lazarre with just time to cross Paris to the Gare de Lyons and catch the train for Marseilles. There was no time for breakfast and I quickly bought some bananas, oranges, ham rolls etc. with a bottle of mineral water. In the train the latter caused shouts of laughter from a fellow passenger when it turned out to be only water. On the way we stopped at Dijon and Lyons, passing the Cevennes mountains in the night and then down the Rhone Valley to Marseilles where we arrived at about 7.30pm.

We immediately made for a hotel, price 12fr for the two, about 9d each. Passed the evening wandering round and spent some time in cafe where woman sung Cheri beri bim and Maurice Chevalier's double entertained. Morning of 11th got boat for Tunis. Panic re tickets, the panic being that before going on the boat we were told we had to pay 600 francs on the ticket, a matter of about 4 leaving us with very little left. Argument did not seem to avail anything, except to attract a crowd and keep back slaves who wanted to come forward. Shouting through a small ticket window when one sees sudden disaster ahead in the shape of the loss of 600fr. is no joke and we ended by paying. On board the boat we were shown into the 2nd class instead of third and a decision from a last effort was made. Back at the ticket window everyone was full of apologies and 600fr. were returned to us. Immediate visions of a beer-less holiday vanished and our hearts were uplifted with joy.

The first part of the voyage was good and we had lunch in rather primitive surroundings in the 3rd class. A bowl was passed around for each course and everyone helped himself, sometimes receiving a new plate but always taking care to hang on to his knife and fork.

There were no games of any sort on board and after lunch everyone congregated on deck and watched the coast go by. It looked fine as the sun shone on the red and white rocks. They were a motley crew of passengers, mostly soldiers going over to help with the trouble in Tunis the day before - apparently some pretty serious rioting.

I spent the next part of the voyage in a rather hazy and unhappy manner because the weather became very cold and the sea rose until the boat did not seem to know which way to sail. I remember lying on the deck and nearly rolling into the scuppers when it reached an angle of 30 - 40. During the night I was awakened by a banging and clattering and caught a glimpse of a mass of sea water coming through the port hole. The rucksack was dislodged and merrily rolling up and down the cabin floor in the water, to be brought up with a bump against the door. I thought of films and made a frantic jump on to the sodden floor and recovered the rucksack all but a packet of sundry medicines and shaving tackle which were rolling about. I let them roll and sank back in the bunk just about sunk and wondered whether the boat was going down while listening to the melancholy swish of the water as it went backwards and forwards. No one seemed to bother. Tuesday the 12th was unhappy - stepping in a rather weak state from the cabin over the apparently dead sufferers in the passage was no joke and I spent the rest of the day on deck with an occasional tot of rum until about 2.30 when the boat landed at Tunis. In the evening things began to buck up as a grand meal was eaten - four courses for 1/6d and oranges and walnuts at the end. So to bed.

April 13th. We rose at 6.15am and made tea in the bedroom. The new oil lamp worked well and the first cup of tea after leaving England was grand. After days of coffee and sour wine real tea is a godsend. Two glorious cups and little did the Hotel Keeper know that Black Jack & Co. were camping in the bedroom. We were out in the town by about 7.30, rucksacks on backs and on the way to the station to confirm the train and also to ????????. the boats the Biskra and El Oued - Tozuer Ticket. After all was settled, had coffee and rolls in a cafe and on being asked for butter an Arab boy was sent flying.


We hoped to see some of Tunis on the way back but the modern part seemed like Paris with wide boulevards with avenues of trees, traffic being on two outside streams and pedestrians on an inner. The people were a mixture of white (French) and Arabs in all states of disrepair. Apparently an Arab buys one robe when he is fully grown and makes it last for the rest of his life. The result is a series of rags which somehow manages to hold together. At the end of 20 or more years it is probably passed on to another member of the family. Sometimes an Arab will condescend to wear European shoes but always scorns the heels, which he carefully treads down and goes his splay footed way.

The part of the bazaar seen by us was nothing like as good as Tetuan and presented the usual conglomeration of humanity selling their wares from ill-lighted and showy stalls as they had for past ages.

The train for Constantine left at 11.25am and we went about supplied with a little fruit, a roll and some water in the bottle. A young Arab who spoke French came in with great pride, produced a native worked cigarette case and matchbox. We talked for a little and then the carriage was invaded by about eight black soldiers from French Guinea. They were black as night with cheerful faces and dressed in khaki and red fez. Real good fellows who kept us supplied with provisions when ours ran out. Among them were sardines, tinned fish and bread with an occasional cigarette. They were in for three years conscription and had just started - probably the reason they were so cheerful. Later in the evening when all were tired each used the others backside for a pillow and at their invitation I did the same - a broad black one, but well covered of course. They left just before Constantine and we were sorry to see them go. Just beforehand one was sleeping with his mouth wide open showing a great black 'O', pink inside and surrounded by great white teeth. In waking suddenly his head went against the rack and he gave a broad grin and a knowing wink.

We arrived at Constantine at 11pm and found a bed at the Hotel De France (25fr les deux). Tea made and very good.


Rose about 6am and after coffee (no eatables) went exploring. Constantine lies in an enormous rock formation round which the Rhummel has pillowed a huge canyon about 500-ft deep. The town is constructed on the rock and in all directions round lie the red hills and the bare country. In the afternoon went down gorge and ????????.


The coach for Batna left at 1.30 and went through some grand scenery, miles and miles for freshly turned soil with occasional green patches of young corn without a hedge or a ditch anywhere, with the dried up hills behind. Not a tree or a shrub to be seen for a stretch of 40 miles or more and giving an idea of awe inspiring simplicity.

Every now and again an old Arab or some ragged boys would pass with a flock of sheep and goats which just managed to find a little to eat in the sun baked earth. Sometimes there would be a Camel Caravan led by an old Arab with a face a mass of wrinkles from the sun; on the camels would probably be women dressed in all the brightest colours imaginable, the chief being red, yellow, light green and blue and gold. Running behind in bare feet would be half a dozen urchins of all ages from 3 upwards.

The road passed a great salt lake or ??????? about 5 miles long and the scene was grand. Just the dry country and the hills behind ranging from dull brown to brick red and purple. Not a tree or a blade of grass, just the late afternoon sun shining on the water and glistening salt and on the hills behind.


Reached Batna about 5.30 and took a car to Timgad, the old ruined city of the Romans, 25 miles away. The road led through one or two villages but mostly through hilly mountainous country on a vast tableland 3,000 feet up. It had rather a sombre appearance in the evening. Ranges of hills one above the other and valleys and dried up water courses without a sign of life anywhere, apart from an occasional wandering Nomad.

We reached Timgad in the evening as the sun was shining on the ruins and took photos. A whole Roman city was there with streets worn deeply by the wheels of the chariots. One could even pick out the manholes for the drains and see the troughs for watering the animals. We pitched camp near and after supper I strolled down the old streets, passed the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter to the Forum smoking in the moonlight. The night was as clear as crystal, there was not a breath of wind and the only sound was the occasional barking of an Arab dog. In the imagination it was not too difficult to make the ghosts come to life again and to hear the chariot wheels rolling over the stone paving.


The camp was in the bed of a dried up watercourse almost half a mile away and entirely hidden from sight. In the darkness it would be very easy to miss our way and spend the night searching and when I strolled upon it my relief was great.


Rose at 4.5am. Wanted to get 5.30am bus to Batna. It was not much of a night's sleep but had to suffice and we were compensated by seeing the sun rising over the ruins. There was no breakfast and we just reached the coach in time. It was crammed with Arabs in full dress but they managed to make room for two and we scrambled in. Cigarettes were immediately necessary in view of the strong snuff or incense used by the sunburned gentlemen, but they were quite friendly and didn't seem to mind. A few miles out of Batna we stopped the coach and got out to finish on foot as we did not want to miss the country. Entered Batna walled city full of soldiers and after a much needed breakfast took 8.50 train to Biskra.

The country became increasingly dry as we went south until it was completely desert. The route lying on a plateau about 3,000 feet up with a range of mountains on each side. One could easily see that to be placed out there without water would be a nasty death. The altitude gradually lessened and the train made good speed until it came to El Kantara and we had our first glimpse of an oasis. An enormous cleft in the red stone cliffs made by the heel of Hercules and showing through the green tops of the palm trees.

El Kantara was soon left behind and the train cut down south through the desert to Biskra. It was not yet a desert of sand but an arid stony waste with tufts of sage or some other scrub just showing after being cropped by the animals. Arrived in Biskra, we left our baggage in the station and went exploring right away.


Immediately on the left hand side out of the station was the desert and we made for it following an irrigation canal which ran towards a grove of palms in the distance at the foot of the sand-hills. It was mid-day, very hot and the Arabs were taking things easy and washing in the stream or sleeping under the palm trees. One spread a small mat on the ground and after kneeling and looking towards Mecca bowed his forehead to the ground in prayer.

They seem to live a very simple life with little work in it and like wandering around in a dignified fashion wrapped in their robes and gossiping with one another. The Arabs who work in the fields and the better class town Arab are fine fellows but the poorer ones in the bazaars are different and will sit all day in the boiling sun selling a few filthy dates. Both they and the dates are covered in flies which seem to find a permanent resting place in the corners of their eyes. Some are blind or partly so and some crippled. An Arab boy in a fez and an old army coat was of great help as a guide. It sounds rather obvious to say that an oasis exists by water but when seen it is made particularly plain as the Arabs have brought irrigation to a fine art. Outside everything is dead, inside little channels in the soil carry water to every single tree and every single flower bed which are flooded every midday and evening. Outside there is not a sign of life but in the shadow of the palms are beautiful flower gardens and shrubs with bush foliage full of sparrows and foreign birds. Hanging from trees was a vine-like plant, a mass of crimson flower and underneath a bed of forget-me-nots.


It was almost impossible to be left in peace for any period before some Arab would thrust an ornamental dagger under ones nose and absolutely refuse to go away. Actually the daggers were cheap and I got one. A short distance outside Biskra was a small Arab settlement consisting of mud huts. The way to it led across the stream and across about a quarter of a mile of shingles probably flooded in winter time. The village was long and narrow and lay on each side of the stream and each Arab had his own rivulet from the main stream with which he tried to grow a palm tree or a type of cabbage in a garden a few feet square and sheltered from the sun by palm branches.

The village looked quaint from a distance with its palm trees but very straggly on entry and directly a camera was produced we were pounced on by about 20 boys all wanting "backsheesh". In a photo I took they should appear running fast to see who could reach the game first. One had been burrowing in the stream or something, was all covered with mud and thought he had the best right to be photographed. Then began the ceremony of giving largess to the villagers.


Jack went down fighting bravely under the sudden onslaught of about 30 begging hands and I was only able to save him by throwing money in the sand for them to scramble for. Luckily for us an old Arab came along and sent them away and asked us to come and have coffee. We followed him along with the boys behind until we came to his hut and after telling us to sit on a mat he disappeared in a hole in the wall leading to his garden and we squatted Arab fashion on our haunches and argued with the boys who wanted more money or did not like English pennies. After a while the old boy returned with two little china cups and although the coffee was black and did not look up to much, it was the best I had ever tasted. The old man squatted down. I suppose he must have been about 70 with white whiskers and a dirty turban. His face was a mass of wrinkles caused by the sun and as he had no teeth and did not know much French or pronounced it so badly it was difficult to understand. The old black eyes would gleam and he would splutter that it was dio cafe marveilleux and that everyone came back for more and when would we. Truly it was great and deliciously sweet and thick with none of the bitterness that we associate with black coffee.

I wanted to take his photo but he would not allow it as he had been in the army for La France for 40 years. We sympathised with his refusal and after saying goodbye, left.

Near the station was a cafe where we made frequent calls for beer during the day and after the last visit we loaded up with a few eggs and trekked out into the desert to camp. It was to be the first camp in the Sahara and although tired with lack of food and sleep over the past few days, we were excited at the thought and on the way noticed two Arabs sitting on a knoll gazing out into the desert. The scene was so calm and serene as the sun was setting and then one went apart to pray.

The night passed without incident except for trouble in making tea over the stove and not having a camp fire. There was of course not a particle of wood.

Saturday 16th April.

Rose at 4am with the moon still shining and packed up as quickly as possible as the coach for El Oued was to leave on leave at six. There was no time for breakfast. As we finished packing, the stars dimmed and a glow began to appear in the East and a tinge of gold on the clouds overhead. As we walked away and neared to the oasis, the glow brightened and then the sun came up from the hills like a ball of fire and a little from where we stood a tall palm was silhouetted against the sky.

Twenty minutes later we boarded the coach for El Oued. The company was not inspiring and included one or two fussy Frenchmen and a French Commandante. The rest were Arabs. The way led out of the south end of the town through the oasis, and on each side were gardens hidden by mud brick walls and palm trees. Within about a mile or two the last tree was passed and before us lay a flat unbroken plain extending as far as the eye could see. After about two hours the coach halted at Bou Euada where we were glad to stretch our legs and wander into the oasis, where there was cool running water and about 40 camels making the most of it and roaring and grunting in a most comic fashion.


Later a halt was made at a solitary building in the middle of the plain and we got water from a well. There were several of them along the route - just a circle of stone and any amount of pure water only about 20 feet below which was very soft and had rather a queer taste - when we made tea the milk curdled.

Later in the afternoon we came into the sand dune country and the track was often covered by a dune, which were constantly changing owing to the wind. About 2pm we entered El Oued and had a lunch including beer, artichokes and radishes grown in the garden. Greatly refreshed we set out to explore and found El Oued to be a most beautiful place quite small with an extensive market place from which we could see the great dunes rising above the tops of the palm trees. We soon collected our followers and circled round to take photos. The people are waging a constant warfare against the sand which threatens to engulf the town. All the palms are planted well below the usual ground level with just their tops appearing above the sand. A sandstorm would probably engulf the place but for the fact that the Arabs endeavour to make the great dunes around the town permanent by sticking a ridge of palm branches along the top or ridge which seems to ensure that they shall not be blown away.


Feeling pretty well done in and with half the Sahara in our shoes we returned to the hotel and called loudly for beer and while waiting took a look round the garden which was surrounded by white washed walls. It was divided into sections about 5' by 1' and each section was receiving its supply of water from the main stream which branched off all over the garden. At the moment a pump was setting up a constant flow of water which was diverted into the required channel by a tall Arab servant with plug of rag. A grape vine was commencing to make a screen and climbing nasturtiums were in full bloom all round. At home I don't suppose they were even up. Most of the patches were given up to vegetables and lettuces, radishes, artichokes and some kind of spinach were growing well in what looked like ordinary desert soil that is mostly sand. Think of it, all these and many others which I did not know the name of in a small oasis growing in the Sahara desert.

The waiter who attended to our needs was a young, almost black skinned Arab and as he spoke better French than we did, we were able to talk quite a bit. He was very proud of his few words of English, namely 'good morning' and 'dinner is served'. As a result of our tuition he should be able to ask any English if they want white or black coffee.

Having obtained provisions including dried dates and oranges and a bottle of lemonade, we loaded up the packs and set forth for the desert. It was heavy work trekking through the sand which got into our shoes at every step, but we eventually got into a secluded place with high dunes all round and put up the tent with some difficulty as the sand was a fine silver sand and gave no foundation for the poles. We were not left alone for long, for soon Jack pointed to the top of a ridge and there outlined against the darkening sky were three pestilential boys.


Like an attacking army they came sliding down the sand and opened fire with Bonsoir Messieurs and immediately wanted to help with everything. If you want to blow your nose or anything else they want to do it for you and at the end always expect payment. We managed to get rid of them and had supper, the only visitor being a large beetle which kept trying to enter the tent. Probably we had set it up over his nest. During the afternoon a boy had said that they were tres dangerous and so he was treated with respect and sent as far away as a good boot would send him.


Before turning in we climbed the dunes and had a final look round in the moonlight which turned the sand to silver and made the country look as though it were covered with great drifts of snow.

The sand made a comfortable bed and we slept well, wakening once to find that the wind had risen and was bettering the tent with sand. We thought we were in for a sandstorm but it was not serious.

Up at 4am in the morning and after looking out had a crust of bread and an orange and set off back to get the coach at 6am. About 200 yards from where it started we heard an impatient tooting and filled with fear that the watches were wrong and that we should miss it and have to wait 2 days for another we started running. Try and run in a desert of loose sand with about 30 lbs on your back and be in a panic at the time and see what it is like - specially after no breakfast to speak of we were about done when we reached the place and found it was a false alarm - there was not even breath to swear.

After coffee the coach turned up, an ancient looking light lorry which had been converted to carry passengers and given an extra two tyres in the front. We were crammed in the back with a petrol tin and about seven Arabs including two Arab women. Horrible old hags who gazed at us with black beedy eyes, mostly only one eye through the folds of a shawl. One had never been in a motor before and when it started commenced to groan and covering her face crouched forward over the luggage and did not move for hours. Jack and I were sandwiched among the others including one middle-aged man with flowing robes and a dirty fez who was very friendly. Whenever we saw him afterwards he used to come charging across the street and insist on shaking hands. The odd job man general 'pumper up of tyres' or 'letter out of air' or 'digger out of car stuck in sand' as the case required was a tough looking lad with one big glaring eye which shone forth under a red fez with a turban round it. He had a pretty habit of mixing Arabic up with his French which made it rather difficult for us to understand him, particularly in view of the devilish gleam of that eye.

Now commenced some very ticklish stuff for there appeared to be no track at all and the driver just seemed to rush bald-headed at the dunes sometimes only reaching half-way and then having to dig out the wheels and run back for another shot. Then another burst in another direction and with a thrashing of wheels and shunt of sand the car would reach the top of a dune, stand poised for an instant and with a sickening lurch, plunged down the other side. One-eye was left about 200 yards behind and we saw him in the rear carrying his slippers and struggling through the sand to disappear in a hollow every now and again and then to appear on a crest. This went on without a break for about 2 hours while a cold semi gale was blowing and caught the tops of the dunes and sent the sand beating in our faces - there was no protection. The car gave such lurches at times that it seemed inevitable that it should capsize and the long period of lurching rises and sickening descents made me feel a bit bad inside. I wrapped my head in a bathing costume to keep out the sand and put on the cape and mac to keep out the cold and then all was sunny. After a time a sort of track appeared at intervals where it had not been completely obliterated by sand. During all this the Arabs kept their heads wrapped in the hoods of their cloaks and did not seem to mind. The women kept well down on the floor over the luggage now and then giving an occasional grunt.

A halt was made at a blockhouse for breakfast and we squatted on our haunches with the other Arabs in a bare whitewashed room on a stone floor and it was like a haven of rest after the turmoil outside. Made the most of a roll and few dried dates and water from the bottle. On again with dunes slowly disappearing and giving place to a flat desolate waste of sand with occasional tufts of sage or whatever it was. It became a bit warmer as the sun rose although it was not visible but obscured by clouds and sand.

About 1.15pm we saw a sea of palms in the distance and knew it to be Nefta, an oasis about 30 odd kilometres from Tozuer.


A short stop was made to collect letters while a crowd of sun-baked Arabs looked on. As usual several were cross-eyed and some blind in one eye. Even complaints seem very prevalent among the Arabs probably because they never receive any attention.

The village was the usual collection of mud walled houses with dome like roofs and crowds of small boys and one or two old women but most of the latter stay inside.


Arrived at Tozuer about 2pm after eight hours desert travelling by which time nose, ears and mouth and eyes had all their taste of sand and my beret left miles behind blown off by the wind.

Tozuer was rather a disappointing place after El Oued and after lunch in a hotel, one of three and apparently the only place to buy provisions, we were held up by a thunderstorm, the first rain for 3 years. After loading up we endeavoured to find the way through the maze of mud houses to the desert and were soon taken in tow by two boys. After a mile we camped in the desert some way beyond the railway line (terminus of Phospate line) near Arabs graveyard. The cooking of the evening meal was interrupted by a rain storm and during the night it rained again and the wind blew with such force that it fairly whistled round the tent and I thought the guy-ropes would give way but they held. For the first time we had a full night's rest and got up about 7am had a lazy breakfast and after dumping the packs in the station went to explore a Bedouin or gypsy encampment about half a mile from the camp. There were about four tents on the sandy plain made of an odd striped sheet stretched over boughs of trees and lying very low to the ground with a break in the middle. The walls seemed to be of thorn twigs and shrubs.


The men were poor Arabs and the women dressed in very gay colours with tattoo marks on their cheeks - one was rather a dark beauty and I got a photo - also one of the tent. Returned to the village for beer and lunch at the Hotel (radishes, black sausage and camel meat), total cost in England about 6 francs or 9d, and then walked to the oasis. The trees stretch over an area 18 kilos by 12 kilos and under the trees grow flowers such as roses and vegetables. The dates were forming and Arabs were working the gardens and clearing the Palm trees but for our guide we should never have made the train as the place was an absolute maze of tortuous waterways and mud walls. He cut us each a rose, most of the Arabs go about with one behind their ears or hanging from the fez or in their mouths. When he cut a bunch of unripe dates and charged 6fr we thought it time to get the train but before leaving had to write references in his book to the effect that Brahm (pron. Braheem) was a good guide. Jack wanted to add in English "but bloody expensive" but thought better of it. Arrived back at the station, filled the water bottle and boarded the train. The second class was full of effeminate looking French lads and we were glad we were travelling third among the Arabs.

It left at 4pm and we had plenty of time to observe our fellow passengers as it would not reach Aingrathesia until 5am the next day, Tuesday 19th April. They were mostly better class Arabs dressed in a pleasing style with a red fez. Embroidered white robes and baggy trousers buckling below the knee from whence appeared a suspender - brightly coloured to keep up the white socks. Over all would probably be a grey cloak. Most of the Arabs carried rose buds in their hands or in their Fez and squatted on their haunches on the carriage seats with their slippers on the floor. When one greeted another they would shake hands and then carry the hand to the lips. As the evening drew on and the train stopped to allow another to pass, many descended and walking a short distance off placed a mat on the ground and commenced to pray, looking towards Mecca and touching their foreheads to the earth.

The train passed through several small oases and then into a great gorge with great rugged cliffs of bare reddish brown rocks on either side. Every now and again we entered a short tunnel to emerge again upon a view surpassing the last. After dark all but about two left the coach and were able to stretch out at full length and sleep. Unfortunately I caught a flea which did considerable damage.

At 5am we reach Aingrathesia and found that the only sign of human life was the station building and a few chickens which gave promise of breakfast. It was at the back of beyond on a great plain but the station master, clerk or porter or whoever he was and a fine chap, turned up with 4 eggs and a primus stove enabling us to make some good tea and have something to eat. There was no bread but we did not mind and made a good meal.

Then started the trek along the railway line for 12 kilos to Kairouan across Death Plain as we called it. We were within about two miles of the city when we saw that the line ahead was flooded and amazed to see that the water was advancing towards us at a fearsome rate and we were completely cut off. Retreat was impossible in any case we could not have moved fast enough and so off came shoes and stockings and we started to wade.


The water rose quickly, in a few minutes was up to our knees. We struggled on in this way for about 20 minutes and tried to reach a bit of higher ground but found the way barred by a river, newly made, down which the flood water was swirling in a nasty fashion. We tried to cross but found it too deep. Trousers and pants came off next and with the help of an Arab each we managed to struggle across with nothing more serious than saturated shirt tails. It was pretty cold sans trousers etc with the wind blowing round and to make matters worse it commenced to pour with rain but we eventually made the road and were again confronted by two further stretches of flood water about 200 yards long and only managed to keep our feet with the help of the Arabs who were tough chaps. The current was so strong. Then commenced the epic walk into the third Holy City of the Moslems without shoes, pants or trousers. Fortunately we only met one or two women and my sodden shirt tails just came down far enough. Walking along the road we picked up with a Frenchman and another Arab, the former just managed to fall on his back and roll in the water in front of us which added a comic touch to something which had been rather fearsome so far. Under his guidance after he had removed his trousers, we had a wash in a trough in the outskirts of the town and managed to re-clothe and proceed to a cafe for some rum and coffee which did a lot to retrieve the situation.


The Arab carrying Jack's shoes somehow managed to fill them full of mud and his trousers were saturated but I think he will get over it.

The great adventure of the flood was written after lunch at the Hotel Mari, the usual covered affair, beginning with soup, fish, one or two vegetables separately and then meat by itself. It was very satisfying but the rain continued to fall steadily although there was a brightness in the air that made the sun appear to be shining outside.

In the cafe while having the rum & coffee we sat at a table with a tall dark swarthy Arab who had a lot of negro blood in his veins, with thick lips and almost coffee coloured skin who was a pal of the Frenchman or (Arab?) who we met when he fell in the mud. He seemed a kindly soul and promised to accompany us to the Mosques in the afternoon. Some sort of guide is really necessary to find the way about in the maze of streets, especially if the time is limited. In my case you won't have a minute's peace until we had a guide and it would be better to fall early and get it over. Generally they would then run on oiled wheels, even little boys would be kept at a distance.

We sat waiting for about half an hour after lunch because of the rain and over and over our tall dark skinned follower would give an annoyed glare round the doorway to see that his prey had not escaped him. Eventually the rain ceased and we made our way outside and immediately the worried expression vanished as a broad grin wiped it away and he started padding through the mud on his slippers.

We first came to the Waterworks and on mounting some stone steps cracked and worn with age came into a large stone room smelling like a stable. An enormous blindfolded camel was slowly padding round and round harnessed to a shaft connected with a huge wooden wheel which acted on another to which were attached about six earthenware vessels. These came up full of water and emptied into a channel. The old man of the wheel led the way down some steep steps and on his turning a circular stone knob a jet of water appeared first and ran down a channel into a huge cistern. It was the original water supply of the City and still did its work although over a thousand years had passed.

Thence we went to the Grand Mosque and our guide was rather badly done by because unthinkingly we gave him 25fr to see the Mosque and found that it included three others and an official guide as well. Our lad was a bit sorrowful but brightened up on a promise to see him in the evening.

Before entering the Mosque we went into a smaller one converted into a bazaar for carpets and craftsmanship of all kinds, mostly leather and metal work. The walls were hung with carpets of most beautiful designs, apparently Kairouan like Turkey is the home of carpet making where it has gone on from ancient times as they are still made on the old hand looms. I am no judge but the texture and patterns were truly marvellous portraying those in a subdued brown and cream colour.

The Arabs there must have known that two mud-stained tramps would not prove good customers but spared no trouble and carpets of all shapes and sizes were unravelled before us. It was a great pity that we were not in a position to buy any.

On coming out we met our new guide, a middle aged and stately Arab speaking French who told us of the dangers of allowing unauthorised persons to act as guides because in the case of an accident there would be no redress but with him it would be different as he was recognised by the Government.

He padded on sedately in his slippered feet comfortably avoiding the mud of which there was plenty and only now and again having to relieve himself against a wall by the way. This occurred about four times in the afternoon and made us think that he suffered from a weakness of the bladder.


The way first led to the Grand Mosque which had a magnificent inner courtyard lined by innumerable columns and mosaics in the Arab style. According to the old man there were six hundred columns mostly taken from Carthage. It was always the same in the old days when in the making of one magnificent building the stonework and colours were often taken from others and although Carthage was sacked in turn by the Romans under Scipio by the Byzantines under Belisarius and by the Arabs and possibly others, the reason that there are now only a few scraps of stone there now is that they have been pillaged to make the Grand Mosque at Cadouvran, the Alhambra at Granada and others. In St Sophia at Constantinople some of the most beautiful pillars were taken from the Temple of Diana at Ephesus.

The view over the City and the surrounding country from the top of the minaret is magnificent for the City stands on a vast flat plane. In every direction but one except for the palms in the town there is not a tree or a hill to be seen and the horizon stretches round in a vast circle as at sea. On the fourth side in the far distance is a range of mountains.


The interior of the Mosque is not impressive the roof is flat without any dome and supported on a maze of pillars without any different design. There is a legend that if you can pass between two of them you are sure of admission into Paradise. The guide might have been able to in his younger days but he did not attempt the feat now. We managed easily so there is still hope. The Mosque of the Barber was next but was under reconstruction with piles of bricks and mortar about and so the effect was spoiled. The Mosque of Swords was uninteresting but for the queer kink of the patron of making huge swords some 6ft long inscribed with verses of the Koran. At the entrance to each Mosque was a custodian to whom we were expected to give something "pour le cope" on the ???? they would not bear comparison with those at Constantinople.

Through the narrow streets again with the mud now about ankle deep in most places with a greasy puddle nicely churned into a greyish paste by many naked feet. The old man found slipper traffic at a disadvantage and sometimes had to summon an urchin to place a stepping stone in the middle so he could reach the other side safely. Jack found the biggest morass possible and made a frantic effort to fall in much to the amusement of the surrounding Arabs. Back through the maze of the bazaar where the Arabs sat on their haunches often in an almost semi darkness to the roof overhead until we stopped before one and ??? tender. We did manage to emerge again without buying anything except some fruit at another stall. A Knowing look passed between our guide and the other and we were sure that it was a signal of some sort and that we were the losers. By this time we seemed to have walked Kairouan from end to end several times so we took leave of our guide and watched him picking his way off among the puddles with his umbrella tucked under his arm.

With sighs of relief we hurried to the nearest cafe and immediately ordered two large beers and it went down like nectar. While we were smoking about four bootblacks in succession tried to nail us and in between rosebud sellers did their best but were shooed out by a young Arab with a billiard cue. We started to chat and he sat down with us and ended by promising to take us to an Arab cafe in the evening where there would be Arab music and the Oued Nails or dancing girls. He seemed quite a decent chap and had not made any effort to tout us as was usually the case in fact I first broached the matter.

Accordingly in the evening after dinned he made his appearance and we went round to the cafe which was quite nearby. It was an oblong room reaching some way back from the street with a stage in the rear covered in straw matting. Near the entrance was a large tiled stone against the wall with a pot full of boiling water on the fire for coffee making. By the side was a smaller fire consisting of red hot ash which was concerned in the final stage of coffee making, the exact amount of water for one minute cup being taken from the pot in a little metal container on a rod and given a final heating in the fire and then poured in the coffee or perhaps the process was reversed, the coffee and water being given a final roasting in the embers before being put into the cup. About three spoonfuls of sugar to make it rich and really sweet and the result was delicious.

Sitting around the wall at small tables were a number of Arabs all dressed in flowing robes with a fez or burrows. It was a purely Arab cafe and not a European was present.

Sipping glasses of Almond Tea we watched the musicians arrive and squat on their heels round the back of the stage. One had a pipe with a bag something like the bagpipes but with only one pipe and several had tambourines and drums which were of skin and being heated over the fire to bring to the right pitch. After a few preliminary cat calling noises the drummer began a rhythmic thumping of the drum with his hand and the pipes began to produce an astounding high pitched succession of sounds which nevertheless seemed to have a strangely exacting and hypnotic influence and fill one with a sense of expectation. Sitting at the back in the centre was a dark faced Arab with a red turban and as he sang to the accompaniment of the music his blind eye gazed into space in an uncanny fashion. Another began to dance stamping in the straw matting with ever increasing speed to the beating of the drums until it seemed impossible to move any faster and after winding up to a great pitch as in "Bolero" the music finished with a final smack on the drum and the dancer fell back exhausted to the acclamation of his friends. Then another song by the blind one followed by a slow sensuous dance with which the man's body seemed made joint-less and his hips rolled and swayed and his head and shoulders kept almost perfectly still when there was a charge and his whole body trembled from head to foot.

As the evening wore on we were joined by our friends of Amor Berale and talked away in French as well as we were able. They were really grand company and in a little while one produced an Arab pipe with a silver bowl which was so small that it would not even hold the tip of a little finger. The filling of the pipe was a most elaborate ceremony for the tobacco had to be specially made and cut up on a board as when it was filled one Arab would place it in his mouth and when it was well alight pass it to us or one of the others. The tobacco had rather a strong smell and after about six puffs was finished and had to be refilled before passing on. One fellow would take about four very deep breaths and the pipe would be burnt out while his head was almost hidden in a cloud of smoke. We liked it and the passing round of the pipe seemed to act as a link to make us fast friends and we learned much of their life of carpet making in the Bazaar and other things. According to the one who had lived sometime in Italy most of the Arabs were married at 21 and had to give a dowry of 3000fr to the girl's fathers when she would take the veil and afterwards always wear it when she appeared in public. He was not married but was saving. We learnt a number of Arabic words but most are now forgotten except Cattaherrids - thank you very much.

We had no cards but they were very insistent and took our addresses and I have promised to write to Ahmor Beralie, Cafe de France, Kairouan. We sat there from 8.15 until about 10.15 talking until every French word we ever knew and many others had been used and pipes and cigarettes had made our throats so dry that even frequent glasses of Arab Almond Tea and coffee were no longer soothing and we rose to leave being among the last. Going back late at night after such an evening there is a feeling of good fellowship about and tinged with a regret that they will never be seen again and between I and a young Arab passed many flowery compliments and good wishes and then with a final handshake we left them.

Our guide rather spoilt things by holding out a hand for money but that did not apply to the others and was to be expected. When we return to England he has asked us to write and tell him in order that he may send a piece of carpet that he and his sister are working. We of course to send him something from England.

He had arranged with a friend of his a large tall Laughing Arab for us to go round to Tunis by car with a few others as it was more convenient than the train. We particularly wanted to go to Zaghouan and he promised to go via that town but in the morning he told us with many explanations that the bridge was broken and that road was impassable. Actually we thought the broken bridge was a convenient fairy tale but could do nothing. After many delays and being nearly pestered to death by boys and bootblacks we got away about 9am with a French Officer sitting in the front and a young Frenchman behind us. The sun was shining but there was a cold wind which made its way through the open window which was falling to pieces. The country was dead flat and the car shot towards Tunis at a good 50 miles an hour only pausing now and again to pass a caravan of Nomads who refused to budge in spite of prolonged blasts on the horn. There were hundreds of them trudging along in batches of ten or so, some on camels some on donkeys and many walking barefooted. Sometimes a few chickens would be strung round a camel by their legs and others would be loaded with stuff for fuel and perhaps a supply of prickly pear as fodder. The prickly pear or Fig of Barbanges the Arabs call it is a cactus covered with prickles about half an inch long and yet the camels tackle it with great relish.


About 11 o'clock a stop was made near Enfidha for a bit of bread and beer then on to Tunis where we arrived about 12.30 in time for a good dinner of about five courses including wine at our old base for 1/6d. Feeling much better we had our tickets stamped by the Steamship Co. and after some discussion as to future action decided to go to Carthage and camp there for the night. We had thought of taking a boat back two days earlier and spending the time walking in the country in France but found that we should have had to lose our bunks. A train left the Rue Jules Ferry to Carthage via La Goulette and we were aboard passing alongside the channel where the El Biar had passed about ten days previously.

There were two ruins that we saw on the first day, one just a few stones and marble pillars and blocks of masonry and the other the ruins of the Basilica of St. Cyprien or so we thought, but there was so little left that they gave no real idea of the original buildings.

Along the road we met a Frenchman who came with us as far as Sidi Bou Said. We were pleased to have his company but our plans for an early camp were rather upset. Sidi Bou Said was a really beautiful place shining like a white crown on the top of a hill overlooking the sea. The streets were clean, narrow and picturesque and over all stood the white minaret of the Mosque. Placed at the top of a steep flight of steps like a rest in a trail was one of the prettiest Arab Cafes we have ever seen but unfortunately we did not realise its significance at the time and had grub in another where the influence of Western ways was very apparent. The cafe was in the usual form with a platform covered with mats for dancing but the Arab proprietor wore a vest and trousers and a dirty 50/- overcoat.

By this time the need of a camping place was urgent as darkness falls very quickly after sunset and the country seemed too civilised for our needs so we retraced our steps to the Basilica of St. Cyprien and camped in the ruins, the walls giving shelter from the wind. I hope that the ghosts of the old Carthaginians were not affronted but there was no other suitable site. As it was it was unsafe to move about after dark as there were several holes in the ground with a drop of 15ft or more into the vaults below.

It was a good camp in spite of the cold and disappointment felt when the tin of apricots turned into a pot of jam and our hopes of fruit for supper vanished. The following day, Friday, the 22nd was full of sunshine but the wind was rather cold and an expedition was made to explore the country on the headland beyond Sidi Bou Said and La Marca. The coast was wild and rocky and we walked along for some time eventually crawling up a cliff covered in sand dunes blown over from the other side. In spite of the sun the wind was better and blew the sand in stinging spray against our faces until hair, mouth and ears were full and we were not sorry to return. A Cafe on the shore supplied a tea of coffee and bread and jam and provisions for the night in a camp sheltered from the sea breeze by trees and great cactuses. The old flowers of which stood at least 20ft high. During the night a floodlight photo was taken and I hope that it turns out well.


The next morning was spent walking back to Cenetaze noticing the wild flowers which were very beautiful and good enough for any flower garden. Trees of mimosa in full bloom and one small flower like a large scarlet pimpernel but of a deep gentian blue.

Lunch at a Cafe and then a final bid to see the ruins of Carthage. We nearly missed them but there overlooking the sea were the ruins of the town with underground cisterns and mosaic floors in a wonderful state of preservation. To one side of the main street sadly littered with broken columns were the ruins of a villa with a marble floored garden with pillars round a flower bed in the middle. A little way back was all that remained of the theatre. The stage was there in a ruined state and the great amphitheatre had been excavated showing the semiarde where the audience used to watch the plays but only a few seats remained.


The great granite and marble pillars broken and half buried in the ground gave but a poor idea of the glory that must have been there. Now there were just a few ruins and little Arab boys trying to sell pieces of pottery and old coins.


Back in Tunis again we had every intention of seeing the Bars Museum and but for being misled by someone to the effect that it closed at six, we should have done so. As it was the journey outside the City brought us there at five and it closed at five. However, on the way we saw part of the Great Roman Aqueduct which until recent times used to bring water from Zaghouan to Tunis across country a distance of about 50 miles. Even now after 1700 years the great stone arches stretched away across country as far as the eye could see with scarcely a break. Where we were pillars supporting the water channel must have been at least 50 feet from the ground.

In the evening after Dinner we wandered into the Bazaar and some of the old men were still sitting in their stalls in semi darkness in the hope of selling something. Others were still tirelessly mending shoes or hammering metal ornaments with little hammers but as we progressed the alleys became narrower and darker and we returned to spend the rest of the evening in a Cafe drinking beer and listening to the orchestra or watching a French conjurer. A final coffee at the Baghdad Cafe and then to bed feeling pretty tired. Saturday the 23rd, saw us up and about at 7am and after coffee and rolls we spent a little time wandering round and buying Arab pies and tobacco before going on board the General Gravy for Marseilles. Unlike the voyage out the sun shone all the time and the sea was smooth, promising a comfortable crossing.



Last updated 22.6.2011