The Last Louage


The first louage I took was with Amara at Tozeur oasis. A louage is simply an intercity or regional shared minivan, seating approximately 10 people, which depart from the station when it is full (or 'complet'). Louages are typically white with a coloured strip along the middle, either red, yellow or blue, and this denotes the louage route. Due to the ready availability of petrol, road traffic is inexpensive, and a 500km trip costs only a few Euros.

Louages at Tozeur
The road from Tozeur to Kebili crosses the Chott Jerid, a salt lake bleached colourless by the Saharan sun, its dazzling, endless surface a mirror to the sky. The best spot to sit on a louage (at least for me) would be towards the back next to a working window. This is because louage drivers tend to try to add a bit of excitement to the long, tediously straight roads of the desert by overtaking cars against oncoming traffic, dodging potholes at speed, smoking and texting and chatting on the phone, using the whole width of the road in blind corners, etc. Even though the rear seats have no seat belts and the front ones do, it still seemed a bit risky. Not from an actual crash but more from the stress and possible heart attack of seeing what's happening on the road in front.

The louages in Kebili oasis wait on the side of the street in the heart of town. The ones going to Gabes (striped red) occupy a different street than the ones going to, say, Douz (striped blue) or other places, as if shy of each other. Another thing is that in the smaller towns, people in Tunisia tend to travel in the morning, the earlier the better, so louage traffic slows to a trickle after noon and you might find yourself stuck in a town because no one else is going in the same direction as you.

This happened to me in Douz, a small oasis on the edge of the Sahara, its isolation on the map confirmed by the quiet dusty streets and low buildings, the odd group of men sitting on wicker chairs in the shade of a wall, the vast cemetery right next to the louage station. Although there is a road from Douz to Medenine, no louages are going there this afternoon, and since hitchhiking was unsuccessful I had to take the louage back to Kebili.

Luckily from there I found a louage to the seaside oasis of Gabes. The road was straight and the sun was low, imbuing the sands with an inviting, warm colour, as peaceful strains drifted from the radio. This "louage" was a small hatchback, and thus carried only 4 passengers. The road is empty of vehicles, but after two hours we pass another louage, stopped on the shoulder. We stop also, and find that it (also a small hatchback) has some sort of mechanical problem. All the passengers walk a few paces into the desert for a pee (they are nearly all men) as our driver inspects the engine under the broken down louage. There is some discussion, and after awhile he shakes his head and we drive off, leaving the other car behind.

Truck on the road

After arriving in Gabes I manage to find a louage straight away to Medenine, as this route is on the road from Tunis to Tripoli and has a high volume of traffic. We arrive in Medenine late at night in a dirt yard surrounded by the backs of buildings. It is dead quiet because the final of the African Champions League is being played between Esperance of Tunis and a Moroccan team. Everyone is glued to the TV, and when Tunis wins the game 1-0 crowds of happy, excited, and mostly young men flood the streets, waving the yellow and red colours.

Esperance de Tunis wins the African Champions League
The center of Medenine is small, with one main street, so groups converge toward each other, and then not knowing what to do, form circles and jump up and down and carry on. I'm too tired from sitting in louages all day to see what happens next, and go back to my three euro hotel room to feed the bed bugs.

Fortified village at Ksar Ouled Sultane
The next morning I take the louage to Tataouine to see the fortified Berber villages in the surrounding areas. These are mud buildings of 3-4 stories, used as grain silos as well as living quarters (although no longer), and are famous as backdrop in the "Star Wars" movies.

Ksar Ouled Sultane
The intercity louage station in Tataouine is 2km from the center of town and is well organised with ticket windows and a louage carpark with entry boom. The problem is that local louages leave from the market instead of here, and so I trudge the 2km to the market to find a local louage going to Ksar Ouled Sultane, a famous fortified village.

These local louages could be vans, or in this case a converted station wagon with two benches in the back facing each other. I take a spot and wait with a few others for the louage to be 'complet'. After half an hour it is finally about full, full of women with their shopping from the market, and I am asked by the driver, an old man with a greying moustache, to move to the front seat, away from the women I suppose.

Clothes market at Houmt Souk, Djerba island
Djerba island is the mythical land of the lotus eaters from
Homer's Odyssey
We drive into the countryside, stopping now and then to drop off a passenger, who would disappear behind an outcrop or down a rock path. Ksar Ouled Sultane, which sits on top of a hill, is very quiet. A half dozen boys play table football, a few men are having coffee, another group are talking outside a grocery shop. A truck full of straw comes by, the only vehicle I'd seen in an hour, and drops off a few bales.

A funduq converted from a caravanserai, with
stables for camels on the lower floors and rooms up top
Finally, after waiting over three hours, the old man with the louage returns on the way back to town. He looks at me sadly: "pas de personne", nodding to the empty seats. I hop in and we head back to Tataouine, where I find a louage to Jerba island. The road is fast and bumpy. Kids stand at intersections trying to sell clumps of hash, which they wave at the passing louages.

Louages in Houmt Souk

Ben Gardane:
The louage station in Jerba also has a ticket window, whereas most towns you have to find a tout or a driver directly. From Jerba it is about 300km to Sfax, where I was heading to find a ship to Egypt. After receiving Libyan visa related news in Sfax (see entry on "The Libyan Visa") I found another louage that same afternoon from Sfax to Ben Gardane near the Libyan border, another 300km. This shows how quickly, and dangerously, the louages can cover the distance, even though the road is single lane and full of trucks.

Taking my usual back row left hand seat, the chap next to me introduced himself: "Hedi." He is in his early 30s, a bit chubby. He works as a mechanic in one of the gas plants, 2 weeks on 2 weeks off, just had a medical in Sfax and was going back to his wife in their new house in Ben Gardane. I was invited to stay over. The conversation was mostly in basic French, intermittent like the pools of orange light flashing past us in the dark night. Occasionally on the side of the road we would pass jerry cans stacked on top of each other full of amber liquid. Some shady characters lurked on the edges of the shadows, waiting for customers for this black market petrol.

Petrol for sale
We arrive at Hedi's house late in the night, a two bedroom place on the outskirts of Ben Gardane. He first visits his mum, who lives next door, to say a quick hello, and we proceed to his place. Hedi's wife is there, cheerfully preparing a snack. Now, one thing I've noticed in Tunisia is that toilets don't have toilet seats. I had thought that this was due to the dodginess of the establishments I had been frequenting, but Hedi's house was brand new and very tidy and clean. The bathroom was spotless and everything in its place, and the toilet had no seat!


Ras Ajdir:
Next morning Hedi walked me over to where the local taxis to the Libyan border were leaving from and we said our goodbyes. I was the only passenger - a novelty for me - as we motored along in the bright, cool morning. As we approached the border the driver pointed out to me massive tented camps along both sides of the road. UNHCR camps for refugees from the fighting. "The largest in Africa!" the driver tells me, knowingly, and as we pass a brand new minivan with about a dozen men waiting to step in the driver informs me: "they are leaving, going to Canada."

UNHCR camp on the border with Libya
I was turned back at the border, but it was easy to find taxis back into Ben Gardane, this time shared taxis. The border seemed very busy in fact. Large groups of people were passing through in both directions. From Ben Gardane there were louages going straight to Tunis, and many of the people who had crossed from Libya, mostly businessmen, were also looking for these louages to Tunis. We left in the early afternoon, with Tunis still 7 or 8 hours away. The gentleman next to me was half Tunisian half Swiss, and had partied in Stuzz at ETH where I'd studied! It's a small world indeed.

Louages at Ras Ajdir
This was the longest single louage trip I had taken, and the driver only stopped once, for 15 minutes to grab a bite to eat. T. tells me that during Ramadan things can become quite exciting, as drivers cannot eat, drink, or smoke during the day, and are thus either a bundle of nerves or tend to fall asleep at the wheel. In these cases a louage trip becomes a real team effort.

On the road
Le Kef:
Looking for a louage in Tunis to Le Kef, a town in the Atlas mountains of northwestern Tunisia, a driver directs me to his louage. But as I approach I notice with dismay that it is empty, which means a long wait. However, out of the corner of my eye I spot another louage with only 1 seat to be filled, and I head towards it. The driver is upset as he hurries after me, and the other driver is keen to get going.  "Place," I say to the first driver as the second driver hands him one dinar, and everything is okay.

Le Kef, Tunisia
The road to Le Kef winds through the lower sweeps of the eastern Atlas mountains, the misty green valleys and fields forming and dissolving as we bumped along the gravel highway. Le Kef is built on a hill at an elevation of around 2500ft. The name means 'The Rock' in Arabic, but was settled in ancient times by the Carthaginians who built a famous sacred prostitute temple, dedicated to Astarte (aka Ishtar aka Aphrodite). Later on it was taken by the Numidians, then the Romans, the Vandals, the Arabs, the Algerians, and the French.

* * *

The last louage leaves the station with only myself and another passenger. Either the driver really wants to get home or he's counting on picking up passengers on the way. Before we leave town, the louage winds up and down through the side streets of Le Kef. He stops at the end of a lane next to a whitewashed wall, the valley's expanse below and extending out to the distant twilight.

Le Kef, Tunisia
He gets out and bangs on the metal garage door, and a sleepy old gent walks out with two jerry cans of black market petrol, sloshed into our tank. We roll out down the valley towards Tunis, passing the herds of sheep and fields and the low mist. Now and then another louage approaches from the opposite direction, white with a coloured stripe painted around its girth. The two louages flash headlamps at each other, the drivers recognising old friends, and we pass, each louage speeding on to its destination.

The Roman ruins at Dougga, between Le Kef and Tunis

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