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International Caving Expedition to Tunis 1966

This expedition was organised by the Groupe d’Activitie de Speleology de Belgique (GAS) and Etienne Lemaire the group leader who we met at the Berger Expedition in 1964. They asked us to participate in this subsidised trip with a mixture of Belgians, Italians, South Africans and Brits. The expedition lasted from the 2nd September 1966 until the 27th September 1966.

The trip was subsidised by the Belgian Government through the Leurven University of Brussels as it had been working on a health problem in North Africa namely Histoplasmosis and Schistosomiasis. Common factors to these two diseases were that the water that people drank in these areas had at one time flowed through limestone caves and that bats were living in these caves. 

We were tasked to visit caves in the Djebel Serge Mountains taking laboratory mice that were placed in cages on the cave floors where they could breathe in the dusts. We also had to catch bats and send both bats and mice back to the university for analysis. Our biggest problem proved to be keeping the mice alive and away from the wild mountain cats who were very keen to have them as a meal.

Although we had a Tunisian Government Permit that gave us access to free accommodation and travel this proved to be a problem as the French had just given Tunisia its independence and had removed all of their support services from the country.

Expedition Diary/Log begins

The following account of the 1966 Expedition to Tunisia was taken from Barrie Parker’s personal diary. It also serves the purpose of providing a log of events so keeping track of what was planned and intended with what actually happened.
Memory is fickle and basic details have a habit of blurring with time.

Friday 2nd to Monday 5th

The three expedition members John Fisk, Alan Harrison and Barrie Parker were kindly taken to Marseilles by Pete Watkinson and his family in their mini-bus with a stop-over in Grenoble to organise the next year’s Gouffre Berger expedition with Ferdinand Petzl.

Whilst we were there we visited the Molliere Sornin Plateaux and walked to the new Gouffre Berger camp site to sort out the problem of lack of water in the area. After some time we located a spring that would supply next year’s needs but it would involve bringing in a 500 foot long water pipe to a large holding tank on the camp site. This was necessary as we would have over twenty persons to supply during the expedition the following August.

Tuesday 6th to Wednesday 7th

We travel through Les Alps Maritime and on the way to Gap the brakes fail giving us a bit of a hairy journey and then cross the Arizona of Southern France, a bare desolate region, and then descend to Cassis where we find an excellent camp site by the sea that Pete had stayed on previously. We spent the next 2 days snorkelling in crystal clear waters 30 foot deep.

Thursday 8th to Friday 9th September

Having decided which bits of our 4 hundredweight of gear we wanted for Tunisia we re-packed our rucksacks and Pete was to take the remainder back to England for us. He then took us to catch the boat in Marseilles and having booked 4th class we expected to be surrounded by crooks and cut-throats. 

That however was not the case as most of them slept and stayed down in the hold whilst we stayed and slept up on deck as the stench below was indescribable and the constant Arab music made our heads ache. We spend the days at sea watching the porpoises playing in the bow waves and then unexpectedly we see a Hammer Head Shark swimming with them, which reminds us not to be too careless when swimming in Tunisia.

We arrive late in Tunis and are met by Etienne and the two Italians Guiseppe and Luigi and go for our first meal in 30 hours. A three course meal with drinks for about 5 shillings a head. Having finished we were approached by an Arab who wondered if we would like to visit the “very cheap, very clean, pleasure house”. We thought that was a good idea but Etienne said a very definite “NO!!”

Etienne left us to go back to Zaghouan that will be our first caving area to arrange for a mule train to take our equipment up the mountain.

We sleep in a car park that night under the stars. This is a city of great contrasts, big shops, street hawkers, beggars, cripples, smells and flies.

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Map of Tunis showing how the 10 kilometre long Sea Canal gives access to the heart of the Capital.

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Looking over The Lake of Tunis from the Sea Canal.

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The docks at Tunis.

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The orderly queue at  immigration, Tunis.

Saturday 10th September

Up at 4 a.m. and make our way to the bus station but although the bus does not leave until 6.15 a.m. it is necessary to get there early in order to get a place on the bus. The bus station at this early hour is filled with a mass of people selling everything from cakes to carpets, watches to nosegays (very popular especially with the men) and even themselves for a quick knee trembler in a shop door way but Etienne had said “NO”.

The journey to Zaghouan is only 30 kms and is very interesting as it follows the old Roman viaduct that bought water to Tunis from Djebel Zaghouan the mountains we are to explore. On the way the bus driver stops frequently to buy eggs, chicken and fruit or should I say haggle for these items. That is a much longer process than buying. In the town we buy grapes, tomatoes and large water melons for about a shilling for 4 lbs.

Etienne haggles with a muleteer to take our 2cwt of equipment up the mountain where the others are camped. It takes a great deal of time and effort and eventually we settle on a fee of 1 Dinar (less than 15 shillings). The round trip is over 20 miles rising to over 4000 feet over a very long days travel. We go via the direct route up the mountain face going from patch of shade to patch of shade to avoid the boiling sun and on arriving at the top we meet the other expedition members.

They have been in several caves but as yet have found nothing or any bats but have left the mice in the Trou Diable.
It’s dark by seven and we pitch the tent and get an early night’s sleep. However we were woken by high winds and Alan goes out to put more rocks on the flysheet and in doing so finds a scorpion inside the tent. Whilst he is outside we hunt for it but it is nowhere to be seen. Back to bed but the high wind then breaks the tent pole so we have to go out again but scared we may find other scorpions.

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Team members Pierre, Al, John, Local guide & Luigi.

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Radio relay station on top of Djebel Sergje.

Sunday 11th September

Up early and whilst going round the tent we find the scorpion that was trampled to death during our nocturnal escapades. On the top of the mountain there is a radio relay station and we talk to one of the guards about the scorpion. He shrugs his shoulders and turned over a rock and there was a nest of them underneath and every one he turned over was the same.

We find another cave and Etienne has caught a bat and dissected it and cut out its heart and liver for analysis but in the meantime a wild cat has eaten one of the mice.

Wind is picking up and we decide to take off the tent flysheet and put more stones on the groundsheet flaps as there is no soil up here. It’s bitterly cold and I am glad I brought my duvet to wear.

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Members of the team during one of their more thoughtful moments.

Monday 12th September to Thursday 15th

Nothing more found and we decide to go to another area of the Djebel Sergje. Seven of us go down the mountain and Etienne and Claude are left behind to de-tackle the last cave and bring the rest of the equipment and mice down later. On reaching Zaghouan we have become an attraction for the locals that I don’t think have seen cavers before.

I leave with the Italians in their little Fiat car to go to Golfe Plage near Hammamet where we have been put up in a government sponsored Youth Camp. We meet up with the Director and he gives us the run of the place and we settle in lovely little bamboo huts in a grove by the sea.

It is wonderfully warm and a real paradise after the mountains and after swimming and a meal 6 of us go in the little Fiat 500 to Hammamet for a few beers. We stay for a couple of days but our little paradise is spoiled by sand flies and everyone is severely bitten.

We decide to move on to our next stop at Kairouan. As there is no bus available 7 of us hitch hike and the Italians bring all of the equipment.

We find the local Youth Hostel and our permit gets us a dormitory to ourselves with lovely toilets and hot showers and no flies.

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On route to the bus station at Tunis.

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Bat dissection to fulfil part of the expedition objectives.

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Etienne Lamare at the Cave de la Sangliere.

Friday 16th Saturday 17th September

Alan is in a serious condition and we eventually find a hospital but the doctor is not coming for a few days (they all left when the French left) but a nurse diagnoses that he has food poisoning as well as fly bites. We are forced to leave him there until the doctor arrives and we leave to hitchhike to our next destination with the Italians bringing the equipment.

After a good start we get dropped off 30 kms from Kairouan and after nearly dying from the heat we are suddenly in the middle of the most intense electrical storm. We find a little shack to shelter in and await cars but none come. A young Arab boy turns up and when he saw we had no food he went off to his home and came back with food that made a delicious meal, however in the middle of the night Etienne was violently sick.

The next day we are up early but again there are no cars but eventually a bus came and we catch it to Ousseltia. It is still raining but has cooled the air down to a pleasant temperature. On arriving we find Christian and a couple of Arab boys who have arranged for a tractor and trailer to take us up the mountain 12kms away. We find the local market and buy food and have egg and chips that we eventually find out have been fried in motor oil salvaged from the last war. We are then taken to a local youth club to await the Italians as it’s raining harder than before but they were delayed by the flooded roads.

Alan arrives with Claude and we are very much relieved. They tell us of the floods and much later the Italians arrive.

We load up the trailer and with all of us on board cheered on by the locals we head off for our new destination Djebel Serdj in the mountains followed by the Italians. Four kms from Osseiltia we are held up by flooded roads and meet up with local shepherds from the mountains with their sheep and mules. They have already lit fires and are preparing to spend the night there.

They tell us of an alternative route that turns out to be over 20 kms by a rough cart track deep in mud.  At the time we doubt if we will make it and by a miracle of driving Luigi manages to get the little Fiat to the farm where we are to stay.
We are met by the farmer and his men and asked where we can pitch our tents or a barn to sleep in but he takes us into the farm despite our muddy clothes and boots and gives us two large rooms with a kitchen, bathroom and toilet. We don’t argue and settle down to carving up the quarter of a sheep we purchased at the last town and made an excellent stew.

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Our transport to Djebel Serdj.

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The floods on our way to Kairouan.

Sunday 18th to Tuesday 20th September

We are met by some Tunisians who are anxious to show us where the caves are. Alan, Etienne and I go to one area and the others go to another place whilst Luigi has to take the tractor driver back to Ossieltia as the tractor was to be left at the farm. He was also going to buy more food.

We walk for hours across sun scorched waste land until we arrive at the mines where the caves are supposed to be but after searching the area we find no caves and decide to go into one of the phosphate mines. These were very short and in a very dangerous condition and when we return to the farm we find the others who also had had no luck. After lunch we decide to look in another area but again find nothing and again it rains like hell. That evening the farm manager and his men visit us and for several hours we talk in a variety of 7 different languages.

The next day we again split up and go to different areas, Etienne and I walk for over 6 hours but find nothing except scorpions, a snake and hog tracks as this is the area where the wild boars live.

We decide to pack that night and return to the Tunis area and we sell off all of our old and spare clothes to the Arabs who think they have a bargain and go to bed early as in the morning we must be up at 2am to walk 7 kms to our bus stop. 

We arrive to await the bus but it is so cold despite the fact I am wearing a duvet so we get into our sleeping bags at the bus stop. John manages to find some wood and despite the wind manages to light a fire. We have no food or water but manage to find some cactus apples to give us a little moisture. The bus that was due at 4.30am eventually arrives at 6.15am.

The journey to Tunis takes several hours with the driver stopping to buy egg, rabbits and fruit and despite the poor road conditions he drives at a reckless pace. Half way we arrive at Pont du Fahs where the bus is invaded by a huge range of people selling their wares, as we had not eaten since the previous day we rather over indulged and we suffered from it later. We got permission to stop at a local youth centre but when we arrived we found it was full so we were able to arrange to sleep on the rear patio of the tourist office. That was excellent.

We went to the docks to see off Claude who had to get back early to catch a flight back to South Africa. As Alan was still feeling unwell he also decided to catch the earlier boat home. After a meal we decided to turn in early as we had been on the go for over 20 hours. However in the middle of the night I awoke sick with Dysentery and vomiting. So much for eating street food bought on the bus.

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Pierre, Etienne, Al & John Waiting for the bus to Tunis.

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Barrie waiting for the bus to Tunis.

Wednesday 21st to Friday 23rd September

Woke early but still unwell went to find shade under a palm tree and fell asleep whilst the others went into town. In the afternoon the others returned and as I felt better the Italians took us to Carthage for a visit to the ruins. 

The evening was spent drinking as the Italians were leaving in the morning by plane and I was very sorry to see them go as they were great characters. 

Went to the Bardo Museum and the Palace that was like something from the Arabian Nights with wonderful exhibits. In the evening I stayed with Etienne who had a very bad foot that had gone septic through a mosquito bite. He really should have gone to see a doctor but none were available. The next day he was really no better and walks with a limp. Later we caught a train to Sidi bou Said and Cathage Amilcar then spent our last afternoon swimming followed by a fantastic last meal as we were leaving in the morning.

Etienne was no better and his foot had swelled to twice the size. John took him to hospital but no drugs were available. He was sent to another place for an antibiotic injection that turned out to be a brothel and was the only place where drugs were readily available.

They said the hospital was awful and they saw everything from young girls with miscarriages to all sorts of cripples with only one doctor for a million people, no equipment and only Pam Potash or other similar paints.

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Pierre, Etienne Lamare with infected foot and John Fisk in Carthage.

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View of some of the ruins we visited around Carthage with the Italians.

Saturday 24th Tuesday 27th September

Up at six and packed all of the equipment. We got a taxi as Etienne could not walk and we had all of the caving equipment as well. The rest of us took rucksacks and walked to the docks where we met and then had to go through customs with over 10 packs between us and it took us nearly an hour to fill in all of the paperwork. Eventually we got through and onto the boat and secured a good spot. Once the boat was underway we took Etienne to the ship’s doctor where he received another injection. 

We settled down to drinking the 2 gallons of wine we had brought for the voyage and after all of the other people had gone down to the hold to sleep we spent a quiet night with most of the deck to ourselves.

Packed up our gear and made ready for the big fight to get through the police and custom documentation. We were last through after 3 hours but just walked through so it was well worth the wait.

We were met by a friend of Etienne’s who took us to a café and bought us beer and sandwiches. Etienne and Pierre left by car with all of the caving equipment. John and I went to the station to change our money but decided to hitchhike rather than go by train. After many hours we had only got as far as La Croisuire just to the north of Aix en Provence where we had dinner and then slept in a field.

The next day we started to try to get a lift at 6 am and were still at the same place at 2.30 pm. We had to change our plan and caught a train and on Monday we arrived in Calais where we caught the boat and then hitchhiked home arriving in Nottingham on Tuesday midday.

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John Fisk on the Boat Home. I think the lifeline is a bit of an overkill though.

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Etienne on the boat home with his injured foot treated by the ships doctor.

It had been a wonderful expedition with great friends, enjoying new experiences together.

What a pity Etienne did not allow us to go to the Pleasure House!!

Team members 

Ettienne, Christian, and Pierre from Belgium.
Claude from South Africa.
Luigi and Guiseppe from Italy.
Barrie Parker, John Fisk and Alan Harrison from The Pegasus Club Nottingham U.K.

Barrie Parker

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