Travel Tunisian Style: Louage All the Way
By Gerald Schwartz
I discovered the fun of travelling by inter-city louage on a trip to Tunisia a few years ago. The French word literally means ‘rental’ and refers to the shared-taxis that travel between towns and cities.
While there are buses and trains, for a little bit more one can buy a seat in a five or seven-passenger taxi between towns in this westernized country of North Africa. The usual make of cab is a white, French Peugot station wagon but there can be other cars of all vintages. The roads are well paved and not heavily traveled outside of the tourist months of June, July and August.
Part of the ‘fun’ is finding the departure point, though in small towns it is usually very near the central bus station. Just asking around will get you to the correct spot and louage. The fun begins when the drivers shout out their destinations all at once or they sometimes use a ‘caller’-assistant. The seat up front beside the driver is the ‘prime catch’ if you are lucky enough to be the first, and the middle of the bench seat can be a bit squished.
Prices are fixed and cheap and the driver may collect during or at the end of the ride. They set off either when they have their quota of passengers or the driver thinks no one else will arrive. The wait in early morning and late afternoon is usually shorter than ‘off-hours’.
While waiting or travelling, try to strike up a conversation with your fellow passengers. There is sure to be someone who wants to hear your impressions of Tunisia and about your home country. Be friendly but discreet in not giving out your home address or phone number though. A fellow passenger is likely to be helpful in recommending a place to stay, eat or see at your destination, which may be his or her hometown.
I traveled from city to city (Tunis, Bizerta, Nabeul, Sousse, Kairouan, Sfax, GabÃ¨s, and Houmt-Souk on the beautiful island of Djerba). I also ‘louaged’ from towns to nearby villages for day excursions, such as from Sousse to the beautiful Roman ruins at El-Djem or from Tozeur to Metaloui. At the latter town I boarded the incredible LÃ©zard Rouge, the ornately refurbished train of the former bey (ruler) of Tunis, to see the Selja Gorge near the Algerian border.
By a long shot, the most memorable ride for scenery was from GabÃ¨s to Tozeur with a change of cab in Kabili. Kabili is the jump-off point for Douz and camel or jeep treks on the fringe of the Sahara. However, the ride across the Chott-el-Jrid to reach Tozeur crosses the largest ‘salt-flat’ in the country, best seen during the fall. Part of the road is like a causeway to avoid flooding in sudden winter rains and the heat rising from the pavement and nearby salt deposits is sure to raise a ‘mirage’ or two for you.
By the way, on a longer ride of more than a couple of hours, the driver will do a rest/snack/comfort stop at a roadside cafÃ©-gas station, so not to worry. Inshallah, you will arrive at your destination refreshed and in a reasonable time. Forget about schedules and punctuality – this is not Switzerland – but go with the flow and you’ll be fine.
If you bring some fruit or other snacks ‘for the road’ while louage-ing it is customary to offer to share with your fellow passengers and driver, especially those nearest you. It is also a great ‘ice-breaker’!
Two other forms of more local transportation I must mention are clean, efficient and worthwhile. First, the TGM electric train which runs the Tunis-La Goulette-La Marsa route out to the seaside Mediterranean suburbs of Tunis which include the famous ruins at Carthage (Hannibal was there) and the picture-pretty seaside resort of Sidi-bou-Said, all in turquoise and white. In Tunis itself, a fairly new electric tram service of at least 5 lines runs well and avoids street congestion. The state airline Tunisair is inexpensive for one-way internal flights, of which most are under one hour duration. A brief 35-minute jet flight from Tozeur to Djerba at sunset was beautiful.
If you find a village you wish to go to has no bus or louage service, just ask around in the nearest larger town. Each village has a jeep/van service for its older students going to and returning from school and there’s always room for one more if you ask politely. This is how I reached one of the most beautiful Berber villages on a day trip from GabÃ¨s without a car or bus-tour. Make sure to have small identifiable souvenirs from your home country to give out to helpful and kind people – they will remember you forever.