Guest Blog: Tony Howard – Tunisian Temptations
- Wednesday 19th February 2020
Known for being one of the first British climbers to ascend the Troll Wall in Norway, and one of the founding members of Troll Wall Equipment, Tony Howard has dedicated his life to travelling the world searching for adventure. His works include Quest Into the Unknown: My Life as a Climbing Nomad and Troll Wall, which won the Jury’s Special Award at the Norwegian Mountain Literature Prize (2012) and the ‘ITAS’ Mountain Book Award at the Mountain Festival (2013).
Here Tony reminisces on his time hunting out new rock in Tunisia ...
Watching TV during Christmas 1991 I noticed an advert for cheap, one week holidays in Tunisia. I hadn’t seen anything of climbing interest there when my Swiss friend, Ernst Renner, and I had travelled along the coast in 1973 en route from Morocco’s Todra Gorge to Corsica’s mountains, or when Mick Shaw and I drove that way in 1979 on our way back from climbing in the Hoggar to skiing in Switzerland. But what bit of rock we had seen was limestone. So, thinking as always, ‘you never know until you go’, I booked a ‘flights only’ holiday for Di and me. At least we would have a week in the sun, I thought.
I already knew that we weren’t the only ones to look for rock in Tunisia: the great Bill Tilman, in search of some rare wartime entertainment in 1943, had climbed the 1,295-metre Jebel Zaghouan, being credited with its first known ascent. Typical of Tilman, with the Germans on the run, he chose to stop near two German field kitchens abandoned that day, 'one with its copper full of stew ready for dishing out, the other with a slightly overdone rice pudding'. Equally importantly he had his eye on Zaghouan, 'a striking mass of long, broken limestone ridges'. He and a friend climbed it that same night, lighting the way along a narrow rock ridge by flares from his Verey pistol and reaching the summit at 4.00 a.m.
Seventy years later and about twenty years after our visit, the French were to discover some good sport climbing on its cliffs. It wouldn’t have been our scene (nor Tilman’s for that matter) but back in 1991 we had our eyes on a different objective, so we missed our chance of climbing there. My fault entirely, but having searched through maps of Tunisia, it seemed that the peninsula of Cap Bon and a couple of small islands off its coast might have some good sea cliffs and as the weather was poor when we arrived, the coast seemed like the best idea. According to the map, the larger island of Zembra reached a height of 435 metres and Cap Bon itself rose to 393 metres; both tops being on the coast I thought there could be big cliffs. Discovering another Calanques or Gogarth would be fun, I thought optimistically. No harm in dreaming!
We made our way up from Tunis to the fishing port of Sidi Daoud on Cap Bon by bus, from where we could see Zembra. It certainly seemed to have sea cliffs, but our luck was out. Every boat owner in the harbour told us the same story: 'It’s a military training base. No one is allowed on'. Disappointed, we spent a day wandering round the tip of Cap Bon past its lighthouse and did some sea shore bouldering. The limestone was good and there were some cliffs high above, but nothing to get excited about. With not many days left and the weather still decidedly chilly we set off around the country. We ended up unexpectedly staying a night in a traditional underground house in the desert in the Bedouin village of Tataouine – the name, location and style of which had inspired George Lucas to shoot that wacky Tatooine Star Wars bar sequence there. Sad to say, a few years later, in spring 2015 there were reports that IS fighters were in the area, though that was strongly denied by Tunisian tourism officials who said it was fully under their control. We also visited the Phoenician and Roman sites, seeing some of Zaghouan’s cliffs high above on our way back to the airport on the last day.
We never got our week in the sun – it was cold! I mean unexpectedly cold. Apart from our climbing gear, we had packed minimally for the Med but ended up wearing all our clothes all the time, day and night. We never took them off. Despite hardly touching rock it was an interesting week, but you can’t win ‘em all. Jebel Zaghouan now looks worth a climbing visit and if the military ever leave Zembra it might be a great place – certainly worth a look. I asked again recently, but it’s still off limits.
Jim Perrin told me a few years ago that Don Whillans had been climbing in Tunisia with Ron Hargreaves (it’s mentioned in Jim’s biography of Don, The Villain). An online search for Climbing Tunisia Zaghouan reveals lots of info, articles, videos and topos from 2012 onwards. I missed out, but tales of climbing and trekking discoveries all across North Africa from Morocco to Ethiopia plus elsewhere in the world are in my Quest into the Unknown.