Outpost of an empire

Tunisia is known for its beach resorts, but venture from the coast and you'll find wild peaks, Roman cities - and solitude. Matt Warren goes exploring

As we race along the back roads of Tunisia with Khaled playing on the stereo and a prayer on our lips, the driver wrings the last horsepower from the Renault Clio and sparks up a cigarette. We are headed for a trek near Tunisia's remote Algerian border, but the real adventure, it seems, will be in getting there.

As we race along the back roads of Tunisia with Khaled playing on the stereo and a prayer on our lips, the driver wrings the last horsepower from the Renault Clio and sparks up a cigarette. We are headed for a trek near Tunisia's remote Algerian border, but the real adventure, it seems, will be in getting there.

Just as every passing road sign seems to point to "Algerie", the unmistakable silhouette of our destination appears on the horizon. Two thousand years ago, the natural fortress of Jugurtha's Table was a refuge for Berbers battling against the Romans. Today, the gigantic plateau stands over Tunisia's wild and rarely visited back door. The roads are empty and shepherds wrapped in traditional kachabia cloaks puff pipes on the verge. Only the electricity pylons, and the drifting riffs of Khaled, belong in the 21st century. Rising 1,200m above the plains, the flat top of Jugurtha's Table is visible from 50km away. If there is a talismanic symbol of Tunisia's forgotten east, this is it.

It is late afternoon when we begin our climb. A duvet of wintry fog is pushing through the valley and raptors are spiralling in the breeze. As we walk below the plateau's towering cliff walls, the landscape is as silent as the ocean depths. Even our footfalls throw back a booming echo. There is only one route to the top: a narrow stairwell winding up the table's edge. When Jugurtha, king of the Numidians, led his 12-year campaign against the Romans in the second century BC, this was his mountain refuge. And it is easy to see why. Armies could do little more than lap against the walls of this gigantic natural citadel, while the tribe's guerilla bands could operate from its summit with impunity. Mottled sheep rule the roost today, but back then, Jugurtha's Table was as safe as a block of bullion at Fort Knox.

Struggling under the yoke of a night on Tunisia's caustic Celtia beer, I reach the top with legs like a pair of leaden Roman columns. But the views are worth every ounce of effort. The earthy browns of Algeria stretch out towards the sunset and, to the east, the peaks of Tunisia's High Tell poke through the mist like islands in a grey sea. Other than some sheep, munching at a knot of greenery, the only sign of life is a tumbledown marabout, a shrine to a Muslim saint.

Night falls quickly here and, as we pick our way off the plateau, we have to ask a shepherd for directions back to the village. His kachabia is a bright scarlet; his face grizzled and pointed. In the failing light, he is an unsettlingly wolfish Little Red Riding Hood. An hour later and we are in the historic town of Le Kef, taking our seats in a throbbing restaurant. Houssem, who also runs a company offering "plastic surgery holidays", is talking about the advantages of having breast enlargement operations in Tunisia, while a crowd of men at a nearby table suck hard on a hookah. Bread is being dunked in red-hot Harissa paste and wine is being guzzled by the barrel. This is rural North Africa and machismo fizzes in the air like static. By the time the amphetamine-strong coffee arrives, a sword fight seems the most likely end to the evening.

Testosterone runs freely in this region of Tunisia and in the idyllic mountains surrounding the colonial-era hill station of Ain Draham, hunters gather for the start of the wild boar season. The last of Tunisia's lions was shot here in the early 20th century and, in the restaurant of the Royal Rihana Hotel, photographs of the gigantic, tusked boars bagged by residents decorate the walls. Even the plush velvet sofas in the lobby are blood red.

"Algerian terrorists used to hide in the mountains along the border and so the military burned down much of the forest further west," explains Houssem. "As a result, many of the boar in that region migrated here. The mountains are full of them."

It is an unsettling thought. The next day, as I trek through the deserted peaks of the Kroumirie mountains, the image of a giant boar, with tusks like steak knives and a back like a car chassis, looms large. As the requisite Hammer-horror mists roll in, every sound from the woods takes on a sinister edge.

Getting lost, however, is the more realistic concern. Few tourists come this way and the empty trails wend their way through dazzling peaks and valleys. Eucalyptus trees cover the landscape in a thick tangle and clouds scud through the valley and cloak the mountains in a blinding fog. Twenty kilometres into the trek we come across a signpost, but the humid air has corroded the bolts fixing the direction arrows to the pole and they spin in the breeze. Here, it would appear, north is whichever way the wind is blowing.

In name at least, Africa began here with the Romans. Looking to win support in the region after defeating Carthage, they named the latest addition to their empire after the Afri, a local tribe. But while the Sahara, that great symbol of Africa, begins just 300km to the south, the mountains of northern Tunisia feel very European. Pretty red-roofed villages, clustered around colonial-era churches, pepper the Alpine landscapes and locals speak French with a lilting, authentic twang.

With a little imagination, you can almost kid yourself that the Romans never left. Tunisia has 600 Roman sites and north-eastern Tunisia boasts some of the finest. En route to Jugurtha's Table we stop off at Ain Tounga where a local man shows us through the goat droppings, discarded car tyres and cactus heads and maps out a patchwork of Roman ruins. Well off the tourist trail, Ain Tounga, or Technica as it was once called, is one of the country's forgotten cities.

Further down the road, children play under a Roman arch that stands at the side of the highway like the legs of Ozymandias. Further west, Dougga is one of the country's best-preserved Roman cities. Here, we walk through the streets past the temple, the baths, the brothel and the communal toilets. Restoration is in full swing here; some good, some less so. We walk past one worker who is chipping away at the supporting wall of the bath-house with a claw hammer. "Bonjour," he says as a hunk of stone falls into the cellar below.

Our final trek is around the peak at the hub of the Ichkeul National Park. Plump black buffalo roam the wetland flats here and countless bird species flock to the surrounding lake to feed and nest. Come dusk, pink clouds of flamingo fill the air and the shallow waters turn turquoise. From the summit of the mountain, this could be Eden's boating lake. They even have the snakes.

Before flying out, we stop off in the old heart of Tunis. A wintry squall is cutting cold and sharp across the harbour and sheets of rain are plummeting down through the medina. After the empty spaces of northern Tunisia's trekking trails, the stalls are teeming with life.

Within moments we have been picked up by a group of eager touts and hauled through a buffet lunch of souvenir stalls that are like Tunisia writ small. There are miniature camels from the Saharan south and busts of Bedouin women, tiny models of Roman ruins and colourful vials of desert sand. When we ask for a model of Jugurtha's Table, however, the touts look blankly back. For now, at least, that is one little corner of the country that still has to be seen to be believed.

GETTING THERE

Tunisair (020-7734 7644; www.tunisair.com) flies to Tunis from Heathrow; GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick. Siroko Travel (00 216 71 965 267; www.sirokotravel.com) offers a range of trekking packages in Tunisia.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Dar Said (00 216 71 729 666; www.darsaid.com.tn) is one of the most atmospheric boutique hotels in Tunis. Doubles start at 235 dinar (£105). In Le Kef, Hotel Les Pins (00 216 78 204 021) is much more basic and has double rooms from 44 dinar (£20), with breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Tunisian National Tourist Office (020 7224 5561; www.cometotunisia.co.uk).

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