Travel Note

15th February 2020

Earlier this week I decided that it might be fun to celebrate the mid-February Hallmark holiday (and the less well known but equally important National Ferris Wheel Day) with a quick theme park break. My initial idea was to head to the Canary Islands for the new coaster at Wooland Fun Park, but the outbound flight on Ryanair was sold out and the alternative on Aer Lingus was insanely expensive. Sensibly priced flights to Copenhagen were available, but forecasted continuous rain made Tivoli Gardens an unappealing option. I was on the verge of giving up when I randomly stumbled across an affordable routing to Tunisia, and almost before I knew what had happened I had the booking confirmation in my inbox.

It is just about possible to do all of the known coasters in Tunisia over a two day period, though those without time constraints should definitely think about making credit hunting a portion of a longer holiday. The country has eight entries on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including Dougga, considered to be the best-preserved Roman small town in North Africa. Those prepared to venture a little further can also find a number of locations used for the Star Wars movies, including the sets for Lars Homestead and Mos Espa near the city of Tozeur in the south-west of the country. These have been on my bucket list for a while, but the thirteen hour round trip drive from Tunis was too much even for me to consider as part of a weekend trip; maybe I'll get to them some day. (Fans of a galaxy far, far away may be interested in pictures I took last year on the Skellig Islands where Luke Skywalker went into hiding; the Lucasfilm people seem to have a penchant for inaccessible locations.)

My trip began with a Friday evening flight to Frankfurt and a twelve hour layover, which I decided to spend in a hotel room. Germany's largest and busiest airport is particularly well served by accommodation; as of this writing there are four options directly attached to the terminal building, including a premium choice in the transit area and three more affordable selections across a footbridge in The Squaire. The cheapest for my stay was the Hilton Garden Inn, which is roughly ten minutes on foot from the arrivals area. My room had an effective double door arrangement to dampen any noise from the corridor outside, and the windows were also well soundproofed; I'd gladly stay there again. The key advantage of staying onsite at the airport was a gloriously late start (by coaster trip standards) of 7:45am; I enjoyed a relaxed breakfast and shower before clearing security, yet I still managed to get from bed to gate in just under an hour, a feat that I rarely manage in Dublin despite having the local procedures down to a fine art.

The flight to Tunis took off about twenty minutes behind schedule but was otherwise uneventful; we made a smooth landing under a glorious blue sky just before 11:45am. The first thing I noticed on touchdown was a respectably large Ferris wheel out the port window, which turned out to be my first glimpse of Happy Land Dah Dah. With the aid of Google Earth I've determined that the machine in question is located four hundred metres east and virtually perpendicular to the glide slope for runway 01, making it an ideal vantage point for plane spotters seeking to capture aircraft on short final. Having said that, readers should be aware that that hobby is officially frowned upon in the region; so-called aerosexuals should indulge with care.

We were assigned a remote stand and bussed to the terminal building, giving me a close up look at a number of different aircraft. I'd vaguely expected to see some Russian jets, but there were none present today; instead, there was a fairly even split between Airbus and Boeing products. The one unique frame was a Beechcraft 1900D in the colours of Twin Jet, a French regional operator based in Aix-en-Provence and the only major user of the type in Europe. Other liveries present today included Afriqiyah Airways, Buraq Air, and Libyan Wings; it was scarcely a surprise to discover that the busiest single flight route from Tunis is to Tripoli, followed closely by Paris-ORY and Paris-CDG.

The arrivals area featured a theatrical and eminently pointless temperature screening checkpoint that was presumably put in place in response to the Covid-19 virus. Those waiting for it were grouped together in a very cramped space; had anyone in the vicinity been infected it seems likely that they would have spread it to all, including the screening staff who were not wearing protective clothing of any kind. Each passenger was required to stand in front of a sensor for around ten seconds before being given the nod to proceed. Everyone was also required to fill out a health declaration, which included a duplicate of the data collected on the regular immigration form as well as a seat assignment and a few questions about recent travel.

The next stop was at passport control, which took the better part of an hour only because all ethnicities were corralled together. Those with a caucasian appearance were being stamped into the country in less than thirty seconds, though they were very much in the minority today; as far as I could see all other nationalities were averaging two to three minutes per person at the immigration counters. There was no line for Tunisian citizens only, which I found surprisingly egalitarian; I don't think I've ever seen an international airport without a priority lane for the locals.

Rental car

Once through the formalities I made my way to the Avis office. Tunis Airport is served by all of the major car rental brands, though preferred/expedited service is not available and the paperwork takes a while to complete. After about half an hour of faffing around a member of staff walked me out to a white coloured automatic Hyundai Grand i10, which was in the regular parking lot rather than in a rental-specific section. I suspect that I was escorted to the car only because of the language barrier; the staff member's limited English (and my limited French) would have made trying to explain its location somewhere between difficult and impossible.

The local rules of the road are more relaxed than the norm in the western world, but those accustomed to defensive driving should have no issues. Lane markings (when present) are not always adhered to, but traffic lights are and the other motorists are remarkably courteous; if you find yourself in the wrong lane then it is generally okay to drift slowly to the right one as the other cars will move out of your way. The horn is hardly used; at one stage I found myself trying to do what ended up being an eight point turn in a narrow street, and none of the drivers I was blocking felt the need to express their displeasure.

 

Carthageland

15th February 2020

The Société La Paix is a privately held corporation controlled by the Bouzguenda and Ben Ayed families. It operates a number of hotels across Tunisia and two Carthageland resorts: a small water park in Les Berges du Lac near Tunis, and a much larger flagship facility in Yasmine Hammamet. The latter features a wide variety of attractions, including a theme park, a water park, restaurants, museums, and a medina. A dedicated parking area can be found just south of the site at 36.3658, 10.5328; as of this writing the charge is 2 TND (~€0.65) regardless of length of stay.

The complex has an online ticketing system, though at present self-printed vouchers are not accepted at the attractions. Instead one has to go a reception center adjacent to the theme park entrance where they can be swapped for physical tickets. Today the exchange process required my credit card, three members of staff, a series of questions in French, and an inordinate amount of time. That might have been easier to forgive if there was a cost saving, but there wasn't, and worse yet it was necessary to specify the visit date up front. Most readers would probably do better to buy their admission on site; if I ever go back I'll be doing that.

King Kong

My first target was King Kong (#2854), an Eos Rides spinning coaster located on a rooftop in the middle of the medina. The ride routes around what is reported to be the world's biggest animatronic: a thirteen metre high anatomically accurate replica of the famous gorilla with a built in sound system. Today it was producing a loud roar every few minutes, though the audio was out of sync with the motion effects which were apparently running on their own schedule. I watched from ground level for several minutes but noticed only limited head movements rather than the more elaborate gesticulations seen in the manufacturer's test video.

Those only interested in riding the coaster will need to hand over 15 TND (~€4.86), and though that charge is perfectly reasonable by international standards it is nevertheless an astronomical figure for the Tunisian market, being more than double what is charged for the next most expensive coaster in the country. Most guests are likely to buy a combination ticket including theme park admission for 27 TND (~€8.76), which is only a small up-charge over the park-only admission fee of 25 TND (~€8.11). Those interested in riding more than once will not be able to avoid the higher price, though the potential damage is greatly limited by the fact that the coaster only operates hourly unless guest volumes demand otherwise.

The experience begins in a themed queue building with space for around fifty people, which says quite a bit about the expected crowd levels. At the appointed time a train load of guests is allowed into a pre-show room, which features a minute-long montage of news clips in various languages showing the eponymous ape doing what he does. When that ends, a door is opened revealing an artificial tree surrounded by a square spiral staircase up to the boarding platform. I took what I assumed to be the back car, though it was actually the front; unlike most coasters the operator console is adjacent to the rear rather than the front of the train.

The ride has a track length of just two hundred and eighty metres, and while I didn't time it there is no question that it feels extremely short. It begins with a thirteen metre tyre drive lift, followed by a ten metre descent into a banked right turn. This moment wasn't as smooth as a Schwarzkopf product might have been, but the bumps were relatively minor and quickly forgotten as we made two full circuits of the signature animatronic. The coaster portion concluded with a wide right turn and a shallow descent leading to a surprise for those in the front car: an unbanked sharp left turn onto the brake run that the train hit at quite a clip. This moment felt very much like the sort of thing one might accidentally create in Roller Coaster Tycoon, resulting in an ultra-extreme intensity rating; putting the brake before this turn would do wonders for the longevity of the wheel mechanisms.

King Kong

After a brief pause the train rolls indoors at walking pace before being brought to a halt in a post-show area. The cars begin to rotate slowly as a number of screens show animated footage of increasingly irate skulls to the accompaniment of tribal music. This goes on far longer than it really should, but eventually a projection-mapped image of King Kong appears on the back wall and glares for a bit before fading into darkness. The other screens go dark, a door swings open, and the train rolls slowly back into the station.

In an ideal world I'd have ridden again immediately in order to fully coalesce my thoughts on the experience, but there were no other guests in sight, and hanging around for an hour seemed like a poor use of time. Instead I decided to make my way across to the theme park. The gated section features eighteen separate attractions in an area of almost three hectares at the northern end of the land bank, though readers should be aware that very few of them will be of interest to adult visitors. The two main exceptions to the rule are custom water rides, and I decided it was warm enough to try them both.

My first stop was at Les Conquérants de la Méditeranée (The Conquerors of the Mediterranean), an Intamin flume with two drops constructed in and around an artificial mountain. The ride starts with a short float from the station to the first lift and splashdown, which prefixes a brief enclosed section decorated with an eccentric mix of mermaids and corpses. The route then continues outside, passing a more traditional collection of static model animals with a particular focus on pachyderms. The second lift is taller than the first, and doubles as a convenient photo point for capturing King Kong (though the 5x zoom lens on my camera wasn't quite good enough for the distance).

With that complete I headed to Le Périple d'Hanon, a Hafema rapids ride named after the voyages of Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer believed to have traversed the western coast of Africa in the sixth or fifth century BC. The short queue routes through a brightly painted wooden ship lined with spearmen on both sides. The ride layout is unusual in that well over half of it is inside a greenhouse, which like its neighbour has been filled out with artificial wildlife. There is also a themed tunnel that features tribal Africans playing the Bendir. The route is pleasantly fast despite a minimal height differential, and I very much enjoyed my lap.

Agrabah

After a quick food break I made my way back to King Kong just in time to see the hourly dispatch go a few minutes early. Rather than hang around I went looking for the dark ride that I'd read about in Talhat's report. I'd had in my head that this was called 1001 Nights, and followed those signs only to discover that I'd found a replica palace filled with scenes from the eighteenth century. I'd also found a ridiculously ebullient tour guide, who insisted on doing a complimentary private photoshoot with me dressed in a period costume. The best of the shots was the first one, copied above, which I'm now using on the internal chat system in work.

When I finally made my escape I identified and then located the Barbarossa ride, only to discover that it was closed for maintenance. This was mildly annoying, but on the positive side the exploration and photoshoot meant that I was now only twenty minutes short of the next King Kong cycle, and I figured it would be rude not to hang back for it. The back car was out of service, but I was able to claim row four and used the opportunity to snap a few on-ride pictures for posterity. My second cycle was more enjoyable than the first had been; I'd encourage those intending to only do a single lap to sit as far back in the train as possible.

 

Sfax Land

15th February 2020

Sfax Land is one of the newest parks in Tunisia, having opened its gates for the first time in August 2017. It was built at a cost of 22 million TND (~€7.1 million) by Zinadi Entertainment, a subsidiary of Lebanese conglomerate Zinadi Holding created for the express purpose of developing amusement parks in the Middle East and North Africa. News articles from the time of the launch give passing mention to a second park planned for the island of Djerba, though that project has apparently been put on the back burner as there has been no further publicity for it since.

The park is located just under two hundred kilometres south of Carthageland. Virtually all of the drive is on Trans-African Highway 1, a 8636 kilometre route along the top of the continent that stretches all the way from Dakar to Cairo (though the border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed since 1994). The road has a 90km/h limit in rain, rising to 110km/h in good weather, and there was no issue maintaining that today as the surface was in good condition. There were a handful of cars going faster, but not many, presumably due to regular speed cameras.

Entrance

The park operates on a pay-per-ride basis using a reloadable smart card that must be purchased outside the gate. Visitors have the choice of fifteen different attractions, the largest of which is a figure eight race track at the center of the facility. Sadly this was closed today, and its general condition suggested that it had been out of use for a while. Nevertheless it was still necessary to cross a pedestrian bridge to access a fourteen car Ferris wheel with enclosed cars that was more than a little reminiscent of the designs seen in Japan. I took advantage of its central location for some overview shots of the roller coaster.

Grand Huit (#2855) is one of three known examples of an Interpark Loop Coaster. The first premiered at Funtown Pier in 1989, and operated there until it was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy at the end of the 2012. The second was installed at Marine World in 2001, and while its exact closing date is unknown it was definitely gone by 2011. The Tunisian version may well have been a good ride in its formative weeks, though two and a half years later it can only be described as horrid, delivering head banging even on completely straight sections of track. The cars had lap bars and over-the-shoulder restraints, and I had to contort myself to get both to close. While I'm not sorry to have experienced the ride once, it will not be necessary for me to do it again in this lifetime.

My other hit was the imaginatively named Dark Ride, a mixed attraction featuring a jungle, an Egyptian tomb, and a haunted section. The standard of the theming was very good, if somewhat disjointed; I'd have preferred it if the designers had focused on one topic from start to end.

 

Travel Note

15th February 2020

After leaving Sfax Land I drove roughly ninety minutes north to the resort city of Monastir. Online research suggested that Spring Land should be open until 1:00am, but sadly this proved inaccurate; the gates were closed and the lights were off when I arrived in the area shortly before 8:00pm despite the fact that there were plenty of pedestrians milling about. I rather suspect that the park might be more accurately named Summer Land; whatever the case, I decided against getting out of the car and instead reprogrammed my GPS to point to Hannibal Park.

 

Hannibal Park

15th February 2020

I had a heck of a job parking my rental car in the vicinity of Hannibal Park, as the entrance of the official lot was not well signposted and a divider in the middle of the road sent me on an extended detour on both occasions that I missed it. On my third attempt I decided to adopt the local technique and improvised my own space on a footpath.

It was 9:15pm by the time I made it through the park gate, and it was very obvious that things were beginning to wind down for the evening. There were very few guests present, and perhaps for this reason the cashier was not prepared to sell me a ticket for the larger coaster. I decided that it would be best to get the Mini 8 (#2856) ticked off before attempting negotiation, and moments later I was on board for what turned out to be a solo ride. The standard caterpillar train engaged the lift hill with a terrific thump on each of my two laps, but aside from that the experience was pure vanilla for the genre.

Hannibal Park

With that done I returned to the cash desk and with the aid of Google Translate offered to buy how ever many tickets were needed to run the star attraction. The lady told me that the tickets were not the problem; rather, there was a minimum of four people needed in the train. My next suggestion was that I could buy three extra tickets for staff members, and that triggered a shake of the head and advice to come back tomorrow. I told her that I'd be on a plane tomorrow, resulting in a very gallic shrug, but when it became obvious that I wasn't going to go away she picked up a mobile phone and made a quick call. A few minutes later a member of management materialised, and while the language barrier there was equally difficult he eventually agreed to let me have one ride on my own. It is a measure of Tunisia that I was only charged for one ticket rather than the four that I'd offered to pay for.

Grand Huit (#2857) is a rare example of an Interpark Wild Wind, a triangular-shaped coaster with a sidewinder-like inversion at the base of the first drop. Nine versions have been built over the years, though only seven are believed to have opened to the public. Tunisia is the only country to have two operational examples; the remaining five can be found in Germany, Greece, Iraq, the Philippines, and Venezuela. The genre is not known for its comfort, but surprisingly there were no issues with this version at all; the train made it through the inversion without problems, and the helix that followed was pure fun. I'd expected only one lap, but was given a second that was equally enjoyable.

Within moments of my disembarking the operator stepped into the ride machine room, and with a gentle hiss from the compressor the track went dark. I made a point of thanking everyone I saw as I made my way to the exit, breathed a deep sigh of relief, and returned to my car for a short drive up the road for some traditional Tunisian cuisine.