This morning started with the realisation of where I actually was. The gorge was more dramatic than I thought it was going to be as I drew my curtains back. Having found my group digging into breakfast (read: stealing all the carbohydrates available in the buffet for consumption later) we then set off for the Numidian/Roman site of Thibilis. It warrants a passing comment in a guide book that you may choose to ignore. Don’t!! It is an absolutely stunning pocket sized archaeological joy. The site is perched on a hill with steep gorges on all sides. The town is composed of a grid street layout but displays an utterly charming kink-ridden main street that tries to satisfy both the natural topography and the chronological shift of centre of the city. What transpires is a delectable winding main road that attempts to unify the town. The roads are paved with edible sandstone rectangular blocks that weave their way across the landscape. The French have reconstructed the principle arches but even to an archaeologists they help focus and draw the visitor through the site. There was vibrant discussion between the group as to the chronology, the interpretation of the monuments and the general layout of the town as well as the genuine excitement as each of the group identified elements that captured their personal research. This is when it really sinks in how fortunate I am to be travelling in this company. There is an explosion of joy when one finds an oil press, another when the socket joins in a threshold fit a theory and another when a reused sarcophagus is spotted in the fabric of the town. I am here just soaking it all up.
Lunch was sought in the local village of Hammam Mes Khoutine. Little did we know what was awaiting us. And I don’t think any drug taking in the world can match what we were to encounter. The world’s free acid trip. The town is a natural sulphur water spa town on a scale no person has ever known. We were totally taken aback. As we approached the natural spring we were greeted with a wall of what best can be described as stalactites dripping down the rock face. And when I say ‘wall’ I mean a WALL (note person in photo on top for sense of scale).
Beneath this impressive geological feature, however was the acid trip. You could have your photo taken on impromptu thrones set up by the locals adorned with rifles, plastic flower arrangements, stuffed lions, real peacocks, real goats and Barbary monkeys. It was, and I may have used this phrase too many times alread,y but it was exactly as I would imagine taking a hallucinogen would be like. Not sure if I was more surprised at the rifles or the real monkeys, let alone the throne. As we climbed the stairs up the side of the sulphur precipate wall we were encouraged to buy coloured popcorn, phallus shaped balloons and all manner of glittery tat poorly resembling the geological phenomenon only yards away. Being sulphuric, by the time one reaches the top the odour is pungent of rotten eggs. The last thing you could possibly want is to see let alone eat an egg at this point. But that doesn’t apparently occur to the locals who insist on setting up stalls selling eggs that they will then boil for you in the spring whose waters are bubbling away at 97 degrees. They pop the egg in a bag, dip it in the water and let it cook. This is hugely popular except by a bunch of foreign archaeologists who can only stand and watch in awe. The spring rises on the plateau and forms a strange network of channels that then race towards the edge of the rock and dribble down the ‘wall’. The stench of the steam rising out of the channels is almost unbearably pungent but we embrace the warm sensation as it has got cold and thoughts that we are all about to reboard the bus stinking of rotten eggs fades from everyone’s minds.
We then descend back into reality and drive onto to Guelma. It is not a picturesque town by any standards but it is base for a couple of nights. We find the ‘Roman’ theatre and museum but it is totally a work of fantasy and lacks any of the charm that a reconstruction can offer. Beautiful Punic and Roman stelae on display in the limited space of the museum and a wonderful fish filled mosaic but all closed to public due to lack of funds.
A small group of us explore the modern town and discover the best tasting almonds ever and proceed to become the vendor’s favourite customers.