Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Hiking to the summit of Jebel Ressas

Birdseye view of Jebel Ressas looking towards the Southeast

Distance: 5km
Time: 3-4 hours
Difficulty: hard
Altitude difference: 600m
Notes: many different routes but no real easy way to the summit, difficult to get the permission from Guard National
GPS Track

Approach by normal route

Jebel Ressas is an imposing mountain just 15km south of the capital Tunis. The 795m high limestone rock is towering over the town of Mornag and is one of the most distinct landmarks seen from Tunis. The hike to the summit is not a walk in the park. I have hiked up the summit via three different routes and can now say which route is the easiest in terms of technicality and route finding. But it's a great little area of rugged rock faces and friendly forest and it's worth the effort to reach the summit.

At the time of writing this blogpost the most difficult part of the hike is obtaining permission from the Guard National. The GN office is is Mornag (on the road that goes out in the direction of Grombalia). I have been denied permission twice, because the highest ranking police officer was not in. The others take no responsibility and simply tell you to come back another time "because it's not safe today". At the trailhead near the Verger Karoui, a forest guard (not uniformed) denies you access unless you've got permission. He'll call GN, so if you just go without permission you might get in trouble.

Map of the route from Mornag to the trailhead of the Jebel Ressas hike

The Long Route up
As you can see on the Google Earth image above, you'll go around Little Ressas first which is the Eastern part of the mountain. At the highest part of the village you walk towards the green sign that says you need permission and turn left. Follow the clear trail. After about 5 minutes there's a junction where another trail cuts back and goes up. This is a side trip and takes you to a field of large boulders. Otherwise stay on the main trail that basically rounds the mountain until you are at the south side, see the image below. After around half an hour you're at an area where on your right hand side there's a bit of an open space. Here you go up. There is no clear trail and you'll have to find your way up by finding  gaps in the forest. It takes another 30 minutes to make it to the saddle between the main peak and Little Ressas. Turn left and find your way to a steep treeless and with scree filled slope. This is difficult walking. The alternative is staying in the forest and find little trails and a bit of bush whacking and scrambling to find your way up (this is what happens if you follow the GPS track).

Jebel Ressas seen from the Northeast

It takes 30/40 minutes to get to a grassy slope, where you can see a knife edge ridge. Keep going up, pass the old open quarries and continue to follow the highest ground. In front of you you should be able to see the summit already. At some point you'll go down (bit of a scramble down) and then go straight up for the final approach. In less than 10 minutes you'll be standing on the summit of Jebel Ressas! You know you're there when you find the big metal pipe lying on the ground. On the other side you can see the scarred mountain, caused by there cement factory. For the way back, go where you came from towards the grassy slope via the top of the ridge. Here you start descending in a northernly direction. On your left there's a big ridge and rock wall. In front of you there are some towers. The trail zigzags down (a bit away from the wall). It's steep and slippery, pay attention! When you have reached the first of the rock towers, go towards the big wall and again zigzag down. Pretty tough descent! At some point the gully becomes completely filled with scree and boulders. Traverse to the right side as you're looking down and go through a gap where you enter the forest. Stay on the same altitude, traversing towards the Northeast. After about 300 metres the terrain becomes a little easier and there are small trails going down. Keep following these trails until you reach an open space. Here turn right and hit the trail that descents back to the village and your car (or bike).

On the summit of Jebel Ressas 

The Normal or Direct Route up
The trailhead is the same as the long route. At the green sign saying you need permission to enter the mountain, leave the dirt road on the left side and follow the small trail up in Southerly direction. It goes up gradually, bending more towards the west. After about half an hour you'll enter an open space. You can clearly see the rocky towers and ridges. This is where you're headed at some point. First, in the middle of this open space, turn left and choose a trail that winds up towards the saddle between Little Ressas (on the left) and Big Ressas. It's steep and easy to loose the trail. It takes 15-20 minutes to get to the point where you start traversing to the right (southwest) along the steep rock through the forest. After 300 metres there's a little gap that leads to the left side of a massive ridge line and equally big wall. There's also some rock towers. This place is dubbed The School of Rock, named by climbers from the US. Go up the rocky gully, until it gets a bit more grassy. From here it's the same route as the Long Route. Pass the open quarry on the right a keep seeking the higher grounds. You are now on the ridge line that leads to the summit. There is a small dip in the ridge, after that it's the final ascent to the summit. Going back is the same way (the yellow line on the Google Earth map).

Don't worry, this is not part of the route! Just optional!

Monday, 28 September 2015

Mountain Biking: Ghardeya Circuit - Nabeul

Distance: 8km
Time: 30 minutes
Difficulty: easy
Altitude difference: 85m up and down

This is an easy going, fun trail and potentially fast if you’re up for it. The route goes through beautiful and typically Tunisian style forest (mainly eucalyptus) and is unspoilt by polution. Great ride all together!

Finding the trailhead of this mountain bike route is a little bit difficult. From Tunis or Hammamet, go in the direction of Nabeul. Around Nabeul there is a bypass road that heads into the direction Korba. After Nabeul look out for the signpost for Somaa in a left direction (at a roundabout). Follow this road. After the turn-off to Somaa stay on this road for 1.5km. Look out for a spray-painted sign VTT in green on the left. Take this dirt track and follow it for about 500 metres. Keep left and find a place to park your car or hit the trail straight away if you’re by bike.

The trail first heads into westerly direction with a very sandy start. 100m after that it turns southeast. The track is wide and solid with only a few sections of sandy bits, nothing major. After roughly 1.7km the road bends in northernly direction where it forks. Take the sharp right turn going direction south again which is the start of a fun downhill section.

The track bends right to the north again and now it’s a bit of a climb in open terrain. Keep right when the track forks. A small steep climb follows. It levels out after that. For about a kilometre it’s a pretty straight stretch of trail. Then at the T-junction, turn left. Now the road curves around the hill side. The last section of the loop has a few short sandy sections. Stay on the main trail that leads to where you started.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Mountain biking: Stockholm Hotel Track - Borj Cedria Tunis

Distance: 22km
Time: 1.5-2hrs
Difficulty: easy/moderate
450m up and down
Notes: officially permission needed from the Guard National, at times difficult to find the route: use GPS

First of all, to enter Boukornine National Park you need to obtain permission from the Guard National. On the highest mountain, Jebel Boukornine, is a permanent military station. Having said this, this route avoids getting close to the official entrance and any check point. We ( me and a local biker Karim from Borj Cedria) did it without.

Karim on the ascent

Finding the trailhead is not so easy, best is to use the GPS data in this blogpost. Coming from Souk in Hammam-Lif follow the main road P1 (direction Grombalia). When you pass the train station Arret du Stade (on the opposite side of the road) it’s 500 metres more to the parallel road on the right side of the P1. Get on this road and drive in the same direction. At the second junction, turn right and keep going straight until you reach the bridge that goes over the green pipeline. This is the trailhead of this mountain bike ride.

Myself going the opposite direction of this route (everything for a better photo!)

After the bridge turn right and pass the white, slightly worn down building on the left side. The broad track zigzags up steeply. A few hunderd metres further there’s a big junction. In front of you there’s a small white building with solar panels on the roof. Turn left here and keep going up, again steep. At the T-junction take a left. The wide well-maintained track winds its way up the mountain, less steep now. The magnificent views over Hammam-Lif, the Meditteranean and across to Cap Bon unfolds. It’s great, easy riding through the forest of bright green low pine trees. Stay on the main track and reach the highest point at 340 metres.

Karim, again opposite direction of how you should go with Jebel Ressas and Zaghouan in the background

There’s a short descent with pretty tricky terrain. Be aware of little pebbles and unexpected sharp corners. The track flattens out for a about a kilomtres before it drops again. Enjoy view of Jebel Ressas and Jebel Zaghouan in the distance. It ends at the main motorway A1, where you go left. At the time of writing were building the new road between Borj Cedria and the A1. Use GPS track again to find the track as the landscape is constantly changing. Access may be denied at some point. After following the unfinished road in the direction of Borj Cedria again for a few hunderd metres look out for the original track on the right side. It is obstructed now and then by road building works. The track eventually takes you down to Borj Cedria. Keep going down the village in northern direction. When you see the industrial site on the right, turn left and look for the channel. Along the channel there’s a track all the way back to the bridge where you started the bike ride.

Below: Karim descending with Jebel Ressas dominating the view

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Hiking Zaghouan: Rock Traverse

time: 4hrs
distance: 9km
altitude difference: 660m
difficulty: moderate / hard
notes: first part way-marked, last quarter difficult route finding

Park the car at the restaurant at Temple des Eaux. Hike for around 20  minutes up the mountain road until you see the sign Eco Rando on the left side. Hit this broad forest trail (which is actually the start). After 200 metres, just before the main trail bends left, there’s a smaller trail cutting back almost 180 degrees. Take this gradually ascending trail. There are way marks (white arrows painted on the rocks), but they point the opposite direction. It was marked from the top. The easy going trail stays clear and zigzags up. You keep the communication towers in view. Once you’re higher up you can start seeing the main ridge in southerly direction. You might be able to see the path that you will be taking. At the final bit of this trail section the path stays level and aims towards the bend in the tarmac road.

The first section of the trail with the route continuing on the flanks of the ridge in the distance 

Cross the road and turn right on the ascending, still clear trail. After around 600 metres the trail drops and roughens (a messy zigzag down). On your left are vertical cliffs. It still is a proper trail, but now and then it’s taken over by trees. After another 500 metres, when the landscape is more open, the path fades. One track goes down, the other aims for the big ridge wall in front of you. You should head for the end of the vertical wall on the right side. The path is now a network goat tracks, but these all lead up the broad top part of the ridge. Here you have two options. The easiest is to descend to the clear trail 150m lower. It’s a little bit steep, but the terrain remains quite open. Once you reached the trail, turn right (decending) and follow the trail towards the upper road, close to the marabout (see Zaghouan Pass hike, first section but now in reverse). The other option is to gradually descend, following the goat tracks. This choice is harder: the tracks fade and go occosionally go through shrub. But it’s possible! The route goes in northwesterly direction and leads as well towards the upper mountain road. For the final descent take the easy path from the marabout (description see Marabout Loop) to the lower part of the mountain road. Turn right towards Temple des Eaux.

Below: second section of the trail on the massif's main ridge

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Hiking: Scrambling Jebel Zaghouan via NW ridge

Distance: 7km
Hiking up and down: 660m
Level: Moderate - technical sections
Time: 3hrs
Notes: bring your head for heights: scrambling sections!
GPS tracks

Start at the farm (aka as the marabout). Ask the farmer if you can park your car at the marabout premises. You could even start at a lower level, doing the farm track hike first. Backtrack the tarmac road for about 300m in the direction of Jebel Zaghouan (south). At the sharp bend in the road, get off it and enter the forest where the cattle clearance is. Past this a small but well visible trail follows the dry rocky river bed, first on the right side and crossing over to the left after 100m. Keep following the trail staying close to the river bed for a few hundred metres and get back to the right again. At the first grassy patch, make a sharp right turn and take one of the cattle trails that goes steeply in westerly direction. The trails are a bit vague, but keep going up and you'll meet with a major trail again (the one described in the Zaghouan Pass Long route).

Turn right and stay on this trail until you reach the bottom of the ridge leading to the summit of Jebel Zaghouan. The southwest aspect of the slope should be visible, as this is the line you'll be hiking to the top. Hit the slope, and don't focus on finding trails, as there aren't real trails going up. Find the way of least resistance, but stay close to the actual ridge rathe than straying too much to the right. The terrain is rocky and at times covered in vegetation. Still, the going shouldn't be too hard. At some point you'll encounter more rocky outcrops. In some cases it's necessary to go right around, but if it's possible to scramble give it a go!

The last section towards the summit involves a bit more scrambling (which is at this point not avoidable). Not quite suitable for people with vertigo. Shortly after you'll reach the summit of Jebel Zaghouan (1295m).

It is not recommended to descent the same way you came up. Go down more in a westerly direction, essentially the same route as the other summit route. There is one small scramble down, after that it is steep hiking on the broad rocky slope pointing west. When the slope gets less steep, move towards the right (northern) side. At the saddle, start descending the vague trail through the low trees. You will come across a proper trail a bit lower down. Take this into the direction of the ridge you climbed earlier.  Below you can see the stone circle, used to keep animals. This is where you're headed for. From the stone circle, take the trail heading north (seeing the marabout at 2 o'clock) which leads to the tarmac road. At the road, turn right and follow the road until you're back at the car. Spectacular yet short hike!