Half way the route, a small and lovely gorge
Hiking up and down: 560m
Notes: one section with difficult trail finding
This rarely done hike is one with great variation. From the big plain on the south side to the lush, green forest on the northern flanks of Jebel Zaghouan. The best time to do it is in spring time, when the fields are green and covered with wild flowers.
Park your car near the mosque in Sidi Medien, on the western end of the Zaghouan Massif. From here, start walking by following the road for 100m southeast. At the sharp bend move up the settlement left (not a real trail but follow the left side of the houses). After another 150m keep left on a vague dirt track that goes through a bit of wasteland. This gets very muddy after rain! 5 minutes later you will see a dwelling on your left hand side, a bit higher up. Aim for that as the soil is better and the views of the south side of the mountain ridges is pretty spectacular.
Spectacular rock faces on a foggy day
Now you head into north eastern direction, following the south side of the Zaghouan massif. At times there is no clear trail, but the terrain is easy enough to walk on. Ahead of you you can see Jebel Zaghouan, the highest peak in this small mountain range (1303m). You'll pass beautiful rock formations and steep, jagged walls. At the highest vertical section of the Jebel, you will see a distinct rock pinnacle (you will reach it in roughly 1hr20 of walking). Pass this pinnacle and make sure you stay at the same altitude. Contour your way towards the Shepherds Pass, making a subtle bend to the left. After a few hundred metres of scree and indistinct trail, you will find a clear path going up steeply in the direction of a small, red limestone wall. Here the steep trail continues and bends around this wall up the last section towards the pass. In front of you is a massive, intimidating wall. Going up should take you about 20 minutes.
The steep approach to the Shepherds Pass having passed the distinct pinnacle in the distance
From the top of the pass traverse to the other (western) side of the valley. Numerous goat trails head this direction, just take one of them but make sure you descend as you go. At some point you should meet the clear trail (also described in the Zaghouan Pass Long Route) that rounds the slopes of Jebel Zaghouan first into north western direction and later on towards the southwest. Follow this trail until you reach a big stone circle that is used for livestock. Keep heading southwest for the descent towards the Sidi Medien Valley. This is the trickiest part of the hike as the trail is disused and therefore overgrown. It starts on the right side as you go down. You may find yourself bushwhacking a little bit. Lower down you will see an old mining dirt road on the left side. Keep going down, passing a ruin. 30 vertical metres down there's another disused remains of a dirt track (washed away in the bend). Take the left part of it. 150 metres further there's more ruins. Here, you leave the "road" and descent steeply on the heavily eroded path. First it zigzags down, at times difficult to stay on it. Then it will traverse to the south. Eventually you aim for the big ruined structure, remains of the mining industry in the early 1900's. From this ruin, follow the path southwest again. It's 20 minutes more back to Sidi Medien.
Dramatic mountain scenery on the south face of Jebel Zaghouan
Sidi Medien Loop
Hiking up and down: 260m
GPS data: note, the last 1.7km are not tracked
The mosque at Sidi Medien
The Sidi Medien hike is great loop. The terrain is not difficult, views are fantastic and there are some interesting places en route. You can park your car near the mosque in Sidi Medien, which is about 25 minutes from Zaghouan. The first part of the walk is on the road that goes down towards Zaghouan. After 10 minutes there's a right turn-off into a small gorge. Follow the dry river bed (sometimes a little overgrown in places). Eventually you will hit the dirt track that winds up to the high road in the Zaghouan Massif. At the first sharp bend (180 degrees) there is a small trail going straight towards an small abandoned mine. Great place to get away from the sun if it's hot. From here a tricky, almost invisible path goes down to the right.
Weirdly shaped limestone rocks
In the next 1.5km is a bit hard to find the trail at times. The path is overgrown by scrub in places. Try to stay at the same altitude (you may have to bypass parts because of the vegetation). At some point you will have to descend through a 1.5m wide rock/gravel/mud trail to a good part of the route along a rock wall. Stick to the path that now goes into the direction of the massive Dolomite style rock walls in the distance. You will see the ruined mining settlement on your right and a shark tooth shaped rock in front of you. After having passed the tunnel it's 5 minutes to one of the ruins on a open pasture. From here it's only 20 minutes back to Sidi Medien. Beautiful hike!
Hiking up: 460m
Hiking down: 460m
Level: difficult, scrambling
The route looking in northwestern direction
For those who are new to the word scrambling: It's essentially moving up and down rocky terrain, just using hands and feet (so no climbing equipment). Whilst the climbing should be safe and relatively easy without using a rope (otherwise it would become proper rock climbing), the terrain can be exposed with big drops. For safety, a helmet should be worn when there is a danger of rock fall.
The first section of the route, a bit of shrub to fight at the start
To get to the trailhead, drive up the mountain road from Temple des Eaux. As the road climbs, after 4km the road will make an almost 180 degrees turn (a dirt track continues along the ridge that you will tackle on this route). Shortly after there will be two switch backs. About 300m further you can park your car at a relatively flat spot. It's not an official parking but locals park their car here as well.
The start of the route is a bit hard. Hike in northwesterly direction. There is no path up the ridge. You will have to work your way through the shrub for the first couple of hundred meters. The actual crest of the ridge is quite clear and it's easy enough to avoid the bushes. The first bit of scrambling starts soon, with massive hand holds and good footing. Gradually the terrain becomes a bit more complicated, but there are usually more options to scramble up.
Using hands and feet and a helmet on the more vertical sections
The first sections have short scrambles up (and occasionally down too), maximum 3 metres. Halfway the upward part of the route there's a bigger wall, looking quite daunting but in reality is not very difficult. It starts at a dip in the ridge of about 8 meters. To get to the base of this wall, don't walk all the way to the end where the gap is. You will need a rope to abseil this as it is vertical. 20 metres before that, there's a way to descend. However, it is a little tricky and you will have to stay cautious.
The biggest but not most difficult obstacle on the route (find the hikers!)
The big wall (25-30 metres) is, as said, not too hard although it appears to be at first glance. You have to see it like a giant's staircase, with always a bit of flat ground underneath you. Just take the time to find your way up. Once you're up you'll find the crux (hardest part) of the scramble. A vertical bit of around 3 metres has to be tackled, with a bit of climbing needed. The hand holds are big though. Up this rock ledge it's pretty exposed so bring your vertigo pills! Just one more climbing section more, a lovely scramble, and you are up the summit plateau.
The fantastic last section of the scrambling part of this hiking route
There is still no clear path on the summit plateau, but it's easy to find your way through grass, low shrub and a pointy limestone surface. As the plateau widens, you want to stay slightly on the left side as at some point you will meet a shepherds path. If you go to much to the left, the terrain becomes difficult again. It's worth the effort finding the proper trail. The trail leads to the upper part of a mining complex, where mainly the metal lead was excavated. The mine shafts are still open, but are not in use anymore. A track winds down, to the main complex. There is a small trail meeting up with a wide dirt track on the base of the mountain ridge. It's a bit hard to find. There is a little open space at what seems like a view point (overlooking the southern ridges and Jebel Zaghouan. From here, the trail zigzags down to the track. Turn left (going up) and climb almost 400m up to the main (tarmac) mountain road. Turn left here and find your car after half a kilometre.
This photo gives a good impression what the scramble is about
This is climbing DOWN a tricky section, performing the correct technique
Distance: 20km (plus car transfer)
Hiking up and down: 110m
Terrain: beach, thick scrub
Notes: bypass military zone
The start of the walk is at the beach near the port. Follow the beach and enter the "zone touristique". At a certain point the beach makes way for rocky points. To avoid this head inland and go around the big resort. Follow the road until you come across a dirt road, take this left turn. It connect with a road again, but turn left where this road starts. Hop on the concrete pipe to cross a stream (a bit tricky if you have vertigo). Stay left of the village and make your way back to the actual coastline. It's a bit of a search for a decent path, but after 45 minutes you should arrive at the long, wild beach. Follow this beach for 3-4 hrs up to the wide outlet of Barrage Sidi el Barrak. Go inland to the village Zouara where you will have to find transportation to Nefza and onwards to Cap Negro (rent a lounge for 30 dinar).
The wild beach towards Zouara
We were followed by a boat of the Garde National (GN) (watching us with binoculars). Later we were picked up by a GN car, who took us to their station. After the security check, they gave us a lift to Nefza and arranged a lounge to take us to Cap Negro. Great service!
You can camp at Cap Negro (where again you will be checked by the GN).
Day 2: Cap Negro - Sidi Mechreg
Hiking up and down: unknown, estimation 400m
Terrain: rocks/boulders, thick scrub, vague/no trail
Note: hard section of rough walking
From Cap Negro follow the road up for about 1km. The first lefthand dirt road is a dead end. The second one is roughly a kilometre long before it disappears. After this the walking gets harder. There is no trail along the coast. Staying too high and you'll end up ploughing your way through thick scrub and bush. Staying near the shore and you will have to hike up and down a lot to avoid obstacles. It is difficult finding a middle way, just use common sense. The psychological factor is hard too. Every time you hope/expect to see the beaches of Sidi Mechreg, but you'll turn a lot of corners seeing more hard terrain. There is a small hotel in Sidi Mechreg. We camped on the beach without any problems.
On Google Earth an alternative route appears to wind its way through the mountain (on a proper trail). We didn't come across it, but we didn't look for it either. Good if you want to hike a proper trail.
Day 3: Sidi Mechreg - Nameless Beach
Hiking up and down: unknown, estimation 200m
Terrain: dirt road, beach
This is a relatively easy day. From Sidi Mechreg the tarmac road turns into a wide dirt road heading east towards Cap Serrat. Just follow this road, nice and easy walking with great views on the Cap. After a couple of hours the road passes some farm houses and goes up and cuts off the Cap itself (we didn't see a clear trail, but you could round Cap Serrat through scrub). As the road descends again, you can see empty, deserted beaches ahead of you. In summer there is a restaurant at the end of the beach in the village called Cap Serrat. The coves and beaches on the next stretch are the most beautiful we've seen so far. Shipwrecks, secluded bays and still pretty easy walking (sometimes on old coral fields). Only the last section was a little harder with walking on boulders. We pitched our tent at the beach of which we don't know the name. There is a tarmac road leading to it from the main road between Bizerte and Tabarka, no regular transportation is available, but in the village 1km up the road it is possible to arrange a car.
Great bit of coastline with the Fratelli Islands in the background
To be continued!
Altitude difference: 820m
Highest point: 1303m (Jebel Zaghouan summit)
The route to the summit of Jebel Zaghouan as seen from Sidi Medien
The climb up the highest peak of the Zaghouan Massif, Jebel Zaghouan, is a tough one. Most of the route is steep hiking up vague goat tracks with a small scramble to get up the actual summit. The reward is obvious: 360 degrees views of the plains surrounding the mountain.
Panorama from the summit of Jebel Zaghouan
Park the car near the mosque in the hamlet of Sidi Medien. A steep dirt track goes up on the right of the mosque. After the small craggy ridge on your right there's a track that stays close to the enormous, Dolomite like ridge. Keep following this track, that gradually gets smaller. You'll pass a fairly big pasture with a big boulder on your left hand side. Keep going until you get to what looks like a small pile of gravel. There you take move towards a dip on the left. A goat track goes down the dip.
Scrambling the last bit to the summit
From here things get a bit more difficult. There is no clear trail, only vague goat tracks. Zigzag up until you are at the broad ridge. The summit is (visibility permitting) constantly visible. The ridge is littered with rocks and is quite steep in most places. The summit itself is craggy all around. A little scramble is involved, no matter what side you approach it from. Once you tackle the scramble you're pretty much on the summit. Jebel Zaghouan has two summits of exactly the same altitude. It is worth traversing to the other summit, which has a 400m drop on the south side! Enjoy the wonderful views all around! Go back the way you came, and take care. Scrambling down is harder than up.
The Shepherds Pass
Hiking up: 770m
Hiking down: 770m
The Shepherds Pass route, with the top of the map north
This half a day hike is a little bit of everything that the Zaghouan Mountains has to offer. The lush canyons of the interior, the open plain with massive limestone walls on the south side (and sun!) connected by the most accessible pass in the range.
The south face of the Zaghouan Mountains
Start at the Temple des Eaux, the Roman site at the western end of town. This is a good place to park your car and have a drink at the start/finish of the walk. Follow the tar road eastwards, keeping as close to the mountains as possible. Essentially keep right. I tried to find a trail through the forest, but these were all dead-end. The tar road changes into a dirt track just after the left turn of to the centre (where you should go straight ahead yourself). At the next junction, stay right. The dirt track starts ascending, still through pine forest. The hiking is easy going. After roughly another 45 minutes you'll pass some impressive big, red limestone walls. Pass the village and try to stay close to the mountain (find a small trail that stays high up). It'll take another 30 minutes to the base of the Shepherds Pass. Further down is the huge wall that towers up to the summit of Jebel Zaghouan, the highest mountains in this range. The Shepherds Pass looks quite intimidating, but a trail goes all the way up the 950m pass. Great views on both sides are waiting for you!
Go down and stay on the right side of the valley. Several goat tracks zigzag down until you enter the forest. Gradually the trail gets wider and level. Follow this all the way to the road (which is a higher level than Temple des Eaux, at an altitude of 600m!). The farm is only a few hundred metres away. Behind the farm the "farm track", described in an earlier post, winds down to the lower level of the road. Backtrack the road eastwards. 200 metres after the car park (for the Climbing Canyon and Farm Track), turn right at a wide dirt track. This enables you to hike the last couple of km's off-road. At the wide clearance you can hike straight down to the cafe at the Temple des Eaux. Enjoy your well-deserved cuppa!
Zaghouan Pass Long Route
Distance: 6km (+ additional 1km both ways to the top of the pass)
Hiking up: 280m (+ additional 180m to the pass)
Hiking down: 280m (+ additional 180m back from the pass)
Level: easy (moderate if doing the pass)
GPS Track (without final ascent to the pass)
Birds eye views facing towards the south. The red line is the final ascent to the top of Zaghouan Pass
The best place to park your car is at the farm in the heart of the Zaghouan Mountains. It can be reached by driving up the road passed Temple des eaux (I will publish a GPS track and map shortly). As the farmer for permission as it's private land.
From the farm backtrack the road where you came from. After the second sharp bend in the road in northerly direction it's roughly 200 metres where the trail itself starts. It cuts back and ascends gradually. After about 1km you will see a big rock circle (to keep livestock) in a flat section (pasture). Here you make a sharp left turn. Take the time to find the proper trail, the beginning of it is not obvious. The path still ascends a little bit, hardly noticeable. You will re-enter the valley you passed in the early stages of the walk. The trail becomes more and more narrow as you go up. Try to stay high up if you want to hike all the way up the Zaghouan Pass (1049m). Otherwise you should traverse the valley to the other side through the forest. Don't forget to take a look around you. Jagged mountain peaks surround you, beckoning for more adventures! As you descend the trail becomes better again and reasonably flat. Only the last bit back to the road is a bit steeper, but nothing really difficult. At the road, turn right back to the farm 300m further.
Overview of the valley leading up to the Zaghouan Pass, on the right side
To get to the pass follow one of the many goat tracks up the grassy slope. It doesn't matter which one, they all go up. The terrain is pretty steep and slippery when wet. The 30-45 minutes slug up is worth every step. A clear day allows you to look south towards Zriba and further to Hammamet. North you can see the plains and the Tunis metropolis in the distance. Go down the way you came. Great walk!!
Farm Track Hike
Hiking up: 310m
Hiking down: 20m
This short hike gives you everything the Zaghouan Mountains have to offer: impressive walls, fragrant forest and excellent views. And it can be done in combination with the Climbers Canyon walk, which makes it a perfect 2-3hr walk.
You will start at the same car park as the Climbers Canyon hike. Leaving the car park, turn right and follow the road for 100m. At the first white building, turn left and follow the obvious wide path. After about 10 minutes you will cross a wide clearance. Just keep following the track, white arrows show you the way. The path gets a bit steeper at times, but it will all be very easy to walk. About half way you will have spectacular views over the plains north of Zaghouan. Once you have passed some impressive walls you will get to the farm estate and the road. This road connects the route with the Climbers Canyon walk (going up for about 20 minutes). The trail end on the top is not that obvious, look for a white sign on a big rock.
Distance: 2.5km one-way
Hiking up: 400m
Hiking down: 50m
Birds eye view image of the route in southerly direction
The "climbers" canyon hike is a wonderful hike through a forest, with big red limestone walls on both sides of the canyon. Rock climbers test their climbing skills here, hence the name "Climbers Canyon".
The walk starts at the big car park, marked on the map above. The path is marked all the way to the top with big white arrows painted on the rocks. The trail stays a little bit on the right side of the canyon as you go up. After 20 minutes you traverse to the left (passing a beautiful dome-shaped wall). After the traverse the climb steepens, but still very easy to walk on. There is a blocked off area with stones, just ignore this. As you get higher the landscape unfolds with stunning views towards the north. You will traverse to the right again, scaling a rocky section (take care, loose stones). 5 minutes later is a pasture where shepherds let their goats graze. The views from here are even better, with Tunis visible on a clear day. The trail continues up (find the arrow!), it's only 15 minutes more to the road. With this many arrows getting lost is almost impossible. You could go back the same way or hit the Farm trail down, which will be described in the next post.
On my way up! Photo: Mark Oppe