DECEMBER 28th 2006 > VIEW FULL SLIDESHOW <
What a long way we have to go, who thought up the idea of going to the middle of Africa for a jaunt? Could be good, we'll see. Whatever else the idea is exciting.
Am collected from the studio just before 6.00am by a lovely Sikh in a shining limo. Collect others en route.Terminal One at Heathrow, the usual horror, even at 7am. Renate quite brilliant as she checks us in at Special Needs counter. None of us are broken but it seems like a good whiz and Sally does have a stick for knocking possible scorpions on the head… Maxime thinks he is a bright as a button and checks himself in on machine. Too clever, B.A won’t let him on the plane. We only discover this when flying over Sardinia…
Our guide Marwan, who seems very charming, meets us at Tripoli airport. It still looks like an old Eastern European communist hang out, dirty windows and grey paint.The bad news is No Flight to Sheba, we must drive. Shock horror as it is almost 800 kms away at the bottom of the map and we are tired. We pile into a pair of comfortable cars and head off. The desert starts about 50 kms out of Tripoli and the sun sets. Spectacular; cloudy skies, yellow horizon, lowering and Turneresque and dramatic. Then darkness falls. 6 hours later stop in what appears to be an offshoot of Las Vegas. Bright lights, cafes, music and full size flashing palm trees. Yes, in the absolute middle of Nowhere! Where does all the electricity come from? Who are these people that live hundreds of kms from anywhere? Too tired to ask. Queue for men’s loos. No women’s, but then there don’t appear to be any women in Libya. Good supper of spicy soup and couscous and salads, everything well seasoned with chilli, eaten off paper plates on a plastic tablecloth patterned with Persian designs. Back into cars to continue through the freezing night.
No booze. Libya is dry. Guess we’ll get used to it.
On and on through the night, Arabic pop music blaring, the drivers say they will fall asleep if we turn it off. Stop every hour or so for the drivers to smoke and chat. Rotting cars litter the landscape and old lorry tyres are propped up marking land boundaries. No planning at all, the architectural style is: first you surround your land with a concrete wall and then build for your tribe inside, sometimes a few square yards, sometimes many acres. Sometimes mere lean-tos for houses, sometimes exotic villas for thousands with stables for camels and harems for women, [what they?] The tribe is protected.
Every so often we hit a police block and Marwan has to flutter papers. The police are always alert and, I gather later, it is to stop illegal immigrants heading for Europe from Niger, Chad and Mali rather than to stop us going south. The police take their time. Time is never exactly pressing in Libya.
Eventually we arrive at 3.00am to some bamboo huts, too tired to drop off to sleep but do in the end, only to be awoken by a donkey braying followed by chortling noises. A large flock of something birdie? All is revealed on rising and stumbling to the loo, see we are in the middle of an ostrich farm!
Breakfast must be the most awful meal ever encountered. Dry sliced white bread, little plastic pots of margarine, Nescafe, powdered milk. Oh crumbs…
Eventually we leave; we are now riding in three Chelsea tractors plus our cook’s wagon. We move in convoy, as always behind the cook’s 4 x 4 which blocks the view somewhat. And still the desert is festooned with pylons and wires both to right and left of the road. I try to hoax myself that is local large-scale lace…
We are in the fabled Fezzan, a wide wadi of lushness running from west to east all green and fertile and shaded with thousands of palm trees. The ribbon development continues all along the road. Shambolic housing,gift of the government to get the locals out of mud huts. Shops full of sofas and mattresses, pillows and blankets, all spewing out over the road. Shops full of water and Pepsi. We join a queue for petrol and I note that we get 40.35 litres of car juice for exactly £1.50… Always knew Mr G Brown was making a bob or two out of the stuff but didn’t realise quite how much!
We head off for Ghat, still on an asphalt road, and stop for lunch in the edge of the desert. Hassan the cook starts from scratch chopping onions. It takes a couple of hours to get the salad ready. Spectacular landscape, basalt mountains looking like cities of minarets and domes rise on the horizon. The air is so clear it is impossible to tell how far away anything is. It is all so huge and empty our jaws drop open in wonder.
Suddenly we grind to a halt on the hard should, wham bam, a motorcycle has crashed off the road just in front of us and superman lies silent, face down, still in his helmet. Is he dead? Looks like it. But no, we roll him over and he is breathing. Much excited talk for we are now out of range for mobile phones. I am the one who can speak enough Italian to sort it out. The rest of our group want to load him in our car, caring women… Thankfully, as the last ray of sun flashes across the desert, the young man suddenly stands up saying he is fine. We depart before he has time to change his mind.
The campsite at Ghat is full and there is no music festival, which is what we have come for and as the Haj is on all the shops are shut. Avenues of street lights plunge in all directions out into the desert. Why these lights? There is no one there and only very rarely a gazelle. There can’t be more than 1000 people in Ghat and it is lit as though it were Manchester.
The old town of Ghat wanders up a hill surmounted by a fort and the new town straggles into the desert, satellite dishes on every roof, the houses look like the windmills on the plain of Lasthithi in Greece.
We arrive at another campsite, more bamboo huts through which fierce winds blow. Just enough space for a pair of metal beds, blankets are produced from one of our cars, huge pink roses… oh the snug bliss ahead… It gets colder and colder… Socks on, and gloves and overcoats. We wait and we wait. Dinner is a serious affair and we are starving. The cook’s pickup must be unloaded. Yards of rope unknotted and coiled, the charcoal lit for the staff cooking and the wood fire for them to sit around. We shiver on the perimeter of the group, wild animals from outside the clan trying to snuffle their way into the warm.
We wait. And we wait. I read aloud from Clappeton’s Travels in the Fezzan. No one is much interested. Am used to fluid time but Libyan time is the most fluid ever encountered. However we begin to understand the system; add at least 50% to any time quoted. You wont be far wrong. Other groups are well and truly tucked up by the time our soup materialises. We are all cross and need booze. Nothing to be done except open up the non-alcoholic beer which is disgusting. Eventually eat and retire to our hut to try and sleep. It is a bit like camping beside the M25 as lorries hurtle through the night past our ears. I take a sleeping pill…
Reading Clapperton steadies the nerves. He never complained of anything but describes life as he found it with tolerance and kindness.
We need to learn tolerance like Clapperton did in 1825. We wait an hour or two, he waited a month or two, and always for the camels to arrive… As we hang about waiting for hookahs to be packed a stubby Brit approaches us, says he is a schoolmaster from the Midlands teaching English in Sheba. He is very smug and tells us what Libya is like and how to behave, as we were we are primary school kids. I tell him we have Oxford professors among us and that silences him.
The organisation of this trip is all hopeless. Everyone is very sweet and certainly good looking but nothing happens. We are told to be ready at 8.00am. Daylight is precious at this time of year. We actually leave at 10am and tool into town. The music festival, object of our journey, is a total myth and as the Haj is on everything is shut. Not there can ever have been much to open.
Ghat is wonderful, a mud walled maze of mud houses, which probably haven’t changed for several thousand years. A miracle of civilization to arrive at after the hardships of desert travelling. The walls echo with past voices of travellers greeting each other and trying to empty sand out of everything. Ghat is situated right at the bottom west corner of Libya; the Algeria frontier is just down the road and a bit further down the road lie Mali and Niger and Chad, heart of Africa countries. Ghat houses are of the walled courtyard and tower kind, everything very enclosed, well they have to hole the women up somewhere don’t they?
Some merchants drag us into their houses to spend; our guidebooks say strictly no bargaining. Where did they get that idea from? These beautiful Tourag men in their flowing robes and indigo turbans expect us to bargain fierce for hours. I hate bargaining but of course do and Marwan, our guide, is useful in telling us what is the real price. Silver jewellery, leather neck pouches, and beads from Nigeria are the main items. Lovely beads, multicoloured strings with no two beads alike. Each string could have beads of a thousand years old or they could have been made yesterday, certainly none of us can tell. The tooled and folded fine leather tobacco pouches are magnificent.
For the first time we begin to relax and enjoy the glorious day. The streets of Ghat are sandy and unpaved. It is easy to get lost but as the whole city isn’t much bigger than the maze at Hampton Court one emerges at the edge pretty quickly. A fort surmounts the hill above the town, but it is all new and nasty and the view is mostly of satellite dishes in the suburbs, though easy to imagine Beau Geste scanning the horizon for camel trains of dusty travellers or brigand hordes as he stood under the flag shading his eyes.
It is a feast day and we pass some gazelles, recently on the hoof but now dead and slung from a pole between a pair of Tourags. Goats are being herded and our drivers are busy bargaining for half a dead one, which they hang from one of our roof rack.
Some plan has been hatched to wait for Maxime arriving a day late, alas, the plan turns out to be to wait for him on the main road, so we lunch off tinned beans next the local petrol pump. Everyone is getting stroppy as so much precious time has been lost. We convene a pow-wow and decide that as there is absolutely nothing what so ever we can do, best we shut up and go with the flow. We feel better.
Maxime eventually arrives and the drivers all hug each other. Convoy stops are either for a fag or to hug a brother. We get very used to them. Meanwhile the sky is clouding over and the whole expedition is going into melt down in whoosing mud!
Finally the DESERT! Mind you in a couple of hours it will be pitch dark. Tant-pis we are off across a moon landscape of shale like a ploughed field gone hard. We are away from petrol pumps and electricity pylons and street lighting. Clouds of dust billow behind the 4x4s.
After an hour or so we hit the Akakus mountains, vast spikes of black basalt rising vertically out of the golden sand. Rocks weathered into extraordinary shapes, profiles of the famous, birds, animals, and a free standing figure a hundred feet tall, an Angel of he North without wings. Land Art these mountains certainly are, Gormley, eat your heart out! At the vast natural sculpture’s feet crouches a Tourag in a pale blue robe and purple turban, [must learn to tie one,] and he has of course laid out his stall on the sand, but we’ve shopped for today. A brief halt and we are off up a silent virgin valley, e.g. no tyre marks other than ours, and set up camp. Boy, does that take a long time! All right if you are fourteen and spend your time in Boy Scout camp, but for us six oldies, well five and Maxime, it is hard. Bendy bits wont go into slots. Tent pegs simply do not hold in sand. Our drivers and guide have a big fire and the hookah going, putting up tents is apparently our job. The cook Hassan works hard and talks French, a useful combination for he can at least tell us dinner will take three hours to prepare. The cars are parked in a circle, with the fire in the middle, carpets are laid. Our table is set up well away from the comfort zone. I think I heard our big fat desert guide use the word hashish a few times, but could be mistaken.
Hassan lops bits off the goat hanging from the roof rack and plunges the meat into a cauldron. Oh for a short sharp whiskey…
Revolt is on hand, I demand, but sweetly, that I get help putting my tent up. Reluctantly Marwan assists but he doesn’t know how to either and the drivers certainly are not going to move from the fire.
Finally Maxime gives in and helps; he owes it to us for missing the plane. And wonder of wonders we find another car has joined us with a young Japanese man in it. Takashi, jewellery designer from Tokyo, travelling the desert alone! He has been attached to our group. He is an excellent boy scout and helps the elderly with the bendy bits of tents. Sally lights an ex-pats fire, plenty of wood lying around this site, and we hunker down waiting for the dinner gong.
Walking off for a pee, [no facilities other than nature,] I find droppings, which can only have come from gazelles. Hope we see some, live, not oven ready.
Our table is set up well away from the fire. Bitter cold, and again a ring-around-the moon. It does rain here once in every ten years or so.
Dinner, the inevitable spicy soup, more chilli every evening, it helps drown the goaty taste. Tonight couscous with some really thick soup, sort of stew, [more goat] on top. The drivers eat grilled lamb lolling around their fire. Um. I join them and try and be friends, problem is I don’t speak a word of Arabic except ‘Incha Allah,’ a necessity all day every minute of every day, a quick prayer. It is us who are tired and difficult, I am sure of that.
Saddam was hanged this morning. We all feel awful but without any language how can we apologise? It is Eid, and that is what is upsetting our crew. Politics is not what I want to discuss here as will sink well out of my depth in this fine golden sand. Oh for the gift of tongues, Marwan can manage English, Hassan the cook speaks French so that’s all right, but he seems to come from the slave class, [he is very black] and does not sit with the others round the fire but works away washing dishes and chopping onions. Slave export was always big throughout Libya and far exceeded anything we did shipping the poor souls over to America.
I think it is probably very hard for our drivers and two guides having women around, and most especially, bossy ones.
Horrible breakfast, old baguette is awful stuff, and Nescafe, powdered milk, margarine, and past its sell-by triangles of ‘La Vache qui Rire,’ though Hassan has produced a box of halva, which is fine.
Last day of the year, has it been a good year, or has it been bad? Fun work, plenty of stress and laughs and tears. Nothing exceptional. Good thing I suppose.
We are leaving at 9.00am, it is already 10.00am and the remains of the goat are still being tied to the roof-rack. Eventually we’re off, car batteries charged from each other and bed rolls piled in the back. We drive far into the Akabus mountain range. Black rocks and yellow sand, a dazzling combination. All rather like Richard Wilson's set for Aida except bigger and much, much better. The mountains tower sheer a couple of thousand feet above the sand floor and have been wind and sand blasted into he most extraordinary shapes; profiles of faces, the Duke of Wellington, Lord –Love-a-Duck, girls kissing, Mickey Mouse, turtles and cockerels. Weird cartoons jostling for attention in this howling loneliness.
We climb and descend these almost vertical mountains. Little wonder we see no camel trains, the 4 x 4 does the job quicker and I think a great deal cheaper. But of course you can’t eat or reproduce a Toyota or wear it or sew it up into tents or make hats, wallets and travelling bags from it. Or even boots and boxes. The camel to a Tourag is the same as a reindeer to a Sami, an all-purpose beast, you can ride it, eat it, use it to pull stuff, make tents and boots and robes from it. Breed from it and sleep close to it when it is cold. Yes, the desert is sprinkled here and there with the carcasses of old cars but I’ve yet to see a camel skull; wish I could find one.
We stop and clamber up some shale to see our first rock paintings and carvings Surprisingly small, little red creatures, mostly oxen about six inches high, children’s Noah’s Ark size. Several giraffes and some elephants, even a camel or two, so the pictures must be late as the camel didn’t arrive in these parts until around the time of Christ. There are even wheeled chariots and naturally lots of chaps fighting each other. All in the style of childish strip cartoons. Some rocks are incised by a sharp tool rather than being painted. Cattle and elephants, even a woman. Hey a woman in Libya, things really are looking up! Most of the paintings are bright red and some of the animals have white spots. The paintings date from around 10.000BC until around 200 AD when the savannah became desert as the last ice age retreated. Mostly the work is from around 6--3000 BC. If the pictures were not so old I doubt they would add up to much. Old is interesting, but art never changes, only technique and style, never content.
We drive and we drive and the drivers play little boy’s games of going up the steepest slopes they can find, hovering at the top, then crashing down the further side as if we were on a big dipper. Sometimes one of the cars doesn’t make the top and has to back down and try again. The cook’s wagon fails usually, we always succeed, two women are lighter than a week’s rations.
The desert is endless, the air is so dry and clear one can see a hundred miles and there are no edges. Sand gets into everything. Clapperton says it got into his sextant and was hard to clean out. The desert’s greatest understatement! Our massed Nikons are already grinding their telephoto lenses. Sand in the ears and eyes and nostrils and socks and inside one’s clothes and sleeping bag and in the soup. It is clean stuff so is really just a minor nuisance, except for camera equipment. I wonder if any of us will still be snapping away on the last day!
Surprise, surprise, Hassan has gone ahead to the lunch place and everything is ready when we roll up. Makes a change from having to wait two hours while he opens the tins of beans.
JANUARY 1st 2007
We camped early last night, around 5.00pm. Howling wind down a chimney of cliffs and almost impossible to put our silly little tents up. However rocks piled all around the inside did the trick. Full moon, again a ring round it. The locals quickly get out their mattresses, carpets, pillows and hookahs and snacks whilst we struggle with the bloody tents. The poor cook Hassan is always left out of the snug. Racialism is alas so much part of man’s lifestyle.
Through the wind a young French girl walks out of the desert. Smart little Parisienne. She has lost her group. How did she just walk out of nowhere? But she has a driver and a 4 x 4 but neither food or water. We feed and water her and her driver and a couple of extra tents are found. Maxine is gallant and takes charge of her. After supper the two of them take off in her car into the moonlight to party. Where is there a party in this middle of nothIng for goodness sake?
As it is New Year’s Eve Renate produces a big box of chocolates. Whoopee, pity they aren‘t liqueur ones… The Arabs are like my dogs, when they hear the rustling of the cellophane they creep close…
We are all in bed by 9pm, too cold, too windy to be bothered about celebrating the arrival of 2007.
So today is the first day of the New Year. Wish I were at home as feel lousy. Have the trots and a headache. It is bitter cold. I wake before dawn and peep out of my tent and see Takashi climbing the cliff face above us by torchlight. Being a good Jap he has to pray to the rising sun on New Year’s Day. We are impressed. It is cloudy and cold to start the year; thank goodness for my Madison Avenue down coat.
The cloud sits low all day and the wind is horizontal. During the morning we visit several sites with rock paintings. It seems these paintings are getting newer and newer; some look distinctly touched up by tourists…. However, all the painted figures and animals are exuberant and delightful.
Archaeologists have been at work at some of the sites and, where there is digging there is barbed wire. Fearsome stuff, more suitable for land frontiers, total alienation of visitors. It is a jolt to find fenced off places, Heritage is arriving. Buses will be next and asphalt roads and the slime of mass tourism. Understandably the locals want it all, but this wilderness will be gone forever.
Every hour or so the convoy stops for the drivers to have a huddle and a fag. When, rarely, we run into another convey much hugging ensues, it seems they are all brothers. Lots of brothers, I discover our driver has eleven. Real ones, not just friends.
Finally we are in the real desert. Absolutely nothing at all except sand. No stones, no wood, no nothing. Just vast rolling dunes, which, in the raking evening light, are exquisite. Modern architecture eat your heart out. Rolling waves of sand that never quite break. At the summit a sharp edge as though the dunes have been most carefully carved, yet they can change shape and blow away day by day, hence why we have a desert guide.
Our driver is the biggest show of them all, if you can drive up a vertical dune rather than go round it, then, that’s what Hari does.
Earlier in the day we had passed a rush habitation. No one inside. A few miles further on four camels prowling alone and then a dog barked! So strange in this silent landscape, silent except for the constant howl on three half tones from the cassette in the car. The real silence only exists once the car engines are turned off.
Last night it was full moon, incredible, every continent on the moon’s surface as clear as an ordnance survey, or a glistening mirror reflecting our world. Freezing cold, Sally says I look like a bedraggled Welsh sheep in my long duvet coat.
We watched the sunset from the top of the nearest dune; vermillion slashes dripping through gold leaf with touches of angel blue peering over the fiery clouds. Perhaps the best series of sunsets I’ve ever seen so bright, so brilliantly coloured, and quite unpaintable.
We send about 5 hours or more a day pitching camp, eating, sleeping and rolling it up again. No one has the energy for reading though we all brought excellent books. The continuous effort required to get the bloody bendy tent hoops to stay up and then to get out of six layers of clothing into pyjamas and reverse the proceedings each morning, is wearing. Haven’t washed since we started, none of us has. Baby wipes for the face and privates and that’s it.
We are stopped on a limitless plain of sand, totally flat that stretches well beyond eyesight. One of the cars is continuously stopping. Not just a fag break, a real breakdown, so rightly we’ll wait. The pace of the convoy is that of the slowest ship. The desert is not somewhere to be alone with a broken down vehicle. Toolboxes emerge and heads get under the bonnet. In an hour all is fixed. Our driver is the best mechanic. We are much comforted with this knowledge.
When we are all running again we approach an even vaster plain. Hundreds, and hundreds of miles of totally flat sand. Five vehicles speeding abreast at 80 mph into the sunset is thrilling. Suddenly all cars in unison turn left. No indication why here. I ask if a compass is used and am told it is merely local knowledge. It has always been thus, but I damned how they know as there are not even any stars in the sky yet.
We camp in a sand dell as darkness falls suddenly.
We wake to find heavy frost on everything! Tents completely frozen. Got up for the call of nature and headed over a dune. A pristine world is revealed, a fresh universe with the full moon just sinking as the sun comes up streaking across the plain. Oh but it is so cold. The drivers are invisible beneath great hillocks of blankets, but Hassan, in plastic thongs and bare feet has lit a fire and the thermos jugs are already full of boiling water. The bread is by now quite ghastly, though the drivers seem to be enjoying chocolate croissants. We toast the remains of the baguettes on sticks over the fire.
Sally is unhappy and says she is totally bored with the whole expedition, am amazed as I certainly have not be bored for a second. Cold, yes, hungry, yes, even cross, but bored, never. Desert life could be all right, feel relaxed and renewed and at peace. All good stuff, and rare as well. So much nothingness is good for the soul. Maybe Allah is as good as they keep saying he is.
We visit the ‘Agricultural Project,’ in these million square miles of sand the idea is intriguing. We expect fig tress and waving palms and herds of fat cattle, and even perhaps Adam and Eve wandering about starkers. Well, a great number of acres are very green, so that’s a change. Something wheat like is sprouting from the sand, miles of it, what is it? Couscous? Much laughter as I am told couscous comes from packets. Umm… Our Leader hasn’t a clue that couscous comes from a grown grain, though he is partially right for unlike bulgar it is a composite. It seems doubtful if pumping out water from a hundred feet below the sand is a good idea. The whole country would sink if this project were extended. It was an American idea many, many years ago and I suppose is still funded by them, though no one knows the answer to that either. Our so called guide, Marwan, doesn’t seem to know the answer to anything at all even though he tells us he is a university educated boy.
By lunchtime we arrive in Jerma, a higgledy piggeldy ribbon sort of a town along the main road. Fresh bread, yummy. Then visit a wonderful decrepit museum with everything titled in Arabic. It is the law, only Arabic maybe be used, and this goes for road signs and street names as well as museum labels. In the museum huge faded photographs of prehistoric stone carvings we haven’t seen. Am told we can’t go and see them because they are too near the frontier to Chad where kidnappers lurk. Pity, as they look better than any of he stuff we’ve seen. There are pictures of rhinos and hippos and leopards, great stuff. A room full of dusty Gaddafi mementoes, brass dishes and those gifts nobody knows what to do with. Lucky Gaddafi to have a distant museum to give them to. Roman amphorae by the mass and some tired looking local crafts. These decaying places are a joy in their decrepitude. We have the director/guide and postcard seller, [only two postcards left and they aren’t for sale,] welcoming us in perfect Italian.
Jerma is full of lots of Tourag chaps with bundles of goodies to sell. Seems such trade isn’t allowed for as a police car tools up they scurry away wrapping their bundles quickly into knapsacks. As soon as the fuzz has gone they all re-emerge and escort us across the road and down an alley to a half built breeze-block house, which serves as their market. Safe inside the bundles are unrolled on the sand floor and their wonders displayed. Tourag silver jewellery, could be silver but I don’t know how to tell, don’t think they ever had hallmarks here. Huge heavy pieces of ornament, mostly in the form of a deconstructed crucifix, though they deny it is any form of Christian symbol. Not that communicating is easy, just a few words of this and a few of that but they write in the sand the prices in Libyan dinars, euros and dollars. And their exchange rate is up to the minute. Wonderful strings of multi coloured beads, glass with the odd metal bead strung in. The beads could be any age from a thousand years B.C to last month. Apparently the beads come mostly from Niger as trade goods, but nobody knows when. Peter and I haggle and carry off a few ropes. Who cares if they are ancient or new, they are lovely.
As are the men who sell them. Tall dark and very good looking. Turbans around their heads and galabeyahs to their ankles. Purple and bright blue predominate, and naturally plastic sandals as footwear.
Lunch in the museum back yard between some palm-trees and the falling down loos, [don’t visit]. Give me a fresh sand dune any day.
Stopped early last night as there was a unanimous vote for showers. Now we are back in people lands we are given a choice. Accommodation is the usual round bamboo huts with a couple of metal beds and a 20-watt dangly light hanging in the middle of the ceiling. The stalwarts struck off for the top of the sand dunes overlooking us, me, the whimp, luxuriated in a hot shower that ran and ran and ran. In fact there was no way of turning it off. Felt like royalty after such a glorious immersion. But, and it is a big but, the camp is full of tourists, shrieking girls and shouting boys. The Japanese oddly are the noisiest. Not allowed to light a fire and it is freezing cold. Dinner is cold as well and Sally is cross. Wake up before dawn and get thrown out of the hut for rootling.
Off lovely and early, makes a change. Fantastic ride of around fifty miles to the lakes. Huge billowing dunes, which Hari rollicks up and down, a roller coaster of a journey. I think we are supposed to whoop with delight but are too old, we just grit our teeth and hold on.
The incredible shapes of the dunes that seem to breath like sleeping giants under the morning light are the best modern sculpture I’ve ever seen. Did you see them Jack before you made your swooping forms? Every surface is smoothly curved and always changing shape, even if ever so little. After a sand storm the desert becomes a different shape depending on the fierceness of the blow; hence us having a desert guide with us. But odd they haven’t a compass.
Nicole’s car has a flat tyre at the first lake, so plenty of shopping time. Love these Tourag souks laid out on turbans stretched on the sand. Their brilliant coloured Tourag clothes, their dark skin and tall statue, I feel I am in an Orientalist’s painting from the 19th century. We visit all three lakes. The top foot of water is freezing cold, but lower down the water is warm. It comes up out of the earth and is salty so no use for making the desert flower. Sally and Maxime swim. Peter and Renate shop. Takashi takes photos using one or other of his complicated tripods.
We visit all three lakes and they are all much the same, look nice and being salty no nasties such as water snakes live in them. Walk a mile or so to look at a Tourag village. Cone shaped circular huts made out of dried palm fronds, tottering witches hats blowing in the wind. I never thought of palm trees as a building material, but here they are used for everything. In mud buildings doors are made from the trunks of palm trees, semi circular planks tied together with strips of camel hide. As I said, nothing much has changed since Clapperton’s time.
Much heavy bargaining again despite the guide-book insisting that in wonderful socialist Libya bargaining simply does not exist. 30%-40% off asking price seems to secure the deal.
What an invention the 4 x 4 was. It has opened the world up. Much alas I fear. Chelsea tractors in Chelsea are nasty but ultimately just more vehicles in jams, but here in the desert they are changing everything. Fine with just a few of us tooling about but imagine thousands and thousand of 4 x 4s swooping around. Mass tourism will come, everyone understandably wants it as it brings much money, but at what a cost.
Return to camp Africa for a last lunch. Dear Hassan has done his best with chips and omelettes, both cold. At least he no longer brings us Pepsi!
Into the 4 x 4s for the last leg back to Shaba. Gaddafi has done so much for his country. Houses are being built everywhere, which the government pays for. Same style housing as of old, flat roofed single storied but now with cement mixed into the mud so the houses do not fall down if it rains. Some houses have added frills like balconies and weird arched entrances and as always in the Arab world, wonderful metal gates decorated with abstract patterns and flowers, and every house with a whopping satellite dish atop. Alas the planning is suburban and instead of houses nestling tight together like honeycomb they are all laid out in rows with a patch of sand surrounding each residence.
The Fezzan is green, well, sort of greenish and as we whoosh along the highway we pass lorries piled three times their own height with bales of fodder. Tottering hardly describes them; I breathe a sigh of relief every time we scud safely past one of these without it rolling over on us.
Sheba, and at last a camel market. The largest in Libya. I expected a hundred beasts at best but there are thousand upon thousand upon thousand. Marwan says more than five thousand, and a goodly smell of camel hovers over all. Big camels, baby camels, black ones and white ones, old ones and young ones. They lower their great heads as we walk among them, their long eyelashes discreetly covering their limpid eyes. Sally suggests that the collective noun for camels is either an Arrogance of Camels, or a Condescension of Camels. Just right.
Peter, as always, is at low level shooting between the creature’s legs. As far as the eye can see camel legs like birch tree trunks. A few pens of goats and a few small horses. We price out a camel, £500 for a female. Luckily to transport a brace of camels home would be complicated and the damp of northern Europe would rot their feet. Am content to wander amidst these warm and gentle animals giving them the occasional hug, even though they all suffer from fearful halitosis.
To midtown Sheba, a sprawling new metropolis, the sort of place you come to buy tractor bits and most especially blankets. Huge acrylic blankets in zip up plastic cases. We have been sleeping under them in the desert and jolly snug they are as well. There is even the odd woman out shopping, well wrapped up and hidden from lecherous male view. Check out a galabeyah shop, nice but not nice enough.
We repair to a rather awful restaurant for supper where two televisions blare as well as the radio. Maxime finds the right button and switches them off. Then the bad news: No Planes to Tripoli! Or rather it is full. I think Marwan and his brother have no political clout to get their clients on board. So once again we are faced with driving through the night. A sweet driver, careful and fast, but hell all the same. Sally sleeps, the only one of us who has managed to get horizontal. 790 kilometres to go…
We are again stopped as each police barrier for papers and at one they try and load some grannies into our car. I think Marwan tells them we have the plague and they back off and we speed away into the night.
We stop again at the flickering palm tree Strip. No one wants to eat, just queue for the ghastly loo. An hour from Tripoli the street lights start. Avenues of them snaking away in the undulating nowhere. What a sign of prosperity to illuminate the entire desert thus!
We hit the Tripoli hotel at 3.30am asking for 8.00am wake-up calls.
Groggily we make breakfast and pile into yet more cars; there seem to be any amount of cars and drivers available. A suburban road leads out of Tripoli, electrics looped everywhere. It is warm after the freezing desert, and it is raining. Eventually the road runs through rolling low green hills covered with olive trees. No sign of anything that could be called architecture, least of all old architecture, just new cement villas of a hideous nature. North facing lands always seem to be grim, the light is in the wrong place and the sea in the distance looks menacing.
An hour and a half later we roll into the Leptis Magna car park and our guide shows up. Sally has forgotten our guidebook, maps are essential for such a site, and she nips back to the car. By the time she returns he guide and the others have gone. Happily we can do without a guide; after all it is hardly the first Roman site we have visited! Maxime joins us and we spend a lovely morning wandering about the ruins avoiding other tour groups, mostly Italians. Odd how people return to their old colonies, even if they ceased to be colonies long before they were born; the Brits to India and Egypt, the French to Vietnam and here the Italians.
Leptis is far more broken than I expected. Asphodel and clover bury more than half the site. What is still complete is the huge theatre, how much has been rebuilt is hard to say, but it looks original. I have never been so aware of how fascist Roman architecture is; it might all have been run up by Mussolini himself. But then the Romans were into show off building, incredible engineering but no heart. The inscriptions are the best thing at Leptis. Wonderful carved inscriptions, which Sally reads to us, my Latin is almost non-existent. No one has ever bettered Roman typography and the lettering style is still consistently used by those who are still able to draw such magnificent geometry.
Hadrian’s baths are more or less complete, hot, cold, tepid and very hot, it must have been lovely in the middle of all this sand to wallow in fresh clear water. The forum is enormous, Roman things are enormous. Septimus Severus, who built Leptis Magna, was a local boy and certainly succeeded in showing off to all how well he had done in the world. It s all very grand and rather awful, better as weed encrusted ruins than when all the pomp was shining new. What is good is that the whole site runs out, unimpeded by any fence, right onto the beach and one can paddle in the shallows between sessions reading portentious inscriptions.
Lunch in a local restaurant, the best meal yet. Superb lentil soup flavoured with cardamom, saffron and chilli, followed by grilled fish and lovely salads with creamy tahini sauce. A great sense of warmth and well being.
A quick flip round the Leptis museum, notable for its resemblance to the New York Guggenheim, especially with a three floor high painting of Gaddafi gracing the atrium.
Then on to Villa Selena, a grand Byzantine villa of circa 600 A.D hanging over the beach. I have never seen such a complete Byzantine villa before. Lots of domestic sized rooms with high domed ceilings and water cisterns in the corners. Everywhere the most marvellous pavements of mosaic, intricate and undulating patterns of scenes of rural life with dashing animals, deer and hares and foxes and fish together with the odd donkey. This is cosy domestic style, large, but I feel that if a few roofs were repaired I could move in immediately. A house for comfort and joy rather than for show off.
A bitter howling on shore wind keeps us moving, I am glad I am not sailing, Tripoli harbour is a hundred miles away and Leptis harbour silted up centuries ago. I wonder where all those corsairs worked out of?
Need a loo and am directed to a palm wood bothy hanging over the bluff, antique certainly and hardly private as the walls have gaps for the wind to rush through. But flowers grow round it and the view is great and it certainly serves well at the moment.
On the road back to the city we stop to buy honey, it is stacked in glass pyramids, which the setting sun shines through making the jars look like gold stained glass windows. Artistic photographs are taken.
By the time we reach the gates of Tripoli’s Medina is its dark. The main square is the only bit of Italianate architecture left and not much of that as what remains is grotty, broken and covered with neon lights. Not a patch on the Italian architecture of Rodos with its glories of Art Deco.
Outside the entrance to the Mediana a fleet of plastic rose enhanced white carriages pulled by white horses stand waiting for customers. Two tiny gazelles are tied to one of the wheels. I am horrified. Later I spot their owners taken them on a lead to graze on the green grass in the centre of the square. When they return I feed one gazelle left over baklava from my coat pocket, he/she is delighted. Such a soft sweet nose nuzzling in my hand with no show of fear. How I would love to take them home but just can’t see how to manage the transport, even if these wee creatures would be considerably easier than camels.
The Medina is shutting up for the night as we wander in past the huge hoarding of Gadaffi, which announces the celebrations of his 37th year as Leader. A vast artwork all hand painted, tanks and aeroplanes and joyous populace waving flags. I would love to paint such a work. Apparently he has a new one done every year. Perhaps I could offer my services, it would be such fun to do
I have run out of dinars but a nice old gent stringing pearls is happy to change my money for me, what is left of it. I buy a bathrobe with a lace collar. Nice. We repair to a cake shop, surprisingly hard to find, as another huge meal would lie too heavy. Then mint tea and to bed to dream of a long hot bath come the dawn.
Ha, bloody ha, the room phone is broken so I get no wake up call. The room has phone and computer and DVD player and fridge and radio and lots of knobs. Nothing at all works. I suppose the four stars were acquired by written work. Renate wakes me banging on my door to see if I am alive. Record get up, ten minutes to dress and pack and hit the foyer. Peter and Renate had worse problems and were locked in their room and had to be rescued by the hotel manager in the small hours with the help of a crow bar. Perhaps we better try five star next visit. Peter sweetly thrusts a piece of toast in my hand as we leave…
The museum is wall-to-wall Japanese folk sheepishly following their guides. Thankfully we are three minutes ahead of them at the ticket booth and thereafter can go the wrong way round the rooms. Hundreds, literally tons, of Roman sculptures. Dull and efficient work, but I would be happy to be able to carve marble that well. Then to gorge our eyes on the most amazing mosaics. Rooms full of them, on the walls, on the floors, round the doors. All very late Roman, the sort of stuff one might have found in Harrods around 1900. Tiny, tiny tessurae, they must have cost Septimus a bomb. Imagine cutting coloured stones into thumb nail sized squares without a power jigsaw… But the life depicted is clear and exact. Parties, and picnics, fishing trips, architecture and garlands, and beasts of all kinds leaping through the pictures. A good museum, except for the Libyan rule that information may only be written in Arabic.
the souk for last minute shopping, dinars all gone and have to borrow
from Peter to buy a few pairs of marvellous cotton be-flowered bloomers
at 20p a pair. Irresistible for wearing on Lindos beach.
AFTER THOUGHTS. Rubbish is a growing problem. Roadsides are completely full of it. Sacks are left in the desert where it would be easy enough to bury it a yard down. Drivers throw stuff out of the car windows. Lying is used to save face. But such extremely kind people and a sense of total honesty and security. I felt I could leave my wallet and camera on a table and come back and find it a month later. No pick pockets. No beggars. Oil lubricates the system, no doubt dreadful things happen to law-breakers and thieves behind closed gates. We were all too ‘fraidy cat to talk politics. Great warmth from the friends I travelled with.
And all the while Gaddafi smiles down from posters and out of shop windows and on petrol pumps and in markets, on lorries and buses. He minds his people everywhere night and day.