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Across Libya with the desert fox
Financial Times, March 2005
They say that Djinn live at Kaf Ejoul. Known as Devil’s Hill in the Tuareg tongue, this blackened stump of mountain is just a short distance from the Saharan town of Ghat and looms over the new airstrip built to bring tourists into Libya’s inaccessible south west corner. Whether it is those ancient spirits, celebrated in the tale of Aladdin’s lamp and mentioned in the Koran, or something else, Kaf Ejoul is certainly a strange place.
Heinrich Barth, one of the great Saharan explorers, almost lost his mind here after reaching the summit in 1850 on a trip commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society. Having become lost, and run out of water he slit open one of his wrists and drank his own blood to stave off thirst. He was found close to death just 24 hours after beginning the ascent. More recently, Turkish contractors, hired to complete the runway heard the ghostly echoes of singing and music. They fled after five nights. Not surprisingly, our guide said he would not go there.
Kaf Ejoul marks the gateway to the Acacus Mountains, a vast expanse of sandy wadis rimmed with shattered basalt hills. In this dessicated landscape baked by 100 degree heat, no bird or animal stirs and only the occasional thorn bush clings to life. Yet 10,000 years ago this region was a lush savannah graced by giraffes, elephants and cattle. The proof is the astonishing rock art left behind by the neolithic peoples who lived here. In thousands of clefts and caverns drawings in rich ochres and reds chronicle their daily lives, from running and hunting to preparing for weddings and plaiting hair. The artistry is stunning: a baby elephant, its stumbling gait caught in just a few deft strokes; a slender giraffe in perfect proportion and a menacing crocodile, ready for the unwary.
The ancients moved around on foot or on horse-drawn chariots. Our group of ten have four wheel drive Toyota Landcruisers and Range Rovers. Still, this is unforgiving terrain. Shimmering dunes present formidable obstacles, and our driver Abdul Saleh is equal to them. This lean off-road warrior is nicknamed fenak, desert fox, for his extraordinary driving skill. Gunning the engine on his 12-year old Range Rover he hurtles straight towards a shimmering wall of sand 700 feet high. As the engine screams we hit 125kph and tear up the side of the dune. Impetus is everything here. Fenak picks a line which keeps us rising obliquely on finely rippled sand, a sign that the going is firm enough beneath. The car is heeled over 20 degrees as we race for the top with the motor screeching at 4,500 revs. There are no seat belts, so among us passengers every arm and every leg is braced in case the vehicle flips. Groans of terror can be heard from the back seat. Fenak, driving barefoot, changes down once as the crest appears and turns hard to take the final 30 yards straight up. As momentum fails he fishtails the car with rapid turns on the wheel to increase grip. These are crucial moments. Losing speed can dig you into the sand and make further climbing impossible, but too much speed risks sailing you over the knife edged crest and into mid-air. Finally we get there. Fenak hits the brakes as the Range Rover crests the ridge. A moment ago we could see only sky. Now there is only sand, and a fall so steep that until we begin our descent we cannot see the bottom. Fenak edges the car over and dives at an impossible angle, braking just before he hits flat ground to avoid destroying the suspension.
This is just the first of many such dune crossings. Later, in the Ubarri Sand Sea, we spent a day and a half racing over endless liquid mountains that writhe west to east, and into whose hidden dips the vehicles disappear from view for minutes at a time. These feats of driving are largely best done early or late in the day, when the firm butterscotch-coloured sand can be distinguished from the treacherous yellowy fishfash, a dry quicksand which can swallow a vehicle to the axles. At noon, the sun’s glare makes telling the two apart impossible. Dunes are best crossed from windward, where the sand is both firmer and shallower. Yet these are shifting and treacherous obstacles. Even a little wind sends a fine spindrift sailing from each sinuous crest, masking firm and soft going alike. When the fierce Ghibli blows from the south, as it can do for days at a time, you are much more likely to end up pushing the car than riding in it.
Libya boasts two outstanding Roman ruins, Sabratha and Leptis Magna, of which the latter is the better preserved. Unlike most Roman remains where it is hard to visualise the city that once stood there, Leptis retains both the grandeur and the detail. No modern billionaire ever had a health spa to rival the Hadrianic baths at Leptis, where fine mosaics, smooth marble floors and gigantic Egyptian granite columns combined to form a cathedral of recreation. Around the ruins are a basilica, an enormous colonnaded forum, and the arch of Septimus Severus, the locally-born Roman governor under whose rule the city reached its most grandiose. Painstaking work by Libyan and Italian archeologists since the 1930s have allowed us to see the city as it was meant to be, though damage clearly remains. Apart form the usual sack of such wealthy cities by the Vandals in the 5th century and Berber raiders in the 6th, there was the wholesale theft by the 17th century French consul to Tripoli, Claude le Maire. While successful in stealing many marble monuments, which were destined to grace many French imperial buildings, he was defeated by the sheer size and weight of many of the granite columns. Too heavy to ship then, he must have wondered how the Romans had hauled them from Egypt nearly two thousand years earlier. They now lie, like so many giant logs, on the beach pointing out over the Mediterranean.
- Travel to Libya in this era of rapprochement presents no great problems. Tourism is officially encouraged, and the Libyans themselves will receive you with characteristic friendliness. Your travel company can arrange for visas to be available on arrival, though you must present a passport without Israeli stamps.
- Good accommodation is available in the larger cities, and there are some excellent restaurants.
- Currency exchange facilities are limited and credit cards unknown.
- Alcohol is banned, and should not be brought in to the country.
- While women travellers should be aware of sensibilities about dress, Libya is much more relaxed that Saudi Arabia or Iran. Headscarves are not needed except when visiting mosques, and most Libyans have now got used to seeing T shirts and (longish) shorts.
Since this article was written, travel to Libya is no longer advisable. Check with www.gov.uk/ for the latest situation.