Officially known as “The Great Socialist Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”
07.10.2009 - 11.10.2009
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Area – comparative: slightly larger than Alaska
Land boundaries: total: 4,348km
Border countries: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia
Population: 6,000,000 give or take
Today we crossed the border in to Libya. Up at 5am for a 6am brekky and 7am departure. It was a 3 hour drive from Marsa Matruh to the border and then a very long and drawn out wait for the formalities. It was actually harder to leave Egypt than it was to get in to Libya!! Got a 2EGP stamp on my departure card and then we were given our own line to get our passport stamped – sped up proceedings a bit. There was probably 1km between the Egyptian office and Libya office but they refused to let us, as foreigners, walk this space between (even though all the Egyptians and Libyans were). We had body thermal testing done at the Libyan office – there is an obvious fear of swine flu. Everyone had their USD$1000 at the ready but this wasn’t checked and nor was our luggage (which we’d assumed would be searched for illegal items like alcohol). I always have an excited fear of border crossings but, while this one was in a hot, windy wasteland with rubbish everywhere and took us a good 4 hours, it was pretty straightforward and smooth all things considered.
Said goodbye to our Egypt driver who was so good – everyone gave him a handsome tip – and hello to our Libyan guide. The only way to visit Libya is with an escorted tour. A couple of us were busting to go to the loo before making our way the 140kms to Tobruk. The women’s loo at the border was locked so the guide stood guard while a couple of the girls went to the mens – but there were quite a few of us and the loos were fairly average so the guide suggested we squat behind the loo block. I can imagine it would have looked pretty funny to see 4 western women squatting in the sand, giggling their heads off. To make matters worse we were right next to a prayer room which I’m sure was highly inappropriate!
We visited the Tobruk (Commonwealth) War Cemetry were Lee had someone to look up so we all helped her on the hunt. We were lucky enough to find the gravestone we think – the man’s she was given was BL Jenkins and we found WL Jenkins so we’re hoping that B is for Bill and short for William.
After that we stopped at a touristy restaurant in Tobruk (not that anywhere is touristy because there are hardly any tourists in Libya but let’s just say it wasn’t a local place). It was about 4pm and I’d been snacking on roasted watermelon seeds (delicious!) for most of the day so I decided to wait to eat until dinner. A couple of the others were of the same mind and we had a wander around town which was I really enjoyed. It is very evident that they don’t see a lot of westerners but they couldn’t have been nicer. It’s very conservative and many of the women are totally covered with only eye slits in the birkas.
Our first view of the Colonel...
We changed some USD to Libyan dinar – I got 125LD for UD$100. The money changer was such a charming man and gave me a bracelet – ‘baksheesh’ he said although I’m pretty sure that it should have been me giving him baksheesh. Anyway, I love my bracelet.
We visited the Australian ‘Fig Tree’ Hospital overlooking the plain of Tobruk and I plucked a leaf as a momento. Must remember to visit the fig tree at Melbourne’s Shine of Remembrance which was grown from an off shoot of the original fig tree (which is still there).
It was getting towards 5.30 by this stage and we still had a good 300kms to Cyrene. The roads are not nearly as good as Egypt although not too bad either – single lane with no lines and generally paved unless there is road work. Saying that it was a bit more of a terrifying drive as there was a lot of livestock (donkeys, camels, dogs, humans) on the road which nearly came a cropper and as night descended it was reassuring to see that Libyans don’t particularly like to drive with their lights on. Apparently this is relatively common practice throughout northern Africa - they believe that having your lights affects the battery… Needless to say, my preferred view was out a side window - I didn’t look forward much.
Not a lot to see – the Libyans love their rope lighting with random houses in the middle of nowhere lit up like Xmas trees. When we arrived in Cyrene we noticed that there were full streets shut off with hundreds and hundreds of lights adorning them. Apparently this is for weddings which go on for at least 3 days and so many people are invited that there is no venue big enough to contain them all so streets are used. Like it!
Our hotel is great – especially because I’VE GOT MY OWN ROOM! And we’re here for 2 nights so I’VE GOT MY OWN ROOM FOR 2 NIGHTS! Pays to let all the other single chicks go first – karma my friends. We didn’t arrive until 9.30 which is just a bit too late for dinner – a couple of the guys were going to have lentil soup but I couldn’t be fagged.
We had an 8.30am start. First up Siad, our Libyan guide, took us to a cave called Haua Fteah, the largest cave in the Mediterranean basin. Many artefacts, including human bones, from prehistoric Libya indicating that this cave was inhabited 80,000 years ago.
The next area we visited was Ras al-Hillal – beautiful hillsides dropping down to the coast with some gorgeous scenery. First stop was Shallal Ras al-Hillal ‘rainfall’ (our guide’s term for waterfall). Then a beautifully preserved Byzantine church in L’Atrun which stands on a bluff overlooking the crashing waves of the Med. The walls of the church are still intact and there are marble pillars strewn around. Just outside the walls are abandoned grave covers – and further still are the catacombs – holes in the hillside used as places of burial.
We then backtracked to Ras al-Hillal Church which wasn’t in great nick but had a few mosaics and, again, a great view over the ocean.
We had lunch (lamb kofta roll) at a hotel outside the entrance to Apollonia, one of the top 5 ancient cities in Libya with a wealth of Roman, Greek and Byzantine buildings. It was the former port for Cyrene and is beautifully located along the shoreline of the Med. There was a gorgeous beach and clear blue sea – Ryan went for a swim. Spent a good 2 hours wandering the site – it was really incredible. Most of what remains today is from the Byzantine era (from the 5th to 6th centuries AD) when Apollonia was known as the ‘city of churches’. There is the western, central and eastern churches, the rubble of the Byzantine baths, Roman baths, gymnasium, Byzantine Duke’s palace, olive oil and fish tanks (cut into the sea cliff face, Greek acropolis (tombs) and a fantastic Greek theatre which has the sea as it’s dramatic back drop.
The paths were strewn with pottery shards. There are, apparently, underwater ruins, including a ship – much of the harbor fell into the sea as a result of the earthquakes (and tsunami) of AD 365 which was so powerful that it literally bought centuries of civilization crashing down. The cities of Apollonia, Cyrene and Leptis Magna were reduced to rubble.
We stopped at the hotel for a drink and I asked Siad to sing the Muslim ‘Call to Prayer’ for me while I taped it. (Said also told me that my name translated to Arabic is Sama. He’d also started calling me Ma Hibi – ‘my love’ – which was slightly concerning given that he’s well and truly married. Maybe that’s what he calls all the girls!)
Siad told us he had a surprise for us and we hopped in to the bus. 40 minutes later and deep into the Libyan countryside we were wondering where the hell he was taking us! Paul had his GPS and found a place in the Lonely Planet that he thought it might have been – he was right. We pulled up at a locked gate, Siad collected the key and we found ourselves in the stone temple, looking at the only pre-Greek Libyan artefact discovered in northeastern Libya. Human figures, faces and animals carved in to the rock. The sun was going down and the temple was bathed in a gorgeous light which made for some lovely photos.
Back to the hotel and I spent some time uploading my diary and photos (one by bloody one), dinner with the group, more photo uploading then bed.
9 OCTOBER – HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOIRA!
We started out early to Cyrene, Libya’s most complete ancient Greek city. It covers a huge area over a number of levels and we literally had it to ourselves with the ability to clamber over everything and touch everything even though it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Only 3 years ago they discovered further ruins outside the known perimeter of the ancient city so it is certain there are significant further undiscovered ruins underground. I won’t go into a lot of detail as I’m sure the pictures below speak for themselves.
We then drove a couple of hours to Qasr Libya, an incredible collection of Byzantine mosaics which were on the floor of two churches discovered in 1957 by dam workers. Being a Friday (the Libyan/muslim equivalent of our Saturday) museums are meant to be shut but Said worked his magic and we were allowed in. We were so pleased not to miss these really, really beautiful mosaics. You really shouldn’t miss this site if you go to Libya. In fact, just go to Libya - you will love it.
We then drove a short distance and crossed the Wadi al-Kuf (a very modern, very high bridge) which wasn’t very exciting and then drove on to Tolmeita (Ptolemais) and had a delicious cous cous with veg for lunch. Half the group were ruined out so went for a walk on the beach and/or swim and half of us went with Siad and checked out the ruined city of Tolmeita. It didn’t rival Cyrene but had a couple of distinguishing features like the first cardo (main north-south road) which ran from the water to the mountains and the decumanus (main east-west road) with obvious grooves from chariots and carriages. There were incredible cavernous cisterns beneath the floor of the agora (market place) and a small Odeon (small theatre) which had a sunken pit which the Roman’s transformed in to a swimming pool and swimming/dancing ladies used to entertain the 500 strong crowd (the earliest form of synchronized swimming?)
We were pretty dusty, hot and had it after that so I slept for much of the way during the bus trip to Benghazi (Libyan buses not quite as spacious as Egypt – almost go so far as to say knee bustingly uncomfy). We didn’t get to Benghazi until around 8pm – enough time for Judy and I to find our room, have a shower and join the group for a quick dinner (Arabian salad). Bed to the sound of the street below and the waves of Benghazi harbor.
10 OCTOBER – HAPPY BIRTHDAY SOPHIE K!
Early, early morning – 4.30am start, quick brekky then hot foot it to airport for flight to Tripoli which was seamless. We flew in a Libyan airlines jet which felt pretty flash. I was sitting next to Judith which was fun.
Our new guide, Nouri, and driver met us. We dumped our bags at our hotel (al-Rehab!!!!) and quickly started a walking tour of Tripoli’s medina and old city. Being a Saturday it was very quiet and not a lot of shops open but good to get a feeling for the place. It certainly doesn’t have the color, vibrancy, size or urgency of a Moroccan souk but had it’s own qualities and it was nice to feel unhassled and all items at set price (no haggling). The people of Libya are surprisingly lovely – it is very common to be welcomed to Libya and asked how you are enjoying it.
Here are some photos of Tripoli's medina:
After the walking tour we had the afternoon free. I had a little sleep back in the room Lisa and I are sharing (which, bizarrely, has no window) and then, when Lisa came back after about 2 hours, we set out to the medina again and spent the afternoon wandering.
Here's Lisa with a wedding shawl - similar to the one she bought.
Weird photo boothy things with poor little gazelle in Green Square (green everywhere - Qadaffi's favourite color in case you didn't know)
I loved this muslim barbie luggage
Dinner with the group was at a touristy restaurant, Athar Restaurant, in the shade of the Arch of Marcus Aurelius. Had algarra, their speciality, with seafood (although could have had baby camel – anything with the word baby in front of it doesn’t feel right to eat which is why I’m glad lamb is lamb and not baby sheep). The algarra is cooked in its own clay pot and broken in front of you with a hammer. Seriously good!
There were, as expected, issues with the bill and then we all wandered back to the hotel. Lisa and I did our washing and hit the hay.
SUNDAY 11 OCTOBER
The morning was spent in the very impressive Jamahiriya Museum. The ground floor was probably the stand out with a good overview of the collection. Most of the exhibits are labeled in Arabic but we had our guide with us who gave a fantastic tour. He, like Said and every other Libyan I have met, is very proud of his country.
The car Qadaffi used at the time of the revolution
The Three Graces
Tripoli is a gorgeous city and, with a population of 1000000, it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Many of the buildings have an Italian feel and there is a lot of white wash – which I’m sure helped with the “White Bride of the Mediterranean” accolade.
The afternoon was free to do as we wished. I wandered around the streets with Lisa – we came across a fantastic market and took lots of photos of the stalls. Vegetables, fruit, fresh herbs, olives and pickles, meat (lots of offal), fish and a couple of quite horrific ‘pet’ stores in the middle. There were some rare and exotic animals – porcupine, eagle, falcon, baby crocodiles, turtles as well as chooks, dogs, cats, etc. Poor little things.
I would love to be able to tell you that this was alcolohic beer.... I was very thirsty by this time...
Bought some Qaddafi paraphernalia which is worn proudly by the Libyans. Last month was the 40 year celebration since Qaddafi had seized power and there are photos of Qaddafi everywhere in empowered poses with the number 40 emblazoned everywhere. I made the mistake of calling his ‘Mister’ Qaddafi in the museum and was quickly corrected by a guard, “no, no, no – it is Colonel”.
I stopped at a Berber woman selling gold – some gold wedding bands among her trinkets. I’d been meaning to buy a wedding ring before I left home so when I tried one of hers on she tried to set me up with her son who was at the next stall. She tried to convince me that I should go with him to mecca! Well, I’ve never been so certainly worth consideration.
I fell slightly in love with a silver and amber olive tree at Mukhtar al-Mbaka & Sons. It was 500LD (at the moment the Libyan dinar is literally dollar for dollar with the Australian dollar) so a pretty hefty price tag but I like to buy something memorable from each country (instead of lots of little crap things). Anyway, it was quite awkward and cumbersome and would have been a bit of a nightmare to pack but man oh man it was so beautiful. Mukhtar had made it himself about 7 years ago and told me he could make a smaller one for me if I had 7 days. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time in Tripoli and the pros outweighed the cons so I decided not to get it but here’s a photo for you anyway.
I bought a couple of things from Mukhtar’s shop anyway – a Tuareg pendant that is worn by brides, a little box in the shape of a pear for trinkets, a pretty rugged ring and they threw in a lovely silver charm.
Instead of meeting the group back at the hotel I had organized to wait at the entrance of the medina as we were planning on eating in the souk somewhere. Ryan came and got me as the restaurant was closed and it was decided that we’d eat closer to the hotel – we ate in the equivalent of a Libyan fast food joint (falafel, faul and a dodgy salad). Nouri then took a few of the crew on a walking tour to a newish mosque but I was walked out and headed back to bed.
Green Square at night...
A COUPLE OF RANDOM LIBYAN PHOTOS
Typical queue for cheap, cheap, cheap petrol - and standard pump
Samples of Qadaffi posters - literally thousands of them throughout Libya....