Into the Sahara
11.10.2009 - 16.10.2009
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MONDAY 12 OCTOBER
Left Tripoli in the early morning for the trip to Leptis Magna. It was once the largest and greatest Roman city in north Africa and is seriously impressive. Because it is constructed of limestone it is better preserved than some of the other ruins we’ve seen. Our guide, Mohammed, was very knowledgeable and quite theatrical.
Leptis Magna is known to be the archeological highlight of Libya. It is huge and consists of what would have been enormous grand buildings - bath complexes, forums for entertainment and market areas. The Arch of Septimus Severus has been restored to its former glory and Mohammed was able to show us (with images in his green book) how buildings would have looked in their hey day – the Nymphaeum, Severan Forum and Basilica, the Old Forum and Market and Theatre. We ate a picnic lunch by the port and then drove to check out the amphitheatre and hippodrome.
After lunch we drove through the Berber region of Jebel Nafusa (Western Mountains) where the landscape started changing to rocky outcrops and agricultural land (beautiful ancient olive groves).
We arrived at Gharyan at dusk and stopped at the pottery stalls which the town is famous for.
We then made our way to the troglodyte Berber house we were staying at for the night. The dwellings are built 10 metres under ground to provide an escape from the winter cold and summer heat (they remain at 20 degrees throughout the year). The family who built the ‘house’ inhabited it with eight other families but unfortunately none of the troglodyte houses are lived in anymore – this particular family now live above the underground house in a modern house and have converted the old house into a unique tourist experience. As with everything in Libya, while it is tourist destination they haven’t as yet grasped the concept of tourism, as such but I’m sure it’s not far away. Unfortunately none of the troglodyte houses are lived in anymore. We ate dinner in the traditional style (sitting cross legged on the floor) – the standard salad (cabbage, tomatoe, couple of olives and a slice of lemon or lime), followed by soup (either lentil or Libyan – which is a bit like lamb minestrone) then, for a main, lamb or chicken with some veggies and either rice or cous cous. This has been the typical meal throughout Libya but, unfortunately, I think we are missing out on some traditional Libyan cuisine as they seem to think that we’d like to eat chicken with rice instead. Hopefully they’ll get the picture for future tourists.
There were about 5 rooms in the cave and Judy, Kate, Paul, Lisa and I shared one – we were on mattresses on the floor surrounded by sheep skins and crusty, dusty looking artefacts. I was pretty sure that if I was going to be bitten by bed bugs this would be the night – thankfully that didn’t happen but I was dive bombed by an attentive mozzie all night. Only 2 overflowing loos for 14 of us and no shower – it was a lot of fun though. Great experience.
TUESDAY 13 OCTOBER
Long driving day today – 9 hours. Our first stop at Qasr al-Haj, a circular and completed enclosed fortified grain castle of Kabaw and one of Libya’s finest examples of Berber architecture. It is three levels high and there are small cave like ‘rooms’ that stored grain and there are some which have jars for olive oil. It was quite an incredible place.
We stopped for a picnic lunch at Nalut which has its own gorgeous qasr. You can see it sitting on top of the bluff as you drive up the gorge. It was different to the Kabaw qasr as is more like a fortified village – there were more elements to it. Again, you can climb all over it but outside the beautifully preserved grainery the qasr was falling into disrepair from rain and time. It would be hard to preserve given that it’s made mostly from mud. We also checked out the olive press here and made use of the facilities before getting back on the road.
We headed straight into the Sahara on the next part of the trip – through Sinoun and on to Derj where a couple of the guys bought jewellery from a Mali Tuareg.
We arrived quite late in Ghadames – a palm fringed oasis town in the Sahara which was a major stop between north, south, east and west on the caravan route.
Dinner at the hotel restaurant (most delicious salad I’ve had all trip – I think there was dill in the cabbage) followed by the usual fussing over the bill. Judy and I managed to make minced meat of our shower rail which promptly detached itself from the wall as soon as we’d hung our washing on it. There was also some rather major issues with the loo and regurgitation – I won’t elaborate….
WEDNESDAY 14 OCTOBER
We started off today with a quick sprint through Ghadames museum – as with most of these main sites you are delegated a guide for the duration. The cost has been 6LD for entry to everything (it used to be 3LD per person, 5LD if you wanted to use a camera or 10LD if you wanted to video. Thankfully this has changed to a flat fee of 6LD for everything but none of the places have change so, in hindsight, it may have been easier for them to make it 5LD or 10LD. Just my two bobs worth).
Ghadames most famous handicrafts are the embroidered slippers in bright colors which have been produced by the Bin Yedder family for centuries. I bought some (50LD) from Mr Bin Yedder himself at the family shop/workshop close to the museum. They’re very gorgeous.
We then did a wonderful walking tour through the UNESCO World Heritage listed old city – traditional houses still owned by the original families (but not lived in anymore) with a maze of covered walk ways. The houses are made from gypsum and sundried mud bricks with ceilings reinforced with palm trunks. There is a lot of restoration work going on (by traditional methods) but it feels like a place that time forgot. I’ve never been anywhere like it.
There was no way I would attempted the labyrinth without a guide. The covered alley ways rely entirely on natural light which is provided by sky lights – 10 metres high in some places.
We had lunch in a traditional Ghadames house – the house was really the woman’s domain as, in keeping with traditional Islamic society, women led a life of concealment in Ghadames. After climbing some stairs we entered the main room which was two stories high with white washed highly decorated walls and a sky light at the top. There were small mirrors in the walls to make use of the only source of external light. There was a canopied room off the main room with an arched doorway which a woman used to receive her husband on their wedding night.
Upstairs there was a bedroom or two and more stairs led you to the roof where there was a kitchen. The roof had another interesting purpose in that all the roofs were connected by little stairs – these were used by the women to pass from house to house. A woman could walk across Ghadames without being seen by a man!
Lunch was much the same as a lot of the meals have been (soup, salad, lamb with veggies and cous cous) for 15LD but it was a lovely experience sitting cross legged on the floor – four of us each around a square piece of plastic on the ground sharing food.
That evening we went out to watch the sunset from large sand dunes on the Libyan, Tunisian and Algerian border. The sand was so fine and we were treated to a lovely view. Paul marched all the way to the top of a dune over yonder and we cheered from afar. Apart from the 4X4 dickheads who hooned up and down the dunes spoiling our serenity it was so beautiful and the perfect end to a great day.
Judith & Lee
Judy & Kate
Mahmud beating Ryan to the top of the dune....
PAUL'S MOMENTOUS CLIMB!
We got some supplies at a supermarket on the way back to the hotel and ate chips and drank non-alcoholic beer (which, unfortunately, didn’t have a placebo affect) while admiring the stars on a beautiful warm night.
THURSDAY 15 OCTOBER – HAPPY BIRTHDAY LISSIE VON STEIGER!
Another early start backtracking to the coast – we passed through Derj, Sinoun and Nalut again. From there we went up to the coast to Zuara and then on to Sabratha. It was a pretty uneventful trip but went quickly. Ryan and I walked to the beach and had a swim on the edge of the ruins. We were sharing the water with some quite substantial jelly fish so I didn’t stay in overly long. Lovely to get in the water though.
Walked through the back streets on our way back to the hotel – Ryan was a horticulturist so he was photographing some beautiful olive trees. I approached some women and a gaggle of kids who were picking beans in their veggie garden for dinner. Next minute they grab a member of their family who is an English teacher – she was a lovely girl and introduced us to everyone. The kids kept picking the egg plant and giving it to us – it looked so delicious and we were sorry to have to give it back. One of the girls, who is studying medicine, took a photo of us with her mobile. They were gorgeous.
Had a delicious dinner at a Turkish restaurant with the group (yes, I know, it’s our last night in Libya and we’re eating in a Turkish restaurant – maybe on my last night in Turkey next year I’ll eat in a Libyan restaurant?) Early to bed.
FRIDAY 16 OCTOBER
Didn’t bother with breakfast and understand I didn’t miss anything (it was the usual artificial yogurt, day old bread, strawberry jam, boiled egg). Grabbed a packet of crayons (that I carry around to give to kids) along with an Australian flag that Judy gave me and Ryan and I set off to find ‘our’ family. I think we woke them up as they came out rubbing their eyes. We were offered breakfast but were on a tight deadline to declined but accepted a grape juice. Had a bit of a chat, gave them our presents, they gave us presents in return (a little wooden box filled with highly scented rose petals and a necklace and another highly decorated trinket box) and I played with the kids. Took a couple of photos and we gave our email address.
We visited Sabratha ruins – two highlights there were a mausoleum and the ampitheatre which the Italians renovated in the 1920s under Mussolini’s direction. Like most of the roman ruins in Libya, 70% of the cities are still under the sand. Excavation works of Sabratha are, apparently, starting in the next couple of months. I’m sure it would be incredible to return in a few years to see what else they’ve unearthed.
Two hour bus trip along the coast – apparently there are plans to develop this part of Libya into resorts (like Egypt) but , at the moment, it is an expanse of scrubby sandy nothingness with the odd herd of camels breaking up the view. Quite a lot of eucaplytus trees too which do extremely well in Libyan conditions – as well as the obligatory olive trees.
We passed through our final check points and arrived at the border at around 1pm. We were sad to say good-bye to Nouri (our guide) and Mahmud (our ‘bodyguard’). The previous night we had given Mahmud a framed photo of himself standing on the bluff looking out over the sea at Apollonia – it was a fantastic photo that Kate had taken and she went to great lengths to get it developed, etc. We all chipped in and he loved it.
We were all sorry to be leaving Libya – it was a country that surprised me every day. The poignant cemeteries and WWII sites of Tobruk, the amazing ruins of ancient Greece and Rome all along Libya’s coast (particularly Cyrene and Leptis Magna), the relaxed vibe of Tripoli with its medina and relaxed pace, the oasis caravan town of Ghadames in the Sahara with its labyrinthine streets, the ever present and imposing presence of Qaddafi looking towards the distance in mirrored lens sunglasses, the food (delicious despite occasionally being uninspiring and repetitive) and the lovely, lovely people. Libya is a country on the up – the roads are excellent and there is activity everywhere (building, renovation, excavation). The Great Man Made River is in construction and international companies are making their presence felt - taking advantage of the abundance of natural resources Libya has to offer. It’s an oil rich nation with a small population economic decisions have let Libya down – in the 1970s the Crown Prince of Dubai visited Libya and marveled at what he saw, openly hoping that Dubai would one day reach Libya’s level. The rest is history but you can feel that it might now be Libya’s turn - it’s a very exciting time for the country and her people and I’d be very interested to come back in 5 – 10 years time so see how she’s changed – hopefully in a really positive way. I think they deserve it.