Wednesday, April 26, 2006

IBSN - I've been barcoded

I've been barcoded... with an official IBSN (International Blog Serial Number). Hopefully it's as harmless to have as it was painless to get one.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dougga, Tunisia in ruins

At the end of a long trip, there's always a risk that you can be 'ruined' by too many ancient sites. Indeed, many of my travelling companions suffered from this affliction and I made the trip to Dougga (a couple of hours south of Tunis) on my own, slightly wary that I was, myself, a little jaded by the ancient splendours we had already seen such as El Jem, Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Apollonia.

My fears were unfounded. Dougga, especially in springtime, is well worth the trip. Perched on a hilltop the sprawling ruins are liberally sprinkled with colourful spring flowers and insects busily buzz around - the new citizens of this long abandoned town. There are almost no tourists and the size of the site means that you can go for 15-20 minutes between people sightings, which is always a plus.

The ruins are impressive. Baths, houses, temples and a theatre. Plus the flora and fauna - sheep graze in the old bath houses and olive treest grow on the edge of the ancient roadway. And the view from the temples - across the valley floor - are beautiful.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Morituri te salutant (Those about to die salute you)

From the alien wonders of Tatooine's moisture farms to a gladiatorial amphitheatre of truly imperial proportions. El Jem is a jewel. One of the three largest amphitheatres ever built it has seating for more spectators than many modern day European football stadia - its estimated capacity of 35,000 was second only to the Colosseum of Rome (45,000). And it is in excellent condition - as you can see from the photos.

On entering the building you can almost smell the blood, sweat and animals. Beneath the gentle breeze, the roars of a now-departed crowd can be discerned by a sharp imagination. As you walk from the corridors to the arena proper the words resound in your head (even if they were never actually spoken) - "Imperator, morituri te salutant. Those about to die salute you!"

Inside you can clamber over, under, round and through most of the structure, from the seating to the underground passageways, and let your imagination run wild. Like the lions they fed the condemned to.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Tattooine is a place on earth

Whilst travelling it soon becomes normal to find yourself amongst ancient ruins that, with a little imagination, could transport you back to Roman times. Or let yourself get caught up in the maelstrom of a foreign souk, religious ceremony or some other alien experience.

Then you get to southern Tunisia and find yourself in a town called Matmata, which is very close to another small town - Tataouine. Those familiar with George Lucas' penchant for thinly masking his inspirations might recognise this name as being remarkably similar to Luke Skywalker's home planet - Tatooine.

The resemblance is no mistake. In Matmata we stayed at the Hotel Sidi Driss, which served as the set for both Luke's uncle's house (on 'Tatooine') and the entrance to the famous 'bar scene'. It's actually a remarkably small space, but it's amazing what you can do with some cunning camera angles.

It's the first time I've been transported to another planet on my travels, hopefully it's not the last.

A long time ago in a place far, far away

April 2006, Southern Tunisia

Monday, April 17, 2006

Sabratha, part of the ancient Roman Tripolis

Sabratha, some unknown site to visit at the end of our time in Libya. A filler for our last day, something to break up the trip to the Tunisian border. Or so I thought.

I was very wrong.

Sabratha was probably my favourite ancient site in Libya.

As much as Leptis does not feel like the bustling town it once was (see my previous Leptis Magna post), Sabratha does. The site is fairly compact, with ruined temples, houses, gateways, baths and the forum. And as you wander in the spring sunshine, the scent of flowers in your nose, the sound of the sea in the distance, you can so easily imagine being in a different time.

The sun on your face, warming your body. The flowers' perfume welcome in your nostrils, a focus for your brain. The scent riding high above the city's usual stench. The ocean's murmur blending into the background hubbub of the citizens. And you make your way to the forum, perhaps meet a business associate and head to the baths together.

After the afternoon's ablutions and the conclusion of your affairs you head to the Temple of Isis. Make a bargain with the goddess there: if you could just ensure that my son returns safely from Rome on his sea voyage tonight, I will sacrifice two of the finest ducks in your honour - goddess, hear my plea. You had thought about this for a while earlier, and decided that Isis was the best deity to approach, as both protector and patron goddess of sailors.

And from there you wander south, in no particular rush, with plenty of time until your daughter's performance in the theatre this evening. You arrive at the theatre early, the slaves on the door know you well and welcome you by name. They allow you in to the theatre even though it is more than an hour before the performance, and you walk through the arched corridors before climbing up to the gods to survey the stage.

What a theatre. What a place for people to ply their trade. Such a glorious setting - to your eyes the match of any in Rome itself.


And that's Sabratha.

Mouses, before the chop

The best part of four weeks on the road lay before us. An opportunity to try something new... so the plan was hatched. The competition was formed. The pact was made.

But one fell along the way. A brother in tache, cruelly snatched by the whims of the Sahara. Flown home with a broken collarbone. He was judged in absentia.

Bushiness and volume... ...James, aka 'The Wing Commander'.
Overall shape and appearance... ...Christian, aka 'President Assad'.
Blindfolded touch test... ...James, aka 'Fluffy Bunny'.

So James wins, 2-1-0 (Jerry, even with the sympathy vote, came last in each category... sorry, mate!). Congratulations!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Tripoli and the outstanding Jamahiriya Museum

Tripoli was something of a blur.

A morning in the outstanding Jamahiriya Museum, meandering around the stunning collection of ancient statuary, was curtailed by the guards. A princess and her entourage had turned up and I was politely asked to leave and return in a few hours. I bumped into another member of our group and we decided to explore the medina for a few hours.

The streets of the medina were crooked and bustling, but lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Istanbul has more character, Cairo has more bustle. Perhaps I'm getting jaded in my old age. Perhaps I was just too hungry to enjoy the wander - very aware that most of the eateries were at the south end of the medina when I found myself, at the height of my hunger, at the north end.

Still, after lunch I felt a lot better (skipping breakfast and not drinking enough water are not the recipe for a grand day out) and we returned to the museum. And there I had my worst (personal) experience in Libya.

I put my bag back into the cloakroom, and went to enter the museum. As I walked past the ticket booth I showed the ticket I had bought in the morning. But he shook his head. I walked over and showed him the date stamp on the ticket. He shook his head. I tried to say that I was coming back after lunch, as I was told to do. He shook his head, and motioned to a guard to come over.

The guard was dark skinned and scowling. He had an exchange in Arabic with the ticket man then turned to me. I opened my mouth to try to explain but he cut me short.
"You were here this morning?"
"Yes - until I was asked to leave."
"You need to buy another ticket (8 dinars, about $6)."
"But, I was here until the princess arrived then left when I was ask-"
"You are in my country, not yours. You must respect this." He looked me up and down, as his face twisted into a snarl and his eyebrows curled up like panthers ready to pounce off his forehead. He continued, "This is the law. I am the police, I am the law. You will not enter without a new ticket."
"I am not interested. You buy a ticket or leave."

So I left.

Without exception, every other guard we had encountered was great. They usually seemed delighted to have some contact with foreigners (and were often most amused by the truck). Totally trouble free, totally easy. Except this one.

Jumpeduplittleoverpompoustwobitsonofagun that he was. There was no reasoning, no appeal. Just the impassable wall that he presented - and there was no way I was going to pay after he'd had that 'little chat' with me. Most frustrating, but not worth fighting over (or getting arrested for!). Although that might have been an interesting adventure in itself...

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Leptis Magna, home of The Grim African

Up before dawn to dash to Leptis Magna (mainly so that we would be in Tripoli on Sunday instead of Monday, when the museums are shut). Leptis Magna is reputed to be the most impressive Roman site in Africa. From what I've seen so far, I think it just about edges it (on a technicality): Ephesus is still the best for me (but this is in Asian Turkey) and I personally preferred Cyrene (but that's Greek and Roman, not just Roman).

But don't get me wrong - Leptis is amazing. The site sprawls around with low-level ruins (of houses and minor structures) interspersed by truly monumental edifices, such as the bath houses, theatre, amphitheatre and arch of Septimus Severus (a local boy who became Emperor of Rome then did up his home town, he was also known as 'The Grim African').

The only thing lacking is the feeling of being in a living, breathing, city that Ephesus manages, somehow, to conjure up - as you walk down the main street in Ephesus, towards the library, and squint a little you can imagine yourself surrounded by toga-wearing ancients instead of t-shirt clad tourists; it really is magical.

The joys of Leptis are slightly more cerebral. Standing here, under the arch of Septimus Severus you can stop and think about the enormous breadth of that ancient empire. From Hadrian's wall in the north to Leptis Magna, Africa's leading city, in the south; from Iberia in the West to - Syria? further? - in the East. Two thousand years ago... have we really come that far since?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Nalut and Qasr al-Haj

Perched on the hilltop on the edge of the modern town is the old Berber town of Nalut. Stone built mosques, olive oil presses and houses cluster around the beautiful, abandoned, fortified granary (a 'qasr'). Inside the qasr, the early afternoon sun played across, around and through the varied nooks and crannies, bringing the stonework to life.

From Nalut we journeyed east, along the valley floor (is it called a valley if there's only one side? There was a ridge to the south, but the plains stretched out the the north.) to Qasr al-Haj. This is a much smaller town than Nalut but the granary is larger and forms a vital part of the life of the town, since it is still used by the locals. This qasr is much larger than the one in Nalut and opens up inside like an amphitheatre - poetically you could say that this amphitheatre provided the bread (grain) that went with the circuses that kept the Roman plebians happy.

We camped in a palm grove nearby, on the advice of the qasr's guardian, and enjoyed a technicolour sunset and even more beautiful dawn. But that's another day.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ghadames, jewel of the Sahara

Taha, our guide for the day, is excellent and most of the group, like me, loved exploring the old city - even though the museum has decided to shut early at 11am instead of 1pm and even despite my camera being whisked off in the truck when it had to take two people to the hospital for checkups.

The old city was atmospheric and provided an intriguing insight into the wisdom of the ancient town planners. They certainly knew what they were doing and managed to design in features such as natural air conditioning; separate pathways for men (ground level) and women (over the roofs) that were not meant to mix in public; ways to deal with the occasional rains (perhaps 4-6 times a year in spring) that posed a threat to the integrity of the mud-built buildings; natural lighting and ventilation from amazingly efficient light wells along the streets; a water system that both rationed the spring water and kept time; and recreational areas for kids far from the quiet zones of the mosque and gentlemen's communal areas.

Perhaps Dubai's architects should take note and try to build some similarly unique complexes. Surely naturally air conditioned, lit and ventilated opaque buildings would be far more of a statement than more and bigger skyscrapers built on the sandy ground?

The old town has, more or less, been completely abandoned now. The former residents still own their old houses, but everyone has been moved to a 'modern' city built by Gadaffi just outside the old city walls (outside observers seem to like to claim it was a forced eviction, the locals I managed to ask all said it was voluntary). The big differences between the old and new homes are aircon, electricity and runing water. Aircon wasn't needed in the old city and electricity had, more or less, been introduced but the lack of running water and sanitation in the old city was a real problem.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Neverending Nothingness

A long, hot, two day drive carried us away from Terkerkibe; north and west towards Ghadames. The drive, on a reasonable road, took us through seemingly neverending featureless desert plains, with barely a town, power line or stray plastic bag to break the monotony.

We camped in the desert overnight, a few hundred metres from the road, behind a rocky ridge, and people started to open up and talk about the accident on the dunes. It was this night that I pieced together what had happened and how the car that crashed had gone over the dune too fast, caught its tailgate and been flipped onto its roof.

A moment's silence, to contemplate our thoughts.


The following day the drive continues. Barely a bend, or rock, or passing vehicle to break today's monotony - overland travel is not always glamourous or exciting. Our local guide, Bilal, estimated today's journey as a few hundred kilomtres. He was very wrong and the drive goes on and on.

We finally reach a small town called Derj and stop for lunch. Late that afternoon we finally arrive in Ghadames and hot showers, crash admin and internet time consume the whole evening.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Savage Beauty of the Sahara

A minor sandstorm overnight left those sleeping under the stars feeling well exfoliated, but spirits were high and we set off for our safari around the Ubari Lakes after a leisurely breakfast.

The first lake has been dry for six years, but there are still deep rooted palm trees and bushes growing here. They provide a lush green foreground to the golden sands behind. Animal tracks on the sand are a reminder that there is still life here, even without water in the lake. There was also life around us last night - we could hear a jackal's howl late in the evening, found snake tracks through camp this morning and had a crow lazily circle right above our heads after breakfast, waiting to get its chance to peck through any scraps left behind. In more ancient times, some of these might have been considered bad omens.

The second lake, Mavo, was pretty. Palm trees and reeds surrounding a pool of slate blue salty water. Since there are no permanent rivers in Libya, these lakes are fed by groundwater that picks up salt and minerals on its subterranean path. Apparently there are occasionally rivers that temporarily flow through the desert here, although it never rains in the Libyan Sahara. The rain falls in Algeria, then flows across the border.

The third lake, Gebraoun ("Grave of Aoun") is enormous, perhaps 75,000 square metres. On its Western shore lies a ghost town, forcibly abandoned when the government decided to modernise the locals and move them to new homes nearer the highway. They have left an eerie ghost town behind, with gaping open doorways and a crumbling mosque. The 'modernisation' move may have had some ecological justification too - apparently these desert towns (perhaps combined with the Great Man-made River) seriously lower the local water level. A local geo-physicist that we had a brief chance to talk to said that the water table has shrunk from 7m below ground to 50m in some places and that, if left unchecked, this entire area will be completely devoid of lakes and vegetation in just 10 years. Visit while you can. Much as we wanted a chance to look around the ghost town, our local guide did not deem it noteworthy enough for a stop and we drove straight past.

This was becoming something of a theme and most frustrating, creating a running source of friction between us and our guide. The Saharan Safari part of this trip is entirely in the hands of a local company that provides the guides, food and 4x4 land cruiser vehicles. The details of our itinerary are entirely up to them and out of Dragoman's hands. Which is a shame, because they clearly do not understand the desires and motivations of a western tourist.

They have driven past most of the cave paintings most highly praised in the Lonely Planet; taken us to a petrol station for 35 minutes instead of dropping us in the nearby town for us to look around; and hooned through the most stunning desert scenery without stopping to allow time to take it in, or take photos of, some breathtaking vistas. I guess this is largely a cultural clash, with them not being in tune with our mindset of wanting to explore every village, nook and cranny we can.

But it is poor organisation too. With more intelligent use of the available time we could have seen much more - like Ghat, one of the few living, breathing Tuareg cities left in the world or even the open air museum of cave art and natural rock sculptures that is Wadi Methkandoush. (I have to reiterate here - this is all no fault of Dragoman, whose drivers and organisation are consistently excellent, but rather a failing of the local company.)

Still, with this new disappointment of not stopping in Gebraoun town gnawing away in the backs of our minds, we set off up the dunes. It was like crossing an ocean. A massive ocean of sand, more than 150m high in places. Driving across, and over, these peaks reminded me of scenes in The Perfect Storm where the little fishing boat is tossed around by the massive waves. The only thing moving here was us, but it was still a stomach churning ride. The giant dunes are roughly crescent shaped and shallower on one side, which we drive up, then, with a windscreen full of nothing but sky, we coast over the summit and tip forward, pointing straight down the slope until the next in the series.

Working our way up from Lake Gebraoun the dunes climb in stages, one on top of another, and we climb to the top, then begin our descent, with short saddle-shaped plateaux between the peaks. Gun the engine to get enough speed, then coast the final part, up - sky view, over - see nothing but sand, whoops and screams from the passengers depending on their preference for this kind of no-safety-bar thrill ride. Down into the saddle. Then the engine roars, the fan belt screams (its slipping a little since sand has got into it), we see the lead land cruiser go over the next dune and follow a safe distance behind, another vehicle in our group is several metres to our left, and just behind. the engine roars, fan belt screams, then we coast, up - sky view, over - nothing but sand, whoops and screams, then the dull sound of crumpling metal is punctuated by a cry from the lady behind me, I hear glass shatter, then see a rolled up tent slide past on the sand to our left, followed by a tire. I look left and see an overturned jeep, but the slope is too steep to stop - and there is a chance that the next car might hit us if we do - so we continue to the bottom. As I look downhill again I see the free wheeling loose tyre narrowly miss the lead car as it rolls past.

I later heard from others more details of what happened. The Land Cruiser that crashed had gone over the dune too quickly - normally you use speed to go up the bulk of the dune (otherwise you get stuck in the sand), but crest the top almost at a standstill, tip forward then drive down the rear face. It appears that this car went too fast, and the driver did not decellerate in time. The car hopped over the top of the dune and the crest then struck the back of the car and flipped it forward. It landed on its radiator before rolling onto its roof. This explains why it lay in the sand pointing uphill. Note: I did not see any of this myself.

We stop at the bottom of the dune. I leap out, grab my water bottle and look up the dune. It's by far the tallest and steepest one we have crossed, perhaps some 120m high. The upturned car is about 20m from the top and I can see 2 people crawling out onto the sand. There were 5 inside.

The dune mocks our attempts to climb. Each steep forward step sinks deep into the sand, turning the 100m ascent into 150-200 and sapping our strength. The lead climber is screaming, howls punctuated by panic stricken cries for the following cars (there were six vehicles in total in our party) to stop. His friend shouts up at him not to panic as we struggle up the slope.

One third of the way up. I see another person emerge from the car. Clearly shaken, barely moving. Her partner and the driver are still inside. The food truck is stopped above them on the dune, just over the ridge of the dune, there are three at the bottom of the dune - that leaves one.

Two thirds of the way up. I have to stop and catch my breath, as do the other climbers. Our Dragoman trip leader (I'll call him 'Jack') who was apparently in the last car is now at the scene - that's good, it means they stopped too, and on the other side of the ridge so no other cars should come over.

I struggle on and arrive at the crash scene. My lungs are full of sand, my legs are on fire. The last passenger is being pulled from the upturned land cruiser. He's a big, strong man (who I'll call 'Alan') but he's wailing as he's pulled so very slowly from the vehicle, "I'm f***ed, I'm all broken..."

I see our trip co-driver (I'll call him 'Frank') lying just clear of the car, looking totally dazed, lying still, staring up at the sky, blood slashed across his face from a horizontal cut on his head. I talk to him - he says that he's ok but he thinks he has a dislocated shoulder. I see the other three passengers now. One has blood all over his head (call him 'Tom'); one is lying on the ground (call her 'Lucy'), she is writhing a little and complaining about her neck - somebody says that they think it's probably whiplash and tell her to lye as still as possible; Alan is lying very still. His left arm is limp, his legs are not moving, his face is a fixed grimace of pain.

Everyone helps how they can. I help Frank to sit up, give him water from the bottle I brought with me and shade his head with the Tuareg headscarf I am handed by somebody behind me. The sun beats down. It's about 11am and unmercilessly hot. In previous days we measured the temperature in the shade as 43C and 53C in the sun.

As the injured are given water, shaded and made as comfortable as we can, two of us ask Frank about the satphone and GPS that we were talking about just the night before when Frank had gone for a wander 1km across the dunes, using the north star and GPS to find his way back. We get the description of the bag, find it at the top of the dune in the rearmost vehicle and ransack it to find the devices. Once we have them we call Jack over, so that he can call in the cavalry. Part of me wonders who could possibly help - 450km from Tripoli as the crow flies, in the middle of the desert, base camp was 2 hours by road from a major town... But the calls are placed. Dragoman will find a way. They have to. Don't they?

Our local guide is characteristically useless. Running around waving his arms like a headless chicken. The head driver is also a liability, but he's apparently in some sort of shock as he wanders around the wreck. It's getting dangerous so I shout at him to move away from everything and everyone - he was trying to move people unecessarily; walking too close to Alan, pushing sand down on him and shifting him slightly causing pain; leaning against the wreck, risking it moving or sliding downhill. The Tuaregs, on the other hand (our drivers and cooks), are helpful and try their best to help.

Suddenly I think of the driver. I don't know who was driving. I turn and ask one of my fellow travellers if he's out yet. The reply is grim: "No. He's still inside. Not moving. He looks very dead."

Shocked, I turn instinctively to look inside the car, peering past Frank to try and see under the crumpled roof. I couldn't see anyone. I peered closer and asked someone else about the driver.

"It's ok. He's out," I was reassured.

Then I see him. Visibly shaken but crawling on all fours. I am flooded with a sense of relief then wonder what else I can do to help. Now that the cals home for help have been placed our attention turns to two things. What can we do locally to get a doctor on the scene and/or an airlift out of here and what can we do safely to make the people here as comfortable as possible. I hear Jack ask the local guide to go back to camp and do anything he can to get a helicopter in.

"Impossible," he replied. His usual response ot any query tat might require effort to achieve.

Jack reiterated, "The cost is not important. Money no problem. Where it comes from is not important. Just get one. Do you understand?"

"Yes. I'll get a jeep."

We clearly had a problem, so I offer to go back with him to make sure everything that could be done was done. Jack agreed that I should go and I find out which car they want to drive ("Take this one. Strongest car."), it's the one at the top of the dune still. I briefly protest that it's both at the top (useful in case you need it for some reason, the other cars couldn't drive back up) and clearly marking the fact that there is a problem here. But the locals won't listen and insist on taking it. I give in, take the jerry cans of water and day bags out of the car, carry them 20m down the dune to where the casualties are, note down Jack's satellite phone number, the number for Dragoman and the current GPS location then set off - first over the top and down the dune. (If I'd had time to think, I would have walked that bit...)

At the bottom the driver stops and the locals shout at each other for a minute. I take the chance to jump out of the jeep, grab my bag and camera from the other car and take the photos of the scene that you see here, so I could show the people back at camp the exact situation. A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when there's any form of language barrier.

About 10 minutes into the drive, speeding across the sands, I realise that I have no idea how far we are from base camp. I turn on my phone (it was off since there is no roaming in Libya, let alone reception in the Sahara) and check the time: 11:59. I turned on my camera and checked the time of the photos I took when leaving the scene: 9:47am GMT. We have been driving for about 12 minutes.

Some 35 minutes later we reached camp, having travelled at up to 150km on the flatter sands, but more slowly where required (the driver was incredibly skilful).

Over the following four hours I did what I could. Chasing up the local company to try to get a doctor to the scene or a helicopter for an airlift. Trying to keep tabs on the people and the jeeps - some had apparently gone to a hospital in nearby Ubari with the injured Frank and Tom and the injured driver had been taken somewhere by the head driver too. First word was that only three people were left on the dunes - Jack, Alan and Lucy - and that everyone else was in Ubari. When this came through the local company tried to organise a minibus to go to Ubari and collect them (1 hour's drive from base camp in Tekerkibe by asphalt road).

However, the numbers did not add up. There were nowhere near enough jeeps left at the dunes to do this, unless another party had come across them and helped out. So I try, several times, to contact Jack at the dunes on his Satphone, but cannot get through.

"This number is not currently in service." Every time.

But I had checked the number twice, and reread it to Jack to make sure. I called Dragoman to confirm his number again - they told me the same number I had. I tried dialling with +86..., 0086..., and all manner of variations to no avail. I need to check exactly where people are, so I call Dragoman instead and ask them to check with Jack and get back to me. It seems my main role here, alongside chasing up the locals, is dissipating the many Chinese whispers that are being generated between Dragoman, Jack on the dunes, Fezzan Tripoli (head office) and Fezzan Tekerkibe (base camp).

The head driver turns up and gives me his stock phrase (the same one he gave when two jeeps almost collided on the first day): "No problem."

I shook my head in disagreement.

He then told me that Alan and Lucy were much better after I left and both were sitting up and talking ok. I found this difficult to believe, but Fezzan take it literally and push for us to get them out by jeep rather than wait for an airlift that may never come. I stress again that there is apparently one neck and one spinal injury and moving them by land is definitely not a good idea.

Eventually news trickles through that the British Embassy has arranged a plane from a local airfield to go and help. At camp we wait and wait for a doctor that could drive out to the scene, in case the plane is delayed or cannot land. An ambulance turns up, sirens blazing, and Dragoman asks that I send the driver out to the scene in a jeep. I double-check first and find that he is not a doctor, so that wouldn't work. The wait for a doctor goes on.

I also eventually hear back that there are 14 passengers left on the dunes and only one had accompanied Tom and Frank to the hospital (I later found out that this was incorrect and 2 had gone, but an overestimate of the number of people at the dunes was more useful than an underestimate when trying to get enough vehicles out there to bring them back). There was also one drivable jeep left.

Eventually a doctor arrives just as I am on the phone clarifying with Dragoman whether to take passports and cash out to Alan and Lucy. They said yes, but asked that I go with the passports and to help at the scene. Racing back across the sand dunes again was not high on my priorities (once bitten twice shy), but I agreed after a short initial hesitation. However, Fezzan's drivers had already set off - somewhat prematurely given that both the doctor and I were still in camp and had to be called back.

Fezzan called them back and, as we are about to leave, I get another call from Dragoman, confirming that the plane had just landed and a doctor was on the scene, so there was no need for another one. So, we leave behind the doctor that it had taken us four hours to source, and race off. Two jeeps from Fezzan and two from the oil company.

As I get back to the top of the top of the dune I can see that the plane has landed in the distance on what looks like an impossibly short strip of harder sand/rock and everyone is sheltering from the sun in tents at the base of the dune. I choose to get out and walk down the dune, rather than go over in the jeep for a third time.

As I reach the bottom I go across to the makeshift shelter and see, under the fly sheets and tent poles, a chilling sight.

An Alan sized mummy, covered from head to toe in a purple Tuareg scarf. He's not moving at all. I hear Jack say, "We can fit six people around the body. It's a long way to the plane [perhaps 1km] so we need some extras to rotate in as the first six get tired."

Hearing the reference to 'the body' I fear the very worst, and look over in shock at the purple clad mummy on the sand. The wind blows the scarf off his face and then I can see.

Alan is strapped into a stretcher, his head secured with straps and a neck brace. The scarf was just for shade.

As we struggle to lift and carry him across the sandy ground to the plane, Alan manages to find the energy to crack a few jokes. We pause every 50-100m to rest, then push on again. One of the fellow passengers jokes that it's always the heavy ones you have to carry. Gallows humour, but laughter is always welcome. The oil company land cruiser carries him the final few hundred metres to the plane. As he was finally positioned in the plane next to his girlfriend Lucy they both confirmed that they could move their toes - a very good sign. I give them their passports and all my cash I could get at ($100). The doors close and they take off at about 6pm, bound (I think) first for the oil field from where a larger plane would take them on to Tripoli.

We who were left gather our thoughts and trek back from the makeshift landing strip to the dune. Some finally let their emotions flood out after being so strong for so long, caring for the injured for almost seven hours. We pack away the tents, gather our litter and head back, subdued, to base camp. At much less than 150 kph. The sun sets behind the dunes before we are home, but we crest the final dune and descend into camp just as the last light fades.

We were 'home'. Everyone was apparently as safe as they could be or in the best possible hands. Jack had been great and done the right things (although he later admitted that the first two hours were a complete blur - this was the first major accident he'd had to deal with in many years of overlanding and he was, justifiably, in shock for a while), the group had pulled together brilliantly, Dragoman and the British Embassy had worked miracles and the oil company was the unlikely provider of the international rescue team (German pilot, Swiss plane, Jordanian doctor, Libyan nurse, Romanian driver).

To the two flown to Tripoli, and all involved, get well soon - both physically and mentally.

Addendum: News the following morning was good. Lucy had fractured a vertebra in her lower back but was recovering well. Alan had crushed/compressed two of the vertebrae in his neck but an overnight operation and bone graft had gone very well and the outlook was positive.


Note: names of the individuals in this account have been changed and some of the events have been simplified for brevity. The account on this website should not be read as comprehensive or used in any legal context. I can supply an official statement to any party that requires one.


Sunday, April 09, 2006

Safari in the Sahara

As I have said before, I love deserts. I have experienced deserts in East Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. The Sahara is everything I could have dreamed of. Enormous, varied, beautiful. Hiding secrets at every turn. Dune fields, rocky outcrops, black fields of shale, oases of green - sometimes around a deep blue lake. Cave paintings older than the mind can fathom and seas of sand that stretch further than the eye can see.


And we are here for 5 full days. Words and photos cannot communicate all that is the Sahara, it begs to be experienced first hand, but here are some of the highlights from the first four days, in no particular order:

Some deep-rooted trees manage to survive here.

Varied rock formations about in the wadis.

Hooning across the Saharan sands.

Dragoman spelled out on the sand

Sunset over the dune fields of the War Qasr (Sea of Sand)

The Natural Rock Arch of the Jebel Acacus, vaulting more than 150m high. That speck in the bottom left is a land cruiser.

A photo of me for those who complain that I'm always behind the lens.

Sheer rock cliffs.

The Sahara is not all sand. However, this field of black shale was not deemed worthy of a name by the Tuaregs.

Magnificent cave paintings, the oldest are more than 100 centuries old.

Saving camels from dehydration

Tuareg with well endowed fertility cave carving in the background.

Sunset in the wadis

Mountains fading into the distance at sunset

The abandoned mud and brick city of Garama, once the capital of the Garamantian empire that controlled the Sahara and its trade routes in Roman times.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Apollonia and Cyrene

Up at dawn on the 2nd April for the long coast drive to Apollonia.

Libya is an enormous country - twice the size of Egypt and roughly 1/3 the size of the entire EU. It's 95% desert, though, and has a tiny population of just 6 million. The contrast with the metropolis of Cairo and other big cities of Egypt could not be more stark - the towns we've visted so far (I write this after 3 days here) have been small and sparsely populated, yet manage a modern, forward looking feel.

On the way to Apollonia the coast road provided some stunning views across the Gulf of Bomba. This north-eastern corner of Libya, called Cyrenicia, is as green and azure as any Mediterranean coastline that I've seen. In ancient times this was a Greek colony and fertile enough to save the mainland from famine in 390BC, when crops failed in Greece.

Cyrenicia is directly due south from Greece and the ancients built five cities here, which collectively became known as the Pentapolis. Cyrene was the greatest of these and was considered one of the most important cities in the Greek world of the 4th Century BC. Apollonia is 20km east of Cyrene and served as the port.

The ruins of Apollonia are mainly Byzantine. They ruled here after Alexander, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Romans had taken their respective turns). The churches, bath houses, port, theatre and houses are most evocative and stretched out along a kilometre of stunning coastline. Roughly one half of the town is underwater after a massive earthquake in the 7th century finally condemned Apollonia (and nearby Cyrene) to the history books. Perhaps, one day, there'll be SCUBA tourism of those offshore ruins. At the moment you are not even allowed to snorkel off the coast here.

Cyrene's ruins are a mix of Greek and Roman. After a few centuries of decline after the Greeks, the Roman emperor Hadrian rebuilt and repaired the city in the 2nd century AD and today's ruins show this melange of Greek and Roman styles. The site is both enormous and well preserved - a winning combination that easily allows me to rank Cyrene & Apollonia alongside the other great ancient sites I've seen at Ephesus, Palmyra and Ba'albeck.

One of the many Byzantine churches at Apollonia. The white marble shines brilliantly against the azure blue of the Med.

The church in the expansive merchant's house, Apollonia. The house also has personal and slave quarters - it's quite the mediterranean villa.

The theatre of Apollonia

The forum at Cyrene, a Roman addition to the originally Greek city and a magnificent first impression for visitors.

Statues of Herakles and Hermes surround the sports ground in Cyrene. The gods represent strength and speed.

Statues of Demeter (goddess of the hearth and home) and her daughter Persephone (queen of the underworld) in their temple, Cyrene

The temple of Apollo, Cyrene

The enormous temple of Zeus at Cyrene - bigger than the Athenian Parthenon.

To view more photos from Apollonia and Cyrene, use the links below:
The Greek city of Apollonia, which served as port for the Pentapolis.
The mosaics of Qasr Libya, all found in the same church.
The ancient city of Cyrene, capital of the Greek Pentapolis.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Tobruk war cemeteries, Libya

The day began with a flat battery on the truck. We all gathered behind the vehicle and pushed - slightly uphill - to try and give it a push start. As we heaved together, the truck edged forwards then sputtered into life. It didn't seem like a push start... then the drivers faces appeared, beaming and shouting: "April Fools!"

Cheeky so and sos.

In the border town of Salum we bought food and sat down to have a tea in a local cafe. The locals loved having their photos taken, so we were happy to oblige.

We spent a few hours crossing the borders, first to get out of Egypt then to get in to Libya. On the Libyan side, first impressions were very good - immaculately clean loos and friendly, chatty, border guards. Finally, after amusing ourselves watching a large woman trying to smuggle more than half a dozen cartons of cigarettes in her tights and bra, we crossed.

Lunch was taken off the truck. We set the tables up on the first patch of ground we could find that our local guide, Bilal, felt was suitable. It was a wasteground, strewn with rubbish. After lunch, as we drove on, it soon became very apparent that rubbish is everywhere. The first few hundred kilometres we drove today were unremarkable geographically - uniformly flat, rocky and generally featureless - but also uniformly spread with rubbish. Plastic bag trees seem to outnumber most other species.

I guess throw-away consumerism with its plastic containers and single-use cans has spread here faster than centralised services to collect and process the waste. It's a mess, and perhaps I am giving people too much credit by trying to find a process reason for the mess instead of 'dirty' people, but it's important to look deeper than the first impression. In general the Libyans seem at least as friendly and hygienic as the Egyptians, if not more so.

The cemeteries of Tobruk are moving in the way that all such monumental graveyards are. We visited two sites, each of which holds more than 2000 men. Such a waste. Until this visit, though, I must confess that I had only the vaguest concepts of Rommel, Montgomery and the aims and details of the North African battles. It makes a little more sense now - the importance of the Suez Canal and control of the Mediterranean is clear. The loss of life has always been tragic.

The terrain here, near the northern coast also makes sense as a theatre of war. Further south are vast expanses of sand. Near the coast you could be resupplied by sea and El Alamein was a natural pinch point and site for the decisive battle since the rocky plains are bound by the sheer cliffs of the Qattara depression just 50km south of the coast, south of those cliffs is marshy or sandy ground, difficult to traverse.

We finished looking around the second, 'Knightsbridge', cemetery at sunset and the caretaker offered to let us camp just behind the graveyard. Lunch on a wasteground and sleeping next to the dead (with a cold and sandy wind freezing our fingers and scraping at our eyes). A classy start to the Libyan experience.

For more photos of Tobruk, take a look at my flickr set: Tobruk