Libya Monday, 21 April 2008

Aaaah Salaam (informal arab greeting).

By the grace of Allah (and his prophet Mohammed) I made it into Libya! The queue of Tunisian vehicles attempting to gain entry was crazy; about 1km long & moving at a rate of 5 cars per hour. Many cars were carrying provisions (including livestock) for a very long wait. Thankfully foreigners have their own queue, and even better motorbikes get waived to the front. After only a moment of indecision as to whether I should be allowed to leave Tunisia I was into no man's land (between borders), waiting for my guide to arrive.

Non-arab nationals can only enter Libya by invitation from an established tour company. They also need to supply a guide to accompany the tourist from entry to exit. My shadow was a very nice, educated & well spoken chap by the name of Mahmoud and he had a driver by the name of Masaap. After they did all the paperwork legwork for me at the border we made for the capital Tripoli. Oh and Mahmoud & Masaap were in their own car and not perched on my luggage. I was promptly introduced to Libyan driving rules by encountering a large truck approaching head-on in my direction (overtaking). It would not be the last time I had to leave tarmac & take to semi-desert surfaces to ensure longevity. The etiquette employed is that if you're overtaking into oncoming traffic (as this truck was) flash your lights to indicate to the approaching traffic that they should disembark the road. Thanks to the KTM's awesome suspension & offroad handling these divertive manoeuvres were most enjoyable.

Tripoli was fascinating. Thanks to everybody's favourite colonel (that's Gadaffi, not Saunders - dictatorship not chicken yeah) there has been virtually no tourism in Libya for almost 40 years. I took a day off in Tripoli to do laundry & launch my website, and walking around the city and souq (market) was amazing as there are none of the tourist facilities that we take for granted in foreign cities, such as;

  • All road signs in arabic, nothing at all in English (even adverts & product names)
  • No tourist-type retailing, such as souvenirs or western fast food
  • Not a single non-arab looking person in sight, and very few hotels

Before reversing out of North Africa in WWII the Italians left behind a penchant for good coffee and ice cream. The esspresso's were as good as anywhere in Europe. Sorry, no photo's of Tripoli. The AK47 clad gendarmes aren't that keen on american looking tourists waving big Nikons around.

The next day was a 200km ride eastwards to visit the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. The ruins are of a huge port & market town dating back to 100AD and although most of the ruins are still under the cover of sand, the larger more impressive ones have been excavated. I've seen many similar sites in the mediterranean but these were by far the most impressive.

While we were at Leptis a scary looking sand storm was starting to develop and by the time we left the sandy wind was intense and visibility down to a couple of hundred metres. After about 100kms it was too gusty to be able to ride in a straight line and my lung capacity was much reduced due to inhalation of enough sand to build a small castle, so we turned into a little town called Misurata. Accommodation facilities were limited to a lovely little Moroccan run brothel but at least, as per the Tripoli hotel, the VIP KTM was allowed to spend the night in the reception of the hotel. It was to be this way throughout Libya, and riding up the stairs & through the front door of each hotel was a fitting way to the end each day.

The next day was a long old slog of 770kms through featureless terrain outside of view of the coastline. We stopped for lunchtime prayers and while M&M were facing east I tucked into a scrumptious grilled chicken & veggie soup. We (the three M's) were following the african diet of one VERY large meal a day, only punctuated with liquids either side. My bike was enjoying a diet of very cheap & high octane petrol. Fuel is subsidised my Gadaffi, and I paid £2 / R30 for 25 litres of petrol! If you're just topping up your tank with one of two litres there isn't a monetary denomination small enough, so its free!

That evening in a town called Ajdabiyah we again struggled to find accommodation, eventually checking into the town's only hotel. Well I use the term 'hotel' losely. Their primary business concern was a thriving bed bug & flee breeding outfit, as I was to find out when the scratching started the next day. The following day, instead of tracking the coast through Benghazi I opted for the route through the desert, as I had seen plenty of the coast & not much of the desert. As the map below shows; it is a very long and very straight road right through the middle of the desert. At 440km's long with no towns along they way and not a single vehicle that I encountered in the same direction as we were heading it was quite a relaxing & secluded ride. The tranquility was amazing.

The photo's above show the long & straight road through the desert, Mahmoud posing with his Daewoo and my libyan plate (note the burnt corner from my akrapovic flame thrower).

The desert wasn't sandy (that's far to the south of Libya) but slightly rocky with some desert shrub and on a few occasions the bad state of the tarmac (probably due to melting) turned the route off into desert sand for a few kms at a time. The sand was really powdery and up to a foot deep at times; not sure how M&M's Daewoo Nubira made it through. After the desert road ended we were back at the coast and pushed for the Egyptian border, which although not as much of a gamble as Libya, I was expecting to be the most complicated & time consuming.

I managed to get a bit of video on my little camera. The sound quality is a bit rough so I overlayed some arabic pop music I found on this PC at an internet cafe... Enjoy!

PS, if you're using a slow connection press the pause button & wait for the video to load.

# posted by Mark @ 20:06