Day 47 Sunday 20th JuneTunisia-Libya
Even hotter today, apparently the weather has suddenly warmed up across N Africa after the low moved but is due to cool down slightly later in the week. We were a little concerned that the engine temperature was nearing the top of the gauge as we slowly climbed up narrow, bumpy winding roads from Matmata SE to Toujane, a small village of stone houses clinging on to the mountainside with the most incredible views over sandstone hills and valleys reaching away for miles. The road looked as if it petered out at the top but it was being rebuilt and we managed to negotiate it without any problems.
It took some time but we crossed the border from Tunisia to Libya with remarkable ease. Having queued for a little while with the other cars and lorries we spoke to a Policeman and were directed through the Diplomatic route – much quicker! Our Cox and Kings Travel guide and agent met us in no-mans land and sorted all the paperwork, including registering the car – Florence looks rather odd with Libyan number plates stuck over the English ones!
The plates did not detract from her appearance though and we were surprised to find that even more people waved, hooted and gave us the thumbs up as we drove towards Tripoli than in any other country so far. People congratulated us at traffic lights and one man who runs a tourism investment company even handed us his business card – unfortunately in order to get a visa to enter Libya we had to arrange and book everything through an agent so there is probably little he can do for us on this occasion but he promised to e-mail us.
The Roman ruins at Sabratha were amazing as was the sea where we swam beneath the ruins of the Temple of Isis.
Day 48 Monday 21st JuneLibya
Our hotel is just across a small “park” of dried up, unkempt grass from the twin tower block of offices where, on the 24th floor, is the British Consulate and British Council. Having been warned about our imminent arrival by the Deputy Head of Mission in Tunis, the staff were very welcoming and helpful, allowing us to connect our laptop to the internet to send and receive e-mails and update the website, as well as make some useful administrative phone calls to the UK and the Libyan Red Crescent. Having an office and access to such facilities, as well as a decent cup of tea (!), is rare and was very much appreciated.
The Deputy Consul, Asif Choudhury, was busy but determined to make the most of our visit to generate some good publicity for the British Embassy and British-Libyan relations. He and the PR officer arranged for us to meet with various local media including the Tripoli-based BBC World Service reporter with whom we recorded an interview later in the day.
After several phone calls made with the help of a Libyan member of the Embassy staff Tim managed to track down the International Relations Director of the Libyan Red Crescent, Muftah Etwilb who, though based in Bhengazi, was in the same building as us at that moment! Having just visited the British Council to discuss his scholarship to study Development Economics in England next year he was waiting for another meeting elsewhere so we joined him for lunch in the meantime. Muftah outlined the structure and work of the Libyan Red Crescent, which is self-financed and is independent. There are apparently several other NGO’s in Libya but they are relatively new and not yet very strong.
Our Libyan Cox and Kings guide, Salah, showed us some of the main sites in the old town. The former British Consulate building was used by the British from 1745-1940 as a consulate and a base for “geographical and scientific expeditions” into the Sahara, viewed rather cynically by the author of the sign outside who describes them as “in essence and as a matter of fact intended to be colonial ones to occupy and colonise vital and strategic parts of Africa”. The lovely courtyard is surrounded by two floors of rooms with coloured Moorish windows on the top floor which is reached by a wide staircase added by the British, the kitchen still has the English cooking range but little else remains. Like many of the once beautiful buildings in the narrow medina streets near the Roman arch (the former entrance from the port), it was abandoned then occupied by fishermen earlier this century. Many buildings have been recently renovated with many more being worked on now; each has a plaque with an explanation of the history of the building from the point of view of the state, but in English. The former British Consulate now houses a scientific library and the former French Embassy similarly houses a library, both, like a former church nearby and several other buildings, also double as art galleries. There must be a lot of pictures or they cannot work out what to do with the spaces.
The Ahmed Pasha al Qaramanli Mosque was stunning. The largest in the medina, it was inaugurated in 1738. It has beautifully ornate tiles, woodwork, ceilings and is roofed with 25 domes. This is the first mosque we have been allowed to go inside as non-Muslims.
The medina was a mix of beautiful Italian, Turkish, Jewish and Arab buildings – some were restored (and were probably art galleries!) others were virtually falling down, waiting to be refurbished. We drank mint tea in a cool courtyard. Originally a Jewish merchants house, the doorways of the courtyard on the ground floor for stores with the living rooms upstairs. Like the rest of Tripoli it is painted white with green woodwork (green is a significant colour after Col Gadaffi wrote the “Green Book” defining how life in Libya would be run) and is now a shop selling handiwork such as carpets, fancy slippers and blankets. Unlike in Morocco and Tunisia we were not even asked if we wanted to look at the things on offer before being given tea and invited to sit and relax. It would make a fabulous hotel but small independent hotels do not seem to exist yet and non-Arabs cannot buy property.
Asif had invited us to watch the England - Croatia football game and led us through the crazy Tripoli evening traffic to the British Club 12 km out of town. Narrowly avoiding a car that u-turned immediately in front of us was probably the closest we have come to an accident so far and it was shortly followed by the stretch of road reputed to be the most dangerous in Tripoli – cars hurtled off the dual carriageway, not hesitating as we dodged them to cross the roundabout.
We made a short presentation to the assembled crowd of Brits including businessmen who were in Tripoli on a Trade Mission, the WMD weapons programme inspection team, some local British residents and some of the Embassy staff. They did not dispute Tim’s suggestion that we were mad, foolish and definitely silly but were generally supportive!
Day 49 Tuesday 22nd JuneLibya
Unfortunately the British Ambassador is on leave at the moment but his Deputy, Colin Crorkin and the Political and Public Affairs Officer, Chris Penning, showed us around the reception rooms of the Ambassadors Residence. Originally built by the Italians the building, near the harbour, looks rather box-like from the outside but it is set in lush gardens with a swimming pool and fountain and inside it has been elegantly restored and furnished by the current Ambassador and his wife. It felt very civilised to have coffee and shortbread in the sitting room as we learnt a little about Libya from the perspective of the British Embassy and we enjoyed our time there very much.
Colin Crorkin (Deputy Head of Mission) and his wife Joanne (Commercial Section in the British Council) arranged for us to visit the British School in Tripoli where we told the children about our trip.
We hope to do the same thing at British schools along our route.
Salah, our guide, had not expected to be an interpreter for interviews with the Libyan media but he was essential this afternoon as we were interviewed and photographed by an agency reporter for the Libyan media, the Shamse (The Sun, founded by Col Gadaffi) and Al Arab. We were told we would be on the front page! They were positive interviews so it will be interesting to see what is written.
Salah guides all the Cox and Kings Travel tour groups in Libya in air-conditioned buses and earlier this year worked with the founders of “Lonely Planet”, Tony and Maureen Wheeler when they joined a group to visit Libya. He also leads Italian groups and last year guided an Italian club of Porsche owners - not quite the same as travelling in the back of our fifty year old Morris Oxford!
We ate very well today, coffee and biscuits at the British Embassy in the morning; a superb lunch at a Lebanese restaurant with Salah, Mohammed (the agent who arranged our paperwork at the border) and Micheali, the Director of our Libyan Tour company, Dar Sahara (they are the Libyan agents for Cox and King’s Travel); mint tea at a spacious, breezy café sheltered by high arches and opposite the Cathedral, now mosque; supper was a falafel in Egyptian bread, bought for us by two Libyan men of whom we had asked directions. We were even given packets of nuts and raisins by a man who is a telecommunications engineer married to an Irishwoman but who was working for the evening in the spice shop belonging to his father – we met him when he was asked to translate as Tim was buying some sandals in the shop next door – he was particularly keen to stress that we should not believe that Libya is as portrayed by the Americans but that, on the contrary, it is friendly and relaxed.
From our experience so far, the people are generous, friendly and helpful and we are pleased to have been able to extend our stay in Tripoli by a day.
Day 50 Wednesday 23rd JuneLibya
A hundred kilometres along our road East from Tripoli towards Misrata is the site of the Roman city of Leptis Magna, once the largest and greatest Roman city in Africa. Today it is, apparently, one of the finest Roman cities in the Mediterranean and certainly the most incredible either of us has ever seen.
Septimus Severus was born in Leptis Magna in 145AD when it was already part of the Roman Empire and after becoming Roman Emperor he returned to his birthplace determined to make it into an imperial city to rival Rome. The buildings were therefore grand and ornate, many funded by merchants made wealthy by exporting olive oil or live animals to the rest of the Roman Empire. As with other sites in the region it was rocked by an earthquake in 365AD then a flood, both of which contributed to its decline. By the 6th Century it was Byzantine and by the 10th Century, if not earlier, it had been abandoned and was disappearing under the shifting sands.
Being buried under metres of sand and not being built on or near means that it remains amazingly well preserved. Walking along the streets, through the Imperial Forum to the Basilica, looking at the measuring stones in the circular colonnaded market place and sitting high up in the theatre looking across the stage through the temple to the turquoise sea beyond gives a real insight into life in the heyday of this great city. The wadi and sand dunes have now recroached over the road that once led to the now silted up port with its lighthouse but we could still imagine how it might have been.
Excavating the site in the 1920’s must have been an exciting but mammoth task as huge amounts of sand would have had to be moved. It is sad to think that many of the marble and granite pillars and other monuments were plundered by the French in the late 1700’s to decorate Versailles and the church at St Germain des Pres, Paris. The British and Turks did likewise, some of the pillars ended up as a folly in the garden of Windsor Castle.
The site is so huge that it was fairly easy to wander around on our own but occasionally we bumped into the British businessmen or the people competing in the World Chess Championships in Tripoli. Though it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site the work being done on it seemed a bit random and several young men seemed to be lying around, tools down, for most of the day.
A kilometre away from the main site we walked over scrub covered sand dunes to find an incredible amphitheatre that had been hollowed out of the ground overlooking the sea in the 1st Century AD. Tim walked down into the arena and explored the tunnels through which gladiators, Christians and criminals would have been led to face almost certain death in front of crowds of up to 16,000 people baying for blood. Even today it was very evocative and Tim could easily imagine the terror that would have been felt in the arena 2,000 years ago.
The circus is only a few metres away from the amphitheatre. Though almost totally submerged in sand it is still possible to see the lower levels of seating in a horseshoe shape for 23,000 people to watch chariots racing along the road still visible between the amphitheatre and the sea.
For us, wandering over the deserted dunes overlooking the most beautiful turquoise sea and imagining thousands of people being entertained at the amphitheatre and the circus was the best part of the day, even more amazing than visiting the huge Hadrianic baths or theatre in the main city complex.
Walking around the ruined city was VERY hot but we resisted the temptation to swim because we still had to drive another 90km to our overnight stop at Misurata. We had originally intended to stay at Zlitern (an oasis that is famous for date palm juice) but the government had taken over the hotel cancelling all reservations. Apparently, this is quite a normal occurrence and not a problem for us; in fact it was better for us to go a further 50km to reduce the distance we have to drive tomorrow to 800km. It would cause more of a problem for a group whose reservation is cancelled only the day before they arrive.
The International Relations Director of the Libyan Red Crescent had kindly arranged our accommodation at the Gozelteek Hotel in Misurata. A Libyan 5* hotel it was very spacious, vast seating areas reminiscent of an airport terminal, a mosque, a cinema, two dining rooms and a swimming pool. From our window we looked over the huge illuminated space-age monument to the Libyan resistance and the whole place felt “Eastern block”. One of the “Social Fund Security’s” chain of hotels it is, according to the information leaflet in the room, “one of the El-Fatih revolutions greatest achievements in respect to entertainment services. Opened during the 14th anniversary of the great El-Fatih revolution” and it looks as if nothing has changed since. Dinner (at 8.30pm by the pool, not at 7pm in the restaurant as the information leaflet said) was good: mixed salads followed by chips and barbequed chicken, sausages and camel liver, which was pretty tough!
Day 51 Thursday 24th JuneLibya
The longest drive yet! Until today the longest drive we have completed in one day is about 500km so driving 800km from Misrata (which is 200km East of Tripoli) to Bhengazi through a flat, featureless desert was a little daunting. The ‘Footprint’ guide to Libya write of this route: “Even from the windows of an air-conditioned coach this is a frightening sort of desert….for hundreds of desolate kilometres…the highway is a slender ribbon of tarmac running straight across the plain.”
As we only travel at an average of 45-50 miles per hour we anticipated a long hot day; had we had any problems with the car it would have been an unpleasant wait for help. “Alhamdulallah” we made it in 12 hours – after breakfast at 6am (Kellogs cornflakes – exciting! – plus warm croissants and fresh bread rolls so it was worth delaying our departure to 6.15am) we hit the road and stopped only to fill up, buy cold drinks at lunch time, and pee, though as it was so hot we sweated out most of the liquid we drank. Salah, our guide, demonstrated his culinary skills and served tuna and cheese bread rolls, chocolate cakes and coffee from the back seat so we didn’t have to stop to eat.
Our concerns about fuel stations was unfounded, we passed a petrol station every 150km or so, all selling SUPER only - Florence will run on 95 leaded or unleaded, we’d have been stuck in Morocco if we had needed unleaded!
Uncomfortably sweaty and battered by the strong winds, we had to shut the windows a couple of times against the sand blowing across the road but it became very hot very quickly so we opened them as soon as possible. Towards the end of the day we were very tired from the concentration required to avoid the potholes, rough tarmac and other drivers.
Apparently the Romans travelled this way between their cities in the East and West of Libya but there was no modern road until the Italians built the “Litoranea” road in the 1930s. It is single carriageway and rarely has road markings. Other than camels and the odd herd of goats we saw little but sand, rocky sand, white sand dunes by the sea and oil terminals.
We by-passed Syrte, the home town of Colonel Gadaffi, and saw the huge reservoir and large pipes that form part of the Great Man-Made River Project being built, at great expense, to bring water from the underground reservoirs in the South to the dry coastal plains in the North.
We were greatly relieved to arrive in Bhengazi, the second city of Libya, late afternoon. Most of the city was destroyed in the fight against the Italians so there is little of the old town left to see. Though very tired in the evening we joined the International Relations Director of the Libyan Red Crescent for a traditional meal in a restaurant designed inside to look like a Libyan tent. Dr Muftah Etwilb showed us some of the Red Crescent facilities in town which included an internet café run to raise funds for their work.
Day 52 Friday 25th JuneLibya
Tocra and Tolmeita
We left a little late today as we spent some time trying to get the car greased which meant that the programme slipped by a couple of hours so we broke our rule at the end of the day and drove the last few miles in the dark. Not good when Libya reputedly has one of the highest rates of fatal road accidents in the world! I suspect that Algeria comes a close second.
The archaeological site of Tocra at first seemed uninteresting and a stern man who demanded to know whether we had cameras greeted us at the gate to the Italian fort, which now houses the museum and the necropolis. The guidebook states that films have been taken off previous tourists so we were a little wary, however, Salah, our guide, soon sorted it out and we were shown to the museum (small and basic but with some fine pottery) then an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide showed us around the archaeological site – for no fee.
Mr Abdullah Alarfe was passionate about the site he is personally trying to protect and was determined to explain to us the importance of getting international experts with technology to excavate the site. There is still much only partially excavated: mosaic floors are half uncovered and excavation pits appear to have been dug at random so it felt as if we were discovering much of the Greek then Roman site ourselves. The Greek tombs cut into the rock below ground level with inscriptions above the doorways (since inhabited by troglodytes then abandoned) were intriguing though overgrown and, despite the efforts of the site manager and guide, seemingly uncared for. A school party from Sudan was clambering freely over the site.
The Italians built a fort on the site using the rock from the ruins when they occupied the area in 1911 and during WWII the RAF had a base nearby.
After a lunch of Libyan soup (a bit like minestrone), couscous, salad then “green tea” (strong black tea with mint in small glasses, they also serve it with peanuts in but we haven’t tried that yet) we very much enjoyed our afternoon visit to the ruins at Tolmeita.
The approach road through the 1930’s Italian village, now crumbling and dilapidated, was rocky and dusty so Florence carefully and slowly bumbled down to the museum compound near the beach from where we left her parked in the shade surrounded by odd roman statues, bits of marble pillars and seventy-five cats, approximately. We walked up the hill past cows ambling around the random mess of houses and were stopped at the gate to the archaeological site by a couple of horizontal men at a gatehouse demanding tickets (well, that is what we think they meant but their English was even worse than our Arabic). A few words from Salah, our guide, and the gate was opened. We were even offered tea when we left but politely declined only to accept when we met up with Salah again at the café (with no visitors but several members of ‘staff’ and many cats) in the museum compound.
The site itself is fenced off to protect it from local boys using it as a playground, unlike the other sites we have visited, and we explored the Greek and Roman ruins in peace. Archaeologists have planted trees along the main avenues marking the main routes of the ancient city and giving some much needed shade to visitors so that wandering around and using our guidebook to work out how the city might have been was very pleasant. The underground cisterns that stored water brought in by aqueduct and the palace with pillars, mosaics and swimming pool were particularly interesting but we enjoyed exploring the whole site on our own.
We swam from the public beach though it was rather smelly and full of young boys so Joanne particularly felt very self-conscious, still, the sea was refreshing after a hot sweaty day. Most people here seem to go to “family” beaches which are segregated. Women here rarely swim even though we’re told that they do, the only ones we have seen on a beach were fully clothed.
Some of the coastline here is fabulous with white sand and turquoise sea but unfortunately we did not have time to go off the beaten track. The sun was setting as we drove up through the Jebel Akhdar, The Green Mountains and we ended up driving the last fifty kilometres in the dark which was rather stressful given the number of potholes, broken up tarmac and unpredictable drivers, several of whom had one or no headlights!
We seemed to be the only guests at a new hotel built above caves dug by the Greeks as tombs but dinner, despite being eaten in the former necropolis was good and the staff polite and attentive. They were still polite when we surprised them later by shouting and banging on the bars of the window to get someone’s attention. Tim wanted to go to the car to check the fan and discovered that the outer door to our building could not be opened from the inside; as there were bars on all the windows, we were keen to open it because if there had been a fire we would have been trapped. After ten minutes of shouting and banging three people came running to our assistance and opened the door straight away – it turned out that the handle did not work from the inside.
Day 53 Saturday 26th JuneLibya
Cyrene and Appollonia
We spent today with one of the most famous archaeological guides in Libya who, by showing us around the Greek and Roman ruins of Cyrene and Appolonia and explaining what we saw, made sense of much of what we had learnt on our journey across Libya and the rest of North Africa about Greek and Roman civilisation.
Abdul has now retired from the Department of Antiquities where he worked for forty years but still works occasionally as a guide so he was very knowledgeable and had experienced some of the work done to excavate and preserve the remains. He was quietly and calmly passionate about the opportunity to share his expertise with interested visitors. As we were not paying for his services as guide, nor did we pay any entrance fees, we expected to pay for his lunch but instead he invited us to his home just near the main site where we ate a superb meal prepared by his wife and daughters who were very welcoming and were disappointed that we did not have more time to spend there.
Founded by the Greeks in 631 BC the area of Cyrene was settled for over 1200 years and bears the marks of earthquakes, rebuilding, Jewish revolt in 115 AD (when the immense Greek temple of Zeus was burnt down), then submission to the Roman Emperor Alexander the Great in 331 AD when many of the buildings were converted to better suit the Roman way of life. With a good guide it was possible to see evidence of all of these changes.
He also showed us around the temporary museum not open to the public but housing fabulous statues including “The Three Graces”, and several stunning mosaics.
The rusting WWII tank, gun and armoured car in the field next to the museum, knowing that the site had been discovered when it was occupied by the Italian forces, intrigued us until we found out that they were replicas left here after the film “The Lion of the Desert” was filmed in this area. Another one to add to our list of films to watch!
The city began its decline in 635AD when an earthquake rocked North Africa. At this time much of the important and ancient port and capital of the five cities of Pentapolis, Appolonia, fell into the sea. We walked around what little remains, including 3 basilicas, and swam off the beach, despite attracting the attention of all the boys on the beach. Snorkelling around the bay would probably be fabulous but we are told the authorities discourage it.
We spent the evening at the home of Salah’s family in Al Bayda and joined them in eating a traditional meal of couscous, lamb, salad, soup and stuffed peppers which was followed by fruit, cake and tea and all eaten from shared dishes laid out in the middle as we all sat on the floor. It was great to have the opportunity to share an evening with a Libyan family who were so welcoming.
Day 54 Sunday 27th JuneLibya
Cyrene to Tobruk
We extended our visit to Libya again by an extra night in Tobruk, an industrial port 142km from the border with Egypt. From the little we saw it is not an attractive town (despite the efforts of the President of the local Red Crescent Committee who is also responsible for developing the gardens and parks of the town!) but, as the only port in the area it was of strategic importance during the Second World War and was the scene of several battles as the Axis and Allied forces advanced and retreated across North Africa.
20km West of the town we spotted a cross a few hundred metres away from the road and turned off to the British Knightsbridge Acroma Cemetary. Here are the graves of 2663 known soldiers and 986 unknown, their headstones marked “known unto God”; of those 2287 are British the rest are from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, India, Canada, France, Greece, Poland and Yugoslavia. Several belonged to the City of London unit, The Honourable Artillery Company and, of the two in the cemetery awarded Victoria Crosses one was an accountant before being called up to fight with the Artillery.
There are many war cemeteries along the coast of North Africa and several in Tobruk but the Knightsbridge Ancroma cemetery is one of the largest British ones and is on the site of one of the most important WWII battles.