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A Sojourn in Libya

Some years ago I had the pleasure of a sojourn in Libya. It was during the heady days of embargo following the Lockerbie bombing.

At that time there were two ways into the country, by boat or by low-level drop across the southern border with Chad. At that particular time I chose the former.
The ferry in from Malta had seen better days as a Spanish cruise liner. A quick recce told me that all the lifeboat davits were locked solid with rust and that the public rooms were synonymous to a mosque climaxing at prayer time. I headed for my cabin. There I met my contact, one of my two other co-inhabitants in what could only be described as an oversized cupboard. He was a Bulgarian oilman, turned US citizen, travelling on a Canadian passport. A quick scan of the heads (bathroom) told me that its former occupants had made no distinction between toilet and washbasin. Or indeed even the shower.

My contact had done this passage many times. He steered me away from dining at the first sitting that evening. A blast of a klaxon was followed by a mad dash of the madding crowd towards the dining room. Mayhem ensued, during which a number of tables were upturned as our fellow passengers secured their dining positions. In contrast the second sitting was a leisurely affair. We secured a table and the lamb and rice with vegetables duly arrived. As one may imagine drinks were of the non-alcoholic type, combining one half sugar with one half coloured liquid. Discourse over dinner comprised nodding of heads and gesticulation. Half way through, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a piece of lamb spinning through the air. It landed squarely in the middle of my plate. A brief silence prevailed, followed by the chap to my left frantically stabbing at the morsel with his fork. No one batted an eyelid.

It was time for bed. Given the lack of ventilation, sleep was a sweaty affair heavily scented with body odours from one source too many.

We entered Tripoli harbour the following morning. The sun was up and beating down hard. The temperature rapidly soared towards 50 degrees centigrade. My contact restrained me from disembarking and heading for the immigration shed. He had done this before. Looking down upon throngs of excited people pushing and shoving their way towards the shed entrance, I could see suitcases and people being passed hand-to-hand overhead. Some made it through, while others were sent back by heavily armed soldiers. Around midday we decided it was time. We eventually managed to break into the immigration shed, and there we remained. The air conditioning had broken down. Tempers were flaring, sweat pouring and the noise, a veritable cacophony. Eventually an official’s wife from the embassy arrived to escort me through the barrier and, somewhat bedraggled, away from the scene.

Colonel Muammar Al-Gaddafi, also known as “The Leader”, had run Libya since his coup in 1969. He was also the author of The Green Book, which spelled out how things were to be in his country. One extract refers to “he who lives in the house owns the house”, which literally translates to staying at home else another family should take up residence in your absence. He was also setting himself up become the “Saviour of Africa”, aka [extinct] “Lion of the North”. The country, like many in Africa, had shrugged off the yoke of colonialism, in Libya’s case that of Italy. The Leader’s beneficence took on many guises, from oil to food, and thereon to weapons. Gaddafi’s ambitions were deeply frowned upon by the Western Powers. Although there had been numerous attempts on his life, he had remained erect in every particular, and more to the point, in power.

I had a meeting with a German chap, who I shall refer to as “Rocket-man”. Rocket-man as a child liked nothing better than concocting explosives and missiles with which to deliver them. When he grew up, following a stint in the Congo in the 1960s, he secured his dream job, that of working on Gaddafi’s weapons program. He was given a free rein, and, more to the point, an unlimited budget with which to fuel his boyhood passion. Needless to say Rocket-man was persona non grata in Germany, or anywhere else in the Western world come to that. He was nonetheless happy and content, and, although banned, we knew that he still managed to squeeze in a number of business trips abroad. That said, I have not seen or heard of Rocket-man since.

It was time to head some 1,000 km south into the Sahara Desert. The main road was excellent, thanks to oil dollars and international contractors. With “rite of passage” documents secured, the occasional roadblock was no problem. There were no speed limit signs as far as I can remember, so the drive between roadblocks was at brisk pace. At certain points I could see signs of another of Gaddafi’s large-scale visions, the Great Man-made River. Not so much a river, it is in fact a huge network of pipes and aqueducts carrying water from the deep aquifers in the south to the coastal cities in the north. It remains the largest undertaking of its kind in the world.
Heading off the main road and into the desert proper required first picking up a local guide. It is not unheard of for travellers to venture out there, never to return. Water and fuel were key, especially water. Although a dry heat, you do need to regularly top up your water intake throughout the day. Traversing that particular stretch of the Sahara was like undertaking an Atlantic Crossing. We steamed up and down huge sand dunes to finally arrive at our destination. The oasis itself was reminiscent of a scene from Beau Geste, though this time round the French Foreign Legion was nowhere to be seen. The rude-built houses had their roofs removed, by command of The Leader. Whole communities had been relocated from their traditional abodes into newly constructed flats on the main roads. The idea was that, should anyone get unruly, the security police could get to them pronto and rapidly crush any dissent.

Sleeping out in the desert is quite an experience. The night sky is reminiscent of diamonds on a backdrop of black velvet. With all that beauty come a few tips for the mindful. Keep to the top of the dune else the gently shifting sands of the night will bury you by morning. Remember to check your sleeping bag for little creatures with a big sting, before you enter. Yes, sleeping bag. It can get very cold at night.

A Saharan sunrise is equally impressive. Remember to check your boots for those little creatures with the big sting, before you put them on. Travel in the early morning and late afternoon. Try not to move at all in the heat of the midday sun. Stay in the shade wherever possible. And, contrary to popular belief, you cannot drink at every oasis. Some are just too saline and it will surely send you mad.
There are still a few relatively untouched places in the world today were you can travel in a disposition of your choosing. Today you can fly to Libya, stay in a five star hotel and travel through the desert in an air-conditioned coach. Not for me, thanks.

Text: A.Nonymous.

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