Assorted desert notes
on photos for larger images:
Allah removed all
surplus human and animal life from the desert so that there
might be one place for him to walk in peace... and so the Great
Sahara is called the Garden of Allah
- from Robert
Christopher, Oceans of Fire
More than sand…
The desert is
varied. People who are familiar with the desert know that, but for
outsiders, it's hard to avoid equating “desert” with “sand”: flat
sand, sand dunes, and little else. Until we got there.
overall, only about 15% of the Sahara is sand; most of its area
is covered with mountains, and plains of gravel and rock. The
area we travelled in for the week featured two huge "Sand
Seas": the Ubari to the north, and the Murzuk to the south.
These were the classic beautiful desert scenes, covered by endless expanses of
sand, highlighted by huge soaring dunes, and accented with those knife-sharp
crests and intricate ripple patterns.
those regions were harsh rocky plains, and spectacularly,
the gorgeous black
basalt mountains and other rock formations in the Acacus Mountains –
itself, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
notes and scenes:
While bouncing over
rock, we could still see those beautiful giant dunes – sometimes
they appeared as red pyramids floating in the distance above a mirage, or,
as we drew a bit closer, they might rise like some mystical mountain range
growing out of the horizon as we crested a ridge.
On day 1, we stopped in an
area where there had been some trees, and dead wood covered the
ground. The drivers picked up a lot of it, packed it on top of
the cars, and this served as our firewood for the entire week.
served as a respite from the shaking of the drive, and the heat and
sand. On day two, we ate in a small, sheltered grove of scattered
trees. Some of us stretched out on the mats after eating,
luxuriating in the quiet and the rest. Looking up into the sky,
incongruously (to us) we saw two jets leaving bright contrails in
the almost-too-blue sky. The jets appeared pink, reflecting the
massive expanse of Sahara they flew over.
This was one of the few "bad" things we saw in Libya.
Garbage seemed to be everywhere: dumped at the side of highways,
lying by the road in towns, marring the priceless Roman ruins of
Leptis Magna and Sabratha, and despoiling the magnificent Sahara.
On our last night
camping, Bilgasem distributed a survey he had picked up at the
museum in Germa, which had been prepared by Sebha University to collect
information from tourists. When the question came about what
problems or criticism we had, the unanimous decision was
firewood & gas cans for the trip
above & below: different kinds of
Flora & Fauna:
"Did you see any
camels?" a lot of people asked us. Not many. The largest
number of camels we
saw in our two weeks were on a highway outside Tripoli, crammed into the back of
a flat-bed truck, probably heading for a meat processing plant.
Like sled dogs in the Arctic, displaced by snowmobiles, the
camel's dominance has been eliminated by the 4x4.
There was one
camel brought in to the tent city for the eclipse tourists (See
Noelle bonding with the camel
here). We did see a small number in the Sahara, with their
There were a very
few lizards spotted; occasionally some small footprints seen in
the sand when we got up, but that was it for animal life.
There were few trees
or other plants, except near oases and near wadis (site
of former rivers, the now-underground water feeding whatever plant
life could be found).
Sometimes the ground was covered with pale, lime-green grass plants…
sparse, but occasionally found in enough quantity to colour the desert off
into the distance.
came and went (photos below), often in great quantity, "greening" the desert floor.
They were fun to look at (or
juggle), and while they apparently
have purgative properties, are quite poisonous if not used correctly
and in small enough quantities. Nobody tried them on our trip...
fortunately because one document prescribes the following
treatment: "The stomach
should be emptied, opium given by mouth or rectum followed by
stimulants and demulcent drinks". Another common name for the
plant is "Vine of Sodom".
So many memories of
the nights in our campsites: those beautiful dunes, the rich, red
warm sand under our feet, photographers catching the late
afternoon shadows, tents slowly rising before dinner, and coming
down in the mornings…
Those times also
caused another problem. Toilet facilities were something you created
on the far side of a dune. However, what looked like a private spot
didn't always stay that way, as photographers were usually prowling the crests
looking for the perfect Sand Sea shot.
One always had to keep a
good supply of toilet paper, and matches or a lighter. In a
perfectly dry climate, there would be nothing to decompose the
toilet paper, so it needed to be burned.
Each night at camp,
we would put up our tents (Mostafa always helped us), and then
gather on a blanket for coffee, tea, or sometimes the national drink
of the Sahara – rich, flavourful, sweet mint tea, served in small
On the second
night, our campsite was full of flies, and irritating thorns – discs
smaller than a dime, sharp enough to make me put on sandals, and
forego the pleasure of walking barefoot in the sand.
We had a cook (Cheikh)
and his assistant (Baaba) with us. For much of the time, we were not
near towns, so food selection was limited. (Cheikh, Mostafa &
Baaba in photo at left)
of bread and crackers, with two kinds of soft cheese. (I’m not
prepared to eat “La vache qui rit” cheese for a long time to come).
The bread got progressively harder over the next days. Lunch was the
same as we had day one in Germa (except one day, when we had some
quiche to go with the usual platter).
Dinner -- both in
the desert and in Triploi -- always started with soup. Libyan cuisine
has been described as “the dullest cuisine in North Africa”. That
may be right -– the food was good, but rarely very interesting -- but
the soups are a real exception. Rich, and flavourful, whether built
around fish, meat, vegetables and/or pasta, they were one dish I
would always want more of.
After the soup, our
main course was always based around couscous, rice or pasta, with a
sauce (often the same one), with vegetables and sometimes a small
quantity of meat.
One night, Cheikh
made some Touareg bread: flour, water, salt, mixed and flattened, it
was then buried in the sand and covered with hot coals for 10
minutes, flipped, covered, and eaten warm.
On the third day,
Bilgasem asked us if we would like a different meal. He pointed out
that in this part of the country, it is normal to buy a goat or
lamb, slaughter and eat it. The idea created a bit of uneasiness and
discussion. One vegetarian among us exclaimed, “You’re not
seriously going to do that are you!?” Many of us meat-eaters, while
somewhat ambivalent about the idea, thought we should –- not so much for the
“traditional” Libyan aspect, but as an opportunity to come to terms
a little with the reality of our meat eating.
The next day, our
lamb arrived. It was a smart lamb though – shortly after getting out
of the truck, it escaped its handlers, burst free, and ran for its
life across the sand, to the cheers and encouragement of many of us,
but with Baaba (the assistant cook) in pursuit by foot, soon joined
by one of the trucks, it didn’t escape.
After its death,
Bilgasem talked to those of us who uneasily witnessed the event. He
pointed out (as we all knew), that most of us do not have to
recognize how our meat ends up on our plates. He said that while
what we just witnessed is accepted and familiar in Libya, other
cruelties, which may be considered “normal” in other countries, such as bullfighting, are
considered abhorrent here, and in fact, even violent sports like boxing
are illegal in Libya.
The first night, we
have some fresh lamb liver to go with our usual dinner. The next
night, we have some delicious, fresh lamb to accompany the rest of
the meal… except it is so heavily “seasoned” with sand, it loses
some of its attraction.
After dinner the
second night (spaghetti), Sandy offered “dessert”. “Guys, guys, who
wants a crème brulee?” “With brandy?” someone asks? “I’ll just have
a single malt”.
We settled down,
without dessert or drinks, but admiring the most magnificent and
largest halo around the crescent moon most of us had ever seen, and
picked out constellations in the dark Saharan sky.
Photo by Graham Vosloo
nights after dinner we had music and dancing. The music,
performed by some of the drivers came from the magruna – a
two-chamber, double-reed flute-like instrument played by one of
the drivers (photo at right). Rhythm was supplied by
drumming on an empty water tank, and hand claps.
(Some discussion and background about the magruna is
On our last
night camping, our musical setting was enhanced by another beautiful
ring around the moon (but not as spectacular as the ring we had
a few days previously).
second morning, we stopped by a canyon wall, and encountered our
first rock art.
Libya’s greatest treasures, some of the finest rock art in the
world is found over a large area of the Acacus. The art –- both
paintings and carvings –- comes form various periods going back
as far as 12,000 years. All of the art is excellent quality –- it
was obviously made by the finest artists; the quality of its
preservation is astounding. And, the fact that these treasures
are so open and accessible is also quite amazing. (It is also
one of the reasons travel in the Acacus is controlled with
police checkpoints on entry and exit, and why tourists must
travel with guides and security: there have been instances of
foreign tourists damaging the art in attempts to bring home
next few days, we would pull over at various rock outcroppings
and caves, and see this amazing art, which depending on when it
was made, depicted the changing history and climate of the area.
Much of the oldest art was from a time when the area was
wet and lush savannah: we saw portraits of giraffes and
crocodiles. Later art showed more familiar animals such as
camels, as well as the progression of human development with
Left: our guide, Jalil at
one of the "galleries"
all the troubled world around us Seems an eternity away... "