A photo-journal of our Libyan Solar Eclipse & Sahara trip, Mar.-Apr. 2006
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In the Sahara | Sun, sand, water | Desert notes | Drivin' | Some civilization | Last days
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Photos & journal by John Leeson (Toronto, Canada)
 email:  jooktoronto@gmail.com

Assorted desert notes

Click 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.


In fact, 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.


In between 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.



 Some random 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.

  • Lunch often 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.  

  • Garbage:
    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 "garbage".


firewood & gas cans for the trip

above & below: different kinds of garbage

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 herders.


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.





Camel, lizard:


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.


Desert melons 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".

Watch out, Carol!



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 shot glasses.


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)


Breakfast consisted 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.

The lamb:

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


Some 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).




Rock Art

On the second morning, we stopped by a canyon wall, and encountered our first rock art. 


One of 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 souvenirs).


Over the 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 chariots.

Left: our guide, Jalil at one of the "galleries"

Next: Drivin'... "And all the troubled world around us  Seems an eternity away... "

PAGES: Index | Tripoli | People | Roman sites | In Tent CityEclipse | Tent City story |To the Sahara
In the Sahara | Sun, sand, water |  Desert notes | Drivin' | Some civilization | Last days