To the Sahara!... What's your
We'd just had an astounding 6 days in Libya,
finishing with a spectacular solar eclipse in the Sahara. But,
amazingly, the best was yet to come. A week in the south west Libyan
was the photos and accounts of this area that had
convinced me of the overpowering beauty of the country. This was why
we came to Libya.
The Sahara may be one of the harshest environments in the world, but
to get there, we had to first deal with... Libyan Arab Airlines!
The Lonely Planet guide to Libya, published in 2002 remains
the standard guide book to Libya. (And one of the very few in
English). It provides a pretty clear warning:
"All internal flights are prone to unexpected delays and
cancellations." Further, "If you've flown Libyan Arab
Airlines elsewhere, you'll know not to expect five-star comfort or
service". The book provides many other warnings about flying. Be
prepared, be calm, and be patient!
Click on photos for larger images:
"DELAYED". We know that. The question,
is for how long?
Jenni and Jeff stare hopelessly at the
departure sign for good news.
Long night's journey
Our Sahara trip started… inauspiciously.
On a Friday evening, the day
after the eclipse, we prepared for our trip to the Sahara.
were expecting to catch an 8:00pm flight to Sabha (Libya’s third-largest
city, several hundred km south of Tripoli), but plans changed, as word went around that we were going to rush
off to try to catch a flight at 6:30.
The good news was that we made the flight. The bad (and
probably predictable) news was that it didn’t depart until
When we got to the airport, we
discovered both flights listed on the board -- with the same
flight number (see photo above).
The flight board continuously flashed the word
“DELAYED” beside our flight, and announced hopefully(!) that
boarding would be at 10:30pm. Sometime after midnight, that
boarding time was removed (and never updated). We also then
realized it was now April Fool’s Day.
During the many (many) hours that night, we
shifted from place to place in the airport, sometimes actually
under the impression that we were about to to depart. While we
waited, we watched a nice sunset through the beautiful arches at
the front of the airport, I bought a couple of Libyan CD’s and a Ghadaffi watch, we ate dinner, drank some wonderful strong coffee,
stood, sat, stretched out on the floor, and... waited. Waited a lot.
One of our group
had begun suffering from serious stomach problems, and looked
more miserable than the rest of us. However, although very
tired, we all stayed in great spirits, and never (or almost
never) stopped joking, talking, taking photos… and waiting. A
few times, while discussing possible departure times, some of us
would say “Insha’Allah” (“If it’s God’s will”). Bilgasem told
me, while we bemoaned the unreliable airline “schedule”, that a
tourist once told him that Libya operated “in the limits between
‘insha’allah’ [said while facing a problem] and ‘alhamdullelh’”
[“Thanks to God” – said when it’s resolved].
Weapon of Mass (?)Destruction
Finally, boarding really began. The two of us
were the last passengers, partly because I had set off the
luggage metal detector. Somehow, I had accidenally left my Swiss Army knife in my
carry-on luggage, triggering a memorable security reaction.
“Mister! Knife! … Knife!” the guard kept
repeating. I never heard him say any other words in English, and
my Arabic wasn’t much of a help. I tried to indicate they could
keep the knife (as would be normal at home), but in response --
just in case I didn’t understand what the knife could do – he
started making slashing movements at his own throat. “I know, I
know”, I said to myself (or to him… didn’t make much
difference). “Keep it. You take it”, I said uselessly.
He must have figured I didn’t understand the
situation, so he then started making slashing movements toward
my throat. “Mister… knife!”
I think I needed help. Where was Mostafa, our
security guard? Within a minute of that thought, there he was,
going with the security guard into the office, and coming out,
with the knife in his trustworthy protection, smiling at us as
always. “John! It’s good!”. It sure is good, Mostafa. “Shukran!”
We boarded the run-down 727 jet, and finally left
Tripoli, exhausted, bedraggled, but still with positive
anticipation. It was perhaps lucky that nobody discovered the
hole in the floor of the jet until we landed. ("Look, you can
see the runway", joked one person) (See photos on right).
It was about
3am when we wandered into the (tobacco)
smoke-filled terminal building in Sabha. While
waiting for our luggage, I mentioned to a fellow traveler,
knowing the next week could be strenuous, that we had to look
out for one another – for example lending each other supplies
when we ran out, like medicine and toilet paper. “Or a sense of
humour”, she accurately added.
Entering the main lounge, we were greeted with a
room full of exhausted travelers, many sleeping on benches or
mats. They had been waiting hours for our plane to arrive so
they could catch the flight to Tripoli. They might be a preview
of us in a week’s time.
We weren't the
returning to Canada, I discovered a travel journal by one of
those poor souls we saw that night. (It was a group of 31
Austrian, German and Swedish travellers). As it turned out, they had had a lot of
troubles since they left Europe.
below is from that journal. The original website is no longer
online; I got this from the
cached Google page. They had already experienced a five hour
delay when they flew from Tripoli to Sebah; below is what the
experienced on their return to Tripoli:
However, no Libyan guide anymore. Confusion about transfer to airport (how and
when). At 9 pm transfer by the jeeps to the airport. Many people, no check-in
counter open, no
Finally, after more than 9 hours at the airport: With the kind help of the guide
from a Swiss group and their Libyan guide a part of our group received boarding
cards for the
6:50 am (1 April !) to
Tripoli. The other part of our group "enjoyed" an adventurous 10-hour trip
by bus, truck and taxi cars of about 700 km to
For another, somewhat
harrowing experience, check this traveller's blog:
Scroll down to "April 17" "A Day at the Airport". We met a
few people at Jalu who had experienced THAT flight!
Update, Nov. 06: From
Business in Africa: Libyan Arab Airlines has been
negotiating with aircraft manufacturers to add 25 new jet planes
to its fleet. The North African carrier said that the jets would
carry between 100 and 350 passengers and hoped delivery would be
by mid-April 2007. The extra jets would help the airline expand
services to cover most of Africa, many European cities, as well
as connections to China, India, Pakistan, Japan, the
Philippines, Canada and the US. Four cargo planes (capacity: 100
metric tonnes), would also be purchased.
A travel "must"
Toilets are always
a major concern when travelling, and since this page has
concerned itself with airports, this might be an appropriate
spot for comment.
If you have read
through the blog referenced two paragraphs up, you'll have
already come across an opinion of the women's toilet in the
Tripoli International Airport. Although we had found a great
variety of conditions, it was Oksana's considered judgment that
the women's toilet in the Tripoli Airport was "the worst". This
was particularly strange, since like most places in Libya, few
women were in evidence.
The previous time
that the condition of women's toilets was discussed was while we
were waiting in the "sultan's tent" lounge at Jalu on our way
back from the eclipse. Oksana had had a visit and was not
impressed. When Patsy from England came back, she also made a
negative comment. "Which one were you in?", asked Oksana. "This
one". replied Patsy as she mimed tip-toeing gingerly around
"facilities" for the next week were a different situation.
Stay tuned... and don't forget your lighter!
The famous hole in the floor (above
Photos by Kevin Gray