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

To the Sahara!... What's your rush?

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 Sahara. It
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:

Sunset outside Tripoli airport:

"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. Originally, we 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 2:00am! 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].



A 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!” (Thank you).



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 only ones

And, after 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.


The except 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 flight to Tripoli, no announcements.

Complete confusion.

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 flight at 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 Tripoli ...


For another, somewhat harrowing experience, check this traveller's blog: http://jes6ica.livejournal.com/. 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 hazards.

Toilet "facilities" for the next week were a different situation. Stay tuned... and don't forget your lighter!

Scenes inside:

The famous hole in the floor (above & below)
Photos by Kevin Gray

NEXT - The magnificent Sahara

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