Brushes with civilization...and more liquid obsessions
on photos for larger images:
On day three, we encountered some German tourists. It already
seemed odd to see other people, but their travel environment
seemed from another world: they drove brand-new Mercedes 4x4’s,
and claimed to have refrigerators in their vehicles, stocked
with beer and scotch.
alcohol is not only
something I wouldn’t risk in Libya, I found it somewhat offensive to
a host country which adamantly and strictly bans alcohol. I’m not a
big believer in forcing our own customs while in another
country, if they are offensive or illegal there.
The first few
days of our Sahara trip were spent pretty much on our own: our group
traveled across the sand and rocks of the Acacus, with almost no
signs of other people, and certainly no signs of towns, roads etc.
About four days into the trek, we began encountering some towns.
The experience changed the atmosphere
of travel somewhat. We no longer felt isolated, and while we
really appreciated the cold drinks, occasional showers -- and
chairs for lunch! -- we also missed the sense of our own isolated
Our first town –
Al'Uwaynat – was located at an oasis, so the first sign of the town
was a line of bright green bushes that seemed like a gateway to
some different kind of place. It was: passing through this "gateway", we came across
the first concrete signs of civilization: garbage.
While we had
never been completely away from abandoned garbage during our travels, other sights seemed
even more exotic: power lines… street lights... pavement! … and…
It was a quiet,
unremarkable town –- except for those wonderful cold drinks -– and we browsed the
two small stores, buying drinks and snacks, and sat around on the
curb of the street, breathing car exhausts, and were soon ready to leave this
head back to the desert.
leaving town driving down the highway, we passed through
another police checkpoint (we’re on the edge of the Akakus area),
and just past that, we
turned off the pavement and headed back toward the sand and dunes, leaving our
brief encounter with civilization behind. Cheers in many of the cars.
Boy that tasted GOOD!
The next day, we
headed toward Ghat, an ancient trading town, centre of Touareg settlement,
located almost at the Algerian border. On the way, it’s clear that we are on
the verge of leaving the beautiful Akakus mountains. This is the
first time since leaving Sabha on day one we had a highway
drive, and on one side of
the highway we stared at the black, hard wall of the mountains we
have been traveling through; on the other, look at the wide expanse of the
was the day
the heat really started, accompanied by our only sandstorm. In Ghat,
we wandered the ancient medina, trying to find our way through the
twisting paths toward the old fort at the top of a hill. When we
reached the top, there was a spectacular view of the medina, the
whole town, the mountains of Libya and Algeria -- and an
impressive vista of blowing sand, obscuring views in all directions.
Ghat, and headed back up the road toward Al'Uwaynat. This time,
we went into a restaurant -- our first since Tripoli -- and one of a number
in the area that cater to 4x4 travelers. They provide kitchen
facilities, so Cheikh prepared our "usual lunch” there. However,
today, we were able to eat lunch SITTING! on chairs at a table. They also had
shower facilities, and many of us luxuriated in our first shower in
days (except for the hose a few days ago).
We killed a
lot of time
there, while waiting out the heat and the sand until around 5 pm, when the sandstorm
there, I talked to Cheikh about buying some some Touareg music. He
showed me a photo on his cell phone, and I recognized the musician in the
picture: he was a member of Tinariwen– a superb Tuareg music group from Mali I
had seen play last summer in Toronto. (My photos of their concert are posted
These musicians had once lived in Libya, when they were fighters in the Malian civil war, and Col. Ghadaffi
provided training camps to rebels from everywhere).
We made plans to go
shopping for Touareg music when we return to Sabha. As it turned out,
we didn't get into the town of Sabha on our way home.
The last few
days provided several opportunities to buy cold drinks – one of the
priorities of life in those days. The first opportunity, in Al'Uwaynat
was wonderful. The next day in the restaurant mentioned above, I
had a drink I’ll always remember.
I discovered a tin of orange
juice, whose art work depicted the juiciest orange wedge I’ve ever
seen, surrounded by an explosion of wet, juicy drops of orange
juice. I fell in love with the tin, and bought what turned out to be
the last one. It didn’t disappoint – cold, thirst-quenching, with
bits of real orange pulp; it was obscenely refreshing. Later, I found
a tin of peach juice that was not quite as good, but enough to keep
me going for a day….
… Until the next
day, when I had my only negative reaction of my two weeks.
Putting it into
It was our last
full day in the Sahara, and we stopped at the museum in Germa that we
had missed on day one. The
museum was dusty (what isn’t here?), but interesting, with much
better information in English than the museum in Tripoli –- but most
of us were too tired, hot and thirsty to appreciate it.
Some didn't even go in; I
made a very quick tour through it, and we then sat
outside on the steps, thinking about nothing but getting some some cold water somewhere.
At our lunch
restaurant, we headed straight to the cooler, and found that the only
choices were Coca-Cola or some sweet fruit
drink… not even cold water. Neither drink had any appeal to me. The
temperature was so hot outside by now that the water in our cars was
way past “refreshing”. I was clearly frustrated by the lack of even
cold water, and Bilgasem arranged for one of the drivers to buy up
some cold water at a store in town.
Two things however
put my frustration in perspective:
I quickly recalled my favourite "obnoxious tourist" image: He
was a Canadian I had met in Recife, Brazil who had become angry at a
restaurant because they didn't have any Coca Cola. Now I was doing
almost the same thing because a restaurant in a small town in
the Sahara desert only had Coke! (Although I didn't get angry,
While traveling I had been reading the book
by an American writer, William Langewiesche about his travels
through the Sahara, primarily Algeria. He recounts many stories
about the often fatal harshness of the land; a particularly gruesome story
concerned a Belgian couple and their five year old son. Their last
days are recounted in the woman’s journal, while the author
in parallel, the ever-deepening and horrible effects of thirst and
The family got lost, ran out of gas, then out of water. They drank the
car’s radiator fluid until it too ran out. They then drank gasoline.
The author writes, “Saharans have recommended it to me as a way of
staying off the battery acid”. They also drank their urine. The boy
was in such pain that the parents killed him to stop his suffering.
The husband cut himself so his wife could drink his blood, and then
at his request, she killed him. In the final throes of delusion, her
last words recorded her only regret: she had not seen Sylvester
Stallone in Rambo III.
So… I had to
consider: was my "crisis" –- being forced to drink Coke, fruit drink or
warm water -- all that bad…? Our few days in the Sahara had given us
some tiny -– and
very secure -– glimpses of the power and danger of the desert, but in
the end we could always stroll over to the counter, buy a Coke, and
avoid all those other choices…
Some town scenes:
The best beer
(Hard to leave
the topic of liquids!) The next day was another hot one. We stopped
at some of the famous Awbari lakes, and it was the only time in
the week that it was too hot to walk on the sand in bare feet.
Most of us were
still thirst-obsessed. At lunch this day, instead of the juiciest orange
juice in the world, I snapped up an ice-cold Beck’s non-alcoholized
beer. This was something we had drunk periodically in Libya. It
usually tasted pretty good, fairly close to “real” beer. (Unlike
some of the unknown and undrinkable brands I tried).
But that day,
after all that heat and sand we had been experiencing, that Becks (and the
next one) was simply the best beer I ever drank. Glorious.
Subsequently, I had little urge for a “real one”. (But I still
did get one
when I could on our KLM flight to Amsterdam!)
David agrees: "Best beer ever"
Next: the last days in the Sahara