A photo-journal of our Libyan Solar Eclipse & Sahara trip, Mar.-Apr. 2006
PAGES:   Index | Tripoli | People | Roman sites | In Tent City | Eclipse |Tent City story | To the Sahara
In the Sahara | Sun, sand, water | Desert notes | Drivin' | Some civilization | Last days
 Libya links | | Eclipse links | Photo gallery |



Photos & journal by John Leeson (Toronto, Canada)
 email:  jooktoronto@gmail.com

Sun, sand, water... and other liquids

Sounds like a great beach holiday?  Well, we did have lots of sun, lots of sand…  and lots of water (in 1.5 liter bottles), but no beach!

Click on photos for larger images:


There was always sun. It was hot… after all, we were in the Sahara desert. The heat wasn’t overpowering most of the time, but we wouldn’t spend much time in the mid-day sun. The last couple of days, the temperature climbed into the low to mid-40’s. (Way over 100F). That was hot. But the heat grew on you.


In fact, many of us felt great there. It may have been the benefits of a hot dry climate on bones and joints that can tend to suffer in damp climates, but certainly there were a few of us who have said since returning home that they never felt better than in the Sahara. It was more than physical health. All that glorious sunshine, heat without humidity, glorious vistas... it sometimes felt like heaven.


Bonnie hides from the sun


If the sun and heat grew on us, well, so did the sand.


It grew on you, and stayed with you. While the land was varied, we were never away from sand. It was on the ground, in the air, in our mouths, eyes, ears, clothes, car, camera (I had mine cleaned after returning). Food was inevitably, if unintentionally, seasoned with it. Every dish we ate came with crunch.


Sand even found its way into song. At our first "shower" opportunity we found (a hose by a well), Oksana sang, "I'm going to wash that sand right out of my hair". Later, in the car, she and Bonnie exhausted their memories of sand songs: "Love Letters in the Sand", and "Mr. Sandman". (Well, you have to go way back to remember any of those songs. Some might say remembering Pat Boone was just a symptom of sunstroke).


And, the sand added to the sun’s heat – in the Sahara, the sand reflects back 90% of the heat it receives.


The areas we travelled through were dominated by three different giant landscape features: the dark, craggy Acacus Mountains, and two huge Sand Seas: The Murzuq and Ubari Sand Seas. Extensive flat plains, accented by giant dunes, they were our campsites every night.


The gorgeous sand

The Dunes

I still clearly remember our first sight of those dunes. Following that first day's lunch, we drove over flat, hard packed sand and rock. After some time, it briefly seemed to me that there was a large city in the hazy distance, but soon the image transformed itself first into “mountains”, and eventually revealing itself as the gigantic, soaring sand dunes of the Murzuq Sand Sea.

Looking back, now two months afterward, those dunes still feel like home. Our days often consisted of long, often bone-crunching drives while breathing hot, sandy air; at the end of the afternoon we would pull off into another beautiful campsite, framed by these giant, curving dunes. It was at this time of day (and early morning) that they were at their most beautiful, with the low sun turning them into a golden, ruddy red, highlighted with long shadows and accenting the crests and ripples.


The clearest tactile memory of those dunes is the experience of climbing up or down them.  It took a day to get the hang of climbing up the steep side, but the sensation of going up and down that soft, soft golden sand in bare feet (“Like walking through silk”, Oksana said) will always stay with me.


In David Makepeace’s short Sahara video, there is a brief clip of his friend Michael pointing to one of our sand dune homes saying “This is what I’ll miss the most”. Absolutely. (It's Michael who's enjoying Sahara heaven in the photo in the top left)


Walking through silk



I had heard many stories about (and seen some photos of) the great Saharan sandstorms. While any blowing sand would have been a problem during the eclipse, Saharan sandstorms are capable of incapacitating any travel or movement. I had read that the only thing to do was to stay in your tent, zipped up in your sleeping bag and wait it out in the oppressive heat.


Fortunately, we didn’t experience any of that. On our second last day, however there was a moderate sandstorm for most of the day. On the way to the ancient town of Ghat, visibility was so poor, it reminded us of a bad smog day at home. This was the first day that the temperature climbed into the 40’s, and while walking through the old Medina of Ghat, and especially at the top of the central hill beside an old fort at the top, we got a little more understanding of the power of the sand, wind and heat here (and it was still early April!) (Photo at right taken from the fort)


For a taste of what sandstorms are capable of, look at these photos of Crete in April of 2005. Remember: these pictures were taken during the daytime, and the photographer did not have a dark yellow filter on the camera! Note the car headlights. And here's an article on NASA's website about how much Saharan dust crosses to North America. (It estimates Florida receives about three feet of dust a year!)

Water and other liquids

With all that sun and sand, we learned early on not to go anywhere without water. We traveled with a large supply of large plastic water bottles. As the day progressed, the water would warm up to its normal lukewarm temperature. We were dry beyond just thirst… everything was dry. Lip balm, mints and candies were popular items to help moisten that which didn’t seem “moisten-able”.  “You just can’t get wet enough” was one comment I heard.


The country was dry in more than one way: Libya is an alcohol-free country. During the first week, there were a lot of comments and jokes about this situation we found ourselves in. Wistful evocations of gin-and-tonics, martinis and wine were frequent… to say nothing of memories of real beer, as opposed to the non-alcoholic type available there.


“I’d chew my arm off for a cold beer”, was one less-than-wistful wish I heard. And I recall once commenting to someone that I could probably drink a whole bottle of a nice cold, Portuguese Vinho Verde.


But thoughts of alcohol seemed to recede as we established ourselves in the Sahara. It was partly the result of time – we were getting used to this – but mostly because the heat and sand focused everyone on the essentials of the desert: liquids and thirst.


We consumed a few liters of water a day; but after a few days of heat and warm water, some of us began obsessing with the idea of drinking anything other than water, and anything cold. One morning at breakfast, someone asked if there was any fresh squeezed orange juice… how about a grapefruit? A papaya?...


Three days into the Sahara, we heard that the next day we’d pass through a small town, Al'Uwaynat. After the days we had just spent, the idea of a town in itself seemed exotic, but I had only one question about it: did it have electricity? Because that meant refrigeration… and something – anything – cold to drink.


To be continued...



Cooling down... and washing away that sand

The other liquid we missed was water to wash in and to cool down with, and so we reveled in it whenever we did find some. On the first day, we drove by a large irrigated agricultural facility -- growing wheat of all things -- watered by massive sprinklers. Already on our first day here, the experience of standing under the bracing cold water spray was a refreshing treat.

A couple more days of heat, sand and sun brought us to a “well” (a stone building with a hose and water supply). Many of us jumped at the chance of a rinse, a shampoo (“best shower ever” I said afterward), or as much of a shower as people could manage.



In the last few days of the trip, we would occasionally stop at facilities that catered to "4x4 travellers", which would include showers -– a wonderful luxury.


Next: Notes from the desert

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
Libya links
| Eclipse links | Photo gallery |