Travel: A vast land out of the shadows

Libya's relations with the West are improving - and its spectacular scenery will soon be open to tourists again. But what is this extraordinary country really like? Tom Sheppard, one of the few Europeans to know the land and its people, reports
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The Independent Culture
One of the smartest airline offices in the whole of Piccadilly used to be towards the western end, just by Green Park tube station. Last time I looked, the regulation plastic airliner was still there, uncomfortably pinioned on its stand behind grubby windows - even though the office shut down nearly a decade ago. Now, though, Libyan Arab Airlines is getting airborne once more with the easing of UN sanctions (as a result of the handing over for trial of the two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing) and is already getting calls from eager tourists.

If I were a Libyan, pondering (as they are) commissioned studies on how to enter the minefield of a tourist industry, I would be saying that stopping right here would be a good start. While they flick the pages of the reports and pass a magnifier, quickly, over countries that have been "developed" for such things - not least their brash western neighbour Tunisia - the Libyans, with their sun, space, beaches and Roman ruins, have two provisional defences already in place: language and alcohol.

When the first beneficiaries of the relaxing of UN sanctions touch down in Tripoli, they will discover that transfers, passport control, customs, information, bank, exit, taxis - all the notices and airport signage - are in Arabic. Only. And if you are flying out on one of the pioneering flights by re-invented Libyan Arab Airlines, don't expect anything stronger than coffee.

You need all your wits about you to make sense of the vastness of Libya. North to south it is Manchester to Madrid. West to east, Liverpool to Lithuania. Total population only five million - less than London. Most of it is desert with zones of spectacular scenery on a grand scale - which is to say you must travel long distances to see it, or to see it change.

Who goes there now? A very thin trickle of European visitors in four- wheel-drive vehicles - mostly German, French and Italian - venture down to the wildly rugged Acacus mountains in the south-west - as indeed can coach-borne groups with Tuareg guides and local Toyotas. As in the Algeria of yore, there are polite, English-speaking Germans on Wagnerian motorcycles like the heroes of Valhalla. Quite how they survive in black leather in those temperatures I'll never know.

On a project that began five years ago (all the permissions took an age, but it was worth the wait) to study rock art, I had a rare glimpse of all four corners of the country. Solo in a Land Rover, and dependent on their help for the fuel and water needed for the huge distances, I met a lot of people. Amazingly and humblingly nice people.

Though shown confidently on every map, Tazerbo turned out to be more a concept than a place: a collection of tiny oases, well pumps and against- the-odds cultivation. Shaken (by the exposure and potential danger of breakdown) and stirred (by the beauty) after a 300-mile sand-dune traverse in which the track optimistically marked on the map simply was not there, I arrived at Tazerbo at high noon to find no main street or little row of lock-up shops. All the few shacks seemed to lack was a sinister Charles Bronson propping up a porch and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

The one-time fuel station was derelict. Unknown to me, however, the bush telegraph was working, and before long Moussa Sulciman Mohammed appeared. Yes he knew someone who'd let me have diesel, and he himself could provide water.

This involved going to his house, being invited to lunch, meeting his wife and baby, emptying the yard hosepipe of near boiling water heated in the sun and - because it turned out he was the tourism manager for Tazerbo and he considered looking after me to this extent to be his duty - later going to his "office" to make an entry in his visitors' book, if I would be so kind.

His friends did have diesel, drained on the spot from the auxiliary tank of a huge Mercedes truck. They declined payment and, since my Arabic was as limited as their English, I was physically shown - past the post office mast, through the lanes and along the line of power cables - the start of the track I sought to my next destination.

Four hundred miles, a satellite rescue beacon misfire, arrest, questioning, cordial release and an award of considerable assistance later, I was at a distant frontier post on the Sudan border. The bonnet of the Land Rover yawned as I pondered a serious fuel consumption problem. All around gathered to assist. Among the makeshift huts and collection of odd vehicles, incredibly, wafted the smell of fresh-baked bread. I did what you would have done - an "Ah! Bisto!" inhalation of the smell, then returned to my work. Within minutes I was tapped on the shoulder and presented with two flats of Arab bread and a huge smile.

What was happening was nothing more than mutual respect - and that means mutual, not just one-way. In the Arab family there is respect for one's elders and betters and for visitors. If one is both a visitor and older, politeness and respect are automatic. Most of those on organised tours, tend towards the older end of the age spectrum.

Tour groups generally visit the northern littoral Roman and Greek ruins and the ancient settlement at Ghadames. Now flanked by a well-planned new town, Ghadames old city is almost entirely deserted except for one or two carefully restored dwellings. Yet it is an astonishing piece of functional design and climate-control architecture. Covered-over alleys and streets, with built-in benches to rest, and areas for children to play, lower temperatures in the summer. Massive construction stores warmth in the winter and wind-towers keep complex triple-storied houses cool and dust-free. Roof-top to roof-top access even gave the wives a gossip break from kitchen chores. To let the heat rise quickly out of the houses, kitchens were sensibly on the highest level.

Parts of Tripoli old city, still preserved in the capital close to its excellent museum, are built in a somewhat similar way. Within 100 miles either side of Tripoli are the Roman sites of Sabratha and Leptis Magna. Both are World Heritage Sites and spectacular to see. They are astonishing to contemplate in terms of the colonial arrogance, vision and energy evident in their conception and construction by the Romans - and in their maintenance over the centuries before their final decline.

Fact File

Getting there: until Libyan Arab Airlines reopens its office, the main way into the country will be via Djerba, across the border in Tunisia. Tunis Air (0171-734 7644) flies weekly from Heathrow.

An organised tour is the easiest alternative. For example, British Museum Traveller (0171-323 1234) has a programme of tours costing about pounds 2,000. For individual trips try Azar Tours, Jamal Abdulnaser Street, Main Coastal Road, Zuara, Libya.

The procedure for obtaining a visa is complex. Azar Tours advises: "Before you hand in your passport, make sure it has your passport information translated into Arabic and printed on your passport by a sworn translator or official department.

"People with an Israeli visa stamp on their passport will not be issued the visa in compliance with Libyan embargo against Israel."

Money: one Libyan dinar is worth $2.20 at the official rate; the "open market" rate - a more accurate term than black market - is three Libyan dinars to one US dollar. By some ill-defined rules, large hotels demand payment in dollars.

More information: Azar Tours' website, www.