Travel: Long Haul - Hidden desert marvels

Libya may not be the first choice of destination for holidaymakers, but Jane Cochrane found it a delight
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The Independent Culture
Have you ever been to Jamahiraya? I am baffled by the first question on my green visa application card. So I ring Avril Randell, who is taking me with her to Libya and explain that, as far as I know, I haven't, but how can I be sure? After correcting my pronunciation she told me that a "Jamahiraya" is a cross between a Democracy and a Republic, and I had started at page three.

Eventually, after folding and opening the card in a variety of different ways and turning the pages backwards I found the heading in English, "The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiraya".

In the last two years, Avril, whose card calls her a "Battlefield Tour Manager", has taken four groups of Second World War veterans into Libya, over its eastern border with Egypt, to visit the war cemetery in Tobruk and the battlefield sites in the east of the country. Now she is doing the reconnaissance for a trip taking old soldiers and their relations into Libya, over the western border with Tunisia, to Tripoli and through to Benghazi. I accompanied her, as my father was killed in Libya in 1943.

Before we set out I asked her what I should take and wear. It is quite alright to take a camera, but she advised me to wear a skirt to my ankles or trousers, shirts with long sleeves and a high neck, cotton or linen, and nothing see-through. "And you'll need a sensible nightie with long sleeves, in case a man comes into your hotel room with the room service. Now I must go and clean out the hamster cage. Cheerio!"

Avril organises these tours in an entirely voluntary capacity from her kitchen table in Norfolk and fits it in with her family life and farm.

History lessons in Libya start with Gadhafi's coup in 1967; younger Libyans know nothing of the Second World War. But, like almost every other government in the world, Libya is interested in encouraging some limited tourism and Avril's "cottage industry" is expanding.

Many veterans of the desert war wish to return, but this is not the only reason to go. In spite of discouraging advice from the Foreign Office, I found Libya a delight.

Although always accompanied, we were not restricted in where we went, and nothing was too much trouble for Fatma, the representative from Apollonia Tours.

The war cemeteries in the two main cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, were easy to find and scrupulously cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

We also wanted to visit the battlefield at "Beda Fom" near Benghazi, where, in 1940, an army of a quarter of a million Italians surrendered to 30,000 British troops under Wavell. So Fatma found us a bedouin shepherd who knew this remote place named only after a well. He guided us over a desert ridge beyond the end of the Tarmac road and dirt track and there we found the remains of gun emplacements and spent cartridges.

Fatma stopped on the way back to ask a Sudanese camel herd if we could have some fresh camel's milk, but it was the wrong time of day for milking camels.

Often we felt that time stood still, but in other ways Libya seemed very modern. Satellite television dishes are on sale by the roadside and pick up news beamed from the BBC, Damascus and 20 other channels. Although not participants, groups of young men everywhere were watching the World Cup.

The weather was warm and sunny in a Californian kind of way (you get the feeling that it always is), but the swimming pool in our hotel and the huge Mediterranean beaches were empty. I asked Avril if she ever swam but she said she didn't risk it. On her first trip she wore a sarong which once blew back in a gust of wind. Afterwards, a tour guide had whispered in her ear: "I have seen your legs, I will not sleep tonight."

After that she secured the sarong with a safety pin.

The town and city markets were full of both modern clothes and hanks of hand-woven cotton and linen for the traditional robes that many Libyan men still wear. One could also buy brightly coloured handwoven stripy silk, saffron, jasmine oil, olive oil soap, copper pots and 10ft high copper pinnacles for mosques, not to mention fresh dates and the tastiest honey.

Unlike in neighbouring countries, the locals took no notice of us walking through the souks with our guide. But anyone who cannot bear the thought of a week without alcohol should not even consider going to Libya as it is strictly illegal.

On our 600-mile drive along the desert road between Tripoli and Benghazi, the driver frequently braked hard to avoid sedate camels as they crossed in front of us looking neither to left nor right. In more built-up areas, a roadside feature is the wild sculptures of twisted metal tubing which turn out to be racks of exhaust pipes for sale. In the towns, we saw similar sculptures of long handled paint rollers.

These belong to immigrant Egyptian workers who also stand with their picks and marble polishing machines to advertise their trade and availability for work.

Huge Libya - the size of France, Germany, Holland and Scandinavia put together - has a population of under five million and there are as many guest workers as there are indigenous Libyans.

We were proudly shown a reservoir for the man-made river. This is a hugely ambitious scheme, now almost complete, to bring water from the desert town of Kufra, some 1,250 miles away, to the coastal towns and farms for drinking water and irrigation. In a country where bottled water is 10 times more expensive than petrol this will be welcome.

For the tourist, though, the greatest surprise is the collection of Greek and Roman ruins. The old Roman towns of Sabratha and Leptis Magna are beautifully sited by the seashore. Before the war, the Italians began to excavate them, but little more has happened since then.

These Roman towns have never been built over, and their streets, arches, markets, theatres, baths and communal loos remain more intact than any I have ever seen elsewhere. In Sabratha the best mosaic floors have been brought to a museum on the site.

Leptis Magna also has a site museum with superb Greek and Roman statues, friezes and funerary urns which, as the custodian showed us, still contain human bones. Outside Leptis, at the end of a long sandy track we had the extraordinary experience of standing in a gigantic and complete Roman arena without another tourist for miles.

Fact File

JANE COCHRANE'S seven-day trip was arranged through Arab Tours Limited, 60 Marylebone Lane, London W1M 5FF (0171-935 3273).

She paid pounds 1,000 for flights, visa, car, driver, accommodation and all food.

The British Museum Traveller (0171-323 8895) has availability on its tour to Libya early in October.

An excellent map of Libya, at a scale of 1:2m, is produced by the Hungarian company Cartographia. Unfortunately, Stanfords Map and Book Shop (0171- 836 1321) is uncertain about when it will next get supplies. Try the Geoprojects 1:3.5m (pounds 7), which Stanfords does have in stock.

The latest Foreign Office travel advice, issued in June, says: "We have no diplomatic relations with Libya and the protection we can offer to British nationals visiting the country is limited. Register with the British Interests Section, Italian Embassy, Tripoli (tel: 3331192/3)".