Land of shifting sands

After years in the wilderness, Libya has re-emerged as a tourist destination. Tony Wheeler explores the dunes and historical treasures of Gaddafi's land
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The Independent Travel

Take Nigel Mansell. Now imagine him rather taller, with a deep suntan and a rather more substantial moustache. Now picture him utterly calm, serene, even dignified. And with a voluminous ashaersh or turban swathing his head. That was Hassan Sharif as we first met him, clearly a Tuareg (and a very tall one) from the neck up, but from the neck down dressed in a very incongruous pair of bright red overalls.

Take Nigel Mansell. Now imagine him rather taller, with a deep suntan and a rather more substantial moustache. Now picture him utterly calm, serene, even dignified. And with a voluminous ashaersh or turban swathing his head. That was Hassan Sharif as we first met him, clearly a Tuareg (and a very tall one) from the neck up, but from the neck down dressed in a very incongruous pair of bright red overalls.

The next morning he was Tuareg from head to toe, the turban now a very pale shade of mauve, the robe black. Rather than Nigel's Formula 1 car he arrived in an admirably beat-up Toyota Land Cruiser with a goatskin of fresh water lashed to the side in readiness for our trip into the Sahara. And instead of Silverstone or Monza we've got the Ubari and the Murzuq sand seas as our playgrounds. In fact, Hassan looked ready to strike out across any desert that presented itself, and gave the impression that if the Toyota hadn't been to hand a camel would have done just as well.

Libya is suddenly the hot destination. Tony Blair has been there and had his session with the Colonel, the Man, the leader of the masses. Tourists are bound to follow. If they can only get visas. At the moment visitors are only allowed as members of tour groups of at least four people.

"You don't actually have to be a group of four," a Tripoli travel agent explained. "But you must make four visa applications. Surely you have some friends who will loan you their passports?"

I explained that some of my friends might not find a Libyan visa the ideal passport stamp to wave at those humourless guys from Homeland Security on their next visit to the US, but in fact we never got around to making the application. After weeks of Libyan dithering we gave up, and Maureen and I signed up for a standard one-week tour out of London, tagging on another week of desert wandering.

Of course we did the things you'd expect to do in Libya. We started in Tripoli, which is interesting even if the medina is not a patch on similar old walled cities in Morocco. Tripoli has a remarkable number of internet cafés - not only has the number multiplied in recent years, the cost of Net access has also dropped dramatically. In Libya you can get online for 15p an hour. Mobile phones are also common - bring yours with you, it will probably work in Libya. There are also lots of cars - after all, Gaddafi's Green Book says that everybody should own their own vehicle, and petrol costs 20p a gallon. Computers, mobile phones and cars may be widespread but there's one thing in very short supply in Tripoli, and throughout the rest of Libya: bars. Despite the winds of change rustling through the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, to give Libya its full name, there are still no bars. Alcohol remains prohibited in Gaddafi-land.

From Tripoli we travelled west towards the border with Tunisia to visit the ancient Roman city of Sabratha. We then journeyed east to explore the even more impressive Roman ruins at Leptis Magna, the expansive port city which reached its peak in the 2nd century. It's Libya's single greatest attraction and arguably the most magnificent Roman site around the Mediterranean. We also ventured beyond the green coastal fringe to stay at Ghadamis, an ancient caravan trading town hard up against the Algerian border. We followed the route of one tributary of Gaddafi's Great Man-Made River to the desert tombs of Ghirza. But it was in the Sahara that Libya was at its most extraordinary.

When you head south to the region known as the Fezzan in early spring the countryside is unexpectedly green and fertile, at least for the first 50 miles out of Tripoli. Then it starts to dry out until it's utterly barren - only at the occasional wadi is there much vegetation. The road climbs through dramatic rocky hills then runs across equally desolate plains punctuated by distant mountain ranges, flat-topped mesas or curiously eroded pyramidal hills. Occasionally there's a scatter of camels or a telecommunications tower.

What looks like a Burmese pagoda pops up on the horizon only to resolve into another communications device fronted by a bank of solar panels. The infrequent settlements are dusty, dreary little eruptions of half-built breeze-block buildings, a petrol station, a couple of tea houses (in one of them the proprietor is watching Spartacus subtitled in Arabic when we drop in), a shop or two and the inevitable police checkpoint. The roads are smooth, and the traffic light - the speed limit is nominally 60 mph, but the standard velocity is nearer 90.

After a lunch stop at Ash-Shuwarif, the country becomes extraordinarily barren. At times there is no leaf nor blade of grass as far as the eye can see. Finally we sail into the Idehan Ubari, the Ubari Sand Sea. This is serious dune country, where the afternoon ghibli whisks a film of sand across the road. A dragon's backbone of dunes, regular as a sine wave, ripples away to the south-east. Just beyond Sebha, a bustling metropolis with an old Italian fort and an airport, is a lorry park where grossly overloaded vehicles labour in from long hauls across the empty desert from sub-Saharan Africa. Periodically, a truckful of economic immigrants breaks down somewhere in the untracked sand to the south. In 2001 a broken-down lorry was found with 96 dead passengers ... and 23 survivors.

From Sebha the road runs along the extraordinary Wadi al-Hayat, a green mirage in the heart of the Sahara. For 100 miles it's stony silence along the south side of the road and an intensively farmed strip, backed by massive sand dunes, along the north. Finally we turn into the Dar Germa Hotel in Germa, to be met by the extraordinary sight of Hassan Sharif in his Ferrari-red overalls. Hassan learnt his English during a year-long spell of study in Dublin. The weather? "Yes, it was terrible, there was rain, even snow."

The next morning, with Hassan and his equally authentically attired sidekick Mohammed, we board the Toyota, turn off the road through the farmed strip, stop to take air out of the tyres to cope with the sand and disappear into the dunes. Within minutes all directions disappear and I'm secretly glad I've brought my GPS and set the co-ordinates for Germa before we left. For the next hour we swoop up and down, sometimes stopping for Hassan or Mohammed to clamber up a nearby dune, possibly to reconnoitre the route, possibly simply to spy out a stretch of fish-fash - a patch of ultra-fine sand which can bog down even a carefully driven Land Cruiser.

If you've got a children's-book view of the Sahara - endless rolling dunes, the only sign of life a camel caravan plodding across the lifeless sand - then this is it. We're heading towards the Ubari lakes, postcard-perfect desert oases with pools of clear water, surrounded by green palm trees and then by golden, burning sands. At Maharouba, the "Burning Lake", we come across a small party of Germans, two couples with some very young children. They've been dropped off here to camp by this little-visited lake for a week or two. Continuing west we labour to the top of a particularly high dune and edge our nose over the sharp edge of the sand ridge. The deep blue Gebraoun Lake appears directly below us.

"Ooooh," breathe Hassan and Mohammed in unison, as if they're amazed to have stumbled upon it. The village of Gebraoun has gone, its inhabitants relocated to new apartments by the main road in 1991. Today there's only the Winzrik campsite, but it's easy to imagine the caravans pulling in to this desert oasis. In a sense they still do; today the distant tribes are from Italy, Britain or France and their camels have metamorphosed into 4x4s. Some visitors stop only for lunch and quick dip in the lake but others hang around, renting a pair of skis or a snowboard from the shop to try a little sand-skiing.

The next day we head a few miles directly south from Germa, climbing up through the dark stony range before turning west and for the next two hours racing across a wide, featureless plain. Far to the south the view ends at the towering sand dunes of the Murzuq Sand Sea. Later, the dark trace of the Msak Settafet range emerges to the north. There's no trail to follow - the route could be a hundred or even a thousand lanes wide, despite which there is a police checkpoint in the middle of nowhere.

Finally we leave the plain to make a short traverse of another stretch of textbook Sahara desert, race across more featureless plain and finally rock and roll over a corner of the Ocean of Stone before coming to a halt at Wadi Methkandoush.

The walls of the wadi form a remarkable gallery of rock art from the "Wild Fauna Period" of 10,000 to 6,000 BC. It's a significant site for its remote location and for the extraordinary quantity of art work, but also for the history they so vividly illustrate. Climate change is such a current topic that it's easy to forget how recently the Sahara was very different from the arid sandbox we've been cruising around. When the artists chipped out their illustrations on the wadi walls the area was populated with animals which today are only found in the less extreme climates of countries far to the south.

The history of change is an eye-opener, and the exceptional quality of the work is equally amazing. Elephants, ostriches and a variety of cattle and antelope appear regularly, and there's at least one notable rhino and an equally impressive crocodile. But it was giraffes that really fired up these ancient Saharan artists - some are impressively large and remarkably lifelike. Even the complex patterns of the animal's hide are faithfully reproduced. My favourite shows two giraffes and an elephant in a novel transparent style so that in effect you see all three animals at once. One of the giraffes is stretching its neck up as if to nibble leaves off a treetop, while the other bends its neck down as if to drink from a pool.

Driving back to Germa we take a longer detour into sand-dune country. Once again we're in picture-book desert, where sand rolls away in every direction and even a hubcap-high bush is a rarity. And once again we nose out over the top of a high dune and look down upon a lake, except this one has disappeared, leaving just a rocky white reminder of its drying death throes. Even the surrounding vegetation has vanished, but as we gaze out over this scene of utter emptiness, the tiny figure of a camel emerges from behind a fold in the distant dunes. It's quickly followed by six more, trudging across the landscape towards a water source known only to them.

It's a pleasure to get back to the Dar Germa Hotel and shower off the sand and dust which quickly coats everything in the car. Although our notes indicate that the hotel is "very basic", it's actually neat and tidy and illustrated with all sorts of photographs, pictures and maps of the Sahara. Our bathroom comes equipped with a sink, toilet and bidet in an extravagant gold-trimmed style - nicely counterbalanced by the utterly utilitarian and completely exposed plumbing that snakes and writhes its way from the wheezy water heater mounted on the wall.

The hotel's food is also several notches above "very basic" - in fact it's the best we've had outside Tripoli. Perhaps it's because of the Sudanese cook, the staff from Mali, Niger and Egypt and the Italian woman who manages the show. "It's hard to find hard-working Libyan staff," she confides.

The following day we venture into the Ubari Sand Sea again. Hassan clearly loves plotting a path through the dunes - careful never to drop too low into depressions, exhilarated when we top a big one. Once again we suddenly emerge at the top of a ridge to find a green-fringed lake below us. Mandara, like Gebraoun, once had a village. Its inhabitants were forced to relocate in 1991, but here they would soon have had to leave anyway. In the early Eighties the lake started to dry up, and today it's just a collection of pools and puddles. "I think it's because of the agricultural projects," announces Hassan. "They take too much water."

The previous day, returning from Wadi Methkandoush, we'd driven by one of these projects, its enormous irrigated circles of grain fed by wells tapped into the desert aquifers. Is there any connection between the project's launch in the early 80s and Mandara Lake starting to dry up at the same time? Will Gaddafi's Great Man-Made River do the same?

Dried up or not, it's still an idyllic scene from the top of the sand ridge, but 20 years ago we would have been gazing down at a lake famed for its changing colours while the sounds of children playing drifted up to us. Now it's completely quiet. Down at the lake, the pools and puddles are crusted with thin, ice-like skins of salt. "Too much water for agriculture," repeats Hassan.

We pause at the abandoned village mosque where Mohammed shins up a dead tree to break off firewood. I have this absurd vision of driving through Los Angeles in our battered Toyota with its Arabic licence plates. On the roof is a line of jerry cans for extra fuel and the pile of firewood, while a goatskin of water is slung on the side. At the controls are two wild-looking Tuareg tribesmen with huge turbans swathing their heads.

"How long before the cops pull us over?" I muse to Maureen. "Sure, but we'd start a trend with the water bag," she responds. "It'd be: 'I want one of those, but do you have it in synthetic?'". "Well of course," I agree, "you can't just exploit animals."

It's only a few miles to Umm al-Maa, the picture-perfect Ubari Lake and one which still has plenty of water. Long and narrow with dark blue swifts flitting between the palm trees and over the water and sand, the "Mother of Waters" is even more picturesque than its predecessors, if that's possible. While Hassan builds a fire to bake bread and Mohammed fixes lunch, I go for a swim. Like the other lakes it's as salty as the Dead Sea, although digging a well nearby always provides fresh drinking water. I glisten with salt crystals when I dry off and my swimsuit dries completely stiff. "I was bobbing around like a rubber duck," I explain to Maureen. "You looked more like a rubber tyre to me," she replies.

Cruising back across the dunes in the late afternoon we finally meet a dune which beats Hassan. Despite surveying the route beforehand and breaking down the ridge top we still end up tottering on the edge with all the wheels off the ground. Ten minutes of shovelling gets us back in control. "That place is always difficult," Hassan grumbles. " Fish-fash too much."

Tony and Maureen Wheeler are the founders of Lonely Planet, the guidebook specialists

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) flies daily except Fridays between Heathrow and Tripoli from £390.50 return. Air Malta (0845 607 3710; www.airmalta.com) offer flights with a free stop on the island from £305.70 return.

ORGANISED TOURS

Several UK-based tour operators offer itineraries in Libya, although most tend to be escorted group tours with a particular focus on architecture. Most tours are offered from around September to May, thus avoiding the extremely hot summer temperatures. Allow around three weeks for visa arrangements when booking.

The Adventure Company (0870 794 1009, www.adventurecompany.co.uk) offers a 15-day tour including Tripoli and Leptis Magna, departing on 16 September. This costs £1,564 per person and includes flights from Heathrow to Tripoli, accommodation, some meals and transfers. Voyages Jules Verne (020-7616 1000, www.vjv.co.uk) offers a 13-night trip visiting Tunisia and Libya departing on 18 June for £1,345 per person in a twin room. This includes stops in Tunis, Carthage, Tripoli, the Sahara and Leptis Magna. The price includes flights from Gatwick to Tunis, returning from Tripoli to Heathrow, accommodation and some meals.

VISA REQUIREMENTS

The People's Bureau of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (020-7589 6120) require that all applicants are invited by a company and are a part of a group of a minimum of four people. Your passport must have a stamp with an Arabic translation and be valid for six months. If you have an entry stamp from Israel you will not be granted a visa to Libya. There are several agencies who can help with visa applications, but if you are travelling with a tour operator they will advise you on their procedures. Travcour (020-7223 5295, www.travcour.com) arrange visa applications for £35, including translation, plus the £22 Libyan application fee and £5 for postage.

TRAVEL AGENTS IN TRIPOLI

Magic Libya Tours (00 218 21 484 2108, www.magiclibya.com) offers a variety of tours around Libya from six to 14 nights, as well as cruises and hotel reservations.

GETTING AROUND

Libya has a system of shared taxis for up to seven people, as well as standard taxis. Unfortunately there are no trains, but the bus service is both reliable and cheap. Car hire is also a good option.

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