Travel: In Count Almasy's footsteps

In the heart of the Libyan Desert, Paula Hardy defies dunes, doomsayers and djinn to see some very special paintings

We were having a hard time crossing the high, steep sand dunes when suddenly mountains rose before us like medieval castles from the dust: I had found what I had come to seek. These were the mountains of Uweinat. It was without doubt the outstanding moment of the whole journey.

Despite a good 70 years between the Egyptian explorer, Hassanein Bey's first euphoric sighting of Gebel Uweinat from the back of his camel and my own only slightly less exciting view from the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser, the feeling of excitement was the same. A 6,000ft-high mountain rising out of a featureless gravel desert, after a good 12 hours driving (or 11 days by camel for Mr Bey), still commands the attention.

One of three huge massifs, Gebel Uweinat, Gebel Arkenu and Gebel Kissu lie at the heart of the Libyan Desert at the juncture of the Libyan, Egyptian and Sudanese borders. It is a desolate, seldom-visited place that is on record as being the largest waterless tract of desert in the world. And yet, following Hassanein Bey's sighting of the mountains in 1922, the Libyan Desert had become one of the great theatres of early 20th-century exploration.

Since then, the intervening years have once again drawn a veil over Libya. And at the end of the 1990s, this vast desert country is hardly less obscure to Europeans than it was in the 1930s. The Second World War, the following years of economic devastation, the 1969 socialist revolution of Muammar Gaddafi and the subsequent UN embargo of 1992 have effectively closed the door to prying eyes. Media spin-doctoring has done the rest. But whatever the economic and political costs, this restrictive closed-door policy has certainly had its benefits. The Libyan Desert of the 1990s is still pretty much as they left it in the 1930s, complete with Model A Ford wrecks, the archetypal camel skeletons and 1930s expedition graffiti praising Egypt's King Farouk.

Even before Hassanein Bey discovered it, Uweinat - the name of a lost oasis - was a word of magic, and certainly these days, in our post-revolutionary ignorance, it is still a place of mystery and myth. To the Royal Geographical Society explorers in search of water - that holy of holy grails in the desert - even its name, which means "mountain of little springs", was laden with magical images and promises of fame and fortune. Fresh water springs can still be found at Uweinat, but nowadays it is not the water that holds you enthralled, it is what it signposts: thousands of delicate paintings, each no larger than a hand, painted in red and yellow oxides, white clay and charcoal, hidden within the huge boulder caves of the mountain - a scene immortalised in the film The English Patient.

But in spite of Hollywood's screen accolade, and the fact that these paintings are an extraordinary testimony to the life of prehistoric man, nobody seemed to know much about the Uweinat rock art. Where the western desert has been researched more thoroughly, it appears nobody has been to this outback since the 1930s (with the exception of one Italian research team in 1968). And although the paintings - many of which remain unrecorded at Uweinat - are an irreplaceable legacy of a time when the desert was not a desert, the mountain and its treasures are not protected in any way and depressing stories are already being told of theft and vandalism. As I rang around prospective Libyan tour operators, it became apparent that if I wanted to see the paintings I would just have to take my chances on a "reconnaissance" trip.

Regardless of all the advances in travel and tourism over the last few years, arranging a trip into the desert in Libya's newly accessible Jamahiriya is still a logistical nightmare. After 10 years of sanctions, the country's crumbling infrastructure and a still curious, if not downright suspicious, police force are only added annoyances on top of all the practical problems that present themselves. Experienced local guides and desert drivers are needed to deal with hundreds of kilometres of sand and dune fields; gallons of fuel (we carried over 220 gallons of fuel for a five-day trip) are necessary to cope with the huge distances; and an equal amount of water is required to deal with the heat. Whatever you plan for, you need to multiply at least threefold, and then on top of that you need to start thinking about food, tents and equipment. But the very fraught arrangements did have an upside - in order to get where we all very much wanted to go, everyone mucked in, in true expedition spirit.

The resulting experience of the desert and the local people was quite honestly "unique". In over 800km of desert-driving we didn't get stuck in the sand once. The skill and verve of Haj Baset's sand-dune driving - a heady mixture of floating on air and an aggressive cut-and-thrust approach to awkward dunes before allowing the weight of the vehicle to tip you over the other side - was well worth the wait for our rationed quota of petrol. In what appeared to be a totally featureless landscape, they drove without compasses or a Global Positioning System, and when it got dark they simply carried on driving - as I cowered in the back seat - using the North Star as a guide. When we weren't in the vehicle, the heavy peaceful silence of the desert was ample compensation for the hours spent listening to Arab music at full volume. The valley of acacia trees, the fresh-water springs, the desert flowers and the unbelievable desert watermelon (all remnants of rain in the area seven months previously) were causes of real excitement amid the heat and the dust. And the first site of Uweinat's huge sandstone massif was like a small personal triumph over all the doomsayers.

Our rock-painting searches were equally filled with the heavy weight of potential disappointment and the eager excitement of possible success. The uncertainty of it all gave us just a hint of that 1930s exploration fever that kept men out here for years at a time. As our guide, ex-border patrol Haj Abdul-Jemil, ducked into dark crevasses and clefts in the rock, we followed him excitedly. Once inside, we crouched to examine the sandstone walls, but these caves hardly needed examining, they were literally covered in hundreds of delicate paintings. The whole stylised tableau was as full of energy and grace as if someone had knocked it up yesterday. You could easily make out the lithesome hunters complete with bows and arrows, the fleet-foot herds of white gazelle known locally as ariel, in other scenes heavy-breasted women crouched milking mottled red and white cows and, all around, chains of celebrants danced along the wall in wild prehistoric abandon.

On seeing the paintings for himself, Count Almasy, the real "English patient", was "dazzled by what [he] saw". To this day, Sudanese travellers still believe they were drawn by the djinn (spirits). Deep in the Libyan desert, you will never see anything like them.

LIBYA

GETTING THERE

British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) offers direct flights to Tripoli for around pounds 1,000. Air Malta (tel: 0181-785 3177) offers return flights to Tripoli and Banghazi via Malta from pounds 661.

GETTING AROUND

Arab Tours (tel: 0171-935 3273) offers group tours in Libya. British Museum Tours (tel: 0171-323 8895) offers specialist archaeological programmes from pounds 1,998 per person, including return flights, accommodation and tour lectures.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Tour operators will arrange your visa. Currently, the Libyan Bureau (tel: 0171-486 8387) does not issue individual tourist visas, but this may change in the future. It is essential to travel in an organised group due to all the checkpoints and especially if you are going into the desert.

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