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Libya

Travel Journal

29.07.2006, La Marsa, Tunisia - Sabrata, Libya, 149 km

We woke up to great views of the sparkling sea. After a half-way decent shower and a last Tunisian breakfast we started our journey towards the Libyan border. Since we still hadn’t found a possibility to change our Tunisian Dinar into Libyan Dinar and with only 25km left to the border, we started frantically to look out for the infamous money changers “waving with green bundles of Libyan money”. Finally in the last village before the border, we saw a guy sitting lazily in his chair rubbing the thumb and the middle finger of his right hand signaling the international sign for money. My dad had sent me the exchange rate on my mobile the day before, so I got out and concluded my first black market money exchange. With that settled we approached the border. Leaving Tunisia was easy, we just had to wait 15 minutes and pay the 1 TD fee for driving permit. Our car was not searched – again we had hidden the GPS. During the wait we could observe the people crossing the border to Libya: 90% of the cars were pushed by manpower over the border, since the tanks were completely empty, waiting for cheap Libyan petrol.
After leaving Tunisia we approached the Libyan border and now was the time for our guide to appear (“don’t worry HE will find you!”). We had booked the guide from Germany via Saro-Expedition (www.saro-expedition.de, Tel +49.8031.32758) in Rosenheim, Germany. They also organized the permission for the car and our visas – you could get them directly at the border, no need to get a visa beforehand anymore.
And surely, just as we approached the border a well-dressed man came running towards us, greeting us in perfect German, took our passports and disappeared with them. We were thunderstruck. Saro-Expedition had warned us that the guides are usually unemployed policemen that don’t speak a word of English/ French, etc. While we still couldn’t believe our luck, another well-dressed man waved us through the passport control and handed us our Libyan license plates. We attached them with good old duct tape and that done, Ahmed came back with our passports. Everything settled. The whole crossing took 10 minutes. We were in Libya!!! Libya is the fourth-largest country in Africa, the coastline stretches for over 1.770km and the 93% of Libya is covered by desert. Oil accounts for over 95% of Libya’s export income.
At the “bank” Ahmed helped me exchange 100 Euros and I got a big bundle of Libyan money held together with a rubber band! Smooth.
We then had a coffee at the border coffee shop and Ahmed explained the further proceedings. Ahmed Allafi is the product manager of “United Tours” (www.unitedtours-libya.com, united-tours@lycos.com) the agency that works together with Saro-Expedition. We can highly recommend him. You can reach Ahmed on his mobile +218.92 507 25 12.
He explained to us, that he will take us to Sabrata today, he will get us a guide for the roman ruins and that we will meet him the following day in Tripoli, to discuss, where we will be staying and where we will need a guide and where we were free to travel alone. The system is somewhat complicated, but more of that later.
So we followed our two guides to the city of Sabrata, there we had an excellent Libyan lunch, while our 2nd guide went off to get the infamous “triangular stamp” into our passports – the official registration with the Libyan authorities. We then drove on to the ruins and Ahmed “handed us over” to our Sabrata ruins guide Ramadan, who also spoke perfect German. We agreed to meet Ahmed in front of the big power plant outside of Tripoli the next morning.

Ruins of Sabrata: The ancient city of Sabrata was rediscovered by Italian archaeologists in the 1930ties, though its location was always known. Starting as a punic settlement in the 4th century BC because of the natural harbor, Sabrata’s heyday was during the range of the four roman emperors Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus and Septimus Severus (138-211 AD). The city’s wealth depended on the maritime trade in animals and ivory. The decline began with the decline of the Roman Empire sealed by massive earthquakes (365 AD). The city then survived Byzantine occupation and was abandoned after the Islamic arrival in the 7th century. During the reign of the roman emperors the large theatre was build as well as the baths and the temples.

We spent two hours with Ramadan walking through the city, marveling at the beautiful buildings and sheer size of the city. Since we were visiting during off-season we had the entire place to ourselves. From almost every spot you can enjoy the views to the turquoise Mediterranean Sea. In Sabrata we walked for the first time on the roman Decumanus, the road that connected Carthage (Tunisia) with Alexandria (Egypt), and that was basically also our “travelling road”. We will meet the old Decumanus again in Tripoli and Leptis Magna. Looking out along the beach one could see big wooden boats lined up along the coast. We also saw these boats along the road (in the middle of the desert) to Sabrata. When we asked Ramadan about it he said, that officially these are fishing boats, unofficially these boats are used for taking refugees illegally across the Mediterranean towards Europe. A thriving business.

After the tour Ramadan guided us to the Youth Hostel where we planned to spent the night. We were already warned, that the hostel had a power outage, but when we got there, no one was to be seen and the entire place was eerie and of course dark. We decided to ignore this and set-up our camp on the parking lot of the hostel. We then tried a feeble attempt to go for dinner – walking from the hostel to “downtown” – but gave up, when we couldn’t find a restaurant (all signs being in Arabic). That was a general problem in Libya, apart from the guides no one spoke a word of English and all signs are in Arabic, if there are any signs at all. Without the guide, we would have never found the ruins. Although they are a UNESCO world heritage and world famous, there is no sign leading to them, apart from a small sign in Arabic. So, we settled for some bread and cheese at the “camp” and by that time the night guard of the youth hostel showed up. A Moroccan (spoke French, thank god) without teeth, who said it was no problem for us stay there, if we didn’t mind using candles :-) the only other guest according to him were 5 soldiers heading for the border of Chad (poor sods) and an Egyptian soccer player??????
We decided to ignore our surroundings and went to bed early.

30.07.2006, Sabrata, Libya – Leptis Magna, Libya (via Tripoli) 207 km

We got up very early that day to keep our appointment with Ahmed in front of the power plant. We first had to wake our night guard, who then took for ever to take down our passport information on some obscure sheet of paper. “Ah, your name is Sandra. I am chatting with a Sandra from Sydney on the Internet.” Sandra in Sydney: be afraid, be very afraid! :-)
We managed to meet up with Ahmed and followed him on a wild duck chase into Tripoli. He was driving a white Deawoo and so was 90% of the Tripoli population. While Jens was battling through the wild traffic, I was trying not to loose eye contact with the right white car. However we made it into the city and we even found a perfect parking spot (along the wall of the Tripoli castle, at a small square with a teahouse and the old clock tower that is part of the old Medina). We had some Arabic coffee and Ahmed asked the guys from the café to watch our car – which they did. Every time we walked by the café that day, they would wave, smile and point to Tembo.
Ahmed handed us some official looking papers that we were supposed to hand over at each police checkpoint. We then defined when we will be where and where we should sleep. He also organized a guide for us for Leptis Magna. According to Ahmed we didn’t really need a guide driving with us through Libya (although officially you do) and if at some police control stations they would ask for the guide, we should say, that he had a problem with the car and will meet us later … (he wrote that down in Arabic). OK … that sounded complicated – only for the area of Sirte (Gadaffi’s home town) a guide was compulsory. Ahmed promised to organize that for us. Sigh … Laden with official looking papers in Arabic and many good wishes Ahmed left us to ourselves. We were alone in Tripoli! And we loved every minute of it! Really, Tripoli is great. And we saw just a very small part of it. We looked at the famous Green Square and had a long walk through the Medina, the old town, of Tripoli. In a little coffee shop on the Green Square we had the best cappuccino in North Africa. The guys working there were young and hip and even knew some basic words in English. In the Medina you could walk through the narrow streets and souks without any hustlers. There is almost no influence of tourism visible which makes it still a very authentic experience. However next to the Arch of Marcus Aurelius a brand new hotel is just opening, it looks lovely and might be the first step towards organized tourism: www.zumithotel.com. Next to the hotel we also saw the one and only souvenir shop and managed to buy some postcards and stamps(!) – we never found a mailbox though. The main souvenirs are badly done photo t-shirts with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in pop star pose.
After a final Arabian coffee at the coffee place, we waved good-bye to our new friends and took Tembo for a ride through Tripoli towards Leptis Magna – thank god for the GPS!
Before LM we stopped at a roadside fruit stall to get some tomatoes and maybe a melon. I returned laden with food – the guy did not understand the concept of buying just 5 tomatoes, he gave me 20, etc. I paid 3 LD for everything. The same happened to Jens buying bread. He took two and the guy in shop added three more, so it would add up to ¼ LD.
We found Leptis Magna and set up camp at the nice and shady parking nr. 2. It was just us and the guard. Later we found out that there was an official campsite at parking nr. 1, next to the ruin entrance, but our spot was a lot nicer. Later we met our guide for the ruins the next day. He was supposed to meet us earlier, but was delayed by a congregation of the sister of the king of Swaziland who visited the ruins. Isn’t that a nice excuse? We agreed to meet him the next day at nine and spent the rest of the evening attacking the pile of tomatoes.

31.07.2006, Leptis Magna, Libya 0 km

The next morning our guide Miftah Mansor (+218.91 3730431) picked us up and we started our 4 hour tour around the roman ruins of Leptis Magna.

The ruins of Leptis Magna (from lonely planet libya): “LM is one of the finest Roman cities in the Mediterranean and one of the few sites where one can vividly picture a living city. Leptis was constructed of sturdy limestone that left it more resistant to earthquakes and the ravages of time. It is a showcase of Roman town planning and above all a testament to extravagance with abundant examples of lavish decoration, grand buildings of monumental stature, indulgent bath complexes and forums for entertainment at the center of public life. It must have been a great place to live.” LM shared the same history as Sabrata, however it was always bigger and outside Rome the city where most of the money was invested (Emperor Septimus Severus was from LM).

Nothing can be added to the above. It is breathtaking. We even had a chance to look at the hunting baths, a separate building outside the city where well-off citizens spent their time marinating in the different tubs. Today this building is mainly covered by sand and one has to squeeze through a hole to enter. Inside there are beautiful wall paintings showing hunting scenes (hence the name). However everything is falling apart and no one takes any action to preserve these paintings. It is quite a shame.
After the 3 hour tour we had a chat with the other guides – all of them super nice – and then had a look around the amphitheatre and the circus maximus right next to the beach.
With the guides we discussed the new Motorola mobile phones and the compared the features of our ipods. Something I would not have expected in Libya … how narrow minded of me! BTW ipods and mobile phones are dirt cheap in Libya. But since there is no chance to pay by credit card and no ATM cash withdrawal possible, we had to keep our money for food and diesel and could not spend it on gadgets.

We spent our second night in Leptis and had more tomatoes for dinner :-) We also had an interesting “conversation” with a guard from the tourist police, who did not speak a word of English and who was very interested in our roof tent. After a lot of sign language and pointing and smiling he left us packed with some copies of our permission papers. Hell knows what these guys are doing with all these papers. “3 copies please!”

01.08.2006, Leptis Magna, Libya – Ras Lanuf, Libya, 563 km

With LM behind us, there was nothing left in Libya for us to explore and the next goal was the Egyptian border (another 1.600km away). For this day’s trip we needed our compulsory guide for the checkpoints around the city of Sirte. According to Ahmed we were supposed to meet the guide in Misrata behind the 3rd bridge from Leptis, driving a Nissan Maxima. Well to make a long story short, we finally met the guide (after an hour searching), it was the first bridge and it was not a Nissan Maxima. We experienced for the first time how hard it is to make a phone call in this country before 10 am – our mobiles do not work in Libya and not one phone office was open. In quite a bad mood we followed our guide through endless desert, with the odd camel appearing next to the road.
The checkpoints in Sirte were really quite bad and we were glad, we had our guide with us to deal with the Kalashnikovs. After Sirte our guide turned around and we were again on our own.
Ahmed had organized for us that we could sleep in Ras Lanuf, next to the restaurant of a friend of his. We got there quite late and the spot was one of the more bizarre sleeping arrangements. It was a sort of 24 hour roadside café in the middle of the desert next to a police checkpoint. In regular intervals bus loads of people would arrive, get into the “autobahn mosque” and pray and leave again. Huge trucks would stop to change their wheels or just to have a snack – the drivers that is. And we were in between of it all with Tembo and roof tent. Anyway it was a safe spot and we managed to sleep all right.

02.08.2006, Ras Lanuf, Libya – Cyrene, Libya, 623 km

The following morning we left early and started our longest tour so far. Nothing interesting to be reported from that trip along the coast. We had a hard time crossing the city of Benghazi since the Libyans tend to build huge roundabouts but also tend to not put up signs – not even in Arabic. After some confusion and a herd of camels appearing right next to a busy city road, we escaped Benghazi and continued towards Cyrene on the Cyrenaica. The Cyrenaica is very beautiful and looks with its olive trees and little farm houses like southern Italy or Portugal. Cyrene is also known for Roman Ruins, however we didn’t do it any justice since we simply stopped in Cyrene for the night and left early the next morning for the Egyptian border. Since we had some Libyan money left to spend, we wanted to grab some dinner in Cyrene, but again we failed because it was impossible to walk down the streets in the evening without every car honking and every person staring – and I was wearing jeans, a long sleeve shirt and a bandana to cover my hair. There was no restaurant to be found, only a small snack joint that only served some minced meat sandwiches. So Jens had two of those, while I sulked. The owner of the snack joint felt so bad he couldn’t offer me anything that he gave us the sandwiches for free and on top gave me a box of strawberry biscuits as a present. That also is Libya!

03.08.2006, Cyrene, Libya – Solloum, Egypt, 428 km (Part 1)

The next morning we drove on towards the Egyptian border. We were happily driving along looking forward to entering a new country that day, when we heard a strange sound coming from Tembo’s motor followed by the battery warning light going off. Hm. We stopped and sure enough the drive belt (Keilriehmen) was broken. Well, no worries, Jens had packed 2 spare Keilriehmen just for the occasion. However when trying to install the new drive belt he realized cursing and sweating freely that the belt was too small. We had taken the wrong ones … We were km away from the next bigger city and the sun was beating down on us. In a superhuman effort Jens managed to force the too small belt somehow into its place so it would function – at least for a while. We carefully drove on and reached a small village (Um Irrizam) which basically consisted of a mosque and … a Keilriehmen supply shop! No kidding in this lost place we found the one shop that had all we needed. Jens walked up to the place holding the ripped drive belt like a trophy and the owner pointed to the wall inside his shop that was covered with hundreds and hundreds of Keilriehmen. Unreal. The new belt was quickly installed with the help of the villagers. And all without being able to communicate in a common language. We exchanged our belts for two spare belts paid 9 Libyan Dinar for the installed belt (good that we didn’t go for dinner the night before!) and drove on. What a piece of luck.
In Tobruk (Jay this is for you) we visited the WWII Knightsbridge Commonwealth War Cemetery, with 3.649 graves the largest in the region. The nationality of the soldiers is mostly British. It is sad to see how young they all died.
On the last very boring stretch to the border we stopped at a huge petrol station–hotel–complex (usually unheard of in Libya) that was built for the solar eclipse taking place earlier this year – in the middle of nowhere. You could tell that they had good intentions, but never managed to get everything done in time (there signs indicating toilettes and internet cafes, but the doors are closed and the rooms empty). Now the brand new place is already falling apart before ever being finished. This phenomenon will accompany us along our trip.
Finally we reached the Libyan border! However we were stopped at the first checkpoint by a bunch of friendly soldiers pointing to our licenses plates and gesturing towards the village where we just came from. After some confusion and sign language we understood that we had to go back into the village to return our Libyan licenses plates. The “traffic office” was a small hut with a window where sure enough we could return our licenses plates and received the 100 LD deposit. With that done we approached again the check point and this time we were allowed through accompanied by well meant laughter. The rest was quickly done. The passports stamped and the car was not searched as predicted in all the guide books. We were ready to enter Egypt

Summary Libya:

Country:
Libya is a great country. We enjoyed the friendliness of the people and the lack of touristy infrastructure. The Roman Ruins and Tripoli are super places to visit. Along the coast however there also long stretches of nothingness and sometimes it got a bit boring. We will definitely come back – I still have to buy a Ghaddafi T-Shirt.

Costs: Libya is a very cheap country. The entry fees and the costs for the help at the border and guide are the only really costly elements. Camping cost an average of 10 LD. Diesel and food is dirt very cheap. For 50L of Diesel we paid 8 LD.

Driving: driving in Libya is like driving in Tunisia. A bit chaotic, but somehow it works out. In Tripoli and Benghazi the traffic is pretty mad and you have to force your way – in the countryside everything is more relaxed. The streets are mostly in a very good condition. Along the main roads, there are many police checkpoints. There we always had to stop and hand over our papers and sometimes our passports. They were always very friendly though. The road signs are 100% in Arabic – if there are any signs at all. We got used to driving by guessing and by GPS.



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Highlights

Sabrata 
Tripoli 
Leptis Magna 
Cheap shopping/ Billiges Einkaufen  
The new drive belt/ Der neue Keilriehmen 


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Accomodation

Youth Hostel (Buyut ash-Shabaab), Sabrata, N32°48.008' E12°29.321'
Leptis Magna, Parking No. 2, next to ruins
Ras Lanuf, roadside cafe, N30°32.080' E18°29.021'
Cyrene/ Shahat, Youth Hostel (Buyut ash-Shabaab), N32°48.807' E21°51.786'


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