28th May 2012
27.05.2012 - 28.05.2012
The smell from the bakery that backed onto our hotel was too enticing to pass up. We stopped by and bought some baguettes and then began on our way to our next ancient city, Leptis Magna. The Phoenicians had been there first, around 1000BC, it then passed through Carthaginian hands to the Romans in 146BC. The Roman province of North Africa was created and one of the military generals rose to the position of Emperor. Septimius Severus had originally hailed from Leptis and his reign as emperor had resulted in wealth being poured into the city. What remained was spectacular in the extreme. The layout of virtually the whole city had been preserved. The theatre, the amphitheatre, the forum and the baths built by Hadrian, the builder of the self titled wall in Northern England, were all easily accessible as well as a stunning entrance archway built for Severus’ visit to his home city. Leptis was a delight, upturned Medusa heads lay amongst the rubble; entire buildings stood in all their sculpted and detailed glory and again we felt like we had at Cyrene. And again we were all but alone.
We went for a swim on the beach that 2000 years ago had been the entrance to the harbour. Back at the entrance we bought coffees and postcards and spent an hour writing them in such exquisite surroundings. We had planned on visiting the museum in Tripoli that afternoon. It was home to many of the statues and mosaics recovered from the ruins; but unfortunately it was closed on Mondays and our schedule would not allow us any more time in Tripoli. Had we made it we may very well have been the first tourists to visit the museum since it reopened just ten days before.
After coffee we visited the amphitheatre and the hippodrome where chariots had raced. Laura did her best to look like a mean gladiator but I wasn’t convinced.
With the museum deleted from the schedule our new plan involved driving to and sleeping at Sabratha, our final Roman city. We could make it by nightfall; the following morning we could view the ruins and then cross the border into Tunisia. As always our plans didn’t always work out and as we arrived on the outskirts of Tripoli, Redvers began losing power, he was stuttering as we pulled away from the lights, he struggled even in second gear, Laura pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine.
We opened the bonnet and I asked Laura to start the engine. It stuttered as the starter motor whirred but it wouldn’t start. This was a rather large pain in the backside. After a few more attempts at getting him going, with the accelerator pressed flat, he half heartedly fired to life. It was not life as the African war hero knew it. He stuttered at a thousand revs even with the accelerator pressed hard to the floor. And then, slowly, he croaked to a stop again. Apart from the loss of power everything seemed normal in the engine bay. We wondered about the fuel filter and since we had two spares we changed it quickly. The previous filter had been filthy but the change had made no difference. We tried to make a list of what could have gone wrong; at the top of both our lists was ‘wrong fuel.’ Laura grabbed a jerry can and went with the old fuel filter to the petrol station to find out if they thought the filter had diesel or petrol in and to get twenty litres of diesel. I took a screw driver and got under the car to disconnect the fuel pipe and drain seventy litres of petrol out of our tanks and into the sand that lined the road side. The fuel nozzle was the size of a large straw and seventy litres was a hell of a volume. Of all the countries to put the wrong fuel in this would be the cheapest, of all the countries to have to pour 70 litres of petrol onto the roadside this wasn’t the worst choice either; I watched as five pounds and twenty five pence worth of petrol slowly drained from our diesel tank.
Of course, at that point we still weren’t sure that our diagnosis was correct. And it was around then that a man in a black Audi A7 pulled over and asked if we needed help. To put that into context, an Audi A7 is one of the rarest cars in North Africa. That particular vehicle was the first of its kind in and must have been extremely expensive. How many British citizens driving cars valued in excess of £50,000 would stop to assist a foreigner, pulled over, bonnet up, on the side of a British road?
The man’s name was Ali. He had a look at the fuel pouring from the tank and presumed we needed a new fuel pipe. I explained that our car was diesel and he assumed I was confused as he could see and smell benzene (petrol) pouring from the tank. Laura returned from the station, fuel in hand and explained that the diesel or gasoil is also caused naphtha. In Misurata I’d asked for diesel, and not hearing the guy’s answer properly, I had assumed he asked “Full?” and I simply said “Yes.” It was a tired mistake that we were now paying for. It was six o’clock and time was ticking it was still at least an hour to Sabratha. Ali wanted to wait with us and make sure we got back on the road OK. With that I got on my hands and knees and began digging a canal and lake system below Redvers to channel the petrol and allow it to pool and drain. It was all a bit of a mess.
The fuel drained, eventually, and with the pipe reattached we put our twenty litres of naphtha in and started Redvers; still he stuttered. Three times he started and three times he faltered. But Ali had an idea. More naphtha would dilute what was left of the benzene. We went back to the fuel station with two jerry cans. We filled them, Ali insisted on paying, and we returned to top up Redvers’ tanks. Ali jumped in and turned the ignition key, Redvers started first time and idled like a living dream.
During the course of our stop we had discovered that Ali owned several businesses one of which was a garage that imported and sold vehicles. Ali baulked at the idea of us camping at a tourist site and suggested we stay at his house. We could park our car at his secured garages where he kept his vehicles for sale and he would drive us out to his farm near the airport. We were filthy from crawling beneath the car and the idea of a shower and a bed for the night was too good to decline.
As we left the garage, Ali noticed a spot of oil beneath Redvers and we agreed to look at it in the morning. For the journey to Ali’s farm we were joined by Ali’s friend Sayed, a carpenter specialising in fine furniture who had been born in Libya but had worked in Germany for the past fifteen years. He was glad to be home. We stopped at the shops on the way and Ali bought food for supper and breakfast. He was a bachelor, just like any other and that meant that one, he didn’t have anything ‘in’ at home and two, the first thing he did, was run in and tidy the place up.
At the farm we were introduced to a Moroccan seismologist who is working for an oil company in Libya and stays nearby. We sat outside of the house watching planes fly into Tripoli International, showing our photos and listening to the gunfire in the distance. The ‘wedding celebration’ excuse was again offered in respect of the gunfire and perhaps they were right, perhaps there were four separate weddings nearby that evening. I showed the guys the picture of me on the ridiculous gun and when I told them about Sirte I was berated for not having taken a photo in Gadaffi’s hole.
The gun photo had started a competition and next thing we knew Ali had his gun out; one of those small automatic types from the movies, the kind that sprays bullets like a drunkard at a urinal. Sayed had his computer out too and we were looking at photos I don’t care to describe too closely here. They were of Gadaffi’s men boasting about their war-time successes, close ups of the fallen opposition; strewn carcasses and body parts. We couldn’t help but be horrified at the images, they too were the stuff of movies, at least, that’s what they should have been.
Our high spirits throughout Libya had been tempered by the reality of scarred walls, ‘danger – unexploded ordinance’ signs and the brutal simplicity that in war people will be killed; bullets will tear open bodies, relatives will cry and maybe, at the end, things will change.