If the ‘celebratory’ gunfire had unnerved us slightly, the explosion that came after had definitely tingled our nerves. We retired to our sanctuary as happy shouts and excited squeals came from the youngsters enjoying a twilight commune at the harbour below.
On crisp cotton sheets, with no more gunfire, we slept soundly.
Daylight came to begin a day that would be full. From the second we opened the curtains and stepped onto our balcony we realised that five days in Libya could never be enough time to immerse ourselves in its offerings. Immediately before us, three stories below, lay the harbour and beyond it, the sea. To our right Somers had noticed the tall stone and marble columns of an ancient city, its temples partially reconstructed in modernity. It was the Greek/Roman city of Apollonia and we had slept almost on top of it.
After breakfast we spoke to one of the gentlemen at the reception enquiring about some directions to our day’s centrepiece, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ancient Greek and Roman city of Cyrene. The receptionist had a friend who he told us was heading past Cyrene and that he would drive ahead of us and show us the way; he hastened to add that it would cost nothing, a favour to guests in his country.
As we checked out we met a Sudanese lady, who lives in Washington and works in Libya for USAID. That was quite a commute. Her sentiment was one of surprise when we explained that we were tourists and not journalists. It was a reaction that would be alluded to repeatedly through the rest of our journey. The lady expressed her concerns over the safety of the road between Benghazi and Tripoli as the receptionist photocopied our guidebook for her. We said goodbye and parted ways.
Appollonia had been the port town for the city of Cyrene. The Greeks had built the port in around 600BC settled first and the Romans had taken over before the Byzantines arrived and took it from them. Since then the Egyptians had taken control followed by the Arabs before the city was deserted. Reconstructed marble columns the height of four or five men contrasted with the aquamarine and navy blues of the sea behind. In places the mosaic floors, 2000 years old, still stood. The town’s coastal edge had been partly consumed by the sea. The location was sublime, the coast all but unspoiled, the town was empty. We had been transported back in time.
Our impromptu guide was waiting for us in a nearby cafe; once in his car he motioned us to follow him and thirty minutes later we had pulled into a car park and came to rest beneath a shaded canopy of elderly trees. We were at the upper section of Cyrene. The city was founded in 631BC when Batthus was told by the oracle at Delphi to leave his overcrowded home in search of more hospitable land across the sea. They found the spring emerging from the rocks at Cyrene. The city grew into one of the most important in the Greek Empire. The city fell to the Romans in 117AD and it was largely destroyed by and earthquake in 365AD.
In the upper section we walked into the gymnasium, a huge arena bordered by towering columns and a wall equal in height. It was no Virgin Active; it was the kind of gymnasium where Gods built their strength. Beyond the gymnasium in a smaller building we found three archaeologists cleaning a mosaic and restoring it colourfully to life, it was the House of Jason Magnus. A local teenager offered to guide us around the grounds and eventually we arrived at a compact Odeon, a small open air theatre dug into the hillside. Around us, stone carved statues of the cities wealthy inhabitants stood guard looking out across the grandeur.
The site was ours, it was tourism how it should be; free and unencumbered by other visitors. Our guide refused his tip and thanked us for visiting before pointing us on to the lower area of Cyrene. As we rounded a corner Redvers and we were suddenly afforded a view of the most majestic remains of a Roman city. Built on the hillside and casting its gaze out across the land and onto the Mediterranean it stood in glorious magnificence. With Redvers parked up we wandered past the men selling honey from their stalls. The ticket office to the southern section was closed also; the gateway led to a path flanked by the headless statues of Romans. The city’s water source still springs forth and as we walked through the city the water flowed through the carved waterways around us. Columns, statues, arches and mosaic lined floors enveloped us; one floor even had sections of mosaic removed to reveal another mosaic beneath. Statues stood where they had two thousand years ago, inscriptions on the walls as clear as when the hammer and chisel had turned stone to story. Inside the city we posed with the statues, standing on tippy-toes to replace the fallen busts with our own; we explored the spring and dipped our feet into its mightily cold water, but mostly we felt extremely fortunate. The city captivated us. We took a seat in the amphitheatre looking out beyond the stage to the sea, the gentle wind cooling a warm sun, a spark of electricity trickling through our bodies as our minds ran wild with imagination.
There were several groups of Libyan visitors wandering the ruins, taking photos, taking their time, taking pride in their country’s raw history. We had met a gentleman on our way in; Muhadin was a Libyan who had been living in Greece, he was around fifty years old, had a beer drinker’s belly and stood five foot eight or nine inches tall. His skin was the kind of olive parchment that had been exposed to Mediterranean sun for its entire life and only looked the healthier for it. His hair was neat, his dress smart and his linguistic skills extended to five languages. He had almost screamed his joy at the demise of Colonel Gadaffi, he explained that he worried about who would take control in the forthcoming elections and he asked us to meet him in the cafe for a drink after we had finished our tour.
From the ruins we could see a white house perched to our right on the hillside. It had been Erwin Rommel’s during the Second World War. He had looked out over one of the best preserved Greco-Roman cities in the world and simultaneously had a far reaching view of the sea and any Allied naval movements happening upon it. The house had since been possessed by other families until, on a visit to Cyrene, Gadaffi had taken a liking to it and had the occupants removed. From then until late 2011 it had been another of his holiday homes. Shortly after his demise, another family retook it as their one and only residence. Its view was stunning.
In the cafe we met Muhadin and he bought us coffee and the raucous conversation restarted. We had also met a chap named Ali. Tall, slender and dressed in carefully pressed blue suit trousers and an immaculate long sleeved shirt, Ali stood several inches over six feet. The course of our conversation led to the discovery that Ali was the proud owner of a Land Rover Defender 109, one of Redvers grandparents. This led to something that is standard practice in car circles, but is ritualised in the Land Rover world. The clichéd pose was adopted; one man standing, feet apart and arms folded, a proud, but not sinfully so, look upon his face, his car next to him whilst another man inspects it. The role of the second man is to utter important statistics, approving comments and venture desirable upgrades and additions thereby creating a manly union borne of common interest. Never too proud to admit Redvers’ wounds from a prolonged campaign, and also offering an olive branch of deepening vehicular kinship the conversation led to his current issues; soundly the kank-kank-kank coming from below. Ali had a friend, a mechanic friend. And that mechanic’s speciality was Land Rovers. If we liked he could take a look at the car for us, but, he wouldn’t be back until four o’clock, after prayers.
Our tight schedule had included an afternoon’s driving to Benghazi to ready ourselves for the eight hundred kilometre trans-Sahara schlep that we would have to drive the following day. If we stayed in Al Bayda, that journey would be eleven hundred kilometres. That was a bloody long drive even after eight months of driving. We weren’t idiots though and the false economy was realised. Rather than elect to two-wheel-drive all the way home, we took Ali up on his offer. He seemed happy that we’d accepted and he announced that it was lunchtime; we should go to his house for food. He also insisted that since it would be late by the time the car was finished with, we could stay at his home that evening and leave with a normal car the following day.
We followed him through town to his home in Jahad. Everything around us was novel, everything surreal and exciting; we were driving in Libya and we couldn’t stop being excited by the fact. The home actually belonged to Ali’s father but the first floor was where Ali and his family lived. We parked outside and followed him in. Again we were not to meet his wife, as custom insisted, but we did lie with him and his two beautiful daughters, aged two and a half and one, in the guest room, comparing our lives. Ali was an English teacher, he was also a bee-keeper, a fisherman, he was capable of stripping his Land Rover and reassembling it, and was training to be an Orthodontist. He’d recently purchased a small holding farm and wanted to raise sheep, goats and chickens on it.
In addition to these impressive abilities Ali was a practising Muslim and it also emerged was a, hopefully permanently retired, revolutionary. Intrigue, inquisition and an unrestrainable curiosity led to us interrogating him further. So began a question and answer session the likes of which we had never had before; what had happened, what had he done, where had he travelled, had he lost friends, had he been scared, what did his family think? Part way through our conversation Ali politely excused himself and disappeared before returning with his laptop. It turned out that the town in which we sat had been the site of the first successful attempt on a military building. At the nearby military headquarters, on the 17th February 2011, had been waged a battle; the revolutionaries had begun that battle with sticks, stones and a few of their own guns. It had been their chance to overthrow an army financed by man who had repressed them for decades. Their opposition consisted of a few Libyans, loyal to Gadaffi, whose ranks had been swelled by hired mercenaries from across Africa and Eastern Europe all reaping the rewards of an oil financed army. Ali told us of rumours that the higher ranked mercenaries had been receiving the equivalent of five thousand pounds per month, plus house and car.
The initial skirmishes at the gates of the military compound had led to the death of a fourteen year old girl who had lain asleep in her bunk bed on the fourth floor of the apartment building opposite. Her younger sister was fast asleep on the bunk below her when fate and the cruel reality of war had allowed a stray bullet, angled ever skywards, though that young girls window and though her head. Three days later, spurred on by emotion, the military compound had been taken and the spoils of victory had included warehouses full of arms, munitions, armed vehicles and heavy weaponry.
The newly acquired weapons were disseminated quickly and one of the guns, a 14.5 millimetre automatic vehicle mounted machine gun had been bolted onto the back of Ali’s Land Rover. As if to emphasise the events we watched videos and saw photos of all of these events on his laptop. The girl, the wounded, dying and dead men, the car and its gun, the piles of ammunition; if you measure fourteen and a half millimetres and imagine that as the diameter of the bullets ploughing through the air you can begin to imagine the damage and horror they caused; those miniature missiles had a range of up to seven kilometres.
Ali was sombre about the experience. He had lost good friends, heroes each one of them, but, Ali believed, lost to a cause of the most pertinent necessity. The man in the photo, dressed in military fatigues, bore little resemblance to the man with who we’d taken lunch and discussed Land Rover repairs. Every now and then Ali would come across a photo of his fishing exploits or a photo of his bees and go into depth explaining how to create a false Queen cocoon or how to start a new hive. The region we were in was the Green Mountains, it had forty one different types of herbs growing in the area and they gave the honey produced a very particular flavour. Honey wasn’t cheap either. It went for between ten and forty pounds per kilogram, sterling!
Ali offered to take us to the military compound to see for ourselves. We couldn’t refuse. As we rolled in the stones crunched beneath our wheels, the walls were adorned with the new flag of Libya; the flag that was Libya’s before Gadaffi introduced solid green. Next to it, Arabic script stated ‘Libya is Free’ and ‘The People are Free’ the date 17.2.2011 that the war had begun alongside. Somewhat out of place was the French flag next to that of Libya’s. The former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy was a hero in Libya. His hard line on Gadaffi and his strategic bombing during the war had aided the revolution hugely, and it had not been forgotten. Every wall of every building within the complex was peppered with bullet holes. As we stepped out of the car there were piles of spent Kalashnikov bullets strewn on the floor in their thousands, they too crunched beneath our feet as we walked. All around us bullets sat snugly embedded in the concrete reinforced walls. Rocket propelled grenades had torn head sized holes through the concrete and steel, tearing the metal into warped strands of cotton, fixed in situ, and coursing out from the wall. It was eerily silent as the empty scene intermittently gave rise to flashbacks of what a horrific existence it must have provided during those few days. Snipers had been hidden on the roofs. It was possible to see how men had hidden around a corner, leaning around and firing across a double stair case and through the window on to the roof top next door where those snipers lay firing straight back at them. Around the window were signs of the haphazard and panicked spray having largely missed its target. Our hearts quickened with adrenaline imagining trying to kill someone knowing that they are being paid to kill you. If the revolutionaries had failed and Gadaffi had won, their fate would have been assured. At once sombre and perverse, the videos we’d been shown earlier came to life on the stage of reality. Fifty mercenaries had died, mostly African and mostly fighting for a pay packet in a country that wasn’t their own; twenty six Libyan revolutionaries however, had become martyrs fighting for free speech, free living and a just society.
During Gadaffi’s reign, Ali himself had been imprisoned repeatedly. Once, helping an NGO charity from abroad, he had shown them photographs of litter dumps in the streets, and schools operating out of shipping crates. For this crime of supplying photos, he served two weeks in prison. We were told that almost every apartment block had contained a snitch who would report on the other occupants activities, short jail sentences were standard punishments.
As we left the complex we looked across the road and up to the fourth floor of a bullet scarred apartment block.
With the solemn tour complete our sullen hearts were lifted when Ali introduced us to his cousin, Arabi. Devilishly handsome, congenially modest and unfalteringly generous, Arabi was yet another example of Libyan-man as we had experienced. Arabi was a police officer; his work was spent thirty days patrolling the border in the desert and twenty days holiday between shifts. He drove a black BMW and we would follow him to the garage where we could speak to the mechanic.
At the garage, signed in Arabic and in no way distinguishable to us from any other, we met a mechanic who listened to Ali as he relayed a translated version of events. The chap seemed sure of a diagnosis of broken axle rod, he also had a part that he could replace it with and he could start work later that evening. It was half past four on a Saturday afternoon and we had a mechanic who was willing to drop all his other work and fix our car that evening. He would also charge us less than the normal as we were guests in the country and friends of Ali. We left our keys, our car and our life as we knew it in the hands of man we’d known for ten minutes on the advice of a man we’d known for a few hours; the latter being a man we felt like we’d known forever.
We climbed back aboard our German steed and set about a tour of the town in the company of a police officer and a retired freedom fighter who also happened to be the son of the minister for tourism. We felt that we were in safe hands.
First on our list, we needed to change some dollars to dinar so that we could finance our trip and pay our mechanic. Ali knew that the gold shops were the places to be and so we pulled over and went inside the first shop we saw. The shop owner was a goldsmith but he was not a money changer, he pointed at a second goldsmith across the road. Inside that shop we met a friendly fellow who was happy to help. A few minutes of jovial big smiled bartering later and everyone was happy, we shook hands and he wished us a safe journey.
Wandering around the market, the shops were filled with goods, Turkey was a major exporter of goods to Libya and Laura was particularly taken by the slightly overly dressy and sparkly gowns. We went into a spice shop and out of curiosity I picked up a fancy chocolate bar. Arabi immediately took it from me, added a second and moved to the cashier to buy it. The cashier, rather than accepting the money, offered the chocolate to us as a gift to guests. Arabi bought some nuts, some drinks and more chocolate. Suddenly we found ourselves sat in the back of a BMW being driven around a town in Libya by a policeman. In our laps were two cokes, two coffees, half a kilo of nuts, four chocolate bars and a bottle of water and we hadn’t been allowed to pay for any of it.
Ali received a phone call to say his daughter was ill and with that the tour itinerary changed. We drove to a brand new clinic, finished only one day previous and due to open in two days time. We needed a sterile sample pot and whilst we were there, Laura spoke to the young lady who was running the lab, (we were told that a lady with such good English and in such authority was unusual for Libya.) I was given an upstairs tour of the new dental suite, including a brand new dentist’s chair fresh in from China via Egypt and complete with X-ray unit. We nipped back to the house to drop off the pot and then we once more went back out into the fray to find a cafe with a restaurant built into a cave. Outside we sat and talked looking down the green valley and out to sea as the sun began to fall.
We left before sunset and returned to Cyrene. The sun did set as we drove amongst the hundreds of rock hewn tombs. In the diminishing twilight we wandered around the Temple of Zeus, one of only two such temples in existence and the largest Greek Temple in Africa. We half joked that the hole in one of its walls had been caused by a stray rocket. Ali and Arabi thought that was hilarious.
The temperature had dropped and night was growing dark, it was time for a coffee and Arabi knew just the place. As we stepped out of the car Laura’s now aged Zambian flip flops snapped. Her frank disappointment was met with a concerned Arabi’s promise to replace them before the day was finished. I’d been trying to replace Laura’s rather dilapidated footwear for months only to find protest. Arabi had offered once and Somers had all but giggled and fluttered her eyelashes as she blushed and accepted.
We sat beneath the trees as Ali repaired Laura’s flip-flop and Arabi ordered a round of teas and an apple sheesha. Laura was the only female in the cafe and the only other female in sight, sat in her car whilst her husband smoked a pipe with friends.
Back in town the adventure continued. We rather randomly visited a pet shop with a fantastic array of beautiful birds all in very small cages and we stopped by a ceramics stall to buy a water jug. The water jug multiplied into two. Arabi and Ali insisted on paying for them and also each purchased us a gift with which to remember them by. It was half past nine when Ali received a phone call to say our car was finished and ready for collection.
Earlier in the day, Ali had taken some photos on his phone of Redvers’ bull bars. He was going to have a set made for his 109. We’d already been thinking about what to do with them once we arrived in England where they would become an illegal addition to Redvers already brutal exterior. It made perfect sense; a gift that would be made all the more special by the fact it could never repay the hospitality we’d been shown and a gift that was unobtainable in Libya. Later in the day we asked Ali would he like the bars as a thank you and his response was a smiling yes. Redvers would be defaced but we knew he wouldn’t mind. Whereas Ali’s car would benefit in case it ever needed to take up active service again. We decided that we could remove them when we got back to the house later on.
The mechanic had driven Redvers to his home. Pulling up outside he met us at his door. He was dressed in a smart jet black Nike tracksuit and he invited us in for coffee and cake. It was ten o’clock. We sat down and discussed Redvers ailments and his surgical cure. The mechanic had been correct, the axel rod had broken and though it was a little lost in translation, we think a cog had also been damaged. Both had been replaced along with the diff seal and a new aliquot of oil. This man had placed everything he was doing on hold, worked into the night on our car and then insisted on us enjoying his hospitality before paying him; truly spectacular. The boys at QuikFit are going to have to pick up their game. After our cappuccinos we went for a test drive. Breaking all the rules we were haring up and down Libya’s streets at half past ten at night and we were loving it, Redvers was fixed.
With all the excitement we still hadn’t eaten and Ali knew just the place. We stopped en route so that Arabi could choose and buy some new flip flops for Laura; pretty in purple, and far nicer than the thin browning pink pieces of foam that had graced her tootsies previously. The man had taste. We also stopped to buy an Arabic teapot when finally we were allowed to buy something by jealously guarding the pot all the way to the cashier.
Dinner was had at a Turkish restaurant, again at Ali’s expense, and with heavy lids and tired eyes we returned to Ali’s house were we said farewell to Arabi and parked Redvers in the back yard. Before he left, Arabi gave us his prayer mat and a fancy pen. We explained that we wanted to give him a gift but it was packed in our car and we would leave it with Ali.
It had been an incredulous day. From battlefields to mechanic shops and cafes to Roman cities; our brains were still reeling from it all. Laura retired to bed and I rooted out my CamelBak and a Maglite for Arabi and at a quarter past twelve we began to remove Redvers’ moustache. The surgery went well, his headlights were repositioned and his face appeared like the raw and previously unseen features of a man who has just shaved his beard; recognisable but strangely unfamiliar.
At half past one I climbed into bed next to Laura, my head was still spinning. The alarm was set for 4.30am.