25th May 2012
24.05.2012 - 25.05.2012
The time had come. We remounted the lip that took us from the dirt beside the road to the tar that would accelerate us towards the border. We had advised our Libyan guide that we would be with him between nine and ten o’clock. It was seven o’clock and we had an hour’s drive ahead of us.
Two nights previous we’d spoken to Laura’s parents singing the praises of the vehicle that has crossed rivers, swamps and deserts to get us the length and breadth of Africa. We’d literally flown across Sudan and done a lot of driving in Egypt; we were due a hiccup and for once it came with Laura in the driver’s seat.
A slight lurch and sudden loss of power followed closely by the sweet smell of mechanical burning. We came to an abrupt halt as Laura pulled over. Beneath the car we could see that the seal on the rear diff was leaking, it was red hot to the touch and that seemed to be where the clanking was coming from; we’d localised the problem. We let the diff cool and refilled it with a litre and a half of oil hoping it would get us far enough into Libya to find a solution. With our temporary measure in place it was time to get to the border again. As we drove it was clear that the fluid had helped but an uncomfortable clunk each time we changed gear signalled that we needed help.
Nearing the border we were stopped at a fairly intimidating road block. Four or five tanks were parked and another was driving around on in the sand on the road side. The officer, armed, asked for our passports and asked where we were going. Our passports, he found, were in order and he granted us passage. He had been the custodian of the entrance to the border town of Soloum. Driving away from the check point we passed another four or five tanks, driving in a line along the sand at the road side leaving monstrous clouds of dust in their wake. Soloum was where our sea side road was forced to climb into the hills as it turned for the border. As we drove it was impossible to ignore the long line of trucks we were passing all parked at the roads edge, their drivers busy peeling potatoes, making tea, or relaxing with an attitude that suggested they would not be moving anytime soon. We were still eight or nine kilometres from the Egyptian border post. Surely they weren’t queuing? As our climb continued so did the line of trucks. The mountain gave a clear view back over Soloum and the dust clouds took our eye to the now toy sized tanks playing in the dust.
The trucks were queuing; all the way to the border post. We were able to drive past them with a couple of cars but repeatedly got caught up in the queues formed by contra-flowing traffic in the one available lane. After an age we arrived at the police post and began the uneasy task of leaving Egypt. Their English was as good as our Arabic; it was time for charades. Once again they searched for a chassis number in a place it didn’t exist. There was simply no possibility that Redvers’ chassis might not be stamped in the same place that a Toyotas is. Our chassis number, riveted onto the seat was too easy. Failing to convince the police that we hadn’t stolen or tampered with the car, we left them. We’d sort customs first and then return. The Egyptians were still on the take, we had to pay for a photo copy of our passport, our own copies weren’t good enough. We paid for car parking at the border, we paid for a stamp for our carnet, we paid again for stamps for our departure cards, we were so sick of Egypt its hard to explain in words. Day to day existence had been hard work; endless tiresome hours of avoiding overcharging, of wriggling around tour guides who, if we were polite, took our gentle attitude a s a come on building us to the point of again standing square and announcing ‘Khalas.’ (Enough!) It took two and a half hours to negotiate the idle bureaucracy of the border. There no queues, only masses of people pushing each other aside to get to the window, the strongest men won as once more old ladies were swept aside and cursed. During our time in Egypt we’d actually seen too some despicable behaviour. Cars pushing in front of ambulances as sirens and the need for swift medical treatment proved less important than a fat Egyptian mans need to get home. At nearly every opportunity someone had tried to rip us off; every step had been through littered streets, deserts and waterways; we’d been harassed and cajouled to within an inch of our frayed temper’s limit and only the kind actions of a few had kept us from declaring an all out contempt for the nation. But that was the beauty of the border crossing. It was a clean slate, a new start, an open mind. We didn’t just want Libya, we needed Libya.
As we crawled across no-mans land, our thoughts were not on the excitement ahead, nor of the kilometres to cover. Our minds were on the horrific banging coming from beneath Redvers back end, and uncomfortable clanking sound during gear changes. We decided that we needed to take the rear prop shaft off and see if it made a difference.
At the gate to Libya stood a well presented gentleman his short clean hair brushed back into a spike, his moustache and goatee clean and freshly clipped, blue shirt, suit trousers and polished shoes, he was our guide, his name was Adris. He took our passports and disappeared towards on office as I disappeared beneath Redvers. Adris was done first and a shirt while later a re-emerged, propshaft in hand. It would be two wheel driving from there. Adris had arranged our stamps within ten minutes, we drove on to find another office where we could stamp Redvers into Libya.
The office had a small and old paint flecked desk against a wall and beneath a four pane window whose bottom left glass had been smashed. On top of the desk were piles of ill-organised carnet slips, some yellowing with age. The young guard, one of the victorious revolutionaries now coming to terms with the mundane duties of a soldier in a country no longer at war, stamped our carnet in the ‘exit’ section and decided his desk was full enough already. He stamped, but didn’t bother removing our carnet page. It didn’t matter, they were hardly going to come chasing us for unpaid duties. The tax rate in Libya was 2%.
The sound from below Redvers was much better after our temporary fix but still there was noise enough that we needed to fix it sooner rather than later. We’d just have to find a decent Land Rover mechanic.
We drove into Libya, we were on our way home. Our first stop was at the Tobruk war memorial where we discovered the gate keeper was in absentia. The wall was low enough for us to peer over and again we saw another yard filled with head stones. The bell on the gate was from the HMS Liverpool; it was a heart warming sight in a land far away from home.
The road continued through absolutely stunning scenery. We were following an unspoilt Mediterranean coast line, far removed from the one hundred kilometres of litter festooned high rise holiday homes we’d seen blotting Egypt’s coast. Deep blue gave way to turquoise; yellow sand and white rock caressed by the water at the shores edge. The hills around us were dry but the golden grass and green trees and scrub reminded us of a Greek landscape, one that would flourish in a second given a day’s rain.
Adris had a friend near to the border and suggested a spot of lunch. We pulled off the road and met a family who invited us in. This was to be our first real experience of Muslim living. I went into the lounge, a carpeted room with long cushions at its edges providing a ground level seat or lounging area which was extremely comfortable. Laura meanwhile was shown to the female lounge where she met the wife and her daughters. Whilst reclined I spoke to Adris and the father who regaled me with stories of sunken World War Two ships and concealing Australian troops from the Italians.
The food was served in a huge bowl and three of us, sat on the floor, ate from it. Cous-cous, salsa, potataoes and tripe all flavoured superbly and washed down with 7-Up and tea; scrum-diddly-umptious. We took photos for posterity and Adris announced it was time to leave. We’d not been in the country long but we felt that the hospitality was already shining through.
There were several road blocks on our way, manned by the members of the new army/police force. Most were happy to let us pass. The benefit of having Adris with us was that he was ahead of us, and in possession of our passports. He would clear our passage whilst we sat patiently in Redvers surveying the scene before us. It was a pleasant way of acclimatising but even then we were already craving the freedom of travelling without a guide. Occasionally, there would be someone at the police stop who seemed to take exception to our presence. One young man in particular was most disgruntled and even though Adris had cleared it with the more senior officer; the youngster insisted on pulling us over.
Our policy had largely been one of compliance. If an officer requests that we pull over, then we do. Most of the time authorities just want to chat, they also need to feel in control and even if the intent contains malice the collective and its seniors will normally make an appropriate decision regardless of what the individual rogue wants. Guns have become somewhat impotent. Like jack boots, berets and epaulettes an automatic rifle is just another item of clothing. One can’t help but become conditioned. The guns are there, they’re loaded and most have them have probably ended at least one human life, but they’re not being pointed at us and we offer them no reason to; and just like that, they become decorative. Libya upped the ante though in both its number of guns and their size. Toyota Hilux’s had seated machine guns bolted onto the load bay; the type of guns that have bullets like carrots and can shoot planes from the sky. They had tanks too.
As it was we pulled over and explained that our passports where with the man in the car in front. Fifteen seconds into this discussion the youngster’s officer appeared and took him by the arm and led him away. He had undermined his senior’s decision and was unceremoniously being placed back in his box. With the other arm the polite officer waved us on our way.
The road continued. And what a road it was; it was the stuff of movies. As the sun set and its orange fire dipped into the azure sea, cars were parked amongst the bushes on either side of the road; people were barbequing and enjoying a warm Mediterranean evening.
Our original plan had been to get to Tobruk, but that had changed when we realised we had enough time to cover another hundred and fifty kilometres to the town of Sosa. It was twilight when we pulled into the hotel and took a room. The hotel manager seemed under the impression that we would be paying for a room for our guide also, an assumption that was delicately rectified. Adris had been organised at considerable expense for the border only and we told him that we would part ways that evening. He insisted on giving us his sim-card and asked us to call him when we reached Benghazi. It had been a hundred kilometre an hour entrance to a country that held so much expectation. We had made it to our first overnight stop; sat-phone calls to our parents were due to reassure them that we were in good form and then a good night’s sleep. As we walked into the hotel, we marvelled at what a beautiful place Libya was, our expectations had been overwhelmed and our hearts had been lifted by the hospitality of its people. Our melancholy sense of achievement was suddenly focused as somewhere nearby there was a burst of gunfire and a loud explosion.