A Travellerspoint blog

June 2012

Day 258 – To the Family Somers

6th June 2012

rain

It took a while but the insurance was arranged; customs, MOTs and the DVLA could wait. We left Dover at 5pm and drove the short four hour hop through the grey drizzle that enveloped southern England and arrived in Devon at Laura’s home at a quarter past nine on a still light evening. Balloons lined the way to a huge banner on which lay a map of Africa and our red line home; in front of the banner stood the Family Somers, Mum, Dad, Ben, Vix, Meg, Flo and Millie, all with smiles on faces and champagne in hand. We had arrived, it felt great to be back.

Posted by ibeamish 03:21 Archived in England Comments (1)

Day 256-257 –Custom-less Dover

4th-5th June 2012

rain

The rain had begun somewhere south of Paris and wouldn’t stop for several days. Our final leg through the North West of France was brief and direct. Redvers drove onto the Britain bound Euro Tunnel carriage and parked up; an hour later we were in Dover.

Our expectations were of a customs point turning Redvers inside out, scrutinising every questionable animal product based purchase that we’d made over the previous eight months. We’d greased our tongues and doe’d our eyes expecting to slip out of any leading questions and generally appear like innocent folk. The reality was We eased off the train and followed the slip road that led us past the petrol station and straight onto the M20 London bound. There was no customs point at Dover Euro Tunnel. We’d later find that the ‘Red Lane’ had been removed in 1993. We were uninsured, un-MOT’d and unregistered and inexplicably driving on Britain’s roads. The next two hours involved one service station, two ports and one extremely helpful chap whose team was in the middle of taking apart a BMW piece by piece. Like lambs who had accidentally stopped to ask a butcher for directions we explained our naivety and our customs official in return explained what we needed to do.

Rather than facing an ordeal of battling insurance companies, closed customs offices (it was jubilee weekend), and DVLA shenanigans, we opted to park Redvers and head for London town. Redvers would have to hold out alone, we could return when offices were open and people were happy to help.

Two trains and a taxi found us outside a good old English Pub on the edges of Richmond Park. Our first welcome home celebration was a gate crashed afternoon walk that we’d been informed some old friends would be taking. It was brilliant to see old mates, great to drink real beer and painful to be reminded of London prices.

We stayed with Post, who had visited us in Malawi, and spent the whole of Tuesday waiting for Wednesday to arrive; though we did fit in a delicious lunch and a cinema trip. The sooner the paperwork was done, the sooner we could get to Devon for our first home coming party.

Posted by ibeamish 03:19 Archived in England Comments (1)

Day 255 – French Paperwork

3rd June 2012

rain

It had been midnight when we parked on the pavement outside of our Chantilly maison. There was a light drizzle as we hurried to knock on the door and gain access to our warm and well feathered beds. The first knock returned no response; Helene must have been asleep already. Over the next ten minutes our repeated knocks became firmer and louder; pebbles were tossed at windows and we began to curse the fact that our Egyptian sim-card had finally run out of credit.

With few options left and just short of pitching our tent for one last road side ‘bush camp’ I targeted the open first floor window and the inviting ivy trail that led to it. Half way up, convincing myself that I wouldn’t die and that for all intents and purposes a man should be able to perform such tasks at a moment’s notice, I heard Laura exclaim a surprised “Hello, you must be Helene?” That was how we met my new employer, in the dark and drizzly night, with me clinging to an Ivy branch that was gradually releasing its grip on the wall some ten feet in the air.

We had some French registration paperwork to get on with during the morning but with that over and done with we declined an invite to the French Derby and opted instead for drinks at a nearby Chateau followed by dinner in a local restaurant with Helene and her partner. We had booked the Euro Tunnel for the following day.

Posted by ibeamish 02:58 Archived in France Comments (0)

Day 254 – Crossing the Alps and Chantilly Bound

2nd June 2012

We woke at half past ten which put an end to our idea of an early start. We drove across north western Italy paying a whopping seventy Euros in toll fees over about three hundred kilometres. The view just kept getting better as the mountains soared and their tips grew ice cold. We passed through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, ten kilometres of ‘rock hewn’ road as Somers put it. The scenery really was all the more exciting and dramatic for having crossed so much sand and desert in the last month.

The best thing about Europe was its road surface; smooth, flat, un-potholed, well lit, clearly marked, and perfectly signed lovely, lovely tar-mac. The trucks were all in superb condition with tread on their tires and courteous drivers who understand and followed the rules of the road. Service stations had a plethora of overly priced delicacies; pates and fine meats, cool drinks and clean toilets. The scent of France was of fields of rape seed, freshly cut grass, meadow woodland and fresh country air; the climate set at just the right temperature and just the right humidity. People drove expensive cars; Ferraris, Aston Martins and Audis may have been the high end, but in a thousand kilometres not one car could have reasonably held the description of ‘clapped-out.’ The drivers, whilst occasionally brash, were never dangerous and even though every car had one, we didn’t hear a single horn all day.

For all this though, there was a price to pay. The last time we’d filled our tank it has cost six quid and someone had paid for us. On the soils of France it had cost us 90 Euros for half a tank. We’d soon adjust though; Italy and France felt like heaven, every glance offered a glimpse at paradise Somers even spotted a fox in the evening light. Who needs lions and elephants?

Aside the beauty of the Italian and French countryside, ours was a full days driving to Chantilly, just north of Paris; and as such would be another thousand kilometre day. In Chantilly we’d meet my new employer, Helene Menessier.

Posted by ibeamish 03:23 Archived in France Comments (2)

Day 253 – The European Landing

1st June 2012

sunny

Our boat sailed for all but two hours of the day. We whiled away time as best we could, watching DVDs in the closed bar, home of the only electricity sockets we could find, and being told off repeatedly by a stern looking and slightly manly Italian woman every time our feet ventured from the ground.

At ten o’clock in the evening we docked. Redvers drove off and the Italian customs men, smiling and courteous, enquired as to the contents of our car; satisfied with our response they waved us through. We had arrived in Europe.

Our hotel had been picked based on its proximity to the harbour but we hadn’t taken into account the winding one way systems up and down the hillside seaside city of Genoa. After a brief and unexpected tour of the red light district we arrived, checked in, bathed and fell asleep on feather pillows and fresh linen. Italy felt like home.

Posted by ibeamish 03:20 Archived in Tunisia Comments (0)

Day 252- To The Top Of The Continent

31st May 2012

Laura wanted to swim and since the entire beach front was occupied with large hotels we went into one and asked could we use their bit of beach; their answer was yes.

From there we had to pass Tunis and continue north. We had visited Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point in Africa and so we felt we ought to have a bash at getting to the most northerly point. We drove through the town of Bizaret and continued along the road until we came to an end, we knew we were still a few kilometres short of the tip, but between us and it was a national park and Redvers could certainly go no further. We had done our best; we’d gone east to west in the south. We’d completed Cape to Cairo in the middle and we’d now done south to north. The time had come; it was time to go home.

We spent a few hours at the beach eating ice cream, cherries and peaches until our bellies hurt and our fingers were sticky. We found the ferry office, collected out boarding cards, had a discussion with a money changer about a graph of profitability plotted against increasing greed and passed slowly and protractedly through several layers of customs checks and cross checks and rechecks and then drove off the continent of Africa and onto the GNV Excelsior; our ship to Europe.

As we walked to find our seats we spotted a plan of the ship and on it were a swimming pool, discotheque and several cafes and bars. Laura was so excited that her mind was running away; cocktails, sunshine and swimming pools fitted her bill nicely and I was yellow carded for being a grump when I said they may not be as she imagined. Upstairs at our seats the promotional video was running and displayed two beautiful young couples in their swim wear sat at the side of the pool heads arched back in laughter. It was too much for Somers. She cracked. She grabbed the car keys and ran back down to Redvers to retrieve her costume, sunglasses, three bottles of sun cream and a towel. On her way back she nipped across to find the pool cordoned off, netted over and without a single drop of water inside it. As it turned out, the disco too was closed, as was the bar and all but one of the cafes.

It was eleven o’clock; we were in the cheap seats as cabins had been beyond the meagre remnants of our now distressed looking budget. Fortunately, there were a lot of cheap seats. I stretched out across four and Laura took two; and then the snoring chorus began.

Posted by ibeamish 03:10 Archived in Libya Comments (0)

Day 251 – Early Morning Wake-Up Calls

30th May 2012

Our call to the land of nod had been speedily answered. Our heads had disappeared into (semi-sweet) scented feather pillows and we had lain snug beneath our open sleeping bags; we slept soundly until the locals began screaming for God again. The first Muslim call to prayer came from somewhere distant in the town at around three thirty of four o’clock. The second came from what felt like three inches outside of the canvas of our tent. Fortunately it was more tuneful than most, we’d heard our fair share and we relaxed a little in the knowledge it wouldn’t last long. As it turned out, God must have been home because the call was answered, the singing stopped and we slipped back into unconsciousness.

We drove to yet another Roman city of El Djem. There we found a most magnificent amphitheatre. It was the fourth largest in all the Roman Empire and whilst it is not as big as the ones in Rome, Carthage or Capua it is easily the best preserved. We climbed into the tiers of what was essentially a two thousand year old sports stadium. In the centre of the arena a hole led to where the gladiators, criminals and wild animals had been kept. In its day there had been a lift that brought those men and beast from below and up to the arena, there men fought and killed each other in the name of entertainment. The view was rather nice and the building quite dramatic.

The museum was open too and in it we were treated to exquisite mosaics of the highest order. Gods, animals, seasons and food all depicted in surprising detail on floors that were now hung from the museums walls.

We wrote more postcards and bought another teapot from a chap who swore it was solid silver, a lie, and then swore it was from 1925, probably a lie, and then swore we couldn’t have it for less than a hundred dinars, the last one was definitely a lie.

We elected to stop short of Tunis in the seaside town of Hammamat; and we celebrated our journey with our first beer for two and a half thousand kilometres.

Posted by ibeamish 03:08 Archived in Libya Comments (0)

Day 250 – Stamping Ourselves Out

29th May 2012

Ali’s farm was fantastic; from the sandy dirt he grew peaches, apricots, olives, pomegranates mangoes and more. We had a tour of the chickens, sheep, goats and rabbits and then ate a breakfast of tea, croissants, bread, yoghurt and milk.

At the garage, we had a look inside Redvers’ engine again and Ali commented that our oil was dirty and it needed changing. He insisted on having his staff change the oil before we left. With that, I jumped under and started draining the sump and changing the oil filter. The transfer gearbox oil was a little low and so I topped that up too. For some reason the hand brake cable wasn’t sitting well and so after removing the prop-shaft and hand brake drum to have a look, we decided that the cable would need replacing in the UK but would be fine for now.

During this time we’d try to put Redvers on the vehicle lift in the garage, only to find that he was too heavy. Ali had sent one of his guys to fill our jerry cans with eighty litres of Naphtha on his account; the man’s generosity knew no bounds.

With the work complete we had coffee whilst Ali spoke to a client and then he insisted on escorting us to the edge of Tripoli to make sure we didn’t get lost. He also asked us to call him in Sabratha so that he could arrange our hotel for us. We pulled over on the edge of town to wish goodbye yet another man whom we had known for hours that felt like eternity. We took pictures and waved goodbye.

Sabratha was an hour’s drive away and we eventually arrived after stopping to get directions. The man had spoken no English and we no Arabic but he was a charades champion and his directions were clear.

Sabratha was another city on the edge of the Mediterranean. The Bradt guide told us that it had been built by the Carthaginians, destroyed by earthquake and rebuilt by the Romans. It too had benefitted from Septimius Severus’ investment in Leptis Magna but it eventually began its descent proper after the earthquake of AD365, the same one that destroyed Cyrene. In the aftermath there was insufficient money to rebuild the city. The remaining Romans finally scarpered for good when the Vandals came in AD533. The Arabs later overlooked the city and it fell into disuse. When the Italians arrived in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ at the beginning of the 20th Century they had set about rebuilding the great remnants of the Roman Empire in order to prove their world dominating heritage.

Sabratha was another fine example of a Roman city. Again we saw beautiful mosaics, laid in situ, as well as forums and temples. Sabratha’s piece de resistance however, was its theatre. Reconstructed it stood three stories high, each story with its own row of Corinthian columns and each floor providing a window onto the sea behind. At the front of the stage the walls were lined with alabaster carvings, still clearly visible showing stage characters, masks and Gods. The theatre was a breathtaking sight.

The museum at Sabratha was closed. We chose not to sleep there but rather to make a start for the border and, ‘Inshallah’, get across it and cover a couple of hundred kilometres into Tunisia.

We arrived at the border at six and had our own ‘tourist’ lane opened for us. The border official stamped our passports immediately; but he was more uncertain of Redvers papers. Uncertain is the wrong word, unmoved is more appropriate. We asked for his stamp but he didn’t really want to stamp it. Instead, as we spoke to him, I slowly reached out for the stamp, gesturing that it wouldn’t hurt anyone and stamping the carnet myself. He was unmoved, I offered him the customs slip that he needed and he waved me away, he didn’t need the paperwork cluttering his tidy desk, we had our stamp, we were cleared for passage.

Exiting Libya had taken around eight minutes. Entering Tunisia took five minutes for us but, for Redvers, it would take an hour and twenty minutes of confused Tunisian customs officers reading a document that was written in French, their national language, and still unable to work out why two pieces of paper said ‘Entree’ and two said ‘Sortie.’ After a lot of patient hanging around, and a little money changing, they stamped the ‘Entree’ sections, took their bit and let us through. The wait hadn’t mattered; Libya’s speedy service had more than offset any delay.

Tunisia’s roads proved to be a lot slower than those we’d used for the past five days, narrow, poorly lit and filled with old trucks and older beaten up Peugeots, Citroens and Renaults. We didn’t have trouble guessing who’d colonised them during the ‘Scramble.’ We drove into the night and at ten o’clock found ourselves in the town of Gabes where we drove around the campsite three times before finding its entrance and driving in. We were bought peppermint tea by a gentleman at the bar, we called home and checked in with parents and we went to sleep; we were back in the comfort of familiarity; our tent was our home.

Posted by ibeamish 03:06 Comments (0)

Day 249 – Naphtha or Benzene?

28th May 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.

Posted by ibeamish 21:06 Archived in Libya Comments (0)

Day 248 – In Search of Gadaffi‘s Hole

27th May 2012

We woke to the alarm in a daze that we wouldn’t snap out of for an hour or so. We had 1100km to cover through towns that one year ago would have looked like a tight schedule for BBC’s ‘Man in Libya.’ Our first town was Benghazi, it would be followed by Sirte and end in Misurata on the other side of the Bay of Sirte where the Sahara meets the Med. We would finish a hundred or so kilometres short of Leptis Magna the Greco-Roman City that stood sixty kilometres from Tripoli.

Ali had said he would try to wake to see us depart but at 5am he still slept and we had no intention of waking him. We crept around his living room looking for a pen with which to write a farewell note. We found a pen pot but in it, rather than pens, were a 14.5mm shell and some smaller bullets, his mementoes.

We pulled out in the light of pre-dawn and once more drove past the four storey apartment block and past the entrance to the military complex and out through the last of the stunning Green Mountain scenery as slowly the sun rose and set fire to the golden fields. We were driving towards Benghazi where we needed to meet Adris and return his sim card. Our previous night’s planning paid off, we met him on the outskirts just before eight o’ clock and soon our final goodbyes had been said and we were driving through downtown Benghazi, lost. Naturally the sat-nav wasn’t quite as familiar with Libyan roads as we’d have hoped but through some judicious use and finally finding a main road we found our way out of Benghazi, past bullet scarred buildings and straight into what must have been the site of the tank battle for Benghazi.

The war for Libya had been fought along the roads. Scattered alongside the road were huge tanks, burnt out, upside down, some with their gun turrets nearby, the striking thing was that there was no upturned earth nearby the tanks no large scorched area, just their exploded carcasses. We would find out later that those tanks had been the victims of NATO missiles. The NATO planes were rarely seen. If they were lucky they had a last-minute fleeting glimpse of a missile travelling at five hundred kilometres an hour and landing directly on top of its target; lightning bolts from the Gods or fire from hell, depending upon your allegiance, the number of destroyed tanks showed that the Libyan army had been a formidable force, but one far outmatched by the Gods sat around the table where NATO’s actions were decided. We made a hurried stop at one of the tanks, Laura jumping out of a moving Redvers whilst I positioned him and then jumped on top of the tank to pose uneasily as cars drove by on the main road.

Over the following four hundred kilometres of roadside we saw maybe forty bombed and burnt out tank carcasses. The road itself was pocked with large pot holes bordered by scorch marks. The force required to lift a square metre of good tarmac clean off a compacted surface must be quite something. The buildings alongside the road bore the bullet scars of the conflict and the road’s sides were littered with the packaging and two feet long casings, ten and a half centimetres in diameter, of tank shells. Naturally we stopped and took one; it would be an umbrella stand with a story.

The absolute delight of all this was that we were free. We had no guide to restrict us and so within reason, as long as we stayed near the coast, we could do as we pleased. Under Gadaffi, a journey without a guide had not been possible. An escort had been compulsory, and on completion of the trip the guide had filed a report on the tourists under his watch. He had reported back on what the tourist had seen and done, what they had taken pictures of and what questions they had asked. We were enjoying a freedom not experienced in Libya in decades.

The lack of a guide also meant that we were now interacting far more with locals and with the armed men at the road blocks. We weren’t the first tourists in Libya after the revolution, we knew of three overland vehicles that had passed through on tourist visas before us as well as a handful of cars and bikes using business visas, but from speaking to the men at the road blocks we were definitely still amongst the first.

As we’ve already discussed, guns aren’t often intimidating and we were finding more and more that the men holding them were happy to see us. Most road blocks waved us through, or simply asked to see our passports. At one road block we stopped to offer the guys a packet of salt and vinegar crisps I’d mistakenly bought. The ulterior motive was to attempt to get a photo on one of the seated machine guns on the back of their Toyotas. I’d feel the ground as I went. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.

I offered the crisps to one guy and like an overweight polar bear it was more than enough to break the ice. His and his colleagues English was good and we chatted about our journey, about England and about Tunisia and about the ferry. We even chatted about Gadaffi and, misunderstanding a question and being too eager to respond I gave the thumbs up. As the chap finished his sentence, his smile waned and I realised my error. My thumb wavered and then flipped down, his smile returned and one guy asked could I take his photo. Of course I could. But before I went to get the camera he wanted to give us some bottled water for the journey, which I politely accepted and then returned to the car to swap it for the camera. Laura came back across with me and the chap asked would I like to sit on the ridiculously massive weapon of war complete with a chest of carrot sized bullets either side. Grinning like a kid in a chocolate factory I handed over my camera and clambered aboard. The one rule was not to touch the left hand foot pedal; I presume it was the trigger. After the vehicle we climbed down and had a photo session with the guys, including me getting to hold the loaded Kalashnikov and Somers posing as the war time belle with her soldiers. After a few minutes one chap sensibly chose to bring the shoot to a close. Hearts and minds had been won but this was a professional affair that needed to keep hold of its respectability. We thanked the guys and with racing hearts and huge smiles we drove on.

Our next city destination was the town of Sirte, Muammar Gadaffi’s home town and the site of his final morning alive. It was the town where his convoy had been hit by a French air strike and he had escaped only to find refuge in a drainage pipe running beneath the main road. I hadn’t told Somers yet but we were going to find that drainage pipe. Armed with a map of Gadaffi’s final movements I’d located the pipe and measured out directions to get there. We pulled off the highway and drove towards the town centre. We needed to find the main road through town but we’d come off the highway a little too early. Sirte was a town that had enjoyed wealth. Fancy modern lamp posts and smart fence railings lined its streets. The street we were on led to the beach front. Those beautiful blue Mediterranean waters once more washing along a Corniche on which lay a dual carriage way and beyond that, six-storey apartments ran for a considerable length of the seafront. It would have been an extremely pleasant place if it weren’t for the fact that most of those apartments bore the scars of tanks and all of them the scars of bullets. In places whole buildings had been brought down, elsewhere exterior walls had been removed allowing a voyeuristic glance inside what was a normal household shortly before a tank shell collided with its wall. Some of the buildings were so thoroughly routed that they must have been hit by airstrikes. As we found our way through town, our jovial mood dissipated and sank to its lowest point yet. It was akin to seeing a child’s face after a dog attack, so violent and destructive had been the damage. Also we were suddenly getting a lot more stares. We were off the main road, we were now snooping and we felt uncomfortable for several reasons.

With a weakening desire to fulfil my goal our drive continued and Laura became suspicious of my actions. I squealed and told her my plan, but by that stage we were already pulling off the road on which the convoy had travelled and onto the road under which the drain pipe ran. On the right hand side, one point one kilometres along that road was the pipe. Just further along and on the left was where the cars had been hit by the airstrike. My heart was pounding out of my chest, an irrational fear was taking over and it was all I could do to control it. Thoughts of posed photos as I crawled out of the pipe looking surprised were evaporating quickly. As we got closer a van was parked right next to the pipe; on the other side of the road more work vehicles were perked, their men doing something to the road. Life was flashing past very quickly and we stopped to speak to the guy in the van. He told us he was Turkish and was working there but offered no further explanation. By now a combination of fear, morality at the perverse actions of what I had seen as funny but now saw as grossly satirical and perhaps, more worryingly, gravely disrespectful, and the presence of other people had taken their control; the sight of the town had deeply weighted our consciences. We slowed to a crawl that allowed us to see the top of the pipe, adorned in blue graffiti, that had been the final hiding place of a man who, for better or worse, had written a whole chapter of the world’s modern history.

Our heavy mood still bearing, we continued out of the town, everywhere we looked lay tank and bullet shells. It was a quarter past four; we’d been driving for eleven and a half hours and still had another three or four to go.

We arrived at the road block on the outskirts of Misurata at a quarter past seven. The bloackade was built from shipping containers; three columns of two containers stacked one on top of the other and two containers spanning the tops of the three columns. Aside the stop was a tank, and three or four Toyota-mounted machine guns. The guard took our passports and motioned us to park in the other side of the blockade. We’d been asked to do similar earlier in the day and it had only entailed a longer chat about what we were doing whilst Somers faux-nonchalantly peeled an orange as if getting stopped and gently interrogated by armed rebels was her normal. It had ended in us shaking hands and being wished a safe journey. This chap however summoned me from across the road as I stepped out of Redvers. I crossed the road, wondering how I’d need to act and as I got closer he raised his hand to stop me walking towards his office and instead, pointed to the table at which were sat a smartly dressed gentleman in his sixties and an older general wearing star filled epaulettes. Before them was a coffee pot and cups. “Friend, you must take coffee with us, how is your journey?”

Tension disappeared like a mist on a summer morning and we sat with our new found acquaintances enjoying our coffee and again chatting about our travels. The coffee was superb but that would not be sufficient. As we stood from the table we were handed two carrier bags full of pomegranate and grape juice, cartons of milk and chocolate chip muffins as well as a crate of bottled water ‘for our journey.’ Before we walked away they asked us was there anything else we needed?

Inside Misurata, passing ever more bullet riddled buildings and scorched roads, we pulled into a petrol station and asked the chap to fill us up with diesel, his reply was not fully understood but in response I said “Yes” and he began. From the same chap we tried to get directions to our hotel but to no avail. He did however ask another chap who was filling his car and that young gentleman told us to follow him; he would drive us to our hotel.

There were only suites remaining at the hotel, and they were quite expensive but we persisted and found that there was a room with a broken air conditioning unit that we could use if that wasn’t a problem. The weather had been far more temperate than we were used to and so it would be no issue. We took the room gratefully and in return we were offered a discount because of the lack of air con and because it was our first time in Misurata. We were yet to meet a rogue in Libya; every man had been proud of his country and took pleasure in welcoming visitors. We had driven one thousand and ninety six kilometres, it had taken us fourteen and a half hours; we had passed fields of destroyed tanks, badly scarred cities, the Sahara desert and a country full of wonderful individuals.

Posted by ibeamish 16:05 Archived in Libya Comments (0)

Day 247 – The Hospitality of Gentlemen

26th May 2012

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.

Posted by ibeamish 16:04 Archived in Libya Comments (0)

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