- Sand Seas and Rock Art
|Sunday 30th October
Arr Tunis, drive to
We had travelled on the overnight ferry from Marseille and
driven almost the length of Tunisia. We arrived at the splendid
hotel, ‘el Berber', a troglodyte edifice cut into
the rocky hillside, at the town of Matmata in southern Tunis.
Monday 31st October
Arrive Libya – First desert camp
It took 4 long hours to leave the Tunis border control.
We then crossed into Libya, to be met by our Touareg guide
Lamine, and we waited a further12 hours for our Libyan
number plates, carnet and visa entry stamps etc.
We were released from our customs park at 11.30pm and
drove to our rendezvous in the sand where we set up camp
in the desert, now almost midnight. We were grouped with
our new friends Josiane and Patrick, Frederic and Alain,
all of whom we had met during the long wait in the customs
sight of the dunes
|Tuesday 1st November
Moths in Hassi ‘n Haya
We drove to the escarpment town of Nalut, occupying a fine
fortified location on a high plateau. We bought bread, dates
and diesel fuel. Then we made a long slow journey south
towards Derj on a very dusty piste. We were now nearing
the soft, sandy approaches to the Awbari Sand Sea. Patrick
got stuck in a sand dune and we uncoupled my sand ladders
for the first time. It was after dark when we arrived, late
and tired, at our palm-filled campsite at Hassi n’
Haya. A fluttering cloud of moths occupied my Land Rover.
We set up our tents, cooked dinner and retired to bed under
the moonlit silhouette of many sweeping dunes.
|Wednesday 2nd November
Erg Awbari dunes
Dawn brought us our first sight of the great Awbari Sand
Sea. This picture-book wonderland of sweeping sand dunes,
wending and bending at the whim of the desert wind, demanded
considerable driving skills. We drove immediately into the
dunes and had to confront some very demanding terrain. Many
dune-driving skills were learned or renewed that day, and
we accomplished some hair-raising ascents and descents.
We suffered many hold ups and did a lot of digging, pushing,
towing and winching. All good practice for the days ahead…
Awbari virgin dunes
Towards the evening the party became inadvertently
separated into three groups. Eight of us, comprising two
smaller groups, had missed a GPS waypoint and were now
marooned high above the valley floor. There was no obvious
way down and we prospected on foot. Finally André
volunteered a pathfinding excursion for us, descended
the first sandy slope, mounted a steep rise and disappeared
over the top.
No sight, no sound. There was no way to judge whether
he had crested a dune to find a cul-de-sac valley ready
to ensnare him in a bottomless sand pit. After many long
minutes, however, he reappeared, a tiny image half a mile
away on the valley floor. He had made it.
|With the light now failing I immediately followed his
tracks and encountered one steep dune jump after another.
The journey was hazardous but the Land Rover performed faultlessly.
After a final power-surge up a forbidding sand crest, followed
by a barely-controlled slide down the dune's slippery slip-side,
we too reached the valley floor.
The rest followed. We joined the other split-off group with
some relief, put up our tents and spent a happy night in
|Thursday 3rd November
Erg Awbari dunes again
We awoke before dawn for an early start to reunite with
Laurent, our leader in the main group. We arrived at 09.30.
Maria was giving her husband Pierre a shave when we arrived,
and Tanya was taking photographs of lizards on the sand.
We attended our briefing and then set off on the day’s
We had a long and difficult drive through soft sand before
re-inflating tyres for a fast 120km run across a gravel
plain, bordered by great sweeping dunes. We stopped when
we reached the dunes, deflated our tyres to 1.2kg and set
off into the sand again.
in the dunes
obstacle was a high and very steep hill comprising loose
sand, both before and below it. Frederick went first and
made a distinguished but unsuccessful effort to mount
this one access to the Sand Sea. His second attempt was
I waited for him to retrace his steps, and he circled
around and drove well up the preceding hill to gain height
and momentum. With his face set in determination, he roared
off at full throttle, hit the hill at 60 mph and mounted
the crest in tremendous style. He became briefly airborne
as all four wheels left the ground. The day was his…
and his exuberant expression showed it!
My turn was next, and to the credit of my totally standard
production Land Rover, whose power-to weight ratio was
well researched through the years and so well engineered,
my first attempt saw me parked next to Frederick at the
top of a steep, sand-locked hill that I might not have
even attempted on my own…
Laurent and our Touareg guide Lamine led the way into
this chaotic range of disordered dunes, and the churned
up piste made the going increasingly difficult for later
drivers. Finally we topped a great sweeping crescent,
barely a car’s width, and reached a precipitous
drop. We made a brief halt on the brink before rolling
down a near vertical descent. Dune jumping is alarming
and thrilling in equal measures.
The rally experienced many hold-ups, at one time we had
with 10 cars from three groups stuck in the sand all at
once – we employed sand-ladders, winches, tow ropes,
shovels, snatch ropes, hi-jacks and old fashioned push-and-shove.
My desert hardened navigator, Raymond, is now 82 years
old and not encouraged to dig (to his chagrin). He would
prospect on foot for firm sand, which was of great benefit
in this changing environment. He would signal where to
go and we would power over to the temporary security of
Eventually we are all unstuck and advance to the next
obstacle… where most of us get stuck all over again….
|We stopped on a dune crest while our Touareg guide Lamine
and leader Laurent went to survey the next section. The
guide recommended by-passing the section. Laurent went on
with several others, and most got badly stuck in a dune
hole. Our desert recovery truck had to be called in, while
the guide took the rest of us on a different route, reaching
a beautiful dune encircled campsite at dusk.
Friday 4th November
We made an early start with our guide Lamine, maintaining
a moderate pace to allow a lame Toyota (with a blown turbo)
to catch up. Thierry and Fabrice went with Laurent’s
group yesterday, and Frederick with Alain came with us
– for what we believed was an easier route.
We met the others at a tiny artesian well, the water
flowing out into a hostile, barren and wind-swept plain.
A lone wild camel stood by and eyed us suspiciously…
at salt pan
route on foot
After a brief lunch of sardines and crisp-bread we
made off across the valley. Almost immediately we encountered
a range of big dunes, each apparently steeper and longer
than the last. We would drive up the tight-packed windward
side of the dune, ease gently over the crest before rushing
down the precipitous slip-side, largely out of control….
If you stop before the crest, you get stuck. Once over
the crest, you can’t stop!
|The crest of a dune is a challenging obstacle which demands
sympathetic treatment; it comes to a sharp peak on the windward
side before dropping away suddenly and sharply on the soft
leeward side. We try to perch on the crest, slightly nose-down,
for long enough to plan an orderly descent. But this skill
is hard won, and we frequently stall, half way up the crest,
deeply embedded in the sand, unable to proceed or reverse.
Once on the crest, we may become bellied down on an unforgiving
myriad of sand particles, with no wheel-contact front or
One such dune range had a long, tortuous and slippery ascent.
Speed is essential in the soft going and I started my run
far away and raced up, turbo spinning and sand flying off
the partially deflated tyres. I dropped down a gear at the
crest, sank into the soft sand, my speed fell away to about
5mph and I eased gently over the edge, all under text-book
control….alas, too soon; my way is blocked by Jacque’s
sand-bound Land Rover 35 feet below me, and by then it was
too late to stop. You can’t stop on a down-slope;
the soft sand dictates its own rules, so I altered course
to avoided colliding with the Land Rover and drove unwillingly
into a deep, sandy gully with all four wheels clawing for
a grip… and bogged in. The gully was so steep on one
side I couldn’t open the driver’s door, and
had to extricate myself across the passenger seat.
stuck in gulley
My running mates, Frederic and Alain stalled at the
crest, thankfully, as it happened, and were also sand-bound.
So with the dune ascent blocked and two Land Rovers stuck
fast at the exit, the rally came to an ignominious halt.
But for Jacque’s stalled car, we would all have
made it, too!
Raymond, my ever active navigator, made off with his Walkie-Talkie
and prospected an alternative route, radioed back conditions
of sand, reported dune heights and exit routes and other
invaluable route-planning information. Meanwhile Jacques
and his navigator Marc recovered their Land Rover and
were able to proceed, Jacques casting a genteel apology
as he left.
After much digging, help eventually arrived in the
form of Pierre with several other car crews, whose route
we had blocked, and with a mighty shove I was extricated
and able to reverse a little way back up the slope, turn
briefly and thunder out down Raymond’s recommended
passage between the dunes.
I continued around the end of the dune, far behind our
original starting point, and with Raymond and several
others marking the blind crests I built up the required
speed, shot over the first ridge, made a safe exit and
negotiated the next three crests in quick succession.
The obstacle was cleared and I mounted a long hill and
stopped 400 yards up on a patch of hard sand.
We pushed out Alain and Frederick in their Nissan and
they took the same route. Raymond and the others walked
up and we were all on our way again. The hold up had taken
nearly an hour.
We reach our scheduled tented and thatched campsite in
Serdeles, unpacked and met up later for a desert dinner,
courtesy of Laurent. We had a long, late dinner of Libyan
over-cooked chicken and underfed couscous - but the potatoes
November 5th Saturday
Raymond bought some sandals in the market next morning.
Then we refuelled at the one filling station, left the
little town and drove 140km on a good road to Ghat.
In Ghat we bought bread and toured the old abandoned
town. The ruins here were much like Siwa oasis in Egypt,
where Raymond and I had travelled together three years
ago. We assembled in a café with our group –
Frederic and his young uncle Alain, who had been with
us all the way, Thierry and Fabrice who started with us
and separated at one dune crossing. And Patrick and Josiane,
who started with us but had to pull out with transmission
problems. It is great to have our group together again.
Frederic is a real social catalyst and we share many laughs
together! Not to mention drinks, food, shovels, ropes
We left Ghat and drove into Akakus, an area bordered
by tall and impenetrable cliffs, cut by numerous wadis
and gorges and bordered by weirdly contorted rock formations.
The formation was not unlike the Tassili ‘n Ajjer
at Djanet, 200 miles west in neighbouring Algeria.
We drove 65km up the main wadi, negotiating soft windblown
sand, rocks and dunes. At one dune crest a whole valley
opened up before us. I wanted to photograph it, but a
descent, once started, can’t be arrested, and we
swept down a very long hill, over 3 km, wrestling with
soft clawing sand while dodging rocks, ruts and boulders.
“I hope we are not coming back up this slope”
I said to Raymond “We will never make it”.
Raymond shuffled his maps importantly… and didn’t
We arrived at a soft sandy ridge some 20 feet high with
an 80 foot drop on the other side. I saw it coming, increased
speed to over 60 mph and roared up the slope. Soft sand
dragged at the wheels, the momentum fell away and I stalled
ignominiously 2 ft from the crest. Raymond’s broad
smile allayed my disappointment, he was enjoying every
minute of this trip. He was soon out with his Walkie Talkie
again, prospecting for a better sand base and radioing
Frederick was the master charger and fired up his Nissan
at maximum revs from a half kilometre run, set off a cascade
of blown sand and stalled a mere yard or two beside me.
We both laughed. I then backed off a very long way, dropped
tyre pressures down to 1.2kg, raced up again and this
time drifted over the barrier with relative ease. Such
is the effectiveness of correct tyre pressures in the
sand. The rest took various routes and soon we were all
across the ridge. On the other side of this natural defence
we arrived at a rocky cliff and stood in silent awe of
a great natural rock arch, a timeless witness to millennia
of volcanic activity sculpted by sun, sand and wind-powered
Rock arch in Akakus |
|Today was a challenging drive but the rewards were great.
We reached an enchanting dune-spread canyon bound by spectacular
crests, gorges, valleys and rocky ramparts. We arrived at
our planned destiny; a long flat valley bordered by soaring
peaks. Here we met up with the others and shared a “Pastis”
at Laurent’s camp.
Akakus mountain range |
Strangely eroded rocks |
Sunday 6th November
Frederic and Alain drove off early to photograph the grand
rock arch in the morning sun. Raymond and I left later
and couldn’t find it… he said it was on the
left and I said it was on the right! Pilot and navigator
in perfect harmony!
We both agreed to drive around the desert for a while
enjoying the dawn light, and then photographed another
By 09.00 we were all back in camp for Laurent’s
daily briefing. We would travel separately in the morning
and meet for a late lunch, and then split into two groups,
the dune group and the gravure rupestre (rock art) group.
Raymond and I chose the latter and so did Frederic and
Alain. Patrick and Josiane wanted to join the dune group,
but their Nissan was giving trouble so they came with
Lone desert traveller |
Rockart site, Akakus |
We had a wonderful drive in the morning driving between
towering columns of wind sculptured rocks; pinnacles,
points, caves, mushroom rocks, many boasting fine examples
of 5,000 year old rock art.
We drove in the afternoon sun across a long barren plain,
uncomfortably bumpy and thick with a clinging dust which
penetrated everywhere. We arrived at dusk at a rocky amphitheatre
with soft, sandy, wind-rippled floor which rendered shoes
We had a welcome Pernod aperitif, barefoot, with Patrick
and Josiane. Frederic and Alain came too. Then I cooked
a dinner of 'dinde delight', a turkey escalope
in a rich sauce supported by French beans and Libyan potatoes.
Later I made a satellite call to Lyn back home, to exchange
the day’s news.
ŠKit Constable Maxwell
Libya Expedition Part
2 click here