Libyan Expedition, Autumn 2005

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Libya Expedition - a Desert Raid

Awbari Sand Sea, a vast tract of shifting sands


Part 1 - Awbari Sand Sea and Akakus - this page
Part 2 - Mathendous and Desert Lakes -
click here
Libyan Expedition - Sand Seas and Rock Art
Sunday 30th October Arr Tunis, drive to Matmata
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.
Leaving Marseille
Kit & Raymond en-route
North African coast

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 compound.

Final preparations
First sight of the dunes
Land Rover Discovery
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.

Desert travel group
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…
Fast ascent
Awbari virgin dunes
Slow descent

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.
We waited…..
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.

Tracks to nowhere
Many steep descents
Soft, slippery slopes
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 the wilderness.
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 challenge.
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.
Tanya with camera
Sand lizard in the dunes
Desert wash and shave

The first 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 no better.
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 firmer ground.
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.

Exploring the dunes

Friday 4th November Serdeles campsite
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…

Driving wadi piste
Wild camel at salt pan
Prospecting 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!

Sand sea at dawn
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 back.

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.

Kit badly stuck in gulley
Wild camels in desert
Camels on skyline

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.

Awbari Sand Sea

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 were great!

Mud walls, wood lintol
Ghat, old town
Castellated bridleway

November 5th Saturday Akakus mountains
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 and sand-ladders.

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.

Laurent's briefing
Ghat, narrow street
Isabelle et Alain
Stony sand crossing

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 answer!

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 back information.

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 erosion.

Rock arch in Akakus

Evening 'sundowner'
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 Akakus Exploration
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 arch instead.

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 us.

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 redundant.

Rock art in Akakus

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

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