Libyan Expedition, Autumn 2005

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Libya Expedition Part Two
Libya Expedition
Wadi Mathendous and the Desert Lakes

Touareg tribesman crossing a sea of dunes


Part 1 - Awbari Sand Sea and Akakus - click here
Part 2 - Mathendous and Desert Lakes -
this page

Libyan Expedition - Wadis, soft sand and Desert Lakes

Monday 7th November Dune Exploration
We left our desert camp at 09.00 and had to conduct a route survey for the next section. Our Touareg guide went ahead and we waited in a softly contoured valley surrounded by a rocky escarpment. We are on a plateau at 820m and the plain is some 1,000 ft below. We know there is a sheer cliff bounding most of the plateau, because we drove along the foot of it on the way last week. We abandon the cliff route and proceed north to a landmark phallic rock, much visited, where Patrick and Josiane left the group in their disabled Nissan.

Our driving team was down to two cars now and we joined up with another group, all very friendly and keen to visit the rock art too. We continued east and drove parallel to a great dune range bounding the valley floor. We stopped for a shade-less desert lunch by a small well. On the way we passed a large herd of goats, with apparently nothing to eat except stones – there was not a blade of greenery for miles around. We turn south and follow this formidable dune barrier in a big wide plain, with the Akakus range now far to the West.

Raymond, navigator

Akakus plateau

Small car, big landscape
Our Touareg guide turned suddenly into the dunes and we entered the sand sea through a narrow sandy corridor. A little further we drive some way up a steep dune and stop on the crest to survey the scene. There before us lies a picture-book desert with dunes stretching off into the horizon. One graceful sweep after another fill the view and the low evening sun casts long shadows and highlights the sweeping crests. We drop down into a dune encircled amphitheatre, warm, silent and secluded in a world of our own. We pitch our camp for the night.

Fred and I set up a dune-jump photograph next morning and we each roared up a tall dune, balanced briefly on the crest and drove gently over, all under full control. “You don’t often see dune-driving as good as that...!” we joked.
Starting a dune run
Mounting the crest
Controlled descent
Levelling out
Tuesday 8th November Wadi Mathendous
Today we drove some 230km on mainly flat desert of varying comfort. Some was fast and firm, some was soft and slow, and all was incredibly dusty. The dust here is unbelievable – it permeates every crack and crevice, billows up all around us so we lose sight of the next car completely.
We were crossing a very large wide, flat desert devoid of any landmark. We had lunch in the open desert under a baking sun. The ‘Kitmax’ parasol gave Raymond and I enviable creature-comfort, while the rest had to grovel in the shadow of their cars under a near-vertical sun.
In the afternoon we crossed a tortuous plateau with big sharp rocks strewn everywhere. This was Wadi Bajus, and the landscape was hostile, sterile and lunar. There was no way to avoid the rocks; we just drove slowly as the 4 x 4 traction coped with the terrain.
Rock-strewn piste
Berber shelter
The 'Kitmax' parasol
Wadi Mathendous
Eventually we arrived at Mathendous, a tiny watery wadi with bushes, reeds and yellow wild flowers. Bordering the wadi was a wealth of rupestres, Neolithic engravings of grazing animals dating to over 5,000 years old. We spent some time here marvelling at this historic, water-filled oasis bound on all sides by open desert.
We left at 4pm, crossed the stony ground and regained the smoother plateau beyond. After an hours driving we found another dune ridge to explore for our evening camp. We stopped to gather firewood in a shallow fertile depression and found, after some sandy dune slithering, another beautifully isolated valley surrounded by great sweeping dunes stretching off into the sunset.
Our combined group numbered 8 cars and crew, and we all got together for a riotous aperitif around the campfire. After dinner we assembled again for a Calvados in the moonlight.

Desert skies

Wednesday 9th November Germa and Garamantes
We left at a leisurely 9am and drove down a long and very dusty plain, still heading due East. We arrived at the little town of Germa, refuelled all our seriously depleted fuel tanks then visited the museum and the old ruined Garamantes city. The inventive Garamantes people occupied the Libyan desert from around 1,000BC to 400 AD and are noted for their advanced agricultural and irrigation skills. They built hundred of wells and underground irrigation channels thoughout this part of the Libyan desert. Most of their installations exist to this day.

Isabelle et Pascale
1400 year-old mud wall
Garamantes town
Old market place

We are now installed in the second campsite of this trip and meet up with the other groups who spent the last 3 days in the dunes. We reunite with Thierry and Fabrice, and Josiane and Patrick arrive too. Tomorrow we all return to the dunes again.

Raymond and Touareg

Wet sands in the Wadi

Thursday 10th November Desert Lakes and Palmeraie Camping
The campsite was at the foot of a great sweep of dunes with a broad saddle between the higher reaches. This was our intended route. We drove up into this boundless tract where the going was soft and a combination of speed and traction was essential. As we went higher and higher the view became more exciting. Great swirls of soft sand were blown into delicate shapes by the wind. We picked our way up dunes, around dunes and over dunes. The driving was tough on the engine, but fairly easy on the tyres…..until I got a puncture, a most unlikely event in this environment. Jacking up a car on soft sand is not easy and I used the high-lift jack. I mounted it on a sand ladder which disappeared completely from view and had to be dug out. The tyre was soon changed and we continued.
We arrived at the first lake-in-the-sand, an extraordinary desert surprise in shimmering blue, a palm fringed lake bordered by huge dunes. We drove around it, with difficulty, before proceeding to the next lake 3km away. This one was bigger and the still surface reflected the palms and the dunes in the water.
There was a small village here, once a thriving and self sufficient community, but now long abandoned and only a handful of adventurous Touareg traders come here to sell artefacts to passing travellers. They were accompanied by the ubiquitous 'moula moula' bird which is found in all parts of the North African desert. Moula is the Touareg name for a desert sparrow. The bird is the mascot of the Touareg people.
After a brief stop by yet another desert lake (there are several in this sand-locked area) we left to drive into the higher reaches of the northern dune crossing. We mounted a very long high slope, and then another. The going was firm and we made good progress.

Lakes in the sands
Tanya at lake site
Touareg traders
'Moula' bird on palms

We reached a high ridge where several cars had stopped. We soon saw why, this was the beginning of a serious drop – over 75ft down, with a dangerous hollow in the middle and another 75ft drop below. All followed by a steep, sandy ascent to a small level area half way up the other side of the escarpment.
We set off down the incline in second gear, to give some measure of control over our downward charge. The descent went well, we crossed the gully and both gasped at the second drop which was even steeper and longer than the first. The car slithered a little on the soft sand but stays on course. Near the end I changed up a gear, bottom out and left the slope at full speed to gain momentum for the steep ascent.

Lake in the desert
Palms near the lakes
Fred & Kit in sands
The 'Kitmax' parasol

We roared up to the clearing to join the others there, to be greeted by a round of applause! So flattering and so charming….. Unfortunately our luck lost us there, I had another puncture. Two punctures in two hours, and on sand too. We jacked up again with the help of an airbag jack (which was only partly successful), and my trusty hi-lift jack.
I fitted my second and last spare wheel, an old military tyre that failed to match the others for sidewall flexibility and gave much reduced grip at low pressure… and none at high. The problem was to haunt me all afternoon as my previously good sand performance was now greatly impaired, and the quality of the sand was deteriorating rapidly.

Dwarfed by huge dunes
Dunes have a firm windward side and a very soft “slip” side. The prevailing wind dictates the general direction from (NE to SW in the Sahara) and the dunes sometimes form easily driveable corridors in between.
Where it all goes wrong is where one dune formation meets another, and a great sandy turbulence develops, with firm sand and soft sand sharing the same slope. And this was the surface we encountered now.
We suffered many more hold ups and reached a mighty climb bordered by very soft sand. Several cars had failed already, but it was the only route out of this dune valley. Frederic and Alain took a long fast charge and made it almost to the top. Suddenly they hit a soft patch and slewed sideways on the steep slope. We both gasped in horror as the inevitable appeared unavoidable. We had already had one Land Rover roll over on a similar ascent. The Nissan slithered and stopped and Frederic was able to engage reverse gear quickly and regain his alignment. He reversed at full speed half a kilometre, gained some firmer higher ground and tried again. This time he made it, a great piece of driving. I drove around on my three good tyres trying to gain height, and could not persuade the car to gain either speed or momentum. Eventually Laurent took a run and we made it to the top, amid cheers from my companions.
We were off again across a wilderness of sand, some firm, some soft and some just undriveable. We came over the brow of a dune to find a Land Rover deeply embedded in a bottomless tract, and we had to push, pull, dig, winch and tow before we released him. He shouldn’t have been there alone… It all took a long time and we still had a long way to go. Our three cars were alone on an endless plain of alternately hard and soft sand.
We mounted a classic dune crest with a very sharp profile and I bottomed out and stuck, finely balanced with all four wheels off the ground. It looked very comic but took a lot of work to dig out under the vehicle and get at least two wheels to grip. Our friends in that great wide Hummer Hum-vee gave the ridge a try and did exactly what I did. So now there were two ridge-bound vehicles clawing for a grip. The 4.5 ton Hummer doesn’t respond to a push, so we called up Tanya and Patric’s Land Rover and winched him over. By then my wheels were engaged and the Hummer and I roared down the steep slope together.

Hum-Vee Hummer
With our many delays today it was now late and we would have to drive fast to make our rendezvous with the others. At 6.00pm, nearly dark and with only 3km to go, I sustained unbelievably, the third puncture of the day. Now I had no spare wheels left and the situation was serious. But Frederic saved the day with a bombe, a tyre inflating canister with which he repaired this morning’s tyre. We changed the wheel, experts now, and were back on the piste in 10 minutes. We rolled into our rendezvous very late, with full lights, and set up camp. We were in a palmeraie, but all we could see was the dark silhouettes of the palms again the night sky.
This had been the longest, most dangerous and fatiguing day of the trip. Two Nissans out of service, 1 rolled Land Rover, a broken Toyota and a blown Toyota Turbo. Our recovery vehicle had much to do….
Desert dusk
Wadi Chaati camp
Desert dawn
Friday 11th November Rubta hotel
We left camp early as sunrise illuminated our beautiful palmeraie. The tall palms rose from the sand and spouted shady fronds high above us. We drove down a soft sandy wadi for some miles. At one point a dune encroached and blocked the way. There was a car already stuck there and we had to help him out. I had no appetite for de-pressuring tyres so soon after reinflating them, so I attacked the obstruction at considerable speed…..and became briefly airborne! The landing was softened by the sandy descent, but this was the manoeuvre that destroyed the Toyota the day before.
At last we hit the North-bound Tripoli road, and our desert trip was over. 600km later we pulled in, much fatigued, to a barely adequate Rhabta Hotel in Gharyan. We ordered a gassy, lukewarm, alcohol-free beer in the one noisy bar, and wished to be back in those silent, dune-encircled campsites we had so enjoyed in the previous weeks.

Farewell dinner on boat
Last night in the desert
Marseille revisited

Saturday 12th November Kairouan Kasba Hotel
Another early start, then a 3-hour wait at the Tunisian border followed by a 655km drive to Kairouan. We were booked in at a splendid mud-walled Kasbah hotel, had a grand dinner and assembled later for an end-of trip presentation by Laurent.

I sat with Frederic, Alain, Patrick and Josiane. As each team was called up to receive a souvenir plaque, everyone in their group clapped. A great bond of friendship had been made by Raymond and I with our fellow travellers and I long to travel with them all again.

Mid-November, back home and unpacking the
Land Rover Discovery

ŠKit Constable Maxwell
Libya Expedition part 1- click here

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