Libya 2008 Part 1
A big trip to Waw en Namus, reproduced courtesy of 4x4 Magazine.
It had been a long, long haul south. Biting cold winds and heavy rain had made the French leg of our trip deeply unpleasant, but once across the Mediterranean and into Tunisia the warm North African sun soon reminded us of why we escape the English winter each year to head out to Libya for a spell of interesting research work and stunning adventure. For ten years now I have been a member of a diverse group of scientists and archaeologists involved in various projects in Libya. My role is logistics and project photographer, but as an off-road driving fan it is the chance to drive to some of the most remote areas in the World that holds the greatest appeal.This season one of the areas of exploration was to be a vast valley called Waw en Kebir, some 500 miles southeast of the Mediterranean coast. Half a million years ago this area was the shoreline of a 100,000 square mile lake, but a generation ago it was the scene of a daring raid by The Long Range Desert Group who undertook a massive loop of desert driving from Cairo, south into the desert, then northwest to attack the Italian air base at Muzuq. A drive through this region could be most interesting and could include, if time, a small excursion further south to Waw en Namus, an extinct volcano and prize scalp of any big Libya trip.
A ‘no questions asked’ currency exchange.Heading south from Tunis port the rain was soon forgotten as warm sunshine put a smile back on our faces. We stopped at Ben Gardena, the last town before the Libyan border to change some money on the black market. Experience has taught us it’s far easier to change cash for cash in this one horse town, than produce wads of paperwork at the Libyan banks. The ‘no questions ask’ deal usually offers a slight advantage on the exchange rate too.Once into Libya we headed straight for Tripoli to meet the rest of the team who had flown from Gatwick that morning missing out on our 2000 mile road trip. The following day we got an early start a made the full 500 mile run, on good ‘blacktop’ down to Sebha in the Fezzan region of Libya. Kevin White and I in our Land Rovers, the rest of the team in a minibus. With over 2500 miles since leaving the UK, Kev and I had a few minor repairs to do before the next leg deep into the desert. Kev’s Camel Trophy Defender has air assisters in the rear coil springs and the plate that secures the top of the bag had become unattached. A local welder sorted this out for the equivalent of a couple of quid. I got off lighter with just a puncture to mend. Next we took on enough diesel for what would be about a 600 mile round trip. Full tanks and ten jerry cans each certainly made both our Land Rover feel heavy and unwieldily, but we hoped to be lighter by the time we reached the tricky areas.over a ton of supplies and a live sheep!
From Sebha the archaeologists headed further south to Germa and the smaller group of geographers and myself were joined by our Libyan support team in two 80 Series Toyota Land Cruisers to carry people, and a pair of 45 Series Pick-ups for all the food, water and camping gear, their massive leaf springs groaning under the weight of well over a ton of supplies and a live sheep! In charge was Dr. Mustafa Selim, an old friend, who was in his well preserved Land Rover 110 V8.Mustafa led the way as we eased our convoy off the tarmac and onto flat desert. The going was easy. Gravel as flat as a pancake as far as the eye could see and well compacted so minimal dust. As the buildings of the town receded in the mirror we were all aware that ahead of us was that vast wilderness of Sahara Desert. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, for hundreds of miles in every direction. We made good progress on the first day reaching the spot in Waw en Kebir that our satellite images told us was the centre of the area of exploration. The valley was, at this point, probably 30 miles across, with low rock outcrops offering some shelter from a cold wind. Mustafa selected a spot that was to be base camp for six days and the chaps put up two big canvas tents to act as office and kitchen while we sorted out Land Rovers, rucksacks and equipment.Army base to be avoided at all cost.
With a couple of days ‘work’ under our belts Kev and I negotiated a break to make a further expedition southeast to try and reach Waw en Namus, the extinct volcano that has always been too distant a goal in our tight schedules. We sat in the big tent discussing options, fuel and food requirements and who to take. Mustafa had a Libyan student with him who was keen to go, as was Ahmed, one of the Libyan drivers, who had never visited this jewel of the desert. The English contingent was made up of Simon Armitage, Adrian ‘Pokey’ Parker, Kev and myself. We would be away from base camp for two nights and cover about 380 miles in total, much of it away from what is regarded as ‘the track’ - a loose interpretation of regular access. Mustafa lowered his glasses to the end of his nose and issued one caution, however. Our paperwork only gave us permission to be in the area of work. We could travel with Ahmed in the guise of tourists, but our visas were work visas. It was a bit of a Catch 22 situation. We felt it worth the risk as the likelihood of meeting anyone was remote, but Mustafa added one more warning, ‘There is an army base at the southern end of Waw en Kebir - avoid it at all costs!’Excited to be travelling again we made an early start pulling out of camp and down a short rock outcrop onto the flat valley floor. Ahmed took the lead, the big Toyota settling into a brisk pace across the billiard table smooth surface.
The sun soon warmed the air and by lunchtime the temperature was most pleasant. Stopping for a bite to eat Kev noticed we had parked on a sea of fossilised oyster shells. An area of about half a square mile solid with them built up to about a metre in depth indicating billions of them. Between five and ten million years ago these would have been very similar to the ones we now enjoy with a glass of champagne, but the remarkable thing is that the oyster is a sea water creature and the Mediterranean was 600 miles north of where we were. These were living in a time when the World was a different shape!We had, by now, used a tankful each of diesel and transferred four jerry cans to each tank, vowing to ease off the throttle a bit to ensure we didn’t have to resort to the 50 litres of reserve fuel we had for emergencies. Fortunately the going remained easy with the occasional small area of soft sand to wake us up and by late afternoon it was time to find a suitable place to camp.
Even in such a flat area there are still some spots better suited for camping than others. The wind can pick up in the night so some form of rock outcrop is desirable. We were on a plateau and could see different terrain a few miles to the west so headed that way into the setting sun. Ahmed led and as we approached the edge of the escarpment to find a route down to the valley below he pulled up sharply. We all stopped and joined him, standing at the edge of a small drop easily negotiable by any 4x4. The problem, as he pointed out, was we had stumbled across the Army Camp.About half a mile from us was a base capable of housing at least 200 soldiers. Next to the main building was a satellite dish 20 metres in diameter and, bizarrely, resting on the sand was the fuselage of a large passenger aircraft. But worse than that, as we peered through binoculars wondering how we had made such a cock up, a military truck started heading our way.