Libya 2008 Part 2

Libya 2008 Part 2 The final installment, reproduced by courtesy of 4x4 Magazine.

Volcano Hunters.

Following last months first half of this desert tale, Toby Savage and pals duck and weave their way through desert bureaucracy to reach the extinct volcano, Waw en Namus, then make an unexpected discovery on their return.

As the battered military spec. Toyota approached us, all six of us were visibly nervous. We were in an area of Libya we should not have been in, without the correct papers and the army garrison half a mile from us had an unknown quantity of personnel, bored stiff and desperate for any entertainment that might keep them amused. The Toyota pulled up and two young soldiers stepped out. Their uniforms had taken on the patina of desert use, a good shower would not have gone amiss, but they appeared unarmed. As the more senior of our two Libyans, Ahmed stepped forward and introduced himself, shaking hands with both soldiers. They then shook hands with all of us. Their manner was business like and as we Brits assumed we would be spending the next few months locked up in the a remote desert cell, we fell back on basic instinct of smiling a lot. Perhaps too much with the benefit of hindsight!In the desert, Libyans are always very interested in where other Libyans come from. Away from the coast it is still a tribal society and the one opportunity for all tribes to mix is when they do their National Service. Ahmed was chatting to one of the soldiers in a more animated way whilst we fumbled around with bits of paper, playing for time. Soon the pair of them were laughing and slapping each other on the back. Either Ahmed had sold us four down the line, or things were about to get better. It transpired they were distant cousins and both had family in the same village. All was well. We were invited to join them for tea, but Ahmed explained we were on a mission and could not spare the time, so with a flurry of handshakes we were wished a safe journey and sped off to find somewhere to camp. They never got to see the papers!

We found a dried up oasis that offered shelter from the wind and a good source of wood for a fire, as the nights get pretty chilly in the winter. Sitting around a crackling log fire under a canopy of stars is about as good as life can get and, as we ate chicken and macaroni, we discussed the plan for the next day. An early start should ensure we reached the volcano by lunch to give us time for a good look around. It would be a shame to travel so far and not get to spend a few hours at this remote and interesting desert feature.We were up and ready just as the sun slipped over the horizon transforming the pale grey landscape into a warm orange glow. With our various loads lashed down in the trucks we were away in good time and made our first stop on a bizarre hilltop covered in cairns. It looked as though every traveller who had passed this way in the last fifty years had built a cairn. Some spelt names, other had messages of good fortune, most were just simple piles of stones. There must have been a thousand spread out over an acre and they made an odd sight in such a barren waste land.

We had, at this stage, joined a track for the final 10 miles into Waw en Namus. The going was easy and up ahead we saw a ram shackled collection of buildings that formed a police checkpoint. To give it a wide detour would have been easy, but we guessed they would probably have seen the huge plumes of dust we had been kicking up so thought it safest to try the smiling and fumbling with papers routine again. We pulled up at a bent steel barrier across the track and from the dusty filth of the main shed emerged a motley selection of men. This had to be one of the most remote posting these guys could get and their first question, via Ahmed, was did we have any laxatives! Apparently one of them had not had a movement for over a week! We were able to help out from our supplies and also gave them a large tin of Belgian chocolate biscuits. They were most grateful and scarcely looked at our papers. (Note: probably best not to rely on this method of negotiation all the time!) Once through the checkpoint the track started to climb and ahead of us the ground changed colour. In the way desert darkens under a large black cloud, our destination was black. The cut off from sand to black volcanic debris was remarkably sharp - maybe 500 metres, by which time we were driving on chunks of ash blown out of the Earth’s core about a million years ago.

I had looked at Waw en Namus on Google Earth where the wind blown ash is clearly visible, but nothing could prepare any of us for the view as we cleared the top.We parked on the crest of the volcano’s outer basin, stepped out onto the ash and looked down into something resembling Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. In stark contrast to the barren landscape we had driven across for two days, here was a fertile oasis with mature palm trees and wild grasses. Insects, birds, rabbits and foxes populated this isolated kingdom, unable ever to escape, trapped in a micro colony to continue their own evolutionary process. The descent into the crater was too steep to drive, and wheel marks would spoil the effect, so we walked down taking full precautions against the most virulent resident - the mosquito. Namus is the local word for Mosquito.In the basin of the volcano the ground under foot was brick sized lumps resembling domestic coke, lying on top of a finer black ash eroded over the years to the size of sand. The wild grasses stood a good two metres high and were so dense around the edge of the oasis that access was impossible. We had a good walk round before the mosquitoes became unbearable then took the long climb back up to the vehicles to head off and find a camp for the night. It had been a true ‘champagne moment’ to walk around this jewel in the desert, so long a destination we had talked about, but that was beyond reach of our usual study area.

We camped in a low area about a mile from the volcano where the ash was on the edge of turning back to sand and made plans for our return journey back to Waw en Kebir avoiding the Army base. Various waypoints were put into GPS systems to hopefully return us safely the next day. It would be a long day involving about 200 miles of pure desert driving, but we knew the going would be easy, so didn’t foresee any great’s only when you look out of the side window at the gravel surface whizzing by below, that you are truly sure of progress!Heading back the following day we made good progress being able to maintain about 50 mph on a flat and featureless gravel surface. It’s an odd sensation when your eyes have nothing to focus on. No distant hills, or rock outcrops. The eye is the sense we use most to establish facts and when faced with nothing to focus on you start to question whether you are in fact moving. The speedo confirms a speed, but it’s only when you look out of the side window at the gravel surface whizzing by below, that you are truly sure of progress!By mid afternoon we were off the flat desert, at the southern edge of Waw en Kebir and stopped for a break, confident that we could make it back to our base camp before darkness fell. As the great valley spread before us, some 20 miles wide at this point, we headed for a natural break in the rock outcrops to escape the wind, brew up and have a bite to eat.

Wandering around to stretch his legs Kevin spotted a rusty old Shell petrol can, then another and another, then some bits of engine. I joined him and we unearthed quite a collection of bits including a broken headlight lens, some canvas webbing, a couple of bullets and the cans, date stamped between 1939 and 1941. Knowing that the Land Range Desert Group would have passed this way back in 1941 on their victorious raid on the Italian Airbase at Muzuk we think we may have discovered one of their temporary camps. Perhaps some mechanical problem caused them to perform repairs at this very spot. We shall never know for sure, but it certainly enlivened our lunch break!Sadly we did not have time to loiter and were soon back up to speed running into the setting sun in the lowest point of the Wadi. Just as the last rays of sun were lighting the tops of the rock outcrops we pulled into base camp to tell the rest of the group of our adventures and show them photographs on a lap top. It had been a rewarding trip; we had visited a remote extinct volcano, found a possible LRDG site and driven a four hundred mile round trip in the desert with perfect reliability and a sprinkling of danger and excitement, without ending up imprisoned in an Army Camp!

Toby Savage October 2009