The road to the Sahara - from Sebha to Ubari
Tour operator, driver, stops and rabbits
An oasis on the edge of the Sahara, once a caravan stop, now a desert city with a hundred thousand souls. Sebha or also Sabha is still a hub of roads from all 4 sides of Libya. The city is the starting point for a trip to the desert.
I bought a plane ticket in Tripoli and hoped to be able to get an offorad vehicle with a driver for the desert in Sebha. I may have barely gotten on a plane, as such a chaotic commotion in front of an airline counter at an airport can only be compared to opening stores on Black Friday somewhere across the “Great Puddle” (Atlantic). Someone kindly hinted to me to get involved in the general frenzy, otherwise I would remain literally grounded. And if I manage to get a boarding pass, let me check to see if I really got my passport back. If case not, at least there shouldn’t be a black guy in the picture.
When I inquired from Libyan agencies from home, the prices were as salty as the air in Sečovlje (saltpans in Slovenia near Seča). I received 3 replies to 15 emails. One of the agencies offered me an experienced driver, a sand specialist, for $ 60, as well as an excellent guide, probably the best connoisseur of Libya with knowledge of sophisticated Oxford English for $ 100, and as so many people have to eat, a gastronomic excellence in the form of a chef for a modest $ 50. All daily rates, of course. Probably the driver himself would be sweating for all three roles in this movie, only the daily rate would be the sum of all these specialists.
Plans A, B, C
I will have to adjust the length of the trip to the cost. When I find out how much it will be. If I can find out. Youngsters at the reception of the hotel in Sebha did not know a single non-Arabic word. After breakfast I went out, but no agency anywhere, not even a person who knew English. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, and pantomimes don’t work for me. On the way back, I saw promising stickers and inscriptions on two doors in the hotel itself, behind which, judging by the dust in front of the entrance, the agencies were hiding in better times. The receptionist mentioned to me that they actually come to work in an hour or two. Hope awakened. And it wasn’t even a Friday, when everything is closed. It has already happened to me that I have forgotten several times on my trips what day it was. Okay, this will be plan B.
I went out again and thought, who will understand me if I go to every bloke who drives a Land Cruiser and ask him in English “Duder, do you have 7 days of free time?” Then I met youngsters from elsewhere who were in a side street offering masonry and plumbing services. If anyone needs a worker, they come here to look for him. The boys were happy, they say the work is good. It was getting hot, back to plan B.
I wanted to make the most of my 14 days in Libya. Lost day in Sebha it would have plunged me into a slight depression, but I was even prepared to return to Tripoli or continuing the journey towards Benghazi and Cyrenaica. That would be Plan C. Sebha would thus remain in my memory only a dead end. Irrelevant, destined to be forgotten and without this text you are just reading.
The doors of the tour agency in the hotel were open and my wishes unfolded well despite the unproductive morning. € 85 per day for car and driver, all in. What can I do, I agreed to the terms. The agent said that 8 days was enough for what I had in mind – Ubari, Wadi Meghedet and Akakus, maybe even Murzuq. Again, I went somewhere for half an hour to let the man make some calls. A tourist who wants to depart immediately does not show up at the door every day.
But a driver who can set off today speaks only Arabic, and English speaking one only tomorrow. Give me the Arab and we can go! Well, we didn’t go. He took my passport and said that he had to go to some immigration office for permission and that he might get all the papers in a couple of hours, sometime after lunch. I also afforded mayself a lunch at the hotel. It was great.
In the Mediterranean, Africa, the Sahara, time is running slower. Well, I understand that in such heat there is a will without speed and a brain without encouragement, but I nevertheless looked at my watch occasionally. So I came back to the office in the afternoon. »New Africa Company, Mr. Duško? ” I know why he asked that and held my passport with a conspiratorial smile, as if he didn’t want to give it back. “Yeah, New Africa Company, what’s the problem?” Of course it wasn’t, no one is going to tell you that officials suspect you came sniffing. Anyone who travels alone is a potential spy.
I had a business visa on which the New Africa Company was listed as the host. Only with a business visa you could enter Libya individually and move freely around the country. Unlike me as a business tourist, ordinary tourists had to go through their domestic and Libyan agencies, four in a car and according to a specific program. From a friend who arranged my visa, I got a mobile phone with a Libyan SIM card, with some credit on it and the number of Mr. Hazami, which I should just call if I have any problems.
It has to be something of a renowned one, this New Africa Company. I felt quite a bit important when the man returned my passport. And there’s some more good news – an English-speaking driver can set off today. He comes in a while. What is another hour compared to having a vehicle with an English-speaking driver, permits, a feasible plan. I went out again for a short walk, this time with relief and thinking about how I would still make it to the lakes in the desert today.
Driver and his companion
Later, I paid most of the cost in the office and met the driver Mohamed, who obviously liked to dress in camouflage or army green colors and wearing a “commando” hat. First impression was something of an obvious importance to him. He wished me welcome.
I sat in a 24 year old Toyota. Before leaving Sebha, he made necessary purchases of vegetables, pasta, meat, eggs, water, gasoline. We drove from one market to another. He said that camel meat is tougher when I insisted that he just take it, as we don’t have it at home. He also did not have a refrigerator in the car, he put the meat in a cardboard box. This way it just dried, but di not rot. They know what they are doing.
Mohamed took Ahmed with him, a teenager with patches of horny skin on his hands, which he hid by wearing knitted gloves. If it’s not contagious, I said, it doesn’t bother me either, just because being embarassed in front of me he doesn’t have to wear woolen gloves at 30+ degrees. His shyness subsided after a day or so. In Italy, where Libyans were allowed to travel quite freely at the time, doctors could help him, but his father, Mohammed’s relative, did not want to “waste” money on his surgery, saying it was okay.
When we visited probably all the markets in Sebha and loaded Ahmed at Mohamed’s house,
I really hoped for a two-hundred-kilometer drive into the sands would follow.
How wrong I was.
Stops and rabbits
The way to the desert was full of stops. First at the petrol station, then at the second one, because there was no petrol at the first one, and this and that, then bread, then a scraper, firewood … And somewhere along the main road, he had to stop at a friend’s who was supposed to give him a rabbit trap because he couldn’t find his own. To the lakes in the desert, a load of kilometers, and before that the dunes … Seeing I can’t help myself I was wondering, why trap for rabbits, since we go into the desert, sand. For me, until then, scorpions and snakes lived in the desert, everything else wandered there by mistake and for a short time. Where the hell he’s going to hunt rabbits, he probably needs a trap at home, maybe in a more urban environment, long-eared rascals gnaw his carrot with impunity.
Well, at least I experienced Berber hospitality. The women brought a pitcher of cold water and a glass on a neat metal tray. Such is tradition and rejection from the guest is an indecent and irresponsible act. I stared in disbelief at the glass when I was told that flickering in the water was just an abundance of minerals, healthier than sterile molecules in a half-empty plastic bottle in my hand.
After a short discussion, Mohammed said they were inviting us to lunch. Of course, it would be inappropriate to refuse, lunch had to be, there was no saying no. It had first to be, and served, then a digestion debate would follow. The day was dragging itself like a snake. And he didn’t get the trap yet because it was lent elsewhere. Bloody rabbits!
Destination: Ubari Lakes
With a full belly, it was quite fine sitting on the right. I got used to the creaking vehicle and cracked asphalt. I became satisfied as I managed to arrange the most important part of the trip on a single day. Muhammad’s rusty english was improving all the time. Ahmed was soaking up impressions from the trip and probably wondered what kind of people these tourists were. The question is if he would ever see all that we will see together. Laddie was calmly quiet and friendly, but also curious. Our communication was going through Mohammed’s translations.
We turned off the main road before dusk. We were just driving past a campsite when Mohammed’s uncle appeared driving a Toyota with a starfish on the hood of the vehicle. After courtesy chatting, we drove straight up the slope of the first dunes. Soon after, the trail straightened out and the drive through the valley between the dune ridges became enjoyable. The shadows were getting longer. He moved away from the main track and chose a place to spend the night.
Meals with Mohamed n Ahmed were “Berber style”, with crossed legs on the carpet, and not like “tourists” with chairs and tables. I probably wouldn’t have said then that they were weird if I knew I would sit in a chair behind a table in the middle of the desert many more times in my life. He lit a fire with branches that we gathered along the way during the day and tied them to the roof. “Now I’m going to set up a tent for you, and then we’ll have dinner and some tea.” I told him that his tourist spends the night like him – without a tent, overlooking the Milky Way, in a million-star hotel. He had comfortable pillows and warm blankets. Although the day was tiring, I still stared at the starry sky for a while. I had a feeling the stars had multiplied since I last had such a view.
It was fresh in the morning and the sand was so cold I couldn’t walk barefoot. I put on my socks and watched the layers of blue and pink light above the horizon gently spill into the bright blue of the morning sky. A crow-like bird watched out for breakfast leftovers.