Hallucinations in the Sahara

The plant called felesles lured me by its radiance and fragrance, like an irresistible sorceress tricking a man into a trap. Its purple flowers were the brightest, its leaves the most vital, and its entire body among the most conspicuous of all bushes that thrive in the central Sahara – a place where rainfall is inexistent, dew is imperceptible, and the closest water lies 400 metres underground. Only the White Crowned Wheatear, a bird with black and white plumage, matches the felesles’ visibility, and now I rolled its soft hair-covered leaves between my fingers, and then raised my fingers to my mouth…  


“Stop!” cried Mohamed Suleiman, our driver. “That plant is dangerous. Shepherds have to be careful that their sheep don’t eat it. It doesn't affect the sheep, but if people drink the milk afterwards it would be like ingesting a cocktail of heroin, cocaine, and hashish. Under its effect you would tear off your clothes and run in the desert like a madman.”  


It seemed like a hilarious idea, but I didn’t need a hallucinant to fire my imagination at Jabel Acacus, a vast range of mountains in Libya’s southwest. The landscape is surreal enough: vast valleys cut through rotund brownish mountains, waves and humps of bright-orange sand dunes, pinnacles of black rocks, plateaus of pale sand and broken rocks, massive rocky arches and bulging ridges, and gnarled forms of spine-covered acacia trees. And then there is the rock art found in underhangs and caves – depictions of savannah animals, hunting scenes, rituals, battles, and hunters and herdsmen – a lost world that existed between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago when the Sahara Desert was green. Now the transformation is complete, the desolation is haunting, and the only thing that stirs is the faint hum of the wind. Jebel Acacus is a hallucination.   


And I had three days of the fantasy landscape, weaving through the mountains in a loop of 380km in two jeeps. I sat in the lead jeep with the Libyan staff – I had joined the tour as a guest of the Libyan and Tunisian tour operators who had brought the two German couples who followed us in the second jeep. This was better for me, as I can speak some Arabic, and Mohamed’s anecdotes and explanations about desert life and travel were comical and informative. “They think riding camels is fun,” Mohamed chuckled when we passed a group of tourists with blustered and grimaced faces leading their camels on foot. “Well, the first day is fun; the second day they can hardly withstand the soreness in their buttocks; and by the third day they are forced to walk and lead the camels.”  


I could imagine the tourists’ excruciations by my relative discomfort; it was hot and rattly, dust stung my eyes and choked my nostrils, and the dryness had cracked my lips. But I was content. I was in good company. Libya was better than I had imagined – and I can say that about very few destinations.  


Libya was better than I had imagined partly because, before I arrived, I was filled with apprehension. From the outside, the country has an aura of enigma, forbiddance, and unpredictability. But despite the heightened interest in the country’s archeology and desert landscapes, only half-million visitors make it every year, which is miniscule for a country half the size of India or three times the size of Thailand. The problem is that Libya remains shrouded in doubt and uncertainty: information is scarce, there is a lingering perception that it’s a dangerous place, and tourist infrastructure is undeveloped (there are only ATMs in main coastal towns, for example, and no one can change travellers cheques).  


The dearth of information led me to overpack, and I was paranoid about carrying cash for an entire month. At least I arrived in style, thanks to Emirates, whose continuous helpings of food made the flight seem short. I guzzled good French wine on the flight, a bout of indulgence before the abstinence – alcohol in Libya is illegal.  


Then I arrived in Tripoli and found a chaotic bustling city. The view from my high hotel room revealed haphazard outgrowths of flat-roofed buildings, in grey or white or green, interspersed by white gleaming minarets of mosques. The decay is more pronounced at street-level; the crumbly Italianate and Ottoman architecture made the architectural heritage seem preciously rare. I walked past busy restaurants, new shops cluttered with electronic wizardry and propitious clothes, men smoking sheeshas and sipping thick brews of green tea in outdoor cafes, and I dawdled in the Green Square, studying the people – couples courting, young men hanging out, groups of young women with picnics unfolded in front of them. The chaos and the bustle were benign; no touts ever pestered me; no taxi driver overcharged me; and people everywhere greeted me in genuine friendliness. My anxieties completely dispelled.   


But why hadn’t the number of tourists grown as fast as expected when the country emerged from the shadow of international ostracism, and opened itself to tourism and investment, a few years ago? I put these questions to Salvinu Farrell, manager of the Corinthia Bab Africa, Libya’s only true five-star hotel that became a landmark when it opened in 2003. “At present the tourism is based almost wholly on desert travel and archeology,” he said. “And that’s a niche market – can you imagine, for example, a family with children traveling in the harsh desert conditions? You can’t have mass tourism in the desert, where the season is also short. Increasing the numbers entails the development of coastal tourism; this will lure tourists who spend most of their time at the beaches, and then take a short tour of the desert and archeological sites. It’s the model that is successful in neighbouring countries.”  


“Another reason is the visa regime,” Farrell added. “With the present visa requirements, it's impossible for tourism to grow on a grander scale as we see in surrounding countries.” He’s talking about the mandatory requirement of taking a guide or travelling in a tour group. It’s something that makes the country artificially expensive – a discouragement to young travellers – and it reinforces the perception that Libya is a dangerous place.  


Yet the perception of danger is overblown; crime in Libya is lower than most Western countries. And I went to the tourism authority to find out more on the forbiddance of independent travellers. “The Sahara is a wild, uncontrolled place, and many problems might arise – people might get lost, there could be crime by non-Libyans, there are fierce sand-storms, vehicles might break down, and so on,” told me Ahmed Basher, an information officer. There are other aggravating issues: few Libyans speak English, all street signs are in Arabic, and the security agencies’ tenuous control in the desert (the ubiquity of checkpoints notwithstanding) makes them tetchy about foreigners wandering about without strict travel itineraries. (At checkpoints we had to supply our day by day travel itinerary in the desert.) “The government cannot control the Sahara,” Basher pointed out, “so a guide and a tourist police are needed for the tourists’ own safety and protection.”   


If anything, all this talk about the proverbial Wild West made me all the more eager to get to the desert, which I did some days later when we set off on our roadtrip. I was travelling in the lead car, with Mouldi, the Germans’ guide, and Hassan, the Libyan driver and facilitator. The Germans tailed us in their private campervans, and we were driving to Ghadamis, 600km southwest of Tripoli. We passed flat, rocky terrain, rising to stony mountains at Jebel Nafusa, the Berber heartland, and, although we were still at the desert’s fringes, I began to appreciate the scale and bleakness of the Sahara.   


Ghadamis, a Berber town about 600 years old, is known, in tourist hyperbole, as ‘The Jewel of the Desert’ – and it certainly rings true. The town was designed for three purposes: to peaceably accommodate seven tribes of Berbers (it’s divided in seven sections which meet in a central square), to keep the temperature down in the 50oC summer heat crush, and to carefully manage the non-renewable underground water. It’s successful on all three counts; its covered alleyways and densely-intermeshed houses keep the town cool, and water management followed a strict and ingenious allocation system. It was once a major stop in the caravan route across the Sahara, but now it’s partly abandoned. Its former 6,000 inhabitants now live in two storey houses in the new town, and then move back into the old town in the summers when the old town – unlike the air-conditioners in modern buildings – offers a reprieve from the heat.   


Exploring the old town, stumbling in the darkness of the covered alleyways, I felt giddy as though an intruder in a secret place. The walls are dense with artistic reliefs, and at the back of the town I found high-walled gardens of henna trees and date palms inhabited by a cacophony of bird-life – turtle doves, hoopoes, green finches, redstarts, and the ubiquitous white crowned wheaters. It’s a great spot, and I imagined a town primed for tourism – its romantic white gypsum houses converted into boutique hotels, restaurants, and cafes. But these are futuristic concepts in Libya and the single café in the entire town was empty. So I joined the Germans for a meal in a family home, squatting in the living room, enjoying the mint-infused beef soup followed by a delectable couscous. The living room had a surreal orgy of décor – reddish geometric friezes, palm-trunk doors, colourful checkerboard carpets and wall hangings – and I asked Hassan, a native of Ghadamis, if it was done up for the tourists.  


“It’s authentic traditional design,” he replied. “All the old houses are designed like this.”  


The colours outdoors were equally fantastic, perfectly fusing at sunset: the sky becoming a bleeding blue, the orange glow of the last sun seeping throughout the horizon and matching, in a slight tonal change, with the orange-brown of the earth. Yet I hankered to see the mountains of sand, and when we did eventually reach them, more than a 1,000km to the southeast, I went running among the sand dunes, quickly exhausting myself, and cursing the sand that got everywhere – in my shoes, in my bag, in my mouth, in my underwear. So I went back to the resort where we were staying, at the edge of the sand dunes in Wadi Al Hayat, and I waited until the next morning, when we spent a day roving in jeeps among the dunes of the Ubari Sand Sea. It’s one of Libya’s highlights, the jeeps squiggling in the endless sand, and then stopping at half a dozen lakes; the lakes form in the deepest valleys of sand that dip below the water table.  


By now we were in the heart of the desert, and Wadi Al Hayat (meaning ‘Valley of Life’), is the central Sahara’s greenest spot. The valley, some 200km long and 30km wide at its widest point, hemmed by black-purple mountains on the south and the sand sea on the north, is speckled with farms, villages, and groves of date palms. Now it’s home to 75,000 inhabitants, and it has been a fount of civilizations ever since rainfall ceased and the scattered hunter herdsmen migrated to the valley as the Sahara dried up. That’s when the Garamantes civilization arose; by 1,000BC the Garamantes had mastered agricultural production. They prospered and dominated an area larger than the UK for more than a thousand years, and the Roman never managed to dominate them.  


But only now, after many years of archeological excavations, is the extent, power, and sophistication of the Garamantes coming to light. The Garamantes’ irrigation system, known as the foggara, is something of an engineering feat: it consists of 600 tunnels (with a combined length of 1,000km) interspersed with 100,000 shafts of up to 40 metres deep (from which water was hoisted up), that channeled spring water outpouring from the base of the escarpments. Then they founded Garama, their capital, whose ruins are now an evocative tourist sight.  


Later, when I called upon the leader of the archeological research team, David Mattingly of the UK’s University of Leicester, he labeled the Garamantes as the ‘the first Libyan state’. “The archeological evidence we have now shows the Garamantes as skillful agriculturists, and practitioners of advanced technologies such as pottery-making, metallurgy, glass-making, salt-refining, and producers of semi-precious stones,” he told me. “Their society was complex, hierarchical and well-organised; they even had a written script.”  


After many years of digging at the old town of Garama, David’s team has this year started exploring tombs. “After one season,” David elaborated, “we have found preserved textiles, leather, fragments of quite elaborate sewn or plaited leatherwork and much else – what we are retrieving will be the largest collection of ancient textiles from the Sahara outside Egypt and Sudan. And these finds are going to transform our knowledge of what the Garamantes looked like.”   


So – another Saharan civilization suddenly bubbles to the surface. Libya has no shortage of great civilizations in its long history, and the most impressive ruins of all are those left by the Romans. After touring Wadi Al Hayat and Jebel Acacus, we drove back to the coast to see Leptis Magna, the largest Roman ruin outside Rome. In its heyday, Laptis Magna was a major Roman city of 100,000 inhabitants. For its construction, marble was shipped from Italy and stone was hauled from Egypt, and what’s left now easily evokes its former grandeur – particularly the massive gateway, the amphitheatre bristling with columns, the public square with its fine reliefs. It’s a major tourist draw, and for us the culmination of our 4,000-km-long roadtrip.   


Afterwards, back in Tripoli by myself, I felt confident and satisfied. I mingled with people in the lobby of my hotel; it was a bustling place, full of Tunisians who visit Tripoli for cheaper shopping, and the occasional tourists. At the lobby I met Ali, an energetic tour guide, who took me for dinner, and I met Fahalla, of Wahat Umm Algouzlan tours, who also took me for dinner. Fathalla talked about two pieces of rock art he had seen in the remote Tasili Mountains: “One shows a man from the side wearing what looks like a space mask on his head and it has an aerial on the top, and the other shows the backside of a person and, in front, a planet. There is an inscription near that says, 'Beware of fire and steel.'”  


It was as if he was talking about a different planet, a place that exists in fantasy. But Libya is a place of fantasy, and I was reminded of this again in my last day, spent in the company of a pensioner in the Medina. He liked chatting to passing tourists; he was courteous and appreciative of people visiting his country. At one point a European couple asked him where they could find an obscure musical instrument they were seeking. He said: “I know someone who normally sells it, but at present it’s out of stock. If you give me your address, I will buy it and send it to you.” He didn’t ask for money, only their address. The tourists smiled and declined; maybe they didn’t believe him, given his rare generosity, but he meant it, and he would have kept his word, as in Libya, over and over again, the impression I got is that we are treated less as passing visitors and more as special guests. This is the nature of the country; it’s a place that seems to exist in the imagination. Then you visit and you realize that, despite its many imperfections, the reality surpasses the imagination.


© Victor Paul Borg. This story won the annual travel writing competition of the US magazine Transitions Abroad.  


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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