November 2010: For years I was obsessed with visiting Libya, a country ruled by an eccentric dictator, Mad Dog Momar Qaddafi, a man that has been that has ruled an oil rich chunk of Sahara Desert in North Africa for decades and became an arch villain of Ronald Reagan. I wanted to see Libya under Qaddafi and I wanted to visit the spectacular desert landscapes of the Sahara in the south such as El Kaf Jinoun, a mountain believed by Tuareg to be haunted be evil genies and a series of oasis lakes nestled within rolling mountains of sand-Ubari Sand Dunes. These are just a few of the many amazing places I wanted to see. But Libya simply was off limits to Americans. I attempted to call prominent Libyans with connections to the government that I found from watching documentaries and I reached out to Libyan travel agencies, but all said the same thing-Americans cannot enter Libya. Then after years of trying there was a temporary thaw in foreign relations between Qaddafi and the US government and for the first time in Qaddafi’s regime, Americans were allowed to visit Libya as tourists. I wasted no time in purchasing a ticket and I was off for a weeklong trip to Libya.

 

 

About Libya and Qaddafi

Map of the route I took in Libya

Libya is an ex-Italian colony rich in oil with a small Arab population. It consists mostly of desert and some of the most spectacular desert scenery in all of North Africa. Libya is famous however not for its scenery but for the dictator that has ruled the country since rising to power in 1969 in an Islamic Socialist revolution. His revolutionary philosophies were enshrined in his Green Book, that was mandatory reading for all Libyan school children. Qaffadi overthrow the monarchy and nationalized the oil industry and became the de facto dictator of Libya. Qaddafi attempted to use the oil wealth to power his revolution and provide free housing, medical care and education to his people, but he also did so by enrichened himself off of the county’s oil wealth and became one of the richest men in the world. He was a strong man dictator who did not tolerate dissent and critics of his regime were quickly eliminated. Qaddafi had illusions of grandeur and imagined himself as a father of revolution that would spread throughout all of Africa and the middle east. His goal was to unite all of Africa under his authority and he believed to do so he would need to remove foreign imperialist countries like the USA from the region. This mindset led Qaddafi on a collision course with the USA. he supported almost every major yerrorism group in the world financially but the worst acto of terrorism believed to be supported by Gaddafi was the explosion of a passenger jet inbound to the USA as it was over Lockerbie, Scotland. The explosion killled hundreds of people inbound to the USA,ghter. Qaddafi backed down in his aggression and tension between Libya and the USA was reduced to a low simmer for the next few decades. Then in the 2000’s, Gaddafi reached out to the West to give up his weapons of mass destruction in exchange for foreign recognition. This led to Libya opening its doors to US visitors.

Over the years Gaddafi built a cult of personality around himself. He became a bigger than life personality and murals and billboards of him in Libya were everywhere. His depictions were of a flamboyant, military Islamic cleric. He wore colorful expensive robes and military uniforms, a turban and often giant aviator sunglasses. He was known for many strange and interesting qualities. One was of his famous brigade of tall, built Ethiopian female bodyguards that he traveled with, and another was his luxuries Beduin tent that he would stay in when traveling abroad.

 

Tripoli Airport mural of Gaddafi 

Gaddafi the General

Another Portrait of Gaddafi

Getting to Libya

Tourist visas were available on arrival. I did have to apply through a Libyan travel agency for the visa pre-approval letter and once that was received, I would be able to be issued a visa on arrival at the Tripoli airport. To get to Libya, I first flew to Rome, Italy and then on to Tripoli via Air Alitalia. I arrived in Rome in the middle of the night. Aside from a few oil men, I was one of the only foreigners on the plane. Going through immigration was like a dream. Giant murals of Gaddafi were all around me depicting him in extravagant uniforms looking upward with aviator sunglasses. The immigration officer pulled me aside and sifted through each page of my passport looking for any evidence i had been to Israel, which would result in my expulsion. My visa was issued, and I was off into Libya. The Libyan company that sponsored my visit arranged a driver for me and I we were off to my hotel in Tripoli on the long, lonely stretch of highway to the city at a terrifying 100mph. Before reaching my hotel, I stopped to have midnight tea with the owner of the agency and a few other random men and then I was free to catch a few hours of sleep before departing in the morning to Ghat in the far southwest corner of the country near the border of Algeria on a domestic flight.

 

Mountain of the Evil Genies in the Sahara

I arrived in Ghat after a few hours on the plane. Ghat is about as small as airport can be and my Tuareg guide and driver were waiting for me with their 4WD Hilux truck at the airport. For most of the remaining week, I would be with them, and we would travel over the southwestern half of the country exploring the Sahara Desert. Our first stop was El Kaf Jinoun. Kafjinoun is a Sahara Desert Mountain in the south of Libya that is believed by the Tuareg nomads to this day to be haunted by evil genies. I first discovered this mountain when I read about it in a National Geographic. In the article a female rock climber visited the mountain on a government approved expedition and climbed to the top despite all of the warnings from local Tuareg tribesmen regarding how cursed the mountain is. I also was repeatedly warned not to go there. When I first mentioned to the Libyan travel agency i wanted to visit the mountain, they informed me it wasn’t possible because it was too dangerous, and no one could go there. I informed them that not only did someone go there but I have a magazine with photos of a foreign woman standing on top. They refused to believe me and requested that I sent them this photo, which i did to their disbelief. The mountain is ominous looking rising a thousand feet out of the desert with giant boulders on the top that resemble ghoulish devil figures, which likely gave rise to the mountain’s reputation. Local Tuareg have believed that the mountain has been haunted by evil genies or small red men that make fires and play drums on top of the mountain at night for as long as they have wandered the deserts of the area. They believe that anyone who approaches the mountain will be intercepted by the evil that lives there and in the face of the evil will become mad and confused and perish in the desert, or worse they will be captured by the genies and their souls will be eternally imprisoned in the evil vortex that exists on top of the mountain. Tuareg beliefs of the mountain were reinforced by the fact that some of the earliest European explorers that visited the area were attacked by swarms of bees or had gone mad and become delirious and losing their way nearly dying in the desert.

I was only able to convince the Libya travel company to take me to the mountain when I said I would only look at it from a safe distance. I figured once there I would convince my guides otherwise and I did. Although, my guides two very manly Tuareg men who are very comfortable being on their own in the wildest parts of the Sahara Desert, refused to join me to the mountain. According to them they would lose their souls. Even though they were opposed to me climbing, they relented when I told them I would write a small note relinquishing the men of blame in the event I did not return and sign it. Since I had no paper, wrote the note on the back of the National Geographic magazine I brought with the article of the woman who climbed it. My note said something along the lines of, ” I Matthew Allison will climb El KafJinoun alone and if I do not return it is not the fault of my guides. Instead, it is because the evil genies have captured me.” My guides were happy they were off the hook. They stayed back with the vehicle a mile or so from the base of the mountain, while I set off on foot with lots of water and some food on my own.

 

To better blend it, and protect my head from dust and sun, I wore the traditional Turage head wrap. Plus it was also fun to wear. One of my guides poses with me in this photo. 

 

The hike to El kaff Jinoun was via gradually ascending terrain, and I always made sure to keep track of landmarks to find my way back to the vehicle. Since I was climbing it wasn’t hard to keep the vehicle in sight. Once I approached the steeper parts of the mountain and started climbing ridges and boulders, the terrain became more hostile and difficult to navigate. The sun was hot and unforgiving. But I was not seeing any evidence of little red men. But as I climbed further, the wind howled around me, and I was reminded of how desolate the mountain was in the middle of the empty Sahara. At one point in the climb and I will never know if it was my mind playing tricks on me or not, but I thought I heard my name being whispered in the wind, “Matthiew.” Also, in the corner of my eye I thought I saw a shadowy figure moving around before dissipating into thin air. It was all so quick and slight for me to make a definitive determination that these observations were real but nonetheless it was slightly startling. But the more real danger was of falling and injuring myself behind a rock or being bitten by a venemous snake. Hiking along was never recommended especially in a place like this. I knew from the national Geographic article that I would only be able to g=reach the devilish shaped rocks on top of te mountain with rock climbing gear, which i didn’t have but I was happy to go as far as I could before turning back. This is exactly what I did. I came to the side of a cliff halfway up the mountain and this was the end of the line for me. I was happy to return and when I did my guides were ecstatic to see me and commended me on my bravery.

 

 

El kaf Jinoun with the devil horn formations to the right

El kaff Jinoun with its devil Horn formations

That night we camped in the desert far from the mountain but still within sight of it. I watched the mountain in the distance. It was illuminated by the full moon and I looked and listened intently for any indications of bonfires or drumming coming from the top. My guides claim they have seen the red men on top from the distance. 

 

Camping in the Desert near El Kaf Jinoun

Akakus mountains and Ancient Pictographs of Much Wetter Times

 

During the next few days, we drove across roadless desert into the wild and beautiful  Akakus mountains. Akakus is a mountainous region in the Sahara Desert with thousands of prehistoric caves. The caves have ancient pictographs of people swimming in rivers and lakes and hunting hippos, crocodiles before the Sahara was a desert.

Akakus Mountains

Akakus mountains

Camping in the Akakus mountains

Some of my favorite travel experiences arise from the moments when I camped. Camping in the Akakus mountains at this location is a memory I will never forget. After having tea and dinner around the campfire, I decided to explore the valley where we camped on my own. The sand dunes and cliffs were illuminated from the full moon, and I felt like I was in a magical fairytale land. Caves within the mountains around me contained ancient pictographs from an era when the landscape and climate around me was completely different. I thought of a pictograph I saw earlier in the day of a handprint on a rock and how that person like me probably had a feeling of being immortal like all humans do when alive. I can’t imagine that that person had any idea that their handprint would remain after thousands of years even as time has radically altered everything else in the surrounding area. I’ll never forget the silence and beautify of this desert and in all of Libya. I was spoiled rotten to be the only foreigner and visitor everywhere I went in Libya.

We camped every night in the desert except for when I was in Tripoli. The weather was warm enough to sleep out in the open under the bright desert stars in a sleeping bag. In the morning I would awake to evidence of camp visitors. There would be footprints of small desert fox or jackals that would come into camp and scavenge for crumbs.

Jackel tracks in the sand

Me running down a sand dune

My Tuareg guides drove across desert in places where there are no roads only navigating by memory.  They did not use GPS or maps and at times I was a little worried what would happen if our vehicle broke down since so few cars passed in the desert.

 

Desert Driving

Incredible Rock Formations of the Akakus mountains -Afazijar (big Arch) 

Ancient Cave Pictographs Thousands of Years Old Showing Signs of a Much Wetter Sahara

Ancient Cave Pictographs Thousands of Years Old Showing Signs of a Much Wetter Sahara

Ancient Cave Pictographs Thousands of Years Old Showing Signs of a Much Wetter Sahara

Tuareg Nomads

The native people of the Libyan Sahara are the Tuareg, who live are nomadic by nature. Under Gaddafi many of the nomads of Libya were settled into free housing and discouraged from living nomadic lifestyles. My guides were Tuareg but no longer nomadic, although still keeping close ties to the desert. In the  Akakus Mountains and beyond we would occasionally pass camps of makeshift stick huts with beat-up old trucks. These belonged to nomadic Tuaregs who lived in the desert with their goats and camels. One camp we visited seemed abandoned but after a few minutes a few of the men appeared with their thickly wrapped turbans. The women of the camp stayed inside the huts. The Tuareg nomads were stoic but kind and greeted us. We shared tea together and one of the men asked me where I was from and when I explained to him that i was from the USA, he informed me that he had a brother in New York. After I took his photo, he asked if i could give his photo to his brother in New York. When I asked him for an address all he could give me was his brother’s name and New York City. Knowing that it would be impossible to find his brother in New York, I didn’t want to disappoint the man so i agreed anyways.

 

Tuereg Cheif

Tuareg Camp

Tuareg Man

The Great Murzuq Sand Sea

 

As we drove deeper into the desert and closer to the Niger border, we came across the edge of one of the largest sand seas in the world, the Murzuq. The Murzuq is one of the largest sand seas in the Sahara-rolling sand dunes for hundreds of miles. The sand dunes here are like mountains and we drove up on the edge of one and camped for the night.

 

Murzuq

Murzuq

Murzuq

The drive to Sebha, the first city I would see in days took us through some of the starkest featureless terrain. We drove for hours in this type of scenery. 

 

Drive through wastelands

Ubari Oasis Lakes

Before driving to the Ubari Lakes, Ubari is a group of oasis palm tree clad lakes surrounded by rolling sand dunes. we first needed to drive through Sebha. There were lots of military checkpoints in Sebha and one official scolded me because my legs were crossed, and my foot was pointed towards him. I wasn’t sure is he was offended at my foot or because I was a foreigner, but he became instantly irate, and I remained calm while my guide calmed him down.

From Sebha, we drove through rolling sand dunes following the tire tracks of vehicles that came before us. The drive was long and dizzying but the reward was one of the most amazing oasis lakes on the planet.

We camped in the sand next to one of the lakes and as always, I was alone at the lakes. The lakes were salty and warm and swimming in them was a little like swimming in the Dead Sea. Due to the high salinity, I was extra buoyant and floated at the surface. This was better because stepping in the gooey mud of the floor of the lake was pretty vile.

Ubari lakes

Ubari lakes

Ubari lakes

Ubari lakes

Ubari lakes

Leptis Magnum (Roman City Ruins)

 

After Ubari we drove back to Sebha, and I said goodbye to my guides and flew to Tripoli, where I spent my last two nights in Libya and where I based my trip to the Roman city of Leptis Magnum, one of the best-preserved Roman cities along the Mediterranean. I took a public bus from Tripoli to leptis magnum and spent all day walking the city on my ownand wandering the idyllic Mediterranean beaches.

 

Leptis Magnum

Leptis Magnum

Leptis Magnum

Leptis Magnum

Leptis Magnum

Leptis Magnum

 

Visiting Libya and being alone at most tourist attractions was one of the greatest travel experiences of my life and I will never forget it. Like with most countries that have had adverse relationships with the USA that I have visited, I was treated very well and with great hospitality by most people.

 

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