Libya unveiled

By Vicki Virtue

Vicki Virtue takes tea in a home in Tripoli and stays in a million-star hotel in the desert.

Roman ruins at Leptis Magna along the northern Mediterranean coast are only an hour from Tripoli. Photo / Arkno Tours
Roman ruins at Leptis Magna along the northern Mediterranean coast are only an hour from Tripoli. Photo / Arkno Tours

Roman ruins at Leptis Magna along the northern Mediterranean coast are only an hour from Tripoli.

Passport control at Tripoli airport seemed a pretty stern affair, and I must confess to a certain amount of apprehension as I stood in line.

The chorus of, "But is it safe?" echoed in my ears as I noted that not only was I the only Westerner in the airport I also seemed to be the only woman.

Was Libya going to be safe?

Despite my assertions to the contrary at Auckland International Airport, I had absolutely no idea.

Finally it was my turn at the customs desk, the severe-looking officer took my passport, looked at me, and then grinning broadly said, "Ah New Zealand. You have lots of cows! Welcome to Libya." This friendly introduction was encouraging. Whether he meant cows or sheep was quite immaterial.

I had arranged my trip through a travel agency in Tripoli because it is the only way for a tourist to get a visa for Libya.

In theory they should have been waiting for me at the airport; in practice they weren't. Ah well, I reasoned, a bit of patience might be required in a country unused to tourists. My patience paid off, and eventually two guys from the travel company turned up seemingly unaware they were late.

Tripoli is like many other third-world cities, with rundown buildings, rubbish everywhere and crazy driving. There didn't appear to be any concessions to tourists; not a word in English anywhere. In fact one of the more noticeable things as we drove through the city was the total lack of any advertising: instead of endless billboards for Coca-Cola, Colonel Gaddafi stared down from every street corner.

My hotel was on a coastal road and I was delighted to discover that Tripoli had a very pleasant waterfront.

I was grateful to have my travel company representatives with me to help check in - no one spoke English. My room was basic but adequate although they hadn't bothered cleaning it after the last guest. I reminded myself I was in Libya because it was off the tourist map. If I wanted luxuries such as a clean room I should have gone to Switzerland.

It was time to explore Tripoli. I did a quick wardrobe check in the mirror. There are no legal requirements in Libya to cover up as a woman but common sense dictated I should be conservatively dressed. Having heard stories of torturous harassment in North Africa I was unsure what to expect in Tripoli as I headed into the city centre.

I was a blonde female travelling alone so if there was harassment to be had I was sure to encounter it.

Tripoli is a surprisingly attractive city. The old medina in its heart is a fascinating maze of small alleyways and rundown old stone buildings, as exotic as I imagined an Arabian medina ought to be. Everywhere men were sitting around, drinking tea, chatting and smoking.

Tripoli certainly didn't have a fast-paced vibe about it, and unlike the medinas of Egypt and Morocco, there wasn't a pushy tout or carpet salesman in sight.

The first local I encountered was Hussein, a retired sailor with excellent English. He lived in the old city and spotted me photographing the waterfront. His conversation opener was to assure me not all Libyans are terrorists, a view he was quite sure I held.

After a brief roadside chat he invited me to his home for tea.

My curiosity to see inside a Libyan home overrode my safety concerns (having travelled extensively in the developing world I knew that our western ideas of safety can often be cautiously discarded).

His home was on the ground floor. A large wooden front door led into an open central courtyard, and off each side was a room with wooden shutters opening inwards. We sat in one of the rooms on cushions and Arabic carpets, with BBC News playing in the background. The number of satellite dishes I had seen in Tripoli dismissed any thoughts I had about Libya still being isolated from the outside world.

After tea and fruit in his living room, Hussein insisted on showing me around the neighbourhood.

We visited the oldest mosque in Tripoli, which non-Muslims are not usually allowed to enter, but Hussein insisted the caretaker open up for me. The interior was exquisite; an artistic blend of richly coloured carpets, intricately carved wood, mosaic tiling and Arabian-style chandeliers.

We took tea with his friends in one of Tripoli's many "male-only" teahouses.

It was during our visit to the souk, or bazaar, I learned why Tripoli is so hassle free. It seems it is against the Libyan culture to ask you to buy something. I pray they hang on to this cultural anomaly as more tourists arrive.

Libyans are friendly and generous people: I left Hussein having been showered with gifts.

The Roman and Greek ruins along the northern Mediterranean coast were my next port of call. These ancient cities are always impressive and in Libya the Mediterranean backdrop and lack of visitors made them particularly stunning. Leptis Magna is only an hour from Tripoli. The other sites are a nine-hour drive east, a worthwhile trip as the coastal scenery en route is fascinating and quite dramatic in parts.

At last it was time to head to the Sahara. After a brief stop in the old Berber town of Ghadames I flew to Sehba, a large desert town in southern Libya, and from there in a well-stocked 4WD, we headed into the dunes.

The Sahara was more beautiful than I imagined. Just rolling sand as far as the eye could see.

In Jebel Acacus the towering rock formations created a spectacular backdrop to the golden sand. This was our camping spot for the night. As our cook prepared dinner, my guide took me for a walk.

I was clambering over the dunes, distracted by the beauty of the desert at night when my guide asked me where the car was. I didn't have a clue.

This was my first lesson in desert survival.

Dinner was an elaborate affair given the limited facilities. We started with orzo soup, followed by pasta with tomato and vegetable sauce and dessert was tea and fresh dates.

Food in Libya will never win culinary awards, but somehow ours seemed vastly improved in this magnificent environment.

This first night in the desert was unforgettable. The silence, the rock formations silhouetted against the night sky and the feeling of total isolation.

My guide could see I was in awe.

"This is not a five-star hotel," he said. "It is a million-star hotel." And he was right; there were millions of stars shining in the sky above us.

The next day we explored the rock formations. Hidden in many of the rocks are ancient paintings and carvings, some dating back 12,000 years. They are well preserved, presumably thanks to the dry surroundings.

Many of the paintings depict wildlife, proving what is now desert was once lush and fertile land.

Another unexpected sight in the desert is the Ubari Lakes. These small, palm-fringed lakes sit in the middle of the dunes. Diving into the cool, salty water was wonderful after a week of desert travel using an old Coke bottle as my shower. There are many springs throughout the desert, many of them providing fresh water.

One of Gaddafi's proudest achievements is the pipeline that takes fresh water from the desert up to the coast a couple of thousand kilometres away.

As I left the desert and returned to Sebha I felt sad to have finished such an amazing adventure. Spending time in the desert was exhilarating and at the same time so peaceful and relaxing; an experience I will never forget.

I joined my guide's family for dinner before heading back to Tripoli. Like many Arabic households, the extended family lives together in a large home. I sat with the women in the family room while the men chatted in their lounge.

Sadly the language barrier prevented any in-depth conversation, but the women took great delight in pampering me.

We sat on the floor and had a traditional Libyan meal of grilled chicken, rice and salad. We shared our meal from the same dishes on a tray. They were gesturing for me to eat first but I was a little unsure of protocol.

Fortunately the Libyans are such friendly people any gaffs I made I'm sure would have been viewed as amusing rather than offensive.

So while I ate with one hand they busily painted henna designs on the other.

I left the desert once again showered with gifts. I was constantly humbled by the kindness of Libyans. Not a day passed when I didn't experience generosity from a total stranger.

And so I ended a truly extraordinary trip to a country better known for its Lockerbie bombing connection and its eccentric leader than tourism. Things are changing, the Government is investing in a tourism infrastructure of sorts, but like most things in Libya, movement is slow.

If your idea of a good holiday is a five-star beach resort, great shopping and good food, Libya is probably not for you. But if you're keen to discover new cultures and landscapes and are willing to put up with a few inconveniences on the way, a holiday in Libya will more than reward your efforts.

CHECKLIST

Almost all foreigners require a visa and these are issued only if you are part of an organised tour.

Several companies offer tours to Libya. Vicki Virtue used Arkno Tours in Tripoli. They speak English, so don't worry if your Arabic isn't up to scratch.

Vicki Virtue paid her own way to Libya.

- NZ Herald

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