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20.04.2011 - Mali – Home

Our time in Africa was short now; in a few months we would be back in Europe, back in the UK, back home. Read more..

A lot of nothingness

April 13th, 2010

So we had our overnight stop in Liege amongst the lorries and headed on down to Luxembourg and brimmed the tank, jerry cans and our pockets with cheap as chips diesel – it was so cheap we even treated the old girl to V-power.

We arrived in Morzine early evening, parked up in town and had a beer as we waited for out good friend and host Paul – the kind chap who made our wonderful website. We must admit, we’ve had worse waits as we sat back watching Arsenal Barcelona after a 10hour drive. That said, at 11Euros for two continental attempts at pints we couldn’t afford to stay there all night! We started the car to shoot up to Paul’s only to find that the headlights didn’t work. Great. So using the spotlights we drove through town hoping we wouldn’t blind a copper en route to Riders Retreat HQ.

A thousand miles down and we decided it was time to give the car a little TLC so our plans to climb a mountain or have a half day skiing we put on hold until we had done a few bits. Firstly the tent was aired after having been packed away wet a few days prior. Engine levels were checked and topped up as necessary and then the focus was firmly on the headlights. 5hours later and we knew that the battery was fine, fuses all fine, earths all fine, bulbs fine, wiring fine and relay below the fusebox fine. We were baffled to say the least until further tracing of the wiring took us to another relay, a bright pink one. This bad-boy had 7spade connectors and looked badly corroded. When bypassed, woopee, the lights worked immediately.

After a lot of expensive phonecalls and trying various garages we realised we wouldn’t be able to source a new one so decided to bodge the wiring and try to get one sent out later. Unfortunately by this point it was too late to do anything active, so we sat back and watched the snow come down whilst also meeting others friends in Morzine.

The next morning we filled up the water container and jerry cans with fresh (and free!) mountain water and headed for Italy. Through the Mt Blanc tunnel and back on the motorway we made great time, save for one nerve wracking stop to try and identify a loud whirring, bearing type noise which had appeared as the car became very hot on the way up a steep hill to the tunnel. After a few minutes stop the noise seemed to disappear – we figured it might be overheating in the gearbox or transfer box so decided to check levels the next day.

We arrived late in the beautiful traditional city of Genoa to be met by…. prostitutes – and lots of them. Tom counted 45 until Carl insisted he focus on driving. Whilst trying to find our way out of the city to find a quiet area to sleep we saw a huge Unimog, followed by an overland equipped Landcruiser roar past only to pull up in the middle of the road by what we thought was the down-ramp to an underground carpark. We introduced ourselves and it turned out that this was actually the ferry port entrance (which we had found entirely by mistake!) and pretty much the only safe place in town to sleep.

So we tucked the car up close in front of the unimog and went for a wander to check out the area. Now there’s not many ways you can explain a late night walk around a prostitute filled town but please believe us we simply wanted to see a bit more of where we were – for this was the first truly unknown place of the trip. Arriving back at 1am we debated whether we really wanted to stay here as we felt the area was a complete hole and weren’t happy with putting the tent up.

Eventually, when more truckers and overlanders arrived in the vicinity we decided to stay and got into bed at 2.30am. Broken sleep followed with the constant clatter of starting and stopping diesel engines and the obligatory horn beeping, as anywhere in Italy. At 6am the noise escalated to the ridiculous and we poked out heads out of the tent to find we were the only ones still parked in the middle of the street – and there was now a lot of moving traffic. Where previously there had been the best part of 100 vehicles, now only we remained. A speedy packup followed and we headed into the now open ferry gate (this is where everyone had gone) to find somewhere to continue our sleep.

On the day of the sailing we had time to kill so cooked up a feast of food for breakfast, as well as some to be taken onto the boat to keep us topped up for the next 22 hours. We searched around for internet cafes in Genoa without luck and then dodged the torrential rain on our way back to the car.

Aboard the ferry we instantly scouted the apparently only usable electric socket and got the laptop going, watching back to back films for the next 10hours.

Many hours of broken sleep later and we were ushered off the ferry and into the bright sunshine. The first inches on African soil. A slightly surreal experience, disturbed abruptly by pushy customs guards who held us up for the majority of the next hour.

A few return trips to the same small officer with the VO5 and passports, and we were done! From the port the route into Tunis was easy and we drove round everywhere looking for a recommended Overland-friendly Hotel, only to find it now closed! With every cloud though, there is a silver lining and we found ourselves in a free beach-side car park, with surf which washed gently up the beach.

With an appointment at the Libyan border for 12noon Tuesday 6th , the Monday was a day to blast straight through Tunisia so that we could find somewhere to camp near the border. However somewhere in our careful planning we had managed to overlook the size of Tunisia. Brief glimpses of the map had shown it to be a pretty small country so we naively assumed that an afternoon blast to the border would suffice. How wrong we were. After a long morning sending off our latest Land Rover Monthly article we hit the road and as darkness fell found ourselves still 200km short of the border.

It has been drilled into us by all overlanders we have met over the last year that driving in the dark in Africa is a huge no-no and already we could see why. Even in day light the Tunisians were scaring the life out of us with wild overtaking manoeuvres and general wafting across the lanes. So despite the tight deadline we picked a good spot to camp whilst still light and made camp within 30minutes.

After organising paperwork and hiding things that shouldn’t be seen at borders we had an early night and awoke early to make up the distance. However by 9am whilst pulling away we found ourselves with problems as our Libyan tour operator rang us telling us the price had doubled and that we must have photocopies of the visas before arriving at the border. Additionally the diff lock indicator light on the car appeared to be jammed on and driving with it in this state would badly scrub the tyres but also very possibly result in breaking something in the transmission. With deadlines to meet and the phone out of battery it all got horribly stressful, at which point Carl shot off to have his first ‘toilet in the bush’ experience and promptly returned with 3 huge bites on his backside. Luckily Tom was there to rub in the anti-histamine.

With the last juice in the battery we then argued with the Libyans and then stripped the floor out of the cab to give access to the top of the transfer box. It quickly became apparent that the problem wasn’t a result of simply a faulty electrical switch as we had hoped but was in fact a broken lever from the main knob in the cab. We satisfied ourselves that it wasn’t in diff lock and then got on the road, aware that until we got a fix we would have to tread carefully each time we had to leave the road, as it is the diff lock option which helps make the Land Rover so capable off-road.

After circling the Tunisian town of Gabes looking for a photocopier we eventually found ourselves at the border mid-afternoon. A 4 hour wait then followed until we were through and into Libya. Libya is unique in that here we must have a guide with us at all times. So as we couldn’t afford to cover the costs of a guide hiring his own 4×4, we were three up in the car in the country in which the hottest temperature on the planet has previously been recorded. Nice.

Abdul Hady Abdul Gader Taher Gabriel aka ‘Eddie’ was our companion for the week and instantly broke the news that we had 1800km to cover in 4days. So without further ado we made off for Tripoli, where Eddie had identified a youth hostel for us to stay in. We arrived in darkness after being stopped by apparently every Police checkpoint going. All were dealt with reasonably swiftly however thanks to Eddie and the photocopies of the permits he had already prepared.

It turned out the hostel was full, and with no secure parking available we felt this was a good thing as it prevented an argument because we weren’t prepared to stay inside and leave the car round the corner in the middle of downtown Tripoli as Eddie expected. However this meant we had to venture back through central Tripoli in darkness to find somewhere to camp.

Eddie got on the phone and just as we were eyeing up potential campsites announced that he had a friend 20km away who welcomed us to come and stay. So off we trotted, a little sceptical of the motives and very on edge as we dodged cars with one light and no lights! After an hour of driving (Eddie’s distances aren’t the best) and a lot of large potholes we arrived at our destination. This lovely house within 50m of the beach typified the limited amount of Libyan house-building that we have seen through the windscreen. Amazing ideas, lovely layout, but no job is finished. Wiring hangs bare and loose, toilet and shower are there, but don’t work and odd bricks and tiles are missing from where someone clearly decided ‘I’ll finish that bit in the morning’. That aside, between us we questioned why this kind man would want to offer his home to two smelly travellers. A sense of pride of his country and a willingness to help was our conclusion, either way we were very much taken aback.

After a long sleep in a very Arabic room typically filled with stagnant smoke we jumped back into the car to see Leptis Magna, a world heritage site, with arguably the finest Roman ruins on the planet. The place was simply stunning, huge amphitheatres and roman market places still 30feet high within spitting distance of the vivid green Med.

A quick spin round the Museum gave us a flavour of what the city was like in it’s prime but the amount still standing was still remarkable. Naturally many parts have been restored, but restoration for no apparent reason was halted 20years ago. After an eye opening couple of hours we ambled out of the exit with one overwhelming feeling; frustration. Why on earth had the restoration stopped? Well, due to Gadaffi and a change of priorities really. Lines of rocks stand clearly ready to be re-assembled but it is as if someone suddenly turned up one day at work and said enough is enough. Viva la Revolution, eh?

A lovely place to see, but my gosh what a waste we felt it was that it wasn’t as good as it should be – oh what it could be. Do have a peek at our photos of it and do a search on the internet, it is worth it.

After Leptis it was back onto the road as we had a tough schedule to keep during our time in Libya. Determined not to drive at night again, we found a few trees off to the road in the fading evening light, hidden from the desert road, and made camp nice and early and relax. We spent the evening cooking, sorting a few small jobs on the car and our kit and talking to Eddie about Libya – this country whose international press revolves simply around one man – The Colonel.

Whilst our time at Leptis Magna had been great, it had slightly put paid to our schedule so it was up at 7 and on the road by 8am the next day to make up the lost miles. It was a long long hot day driving through the desert along apparently never ending roads. 11 hours later and we had covered 430 miles.

However that night wasn’t the usual peaceful camp erection. By the time we stopped, we found ourselves in the middle of a raging sandstorm. It was dark and we were tired and hungry. We couldn’t make more miles because it was dark and we were running low on diesel.

So we set about putting up the tent and getting the cooker out in winds which nearly blew us over and it was having a dammed good go at ripping apart every single fixing on our tent. After 2 long hours battling the storm we had everything up, pegged down and had the food on the go. All evening the wind howled outside and we quickly realised that despite being as best sealed in as we could be, sand was everywhere and on everything including our food. Despite this, Eddie cooked up a feast of Camel stew with sandy spaghetti .

We didn’t even contemplate trying to put up the other tent for Eddie to sleep in so instead the three of us top-n-tailed in the rooftent and after a long night battling the elements, we retired to bed, in the vain hope of snatching some sleep in the midst of the deafening storm.

Without wanting to appear over dramatic, the sight we awoke to was not far short of devastation downstairs. Ok nothing was really broken, but sand was everywhere. In the mugs, plates, bowls, bags, cooker, throughout the back of the car and even covering the drivers seat and floor! Considering all doors had been locked that probably says all that needs to be said about the door seals on Land Rovers…

In general our Libyan experience has been a slightly surreal affair, as we have been behind the wheel pretty much non-stop for the last week and we have had little interactions with everyday people further hindered by language barriers). However on the night of the storm as we stopped in a town en-route, a chap recognised Eddie. The chap in question was originally from Tobruk and took us to the best butcher for our camel, then refused to let us pay for it and finally guided us to a ‘campsite ‘. In reality it was just deep into the desert but he assured us it was very safe. Later whilst cooking Eddie realised there was no salt, and after making a quick phonecall, within minutes the man had arrived, with a bag of salt and lemonade for us. Then first thing in the morning there he was again, bringing warm bread for us. Simply amazing generosity and courtesy where quite clearly nothing was wanted in return.

Friday 9th was desert road day, as we took the shortcut to Tobruk, leaving the coastline for the first time since being in Libya. This road was unbelievably monotonous, dead straight all the way just or take 2 smooth bends for 350miles. Like something from another planet. Gun-barrel straight, says the book. If they made gun barrels this long, we’d be able to shoot at God, says I.

Arriving in Tobruk it appeared an interesting looking place, much more varied than the countless desert towns we have been through. Strange to drive through the streets thinking that just over 60years ago Carl’s great uncle was fighting in the SAS in this far far away town with the Allies.

We were shown to a quiet beach cove by Eddie and as he shot off to see his family (this is his home-town) we took a football down onto the beach and just like in so many countries quickly had friends wanting to join in. A good few times we stopped and realised that after months of slog back at home here we were in Libya of all places, playing football with locals on a beach with the lovely green sea waves crashing down just feet away. This was probably the first time we have had to sit back on our own and take stock since arriving in Libya. Both of us were slightly fed up with the 100mph pace we had had to keep and a little homesick but overall undoubtedly enjoying the experience.

Libya has been a very friendly place where we haven’t felt in danger once, everyone has appeared good natured however police checkpoints everywhere do give a somewhat authoritarian feel to the whole experience.

Later that evening we enjoyed a social meal with some of Eddies friends, drinking homemade (and illegal) vodka whilst sitting around on Arabic cushions in the front room of a building beside the beach cove. At 1am food was served so we downed our chicken pasta with Lamb testicles and shot off to bed. It was great to unwind and we looked at ourselves slightly nervously as we realised how much we were enjoying having a drink after no alcohol for nearly a week – we can’t be alcoholics can we?!

Saturday we meandered around town, met Eddie’s family and shot off to the Eygptian border.

Eddie smoothed the way for us through the Libyan border controls and we then said goodbyes as we approached the Egyptians. Through the first checkpoint and through the car searching section in double quick time, we thought we had it all cracked and would be out in no time.

Then at the next checkpoint they refused to accept that the standard Land Rover Vin-plate was legit and so, using a hammer and punch proceeded to stamp our chassis number onto the inside of the doorframe. Not many ways you can argue with a man who has the power to refuse you entry to his country so we nodded and let him get on with it.

Then followed questioning about ‘the stamp’. What followed was beyond a joke as for the next 5 hours we went back and forth to different offices, securing seemingly random pieces of paper and paying money to allsorts of people. A situation so ridiculous we had pretty much lost the will to live by the time we were completely finished. The whole process and our sanity was helped no end by top dog Mr Hassan in Customs, who entertained us with his phone videos of crazy cats and eventually understood that we weren’t sure how long we would be in Egypt after Carl had completed a 5minute performance of a car driving along fine = 30days (chug chug chug) and a car going chug chug bang = 60days. So although he will never read this, our thanks go to him.

It had taken so long that we decided we would just find a quiet corner of the border control and stay there the night (it was 11pm by this point). So this we did, being interrupted occasionally by the odd inquisitive AK-wielding border soldier.

Up bright and early the intention was to make some miles and then make camp somewhere by midday so that we could give the car the service that it was now due. However the Egyptian police had other ideas and, after paying a couple more ‘taxes’, we left the border post with an obligatory police escort.

Once we figured out what was going on, (and that we should not have handed over passports anywhere nearly as easily as we did even though we were in a restricted zone) we followed on.

The police would keep our passports or else we would not be allowed to continue. Reluctantly we travelled with them in convoy for 300 miles, frustrated at feeling out of control and aware that the car needed some TLC. After being passed onto the 3rd police car (they were effectively doing shuttles along the coast) we managed to get our passports back and within 10 seconds of doing so we off down the road as fast as our old 300tdi would carry us.

We spent the entire afternoon looking for somewhere to camp but for the life of us could find nowhere, everywhere near the beach was restricted with patrols kicking everyone out at 6 pm and everywhere in the other direction was littered with dwellings and excitable groups of kids who seemed intent on jumping on the car as soon as we were within 50metres of them.

After being refused car-park camping at an expensive hotel (they insisted we should head straight for El Alamein police station) we carried on as the area was not particularly safe and it was now dark. Expecting more paperwork, passport confiscation and agitated policing, we approached El Alamein in a pensive mood and feeling like everything was a bit OTT.

We arrived at the Cop Shop and were instantly welcomed by “the Colonel” to camp in the car park. A standing armed guard outside and the friendly attentions of 10 or so Egyptian cops, mostly armed with assault rifles, made for as secure a nights sleep as we’ve had. Finally some richly deserved good luck. Offers of all the stations limited facilities were made and we were instructed to ask for anything we needed. Simply amazing, and we couldn’t imagine a situation like it in the uk. Well, apart from Sun Hill…

Monday we toured the El Alamein military museum and left feeling a little frustrated because whilst there is clearly a lot of material on display, we felt it wasn’t quite as well displayed as it could have been. Then, after a quick goodbye to the Colonel, headed for Cairo, skipping Alexandria as we knew of a good place to stay just south of Giza.

After the stresses of Libya and failing to find camping so far in Egypt, we longed for a proper set-up campsite. And, after a tortuous 30 minutes dodging traffic through possibly the most populace capitol in Africa, we found it. A big slap on the back for both of us was in order, as were a couple of cold beers.

So here we are, on the outskirts of Cairo, with the pyramids visible over the rooftops, setting up home in an exquisitely deserted and tranquil camp called Motel Salma, getting ready for a few days of shopping, embassies, ferry booking and car maintenance. The sun is shining, we’ve got a few days to fix some jobs on the car and in the meantime relax properly as we’re now running our own timetable for the first time since we left home. Now, if only we can find someone to bring us a G&T…

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