Libya – Road Blocks, Bullet Riddled Cars and Explosions

January 25, 2013 / Libya / 0 Comments /

Sam had been shot.  I saw it happen.  I heard the gun go off.  I watched him swerve.  My heart leapt into my mouth and my unusually calm collected mind crumbled.  In a moment of weakness my bike lurched and swerved in to the direction of a parked car…

It is early January 2013 and as of the day before the Home Office were frantically pulling all British Nationals out of Benghazi, Libya due to imminent threat of hostage takings, murders and violence towards Westerners from the militia and Al-qaeda.  With the ongoing hostage situation in bordering Algeria, the war torn country Libya is in a state of absolute unrest and thus deemed high risk to terrorist activity… and there we were riding through the hub of it on our loud, brash, Western motorbikes.

We had crossed the border earlier that morning and on the instruction of many locals, friends and border guards we were hammering it through without stopping to our friend in Tripoli where we had been reassured we would be safe.  Sam had been holding up great, although the nerves in his voice and eagerness to ride at speed to get through fast was evident.  The road conditions were pretty diabolical and the car driving utterly insane.  With truck sized pot holes and plenty of traffic we were playing a constant game of chicken and dodgems.  Normally, given any other ordinary and uneventful day, I would be nervous riding at such a pace but for one reason or another I was void of such emotions and just focused on concentrating.  I think this was perhaps due my history with the Police.  It would seem in life threatening, high intense or dangerous situations I am able remain uncannily calm and level headed, sometimes in almost a scarily desensitised and detached way.  My energy and concentration channels into resolving the situation as quickly and safely as possible whilst remaining vigilant and in control despite any form of frenzy going on around me.

For example, earlier that day we suddenly found ourselves wedged inbetween cars in a huge chunk of traffic.  As we edged our way around the corner into view came a blockade of people… non military… all shouting rather angrily wielding AK47’s.  Some of them were just kids and to be fair angry kids with guns wasn’t an ideal Friday afternoon ride we wanted to be in, especially with the current political situation.  Although the adreniline was pumping I cannot recall feeling scared.  All I was doing was searching for an escape route as far away from the blockade as possible for us both to safely scoot round without being noticed… not easy when you’re on two KTM 690 Enduro R 2012’s with their baffles removed!  Nevertheless we managed to barge past various cars and although it was indicated for me to stop by a frowning gun waving bearded man, I kept rolling pretending I had not seen, keeping a truck in between as a form of cover and excuse.  Round the corner we bore witness to a freshly shot up car with very disgruntled looking occupants.  Again, no fear, no concern, just focus.  It’s odd… I don’t know what my mind does but it just works like that

However.  My Sam being shot at… that changed everything.  All emotions possible came flooding in at once and I all but flat lined on that back street.  It took me nearly a moment too long to reset my brain and recover all senses and in the nick of time I managed to wrench my bike back on the road and away from crumbing into the back of a car.  Sam had continued riding… I realised I was shouting in my helmet asking him to confirm he was okay and with nothing but swearing as I response I suddenly caught in my peripheral vision a laughing child with a fistful of fire crackers.  It then dawned on me what had happened.

The little *******!!

My heart pounded back into a steady motion and I explained to the now-needing-new-pants-Sam he had not been shot at and that it was in fact a small little shit lobbing a fire cracker.  We just had to be rocking through Libya the day after Mohammed, the Prophets birthday, a major celebration in Libya so fire works and crackers were in abundance!

A little bit of hysterical laughter later we continued on with the rest of the journey which was pretty uneventful in comparison.  As the towns built up heading into Tripoli the driving became more mental and required space hopper sized testicles to ride through it.  Some roads provided much amusement, particular one butchers street.  For the entire length of the road the tiny crammed pavement shops displayed freshly decapitated and dripping goats, cows and camel heads.  It was like a Predators trophy road, with many of the animals with their spinal cords still intact and blood running black into the drains.  Half way down the road rocking gently in time to the drumming traffic there was a camels head in the middle, tongue lulled out, eyes open in shock (not surprising really!)  Quite a sight to see!

We finally make it into Tripoli where we both sigh a relief after a long long day.  Tripoli is a stark contrast to what we were expecting on the sea front with its tall impressive buildings, shops and streets which aren’t too dissimilar to what you would find in London.  It’s all very modern and awash with a general feeling of liveliness and normality.  Whilst waiting for our family friend to come find us we were generously given a display of dough-nutting and wheelies by a fellow motorcyclist who stopped all traffic to give us the pleasure!

Mohammed turns up and after smiles and hugs we are guided back to his restaurant – Al Athar – a stunning and most beautiful set up opposite Marcus Aurelius Archway in central Tripoli.  Despite being absolutely filthily and smelly we are welcomed into the restaurant by all and then are proceeded to be refreshed with a gorgeous mint and lemon cocktail.  Food wise we are treated to meat soup, dips, mixed salad and a traditional Libyan Clay Pot camel meat meal with cous cous.   For afters we cannot refuse a caramel creme desert too!  An absolutely king size and quality meal we cannot recommend enough to all who visit Tripoli!  It is a must do!!

Libya-Tripoli-MarcusAureilusArch

During our meal we find ourselves smiling at each other.  What a bizarre day and quite a surreal moment!  Here we are, eating the most divine meal ever, in a simply breath taking setting over looking a roman ruin with the rolling mediterraen sea in the distance at complete peace… we felt a million miles away from a worn torn country.

After we are taken to Al Khan, a hotel in the Old City.  When we enter we are greeted by open aired court yards with a dipping pool and a very relaxed and absolutely stunning arabic environment.  Completed with archways and tastefully decorated with stunning arabic relics, we are guided to our room which is just a complete sight of luxury.

Libya-Tirpoli-AlKhanHotel

Shattered and simple stuffed, we pass on our thanks and shortly after a hot shower collapse in a state of bliss.  This Libya crossing was turning out to be pretty amazing :)

 

 

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Libyan Border and Cous Cous Kindness!

January 25, 2013 / Libya / 0 Comments /

It was around 4:30am and despite the air being cold and dewy the atmosphere felt heavy.  The cats had returned to their dens by that time and only a quiet infrequent rustling was tweaking my ears causing me the odd eyelid flicker.  I had just managed to drift away from an uncomfortable thought and begun to fall in to a much needed but restless doze when suddenly there was a cardiac arrest provoking wail which exploded into our tent:

“ALLLLLAAAaaAaAAAHhhHHH…. ALLLlllllAaaAAAAAaaaAAAAhhhAHhhh”

We both bolted upright, limbs flailing and completely flummoxed at this attack on our ears.  In our utter exhaustion the night prior we hadn’t quite realised where exactly we had set up camp…. it was smack bang in front of the prayer megaphone.  No wonder we had so many   local guys smirking at us when we were setting up camp.  With all brain activity temporarily disengaged due to the booming voice pumping at our ear drums, we grabbed our stove and like the true Brits that we are made ourselves a cuppa to help settle our frazzled nerves.   In silence cradling our tea we blearily looked out beyond our potato sacked eye bagged vision at each other in the breaking dawn light and couldn’t help but crank a smile at the situation.  It was almost ludicrous!  We were about to ride into the currently most news worthy war thronged country in the world which was at threat to imminent attacks on Westerners.  Were we mad?!  At that moment we had no idea, not with the wailing going on anyway.

By the time the calling had stopped we had finished our tea.  With caffeine pulsating in our blood, we found hidden energy and hastily shuffled our stuff together and abandoned the cat litter campsite behind us as the sun began to rise.

Silence….

Where normally the scenery and world around us would spark conversations and happy banter, we rode in silence which was only broken to confirm if the other was okay.  The approach to the border itself is a bit of a blur.  I think I was so tired, all my energy was focussed on riding safely and staying energised.  I do remember wondering why some fella was running at me with a wodge of money in one of the small villages… I had thought it was a very generous gesture in my sleepiness… it hadn’t occurred to me it was black market exchange money for Libya!

The border itself is in the middle of no where.  We had seen various cars and trucks coming the other way when approaching, some of which were flashing their lights at us for reasons we still don’t know but either way added to our already tetchy nerves.  We had spoken about the border before and agreed that Sam would do all the negotiations and so after crossing one set of passport checking officials, I dismounted and stood to the side, hair and face covered and awaited nervously as Sam sorted our Carnets.

A short time later Sam returned a bit pale faced saying how we have been told to open up and keep going to Tripoli, stopping for no one.  Apparently the border guard had suggested people who have stopped had not come out the other end of it too well (or at all).  Another border guard came over and spoke with us, Khalil.  He was full of smiles and welcomes, extremely lovely!  Born in Tunis he tells us of his family and desire to return to work as a Police Officer as opposed to being so far away as a Border Guard.  He also confirmed to keep on the move once past the border but tells us not to worry too much.  Khalil then took Sam to the border entrance to help him do some black market money dealing (in all our stress and hastiness we had forgotten that it was Friday – their day of rest – meaning no banks or ATM’s were open).  Absolutely mega chap, so kind and lovely!

Libyan Border…

Next was the Libyan Border.  We approached still nervous but were welcomed with smiles and intrigue.  After striking up a conversation with a couple of guards, Mohammed and Osma, they decided to stay with us through the rest of the process.  There was a fair bit of too-ing and fro-ing and due to prayers we had to hang fire for a while but all in all everything was going super smooth!  The guards offered us tea, a lush court yard to chill out in, chairs and generally cheery conversation… this was completely against everything we expected!  At one point, we were told we needed to pay for some number plates which we didn’t have the monies for.  Initially Mohammed invited us to stay with him over night (his Brother does motocross so he was all for bikers!) until the banks were open and we could pay for the plates but then they decided to save us the time and just give us the plates without payment!  Really not something to expect at all!

After the paperwork was completed we asked where the nearest petrol station was and within moments both Mohammed and Osma were getting us to follow them in their car.  A kilometer up the road we stop off at a HUGE complex (it’s unbelievable it was a petrol station… more like a palace) where Mohammed and Osma insisted on helping us fill up our bikes.  Slightly flabberghasted at the kindness of the guards and the fact we were only required to pay less than £1 to fill up nearly 60 litres worth of fuel, we go to ride off only to be waved down by Mohammed and Osma.  Thinking maybe we had paid the incorrect amount we stop and watch them both leap out of their car and go foraging in their back seats telling us to wait wait wait.  After a moment or two they both jump back and reveal two packs of food (hot cous cous, beef and peppers), a bag of oranges and fanta and ask us to eat with them!

Seriously, how cool?!!  Having realised we had not eaten for the whole day we sat in the sun and devoured the delicious yummy food within minutes, smiling and joking and slightly bewildered at the kindness and generosity of the local Libyan Guards.  This was the best border crossing EVER!

Photographs later, full to the brim and smiling we are then waved off cheerily on our way!

Libya-MohammedandOsama

Sam and I just cannot express how amazing they were, it was a delightful crossing!  Our nerves had been calmed and expectations taken by surprise… all we had to do now was get to Tripoli safely…. :)

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North Africa – Salt Pans, Sand Storms and Sleeplessness

January 24, 2013 / Tunisia / 0 Comments /

Today we waved goodbye to our friends and Tozeur and rocked onto the vast endorheic salt pans known locally as Chott el Djerid.  Famous for it’s acid-red waters, crusted salt mounds and also the filming of Star Wars where Luke Skywalker bolts across the arid landscape on his land speeder, it was something we were eager to see.  With the wind gusting in on our right, we rode sideways into a landscape like no other.  After half an hours ride the sheer vastness and arid views were phenomenal.  In every direction we turned the empty horizons engulfed us.  Had it not been for the singular road and the infrequent trucks carrying camels and carrots passing by it would have left us feeling quite isolated.

Having to fight and grapple against the winds we were relieved when we spotted an abandoned hut on the road  and took pleasure in stopping in its shelter for a snack of baguette and soft cheese with halva to finish.  We contemplated taking the bikes for a spin on the dried lake surface but after a mini trek on foot the surrounding land seemed to part collapsed and then sink rapidly under our weighty Sidi Crossfire boots!  The sensation was comparable to stomping down on a couple of foot of prawn crackers!  This caused me much amusement and jaunting along I spent ages having a huge crispy stomping session :D With our bikes fully loaded we realised the chances of them getting stuck would probably be quite high and considering we had another 350km to cover due to time pressures of our Libya visas it wouldn’t be the wisest of choices!

Tunisia-_Chott-El-Jerid

After miles more of clinging onto the road we finally left the salt pans behind us and entered into the small village of Qibili.  It is through these areas we began to understand how much of an impact they must of had on George Lucas and his depiction of set designs, characters and communities in Star Wars.  With curved stone buildings, constant bartering, stalls, the colossal deserts rolling out beyond with dusty mountains in the distance and even sign posts for a place named “Jeddi”, when you saw a bustling crowd of Berber jackets wondering towards you we kind of expected one of them to whip out a light saber!  Or at least for a distant silhouette of a line of Banthas being ridden over a dune along to an angry outcry from the sand people!  Disappointingly this did not happen!

For the next few hundred kilometers the villages we rode through were barren due to an  impending sand storm on the horizons.  We ended up hitting it straight on.  Despite being better prepared than our last encounter with these storms, it took it out of us after riding for a good few hours against gusts of winds.

Tunisia_chott El Jerid2

Eventually we entered into Gabes and after chasing through the streets after excited local kiddies they directed us to what we think was a sports ground where we set up camp for the night.  We had read up about this campsite a few nights before and were quite looking forward to its “haven of beauty” and a “night under palm trees and stars” but in reality it was a playground for hundreds of mangy cats and mud with a group of disconcerting men lingering around.  We thus retreated to the safety of our tent and sleeping bags and snuggled down.

Despite being completely exhausted from our exhilarating and yet muscular aching days ride Sam and I laid there quietly, eyes wide open, listening to the uncomfortably close activities of the cats fighting or mating, caterwauling in to the night and pondered the next days ride…. crossing the Libyan border.

We couldn’t sleep.  We had done everything we could possibly do to prepare for Libya and remain safe when entering the war-torn country.   Although we were in contact with a fellow travel who was currently comfortably making his way across it did little to calm our conscious.  The current hostage situation in Algeria would be less than 200km away from the border – that was less than what we had travelled earlier that day.  Having heard that militants a few days prior had taken a dislike for a local Tunisian killing him and his partner and taking his vehicle… we were feeling a lot of pressure.

It was about two hours later of staring into the dark, questioning each other whether we were doing the right thing and whether should we just get me up the duff so we had a good excuse to return home when Sam’s phone suddenly began to ring.  After fumbling around in the dark he answered it only to hear panic:  “Don’t go to Libya…. *static*… all *static static* bad… *static* hostage…. *static*…. Benghazi major outbreaks and *static*… News flash just *static* don’t *static* Libya… *static* people evacuated…”.

It was Sam’s family.  After a few more phonecalls and repositioning of ourselves to gain better reception we learned of how within the past hour all hell had broken loose in Benghazi.  British and Westerners had been evacuated due to the imminent threat of Al-Qaeda attacks and hostage situations.  It was all over the news.  Needless to say, Sam and I cacked ourselves.  After a few prolonged silences, some discussions and confusion, more awful reception phonecalls, we managed to contact Sam’s family friend in Tripoli who we asked for advice.  We were reassured by Mohammed that we would be absolutely fine up to Tripoli and to come but to drive straight from the border, do not pass go, do not collect £200… we would only get unwanted attention if we stopped.  From there on in he said he had devised a plan… to load our bikes onto a Libyan truck and travel us across to Egypt.  With this in mind we made the decision to continue to Tripoli.  If all was to go to pot we could always fly out to Egypt from there or turn back.

Minds spinning and feeling slightly frenzied we did all we could to return to the night and grab some zee’s in preparation for a break of dawn start… it was a looong looong night indeed!

 

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North Africa – Tozeur – Mos Espa Star Wars Set!

January 24, 2013 / Tunisia / 0 Comments /

Today we took a road trip out into the middle of nowhere to find hidden amidst dunes and camels this amazing, still standing, Mos Espa Star Wars Set:

Tunisia_Mos Espa2

AWEEESOooMoomomoemeeee BEYOND BELIEF!  It was seriously unbelievably wickedly STUPENDOUS!  Some dude came walking out of one building too (there’s a mini stall set up for tourists there) and he was all dressed in a berber making him look like a Jedi Knight…. it was so sweet I nearly cried!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Unfortunately though, we could not stay long as we were waved manically at and then pointed in the direction of North where we saw a most enormous sand storm heading our way… and pronto!  So smiling and jumping for joy we chased our way out of the desert with sand kicking at our heels!

Tunisia-MosEspa-Sam

Definite definite must see!!

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North Africa – Tunisia – Stars Wars and Sand People

January 23, 2013 / Tunisia / 0 Comments /

Today our aims were to travel to film sets for the wastelands and Luke Skywalkers home in Star Wars!  Unloaded, we were able to glide through the local villages with ease although this newly found freedom of no gear made for a completely different ride!  Pull off power = doubled meaning a few “wheeeee”s and unintentional skids to entertain passerbys! ;)

The ride to the wastelands saw us through a number of villages where we had our first odd reactions off locals.  Where we were getting used to all the waving and cheering it was now changing to the odd finger, fist shakes and also kids pretending to shoot us!  Niiiiice!  The road was being resurfaced (or dug up? We couldn’t figure) meaning another encounter of sand for me.  Being sleepy and still adjusting to the lightness of our unloaded bikes I was a bit narky at myself for being all over the shot on the sand and nearly catapulting myself off a few times.  My ansy-ness was all resolved though with a mahoosive chicken kebab bap with cold fries which is an in thing here (all for absolute pennies too)!

When we arrived at the wastelands it was quite literally what it says on the box… wastelands!  With our bikes being kitted out for off roading (big thank you KTM Basel for our awesome KTM 690 Enduro R 2012 Quest bike kits!) we managed to scoot around the rocky and sandy climbs to see more, something we feel would only be achievable on foot otherwise or perhaps in a well equipped landy!  Quite weirdly we were in the middle of no where and these kiddies appeared, initially asking for money, then sweets and then for Sam and I to kiss!  The little buggers even asked Sam if they could kiss me!  So funny and strange!  We pelted up a really steep hill in hope to get some photos of the bikes and scenery but once we reached the top we stopped and turned… only to see the kids next to us!??! How the bloody hell they managed to get up so quickly I have no idea!

Tunisia_Tozeur-Wastelands

Realising they were not planning on leaving our sides we decided to head towards Luke house and as carefully as possible made our way down the slope.  This scared the living daylights out of me because the kiddies wouldn’t leave my side and I was petrified of squashing the little muppets!  After they witnessed me hitting a patch of sand and going sideways (saying a few choice words) they hung back a bit though ;)

Back on the road we notice that the wind was picking up.  After a while we noticed that the palm trees were starting to lean sideways and upon taking a cursory glance behind us we double took a massive glow of orange heading our way… sandstorm time!  Being 20clicks off our campsite we opened up a bit in hope to escape through the now ghost town villages where locals had locked up and retreated for protection.  Nipping at our heels, we ended up being caught in the start of it and were sand blasted to bits, grains beating their way into all orifices, prickling away like hot oil spitting despite the neck scarfs and goggles.

Back on the campsite we took shelter in our tent and then without realising it awoke a few hours later… we had been sleepy!  As the night drew in we ventured again to our new found friends Julie, Jason and Charlie to spend an evening of chinwagging, consumption of ginormous berber pizzes and plotting routes!  Good times!

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