Not a picnic : entering Libya


March 24th 2002, 10.00 at night, stuck at the Libyan border


Life on the road is not a picnic every day
For those of you who think we have been on holiday for a year, think again. Two things are necessary to enter Libya : a visa and getting into the country. None of these proved to be easy but what follows is our story of perseverance (and a few tales to tell our children in a few years).


Obtaining a Libyan visa, part ONE
A few months before, whilst heading South into the Middle East, we had started to write to Libyan travel agencies and other travelers. From travelers reports on the internet, it seemed obtaining a Libyan visa was not the most straightforward thing in the world. Some mentioned travelling in Libya could only be done with a guide (at US$ 40 a day), many mentioned that applying for a visa should be done with a minimum of 4 people... A few travel agencies wrote to us with 10-days packages worth US$ 2500 including an accompanying car + guide + policeman ! However, having dealt with the Chinese bureaucracy, we thought this was not going to stop us and we would try everything under the moon. We had also visited a few Libyan embassies along the way to check out what the procedure was. To this day, we are unable to say what it is. Let's start with the easy part. What seems to be SURE is that you need an invitation in order to apply for a visa, that this invitation has to be issued by a recognised body, that you need your passport details translated into Arabic (but not by anyone) and that applying outside your country of residence is impossible (unless there is no Libyan embassy in your country). In Amman, we had our passports translated in Arabic by our embassy. 


Writing an email to Kathleen's brother in Troopie outside the Mövenpick Resort Hotel at the Dead Sea, Jordan


Since he had lost his job as a pilot with Sabena, Kathleen's brother Paul-Edouard (PE) had time to spare and we wrote to him to ask him if he could apply for us at the Libyan Embassy in Brussels. We would enter Egypt on our second passports and send our Belgian passports back to Belgium. In the meantime, Kathleen's brother PE had met Mr. Khaleb at the embassy in Brussels who had told him this would be OK. We wrote to the one travel agency in Libya that would issue an invitation without a thousand US$ package to go ahead and to fax it to the Libyan embassy in Brussels. When we arrived in Dahab on Egypt's Red Sea, we were fortunate to find a very kind Italian couple on holiday who accepted to take our passports (+ ID pictures) back to Brussels where they were living. We arranged for PE to pick up our passports and apply for us which he did. Whilst snorkeling in Dahab, we received an email that made our day : our passports with Libyan visas could be picked up on March 6th, a week or so later ! That sounded very good indeed ! Remember what your grandmother used to tell you, when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is !


Talking to fellow travelers
Whilst in Dahab, we spent some time talking to our fellow "overland" travelers. Remarkably, the 3 vehicles below had all entered Egypt from a different border. Tom and Lara in the Benz van (from Germany) had entered from Libya (West). They had obtained their Libyan visas at great cost through an agency in Germany. 


Fellow travelers in our cool-banana camp in Dahab.


Steffi in the Opel van (also from Germany) had shipped her car from Greece to Alexandria (North) and was not planning to go to Libya. Christian and Gisela in their wonderful zebra bus had driven all the way from South Africa planning to go to London and had entered Egypt through Aswan (South) and we had entered from Jordan (East). By then, Christian and Gisela had been waiting for their Libyan visas for 27 days. In a few days, their Egyptian visa and car insurance would expire. As I write to you from Tunis (where our boat to Italy has been cancelled because of lack of passengers..) I have checked their website ( They never made it to Libya : after waiting for 5 weeks they left for Jordan. Filling up in Egypt (that you know we have not particularly enjoyed if you have read our last updates) they were cheated and were given 80 octane fuel instead of 90 octane which nearly killed the engine of their beloved 1975 Volkswagen split-windscreen type Kombi. With great perseverance and mechanical flair, they reached Frankfurt where they were stopped on the road by the "Cherman" police who had noticed an oil leak. The vintage bus never passed the strict Tüv test they were obliged to go through. Their South African number plates were taken in and the vehicle was forbidden to drive in the whole EU... 

Obtaining a Libyan visa, part TWO
Whilst visiting Luxor, the good news was that Kathleen's brother PE found a job. The bad news was that when our Italian friends went to the Libyan embassy in Brussels on Wednesday March 6th to pick up our passports, they were told we had to sign our visa application forms ourselves and that the Arabic translation was missing. After our experience with an Egyptian crowd in Minya, we arrived in Cairo with only one thing on our minds : to fax our Arabic translations to Brussels ASAP. After a few stops along Pyramid Street, we found a hotel that had a fax machine. We were asked 48 Egyptian pounds (US$ 11) for this. When we asked for the fax receipt, we were given a slip of paper where it said "1 page" instead of 3 pages.  "I had to send the 3 pages separately" said the man behind the counter. Then we noticed the slip of paper also mentioned "paper jammed " ! We were assured the fax had gone through and they would give us proof from "their central computer"... Twenty minutes later the manager finally admitted that the fax had not gone through without admitting to his employee's dishonesty.


Troopie's reflection on the windows of a tourist hotel on Pyramid Street, Cairo


On Friday March 8th, Kathleen's brother had returned to Belgium from his new job with Air Mauritius. When the embassy opened the following Monday, he called them only to be told that "everything is OK" and to call the next day. The next day, he was told "everything is OK" and would we please collect the passports the next day. With only a week in Belgium to prepare his move to Mauritius, PE handed the relay to Christian's mother. On Wednesday March 10th (the embassy is only open on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 11.00 to 13.00), Christian's mother was told they were missing the Arabic translations. We had taken care to also fax these to Christian parents but that translation was not valid. Christian's mother rushed around Brussels the following days to the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to a Chamber of Commerce where someone would translate our names and other passport details. You see, in his little green book, Mr. Gaddafi has ruled that only Arabic should be used in Libya... In the meantime, we had arrived in Alexandria where we had contacted the Belgian Consulate to see whether we could send them 2 Belgian passports. With nothing else to do but wait, we drove 600 km to the desert Oasis of Siwa which is very close to the Libyan border ! 


Spending time in the desert (move mouse over the picture above)


L'enfer, c'est les autres
By then it had been nearly 2 months since we first started to work on our Libyan visa. We had looked into shipping our car from Alexandria but the boat we wanted to take on March 23rd had been cancelled and the next one was on March 30th. The only alternative we had to crossing Libya to return to Europe was to drive back through the Middle East which meant many thousand km on roads we had already seen and many border crossings. Besides, a red line on the map on Troopie's flanks going West through Libya looked a lot better. Not knowing where we would be heading for next for so long and not being able to plan our journey ahead was difficult to bear. This and our experiences with Egyptians ranging from disagreeable to outright nasty have contributed to one of the lowest points in our whole journey. By then, we had lost nearly all pleasure in travelling and we did not want to see anyone else, especially Egyptians. We had decided that we would make our final decision on Monday 18th of March : either we have visas or we drive back through the Middle East to Turkey and Europe. 


Waiting in front of DHL's main office in Alexandria


Obtaining a Libyan visa, part THREE
Monday 18th ! At last. On Monday 18th we were back in Alexandria eagerly waiting for news from Belgium. Around 14.00 we received an email from Christian's father. Christian's mum had been to the embassy and... had been told "everything is OK", "please pick up the passports next Wednesday 20th". Having come so far, we decided to give them a last chance and waited in Alexandria for the next 2 days. With nothing else to do but try to apply our logic to their strange ways, we developed all sorts of theories. One of them was that each visit or fax would give us 5 points and that the visa would be given when a total of 50 points had been reached. The next Wednesday, all of us were finally rewarded for our perseverance. Christian's mum had picked up the passports containing visas and was on her way to DHL. She had carefully made sure to wrap the passports with clean film around a piece of cardboard and to mention "documents" on the envelope. By then, we were tracking the parcel on DHL's website every 2 hours ! The envelope had been handed over in Brussels at 11 am on Wednesday 20th and registered by DHL at 17.00 and 23.00.  For the next 2 days it remained like this and the unthinkable had happened : DHL had lost our envelope. Friday is the day of prayer in Muslim countries so DHL's office closed early. When they rang Belgium they were told that DHL Belgium would be closed on Saturday and Sunday ! We checked in for a 4th time in our Alexandria Hotel where we were greeted with a "you are not gone yet ?".


Victorious smile


On Saturday March 23rd, DHL rang us with good news : we could pick up our parcel at 14.00. At 14.00 it had not arrived. "It will be there at 16.00". At 16.00 it had not arrived. "It will arrive soon..." By then we were no longer amused and our nerves were being tested. The envelope did finally materialise and we left straight for the border which was 500 km away.  


Finally able to draw an additional red line on our map (left), traffic jam on the way to the border (centre) and a last windy night in Egypt spent "downstairs" (right)


Egypt border town with Libya, Salloum, March 24th 2002


Christian had decided he wanted an extra souvenir from Egypt and so we decided to "loose" one of our Egyptian number plates. That cost us a few extra hours at the Egyptian border but this was nothing compared to what was awaiting us at the Libyan border. 


Egypt's border with Libya, seen here from the no-man's-land between the 2 borders


Entering Libya, part ONE
Two things are necessary to enter Libya, you will recall. We had been through a little trouble to obtain the first but the best is still to come ! After stopping for a picnic between the two borders, we arrived at the Libyan border at 14.00 and happily handed them our passports with visas ! At first the border people seemed a little puzzled by our visas. We victoriously thought they must be thinking "how on earth did you obtain these valid visas ?" ! We were asked to wait. One hour passed after the other and nothing happened. After 4 hours an employee came back and Kathleen understood that they were looking for our Egyptian stamps. This had taken them several hours due to the fact that our Belgian passports are full with one year's worth of stamps and... there are no Egyptian stamps in our Belgian passports as we had entered Egypt with our second passports ! They also wanted to make sure that we had no Israeli stamps in our passports as this would have meant "no entry" Libyan visa or not. We were told to wait every time we went to see them. At 22.00 we decided to go to bed but not without Christian storming out of the car one last time to grab a policeman and push him against a wall as he was trying to peep on Kathleen. We did not want to be there and if they made life even more disagreeable they would soon find out they were in for a surprise.  


Dinner in the back of the car as we are stuck at the Libyan border


Entering Libya, part TWO
Next morning all of us were in for a surprise. We were woken up by men trying to brake into the car that was parked beside us by smashing its window. The noise they were making and their laughs meant we were quickly out of bed. They knocked on our car wanting to speak to us. As Christian unzipped the tent he was given one of Troopie's extra spotlights that had been cracked off the bumper that night by a thieve. Christian had woken up during the night at 3 am, had seen someone in front of the car, put on his shoes and had run out to grab a man. Half asleep, I only checked on the tyres and let the man go after a few seconds. I shouldn't have. Instead of using a tool he had pulled so hard the lamp had cracked and Christian had woken up. 


Life goes on at the border : travelers shuffling through (left) & smugglers doing their thing (centre). Not the best of nights (right)


Troopie with a spotlight snatched off and her new Libyan identity


We had been returned our stamped passports by then but we were no longer amused by the whole scenario. It had taken the authorities 16 hours to stamp a valid visa in a valid passport. And that should have been the easy part ! We still had to do the whole paperwork of getting a car into the country. Unfortunately no-one spoke English and our few words of Arabic were not sufficient to do this. When we asked where the customs office was (by waving our yellow Carnet de Passage, a well known document at borders all over the world) a hand was pointed to a direction. As it turned out, the office was 5 km away in the Libyan border town. These matters are usually solved by the travel agency inviting tourists meeting them at the border for a fee. We had e-mailed our agency ARKNO several times about this asking them to meet us at the border on March 24th. When Jamal Fties, the agency's director finally replied, his answer was the following (SIC): 


"i dont think so regarding your arrive to the libzan border because there is no time but i think you can enter alon and make all the thinks in the border by your silf as touring club and insuaranse and pleates and if you couls make it by your silf it will be good other wise if we s end gude from tripoli it cost you more then $250." 


With this e-mail printed, we had decided to head for the border. But with no one around wanting to help us, we were not getting very far and decided to change tactics. We had patiently waited the previous day and played the game by their rules. The second day, the authorities would have to play the game by our rules. With no money to take a taxi to go to the small town 5 km away (in order to go to the bank and the customs office), we started the car and moved out of the border. One customs officer later admitted he had broken one of his fingers when trying to stop our (3 ton) Troopie... The border people started to shout and wave but we kept on moving. We got through the 1st gate but 50 meters further the 2nd an last border gate was closed in front of us. We put Troopie straight in front of the gate thus blocking the border, stopped the engine and locked the car, Kathleen staying inside. Sorry, we don't have a picture of this ! The only thing we wanted was help and Christian tried to explain this to anyone who appeared. We could see they clearly did not understand why we refused to move the car ! Some tried to be pushy and threatening, others asked calmly but the answer they got was the same. At one stage one border employee tried to open the door by forcing his hand through the window and grabbing Kathleen who reacted instinctively by biting the hand in front of her ! It took an hour before somebody who spoke English arrived. We decided we had made our point and we moved the car. By then, Christian had received the nickname Mr. Problem. Things started to move by then and 3 people accompanied Christian into town, 5 km down the road. Within 2 hours, he was back with all paperwork done and a new set of number plates ! We drove out of the border area and were kindly put up at the local hotel free of charge. However, we were told we could not enter the country unless the travel agency came to meet us at the border. What they did not know was that there was just no way, read this again, JUST NO WAY we would return to Egypt after the torture we had been through to obtain these visas  !


Some of the people who were involved in helping us through the paperwork (left & centre) and the nice hotel room we were given (right)


The border police rang our travel agent in Tripoli (1700 km away) who told them an agent from Tobruk (160 km away) would come that afternoon. That story lasted until 20.00 when, using our satellite phone from our room, we were told someone would fly from Tripoli to Benghasi and drive to the border from there. That story lasted until the next morning when no-one turned up. At 13.00 that day, however, we were told we could go thanks to the generosity of the local Chief of the Secret Police, Mr. Abdallah who was present to wave us goodbye.


A sandstorm had been blowing all day as we settle down to spend our second night at the border


He had not been able to "free" us before because, as we were told, he had been busy the previous day with the passage of Mr. Gaddafi's own son on his way to Egypt ! It does not get any better than this ! When we were finally given our passports, we had been stuck at the border for 48 hours and we were not quite sure whether it was OK for us to leave (we must have been developing a little Stockholm syndrom !)...


Free at last : our first stop to picnic along the road to Tobruk


Thanks to our families, Giorgio and his wife and all of you who have helped us !


Here are our extra pages on Libya

Not always a picnic 55,000 km since HK Troopie goes to the Sahara

We told you anything is a piece of cake after dealing with the Chinese !

Coming from Egypt Back to Trip page Heading to Tunisia