Troopie goes to the Sahara


Playing in the dunes !

Libya & the Sahara desert
Going to Libya didn't only look good on our green map on the car, it also somehow felt like a cherry on the cake, a well-deserved reward at the end of our long journey from Hong Kong. Going to Libya meant preparing ourselves for a few difficulties we had not envisaged when setting off for our year long trip. Whilst in Alexandria, we were lucky to meet a French man who overwhelmed us with his enthousiasm for the desert. Having spent 20 years in North Africa and having traveled by 4WD for many years, Rafael Pleutin must have been sent by an angel ! On top of giving us advice on where to go and what to do, he helped us acquire locally made sand ladders, lent us his guidebooks and even agreed on selling us his faithful GPS, an item that had so far been impossible to find in the whole of Egypt. We had discovered that, since IBM replaced our computer in Turkey, the GPS receiver we had taken with us no longer worked.  With no piste experience whatsoever and with no maps more precise than the traditional Michelin 954, we felt it would be unwise to venture alone in the desert without this little magical instrument that is the GPS. With two books giving us detailed itineraries and GPS waypoints to follow, we were eager to leave the main road !


The most important item for the perfect desert kit is not on the picture : a foot-pump to inflate the tyres !


We quickly left the coastal road and headed south hoping there would be less traffic and finding a spot for the night would be easier. These roads were built along many pipelines that link the oilfields and the Mediterranean.


On our way south (left), pipelines coming from of one of the many oil fields (centre) and our camping spot for the night (right)



Most of the roads are good but not all ! 70 grueling kilometers where our average speed was 20 km/h (left), on our way to a windy camping spot (centre). Not your average crack in the road surface (right) 


Our first journey off the main road : Wadi Mathendush and its 4000 B.C. carvings
The desert as it is today is only a few thousand years old. Before that, it used to be inhabited and water was the force shaping it through erosion, not wind. In Alexandria, Rafael had shown us a silex, several thousand years old that he had spotted whilst driving. One of its sides, sticking out of the sand (for several thousand years), had been polished by wind and sand erosion and was very, very smooth. The other sides were still sharp, exactly as they were when the silex was thrown into the sand. When Rafael picked it up from its spot, it had not moved or been touched for some 6000 years ! There is a well-known picture of French naturalist Theodore Monod proudly holding one of these. We were naively on the lookout for one of those, of course, as we headed for Wadi Mathendush which is home to stunning rock carvings. We were a little excited as this was our first trip out into the middle of nowhere : a 300 km return trip. We recorded the 12 or so GPS points and set off. The main excitement that day was trying to cross our first dune without wanting to deflate our tyres... It took us 3 attempts before Kathleen & Troopie finally managed to get through the soft sand !


Breakfast on the piste (left), first attempt on our first dune (centre), victorious Kathleen running back after having reached the top at the 3rd attempt !


Amongst a plethora of other animals depicted, carvings showing giraffes (left), two fighting animals (centre) and a water buffalo (right) 


A little more confident with navigation after our first journey and wishing to go even further of the beaten track (than spots where jeeps come with tourists) we decided to head further south down the Wadi to El Aurer. From there, our Gandini book had indicated a 40 km loop to a guelta, a small water pond visible after the rainy season. But that book was written in 1995 ! The road leading there was obscene... and we crawled all afternoon at around 5 or 10 km/h before reaching the small wadi (riverbed) that was indicated by a tall pile of stones. 


On our way to Wadi El Aurer, Fezzan, South Libya


There was not a single drop of water to be seen but the settings were idyllic. Most importantly, there was a small track leading down into the wadi meaning we had shelter from the wind for the night. After this exhausting day on road, we set up camp, boiled water, made a fire and prepared some spaghetti al pesto before spending the evening gazing at the stars ! We had never been so far from any inhabited area or road and that feeling was quite strange. 


Hell in the back of Troopie after a day on the pistes (left), our 25.43 N, 11.58 E camp in the wadi, making the most of old bread (right)



Wadi El Aurer (left), he obviously did not have a Magellan GPS (centre). Left or right (right !)


Our second journey off the main road : Dunes & Lakes !
"Your engine and your nerves will be in for quite a day" is what our Sahara overland guidebook mentioned about going to the lakes. With no dune driving experience whatsoever, no sand tyres, not the most powerful car and a heavily loaded, we knew that warning definitely applied to us. We weren't even sure Troopie, loaded as she is, could manage it with the most experienced of dune drivers. The most likely place people will completely wreck their cars is when driving in the dunes and both of us were pretty nervous that morning. But we would never know without trying and the next morning we turned up at the first dune, deflated our tyres to 1 bar (from 3.2 and 4 bar !) and got seriously stuck just after the top of the first dune ! For the next half hour we were digging and pushing with little success. Then another angel named Ibrahim turned up from nowhere together with a car load of his friends ! 


Our guide Ibrahim, half Libyan half Nigerian but French speaking !


Accepting his offer to guide us through the dunes to the lakes (for a very modest LD 30 or US$ 20) was the best decision we could have made. Not only did he give us a first lesson on how to drive in soft sand and up and down 50 meter high dunes, he also relieved us from all responsibility. With him around, we didn't matter getting lost or stuck in sand. With him around, we were able to both concentrate on the driving (without having to choose the best way) and enjoy the spectacular beauty of the scenery around us. Besides, his car full of singing Tuaregs accompanied us on the journey for free. They came in handy when we got bogged down another time despite his advice.



Unlike anything else and simply stunning scenery



Troopie and Christian on their way down (left & right)


We did manage to get to several of the lakes that day but not without taking even more air out of the tyres (down to 0.6 bar with the risk of separating wheel and tyre going round bends) and having Troopie scream every ounce of power she had. Despite her 4.2 liter venerable engine size, we would regularly be doing 60 km/h in second gear whereas that is normally be the speed where we change from 3rd to 4th gear ! The trick with dune driving is to balance speed and safety. Trying to build up speed to get to the top of the dunes, we would then have to stop right on top to check on the angle of the descent and not fly over and crash. A few of the descents we did were 20 or 30 meters with inclinations of up to 30 degrees (unless it is supported by rocks or vegetation, sand can only hold up to 32 degrees). The 3 tons of Troopie on the crest of the dune would push several other tons of sand down the slope and all of that would slide down to the bottom !


Kathleen, Ibrahim and Mr. Cheick Kowwa from Mali (left), Tuareg jewelry (right)


Lake Ou El Ma, Fezzan, South Libya



Here are our extra pages on Libya

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


Aren't we great adventurers !

Coming from Egypt Back to Trip page Heading to Tunisia