Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The answer is blowing in the wind.

It has been a windy few weeks on and off and being outside so much makes one acutely aware of the weather. One day whilst working indoors at our base there was a gentle wing coming up from the south. Warm, and with a bit of dust in it, but nothing too threatening. Within half an hour it swung right round and came from the north, across the great Ubari Sand Sea bringing with it hundreds of tons of sand. We all went outside to look, as the air literally went orange. Working throughout this was the mighty Fiat bulldozer out on the road, the squeak of it’s dry tracks on dry driving wheels audible over all other things. The Government are laying infrastructure to take fibre optics and improve communications throughout the Wadi. This involves the Fiat dragging a huge hook that rips a metre deep gouge out of the land at the side of the road. Then another equally huge Fiat comes along when the trench has all but filled up with dust and lays the tubing to take the cable. Somehow I can’t see it working.

Gabrun Yacht Club.

Part of the remit for the Geographers was to take core samples from the lake bed of Lake Gabrun, an oasis about 45 km north of our base at Germa. It involves a sporting drive through the dunes, which with a strong wind was quite challenging. The difficulty is that the wind soon blows away all traces of previous tracks, leaving us to pick our own route following GPS waypoints. Once there - four hours instead of the usual two, we launched the bigger of my two inflatables and Simon, who rowed for a minor Oxford team in his youth, had a preliminary paddle about and sank a 6 inch drain pipe into the mud at the base of the lake. This was to be the site of the core sampling the next day following a comfortable nights camping where we cooked chicken with garlic and lemon juice, wrapped in foil, on the fire. The morning dawned fine and with the bigger boat as lake base station, Kev paddled back and forth with the core samples in the dinky little yellow boat. These cores went through four meters of mud to the bottom which was sand. Once back in the UK these will be examined for organic matter - plants and Diatoms (single cell life forms) to establish what was going on there over the last 2000 years or so as the lake went from wet to dry to wet again. The beauty of this science is that everything ends up on the lake bed offering a neat cross section of life. Pics show an overall view of proceedings from half way up a dune, our camp and one of the core samples laid out on a sand ladder. This was then wrapped in foil and slid into the drain pipe for safe transit back to UK.

Ancient boozers.

Desert adventure over for a while, it was time for us to turn ourselves in and work with the Archaeologists in and around Germa, a breeze block town, once the capital of the Garamantian Empire that ran in parallel with he Roman Empire some 2000 year ago. In this once noble city slaves would have been exchanged for luxury items carried by camel, a new form of desert transport back then, from the coast some 600 miles north. Pottery, glassware, fabrics, beads and fashions crossed the desert to satisfy the Garamanties. The project, under the direction of Professor David Mattingly, is excavating a selection of tombs some 10 miles east of Germa to learn more about these sophisticated people. This tomb at Taglit had, like most, has been robbed, but a second layer missed by the robbers all those years ago came up with an abundance of pottery and glassware. Pictures show; Two truly stalwart Libyan labourers who have worked for the project for ten years now. Both in their late seventies they have sharp eyes for a find and labour in heat and dust for an eight hour day, six days a week. Hats off to Abdul Rakman and Ishmal El-Khair, a kite shot of the excavation, Matt and Steve working out where to place a ranging pole and an exquisite piece of glassware representative of what the Garmantians were drinking from. Cheers.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Within range.

During the Second World War the Long Range Desert Group launched an ambitious attack on an Italian air base. I have read an account of it, but am going on memory here. A small group - probably three Chevrolet, or Ford, 30 cwt trucks and 18 men (ish) set off from the LRDG base at Kufra to drive about 500 miles northwest to Muzuk where they succeeded in blowing up all of the enemy’s aircraft - about 15 planes. Mission accomplished they headed south to Chad and met up with the free French. Interesting stuff and a great trip that was thankfully successful. A straight line from Kufra to Muzuk would have taken them past our camp in Waw en Kebir and wandering around looking at rocks Kev spotted an old petrol can. Closer inspection revealed three and some engine parts and a spent bullet. The petrol cans were the products of Shell, stamped 1941, the Sphinx Oil Company and Atlantic Motor Spirit. What marvellous names and this is how petrol was carried in pre jerry can days. Pure speculation, but not impossible that this could have been a brief camp for the LRDG on that daring mission 65 years ago. There is a little cover to hide them from patrolling aircraft on an otherwise totally flat expanse of unforgiving desert where they would have stuck out like sore thumbs. We took a GPS waypoint and left the finds to weather for another 65 years.

Mosquito coast.

The bait that lured me back to Libya for this, my tenth visit, was a chance to hoon off southeast towards Chad and take a look at Waw en Namus, an extinct volcano in the middle of nowhere. Leaving the bulk of the party to dig up bits of rock, four of us and two Libyans set off across the vast expanse of nothingness that is this part of the desert. Easy gong over largely flat terrane it was about 150 miles. We checked in at the loneliest police checkpoint in Libya and gave one of the guys stationed there some laxatives. At his request! The piste started to go uphill as we approached what appeared to be a black dune sandwiched between the sand and the sky. Over a distance of about 100 yards golden sand turned to volcanic ash, heavier and not subject to movement by the wind giving a sharp cut off line when viewed from Space (Google Earth it). As we popped over the crest, before us lay a breathtaking sight. Looking like The Lost World, was a crater some 3 miles across with three oases, trees, birds and reeds. We walked down the steep edge into the centre to be met by an army of mosquitoes (Namus is arabic for Mosquito) Like steam trains it was clearly better to be outside looking in, rather than inside looking out, so we retreated and camped about a mile away, before returning to meet up with the others the next day. Pics show; the police checkpoint, the approach to the black stuff, the stunning view over the edge and the lost world within.

Oliver's Army are here to stay.

Eleven days and 2600 miles after leaving the UK we did our first days work. Looking at fire hearths in Waw en Kebir made by upright man (us!) between 2000 and 5000 years ago. It’s a quiet spot and we had it to ourselves. Probably 2-300 square miles, mainly flat, with a few raised bits along the north and south flanks just visible about 30 miles away. The hearths were of particular interest as they contained Acheulean stone tools (The style of manufacture indicates these pre date fire - cave man stuff, 100,000 years +) that had been reused as stones to line a hearth along with regular stones, to possibly cook something. Simon Armitage has the task of dating these in a lab back in London. From that he can calculate when the fire was burning. There were loads of hearths and this would indicate lots of people along what was once a lush green valley. We moved on to a way point identified by satellite image as the likely last damp patch to take a core sample. As we got closer there turned out to be an army base there. This was best avoided, not for any danger, but by the time you have shaken hands with everybody and drunk tea, half a day is lost. We pressed on a bit and camped. The pictures show a charred stone tool, our camp with the glow of light from the base about 2 miles away and lunch, served on a gingham table cloth out of the back of my Land Rover. Nothing if not stylish.

The Lake District.

After a faltering start we finally hit the sand at about 10.00 am heading southeast across a flat wilderness of nothing much at all to the northern edge of Waw en Kebir, an oasis of interest to the Geos, who intend to bore a hole in it to confirm the desert really is made up of sand. We actually camped at the edge of a vast wadi, some 20 kms. across. Low hills from an eroded lake bed of 450,000 years ago offered good protection from the southerly wind which was reasonably warm and a stark contrast to the previous two years when it has been just sub zero. The good thing about travelling with such knowledgeable chaps is that they are always keen to explain just what you are looking at and why it’s there. They are studying what was Lake Mega Fazzan. Yes. This 120,000 square km. area of desert has been a lake five times over 450,000 years. The high bits are in fact lake bed sediments that have refused to be eroded away by the desert’s winds. Microscopic fossilised shells confirm that it was fresh water, not saline. Flint hand tools confirm mankind had a rich and lengthy stay here, both millions and tens of thousands of years ago. From a nomadic ‘cave’ man, to upright man, much like you and I, but without a mobile phone. The sheep bought it on night four!

Under the watchful eye.

After a subdued, alcohol free, night out with the rest of the team. (There are about 25 of us - all boozers) It was an early night in the Hotel Yosser, then an early start to head south. Driving out of Tripoli we took then opportunity to fill up with diesel. Full tanks and 14 jerry cans. Whilst all of the 1000 kms. ahead of us would be on tarmac, one thing that you can’t rely on, is fuel stations actually having fuel. Particularly diesel (Nafta). This is rather odd in a country that produces the stuff, but apparently they have to sell one lot and get the cash in, before ordering another lot. This can mean petrol stations being without fuel for a few days and as they are spaced out at a rate of about one every 150 kms. it is prudent to be fat with fuel. I am attached to the Goes and we peeled off at Sebha, a mere 750 kms. in a day, whilst the Archaeologists carried on to Germa, a further 250 kms.. A long day. At Sebha we meet up with our Libyan logistics team in four Toyotas - two Cruisers and two pickups loaded up with food, drink and more fuel. Next stop, the desert. Photos show just one of many posters of The Colonel, The town of Ash Shwayre, a one horse town if ever there was one, half way down our route and us filling up with a good tenners worth of diesel. Fuel’s gone up!

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Traffic calming.

Surprisingly, the Libya border crossing was easier than on previous occasions. ‘Tourist Police’ have been given a charm course and Hasan became our minder throughout the process. What is always amusing about traversing from Tunisia into Libya, is that all the officials involved in producing three bits of important paperwork appear to have never done it before, despite there being a steady stream of Euro 4x4s through the border every day. We were through in two hours and in daylight. A bonus. Last night we stayed in a Dept of Antiquities rest house behind the museum at Sabratha. This is little more than a shed, so I slept in the Land Rover. Our evening meal was at a very good Turkish Restaurant on the main road. As we promenaded along the pavement (A Libyan equivalent of strolling through Market Harborough) a local youth was doing massive doughnuts in a big car in the middle of the road. Loads of them! It was Friday night and the equivalent of the weekend. Maybe this is what you get when you deprive people of alcohol. Today we have driven into Tripoli centre. A mayhem of traffic where every gap is regarded as an opportunity for progress. A competitive element came over us to keep up with the locals. Scary, but we arrived here okay and hope to head south into the desert tomorrow morning.

Photos show our last beers for a month in Djerba, Tunisia. Changing money on the black market in Ben Gardena, just before the border and Tripoli traffic!

This is Toby Savage for 1943 Jeep Rebuild Blog 3rd January 2009.

Happy New Year!

‘Bonne Annee’ came the cries as we drove through the streets of La Goulette, on the edge of Tunis, to our usual hotel, the Amilcar. Things were different this year, however, as it had closed down. Hardly surprising, as like the Habib, our ferry, it was well past its sell by date. We drove on up to the Hotel Sidi Bou Said. 5 stars, but Tunisian stars are different to ours. Slightly smaller. Four rooms and secure parking suited us and the beds seemed comfy enough. Sanctuary was found later in the Au Bon Vieux Temps restaurant in Sidi Bou Said. We have treated ourselves to a slap up here in the past, but on our return from Libya, to celebrate the return to civilisation. As it was New Years Eve, we felt we should hit it again. It did not disappoint and neither did the Tunisian Reserve red wine. As good as anything drunk on the way down through France. We left at 11.30, before the dancing started and headed to the Coffee House at the top of the hill for mint tea with pine nuts and a blast on the Shisha pipe to see in the New Year. There was only us four and the staff there! Bleary eyed on 1st we headed south, first through Carthage, from where Hannibal set out to conquer the Roman Empire, then on the newly completed motorway down to Sfax and smaller roads to a little ferry that took us and about 20 other cars over to the Isle of Djerba where I write this. Next stop is the Libyan border about 100 miles further east. This is Toby Savage for 1943 Jeep Rebuild Blog 2nd January 2009.

Pictures show the first course of our meal, Kev’s and my Land Rovers on the ferry and the coffee house favoured by Impressionist painter, Gaugin in his day.