Jebel Acacus This is one of the more fascinating and beautiful areas of Libya . The mountains of Jebel Acacus cover a vast area of Fezzan east of Ghat. They contain some of the world's best examples of cave art, some dating back 12,000 years. The scenes depict hunting, festivities, wild and domesticated animals and love making. They suggest there was a higher rainfall and more temperate climate here in the past.
The area appears like an extensive, high, sandstone plateaux that has then been eroded away into hundreds of complex rock formations and wadis. Many days can be spent exploring this magnifcent wilderness. There are several waterholes in the Acacus and occassionally you may encounter a Tuareg with his dog or see their grass hut or their goats. These people have often refused education and better housing preferring instead to live in this wilderness in their traditional manner.
This is one of the better areas for trekking in the deserts, shady wadis wind their way through magnificent rock scenery and some of the mountans may be scrambled up in a short time offering beautiful panoramas.
Wadi Tashwinat or Wadi Tashween, is one of the major wadis of the Acacus. It is about 60 kilometers long with innumerable side wadis leading off. It is popular not only for its scenery but for its concentration of caves with some of the better examples of Acacas cave carvings and cave paintings. It is likely that you will encounter another group in this wadi.
Visitors are required to have a guide with them here. Not only to help them find their way through the intricate maze of wadis but also to help protect the unique treasures of the area. Sadly some of the drawings have already been defaced by souvenier hunters or others trying to make copies.
The rock paintings and carvings were first noted by Heinrich Barth and Gustav Nachtigal in 1850. Only in 1955 did a major expedition led by Fabrizio Mori from the university of Rome come to make a detailed study of them. In all he recorded 1300 sites of interest. For more detailed information about the cave art see http://www.acacus.it/eng/ricter_arte_ru1.htm
Its grave emptiness and incomparable vastness makes the Sahara at once beautiful and frightening, writes Anthony Ham.
The Sahara Desert has driven many men to tears. I did not expect Sallah, my indefatigable Tuareg driver, to be one of them.
"In the south of Libya, near Al-Kufra oasis, the sand dunes are so big that it once took me two days to cross one of them. I gave up and cried." Sallah thinks for a moment and then continues: "In the desert, I sometimes don't even know what day it is or my name."
Sallah, who seems always on the verge of movement, who drives his four-wheel-drive with shouts of encouragement as if he were driving a camel, and who exudes anything but a desert stillness, is a man upon whom my life depends.
We are deep in the Jebel Acacus of south-western Libya, one of the great mountain massifs that offer sanctuary from the endless, empty wastes of the Sahara's 9 million square kilometres of sand, rock and unrelenting immensity.
And we are stuck in the sand.
Before us - and behind us - lie sand dunes, beyond which the nearest town is two days' travel away, across yet more dunes.
"Fish-fash," (the fine sand that is desert-driving's curse) is Sallah's final contribution to the conversation before he disappears over a low dune, perhaps to weep in private.
It is at that moment that I wonder what it was that had drawn me here to a land as starkly beautiful as it is forbidding in its reputation for defeating those who would master it.
In colonial times the French tried to build a railway across the desert, believing that to conquer the Sahara was to open up to enlightened commerce the African continent and the mythical riches at its heart.
Today, those who would cross the desert are more often lovers of the mechanical, racing from European capitals to Dakar in the attempt to prove that they and their vehicles can defeat the most inhospitable terrain on earth.
Or they are the somewhat more courageous journeymen and women of sub-Saharan Africa who, without support teams, risk death in their ceaseless journey to an equally mythical European El Dorado.
For those of us not driven by the need to conquer or survive, the desert is something altogether different.
The desert, especially the Sahara Desert, stirs something in the soul, its grave emptiness calling us with its promise of solitude, evoking childhood imaginings of sculpted sand dunes of the purest lines, of veiled nomads, of the palm-fringed lakes of desert oases.
In the gravitas of its haunting terrain, we seek distance from discontented lives, pursuing a yearning beautifully captured by the Cote d'Ivoirean novelist, Ahmadou Kourouma, who wrote: "The desert is the only cure for despair. Because the desert is an infinite space, the silence of the dunes, a night sky enamelled with a thousand stars. In the desert, one can weep without worrying about flooding a riverbed. No landscape is more propitious to meditation."
The desert is an opportunity, according to Manu Dayak, the late philosopher-figurehead of the nomadic Tuareg people, to commune with "the mysteries of infinity". The desert, he assures us, "seems eternal to those who live in it, and it offers that eternity to those who love it".
Whether or not it is eternity, there is something timeless about the Jebel Acacus, conjuring up the sense of existing outside time. Its black, basalt monoliths rise up from the sand and seem to lean as if the wind has always come from the east. Amid myriad valleys lie palm trees, wells and occasional Tuareg encampments, perhaps even secret kingdoms known only to themselves.
Sallah returns from his temporary exile, bringing no news of how we shall cross the dunes, but bearing as compensation news of yet more secrets.
With all the gleeful exuberance of a child, he takes me by the hand and leads me into a nearby canyon.
As my eyes adjust to the light, the ancient rock drawings of the Sahara emerge slowly from the shadows, at once child-like and sophisticated in their simplicity. In shades of deep ochre of astonishing clarity are elephant and giraffe, buffalo and lion. On an adjacent wall is depicted an ancient wedding where the celebrants dance and eat, little knowing that their land is doomed to desolation.
Forever immortalised in The English Patient and its Cave of Swimmers, paintings such as these are the Sahara's history books. They tell the story of a Sahara that was once the earth's idyll, home to abundant wildlife amid vast lakes and forests while Europe shivered under a blanket of Ice Age snow.
Bid silent by what we have seen, we return to the car and set up camp for the night.
The light fades quickly, too quickly as it always seems to in the desert, preceded by an hour of heartbreaking light which transforms the Jebel Acacus into a venerable and luminous cathedral of orange and golden stones.
The camp fire wards off the evening chill which has arrived as quickly as the night. Sheikh, our elderly Tuareg guide of chiselled, angular features, says nothing, as is his wont. Instead, he builds a campfire. He then retires to the perimeter of light to sit apart and look out into the desert, a picture of solitary and impenetrable dignity.
Sallah enlivens the evening with his songs and his stories. He tells of the legend of Kaf al-Jinoun, a strange rock formation north-west of the Jebel Acacus, a meeting place, according to the Tuareg, who dare not approach the rock, of the djinn (genies) who haunt the desert.
The wind picks up and whistles through the canyons and then disappears without a trace. It reminds Sallah of those deadly winds which carry the cries of a mysterious wedding party once lost in the sands but still singing and dancing as those painted on the nearby rocks must once have done. He warns me not to follow if I should hear them during the night, for they sing so as to lure the inquisitive to their world of death and eternal solitude.
We sleep by the camp fire. Even Sheikh, whose thin robes offer scant protection from the freezing desert night, draws near.
The next morning, after a breakfast of damper-like bread cooked beneath the sand and embers of last night's fire, Sheikh quietly takes the wheel and drives us out over the dunes with neither a perilous moment nor a justifiable look of triumph. Sallah is silent.
Indeed, none of us speak for we soon leave behind the mountains to cross a plain of unending sameness. Our passage across the end of the earth is slowed only by the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Ocean of Stone late in the afternoon. Beyond such nightmarish interludes, during which travel is slowed to a crawl across sharp stones, there is nothing to break the monotony of the horizon, not even the temporary solace of a mirage.
Hours later - or is it days? - we camp amid the sand dunes of Murzuq Sand Sea, a land of towering dunes which covers a territory the size of Switzerland. Until now, I always believed that such beauty existed only in the imagination.
Sallah and I scramble to a summit to survey this endless dunescape. I am aware of the need for silence. It is a pity to speak, to try and capture in words the beauty of what we see.
And yet we speak excitedly for it is the only way we know how to articulate the beauty of what we see, as if it will not really be beautiful unless we say so. We laugh nervously and speak again and continue to do so until long after we are again at ground level.
A day later we bid each other farewell by the lakes of an equally epic sea of sand at Ubari. Surrounded by palm trees and crescent dunes, by the miracle of water in the desert's heart, Sallah bids a tearful goodbye and rushes to the car to again do battle with the sands. Sheikh is already sitting erect and dignified in the car as if re-enacting the noble posture of his forefathers astride their camels. Aloof and a man apart to the last, he does not say goodbye.
The vehicle groans up the slope, labours for a moment before reaching the crest of the dune. Then they are gone. And I am left alone in my solitude with the great silence all around, all the while feeling the uncontrollable desire to weep
North of Benghazi is the Jebel Akhdar, an extremely beautiful stretch of mountains that are sure to resonate doubletime with anyone fresh out of the desert. Also known as the Green Mountains, this part of Libya is indeed green and a great deal wetter than other parts of the country.
Geographically the area resembles Crete, and much of the high jebel (mountain) is given over to agriculture. It was a key area for food production during Italian colonisation, and the simple, low-built farmhouses from the 1930s still stand today amid fruit and cereal farms.
Idehan Ubari & Wadi Al-Hayat: The Idehan Ubari is a dramatic sea of towering sand dunes. Along the southern border of the sand sea runs the Wadi Al-Hayat. The wadi is one of the most fertile areas of the Fezzan. the main highway from Tripoli and Ghat runs through the Heart of the wadi.
The Ubari Lakes :The lakes of the Idehan Ubari are among the many highlights of the Libyan Sahara. TheUbari lakes are nothing short of a miracle. There are at least 11 lakes in the area.
Gebraoun: Gebraoun (Grave of Aoun), is one of the largest of the Saharan lakes, measuring about 250m by 300m. The lake is very deep and is surrounded by reeds and palm trees. The ruins of the town of Old Gebraoun lie on the lake's western shore.
Waw al Namus: Few Libyan destinations require such an effort to visit as Waw Al-Namus and, for the most part, the journey is one of unrelieved monotony. Waw Al-Namus must rank among the most remote places in the world, standing as it does at the centre of the Sahara . The lakes in this crater formed by a now extinct volcano are superb, surrounded as they are by high reeds and fine black and white volcanic sand
Once known as the 'White Bride of the Mediterranean', Tripoli has lost much of its pristine allure, though its historic mosques and lively medina retain a good deal of character. Tripoli is the de facto capital of Libya, despite attempts in recent years to move some government departments elsewhere.
Easily the most dominant feature of Tripoli is the Red Castle, Assai al-Hamra, which sits on the northern promontory. The massive structure comprises a labyrinth of courtyards, alleyways and houses built up over the centuries with a total area of around 13,000 sq metres (140,000 sq ft).
On the eastern edge of the Gulf of Sirt, Benghazi is the second largest city in Libya and a major commercial centre. What Benghazi lacks in historical charms, it more than makes up for in its location, with its proximity to the lush Jebel Akhdar area and the numerous Roman ruins along the coast.
You can cover central Benghazi easily on foot. The covered souqs really come alive on Friday morning, when the whole city seems to convene for a shopping spree. The main market, the Souq al-Jreed on Sharia Omar al-Mukhtar, sells all manner of clothes and household goods.
Famous for its desert architecture, the oasis town of Ghadhames lies 650km (400mi) southwest of Tripoli, close to the borders of Algeria and Tunisia. If your time in Libya is limited and you plan to see one traditional desert place, this is the one to visit.
Ghadhames earned the sobriquet ' Pearl of the Desert' back in the 1950s, when it was a popular getaway for Tripoli folk. Since then, a new town has sprung up around the old one, and the latter's dark, covered walkways and whitewashed mud-brick walls are a lot less boisterous than they once were.
If you only see one archaeological site in Libya, this is the one to choose. Regarded as the best Roman site in the Mediterranean, Leptis Magna's spectacular architecture and massive scale will impress even the most ruin-weary traveller.
The city was originally a Phoenician port, settled during the first millennium BC. Slaves, gold, ivory and precious metals brought it great wealth, which was supplemented by the rich agricultural land surrounding it. Roman legions ousted the Carthaginians following the third Punic War, after which the city flourished until the Vandals did their namesake thing in 455.
Roman rule briefly returned to Leptis in 533, and intensive repairs were carried out on the city, but local tribes revolted and eventually the area reverted to pastoral nomadism dominated by the Berbers. The Arab invasions of 644 swept away the last traces of
Roman life from the region, and in the 11th century Leptis Magna was finally abandoned to the encroaching sand dunes.
It wasn't until the 20th century that excavation began in earnest, and, much to archaeologists' delight, the sands had preserved the ruins remarkably well. There's an excellent, large museum next to the main entrance to the site, but the real treasures wait out in the site itself.
The first thing you'll encounter is the Severan Arch, which was erected in honor of Emperor Septimus Severus' visit to his hometown in 203 AD. Not far off are the marble and granite panelled Hadrianic Baths, the largest outside Rome. Keep exploring and you'll come across the partially covered nymphaeum, a shrine dedicated to the worship of nymphs; a pair of massive forums, similar in design and grandiosity to the imperial forum in Rome; the extraordinarily detailed basilica and theatre; and, if you continue west along the seashore about 700m (2100ft), the circus and amphitheatre, where chariot races and similar spectacles were held for the locals' amusement.
Second in importance only to Leptis Magna, Cyrene is a must see. It ranks as the best preserved of the Greek cities of Cyrenaica, with its temples, tombs, agora, gymnasium and theatre originally modelled on those at Delphi. Apart from the spectacular Greek ruins, its location high on a bluff overlooking the sea is stunning.
The city covers a huge area and is still only partly excavated. It's not often you find world-heritage sites still in this rather romantic condition: mosaics can still be discovered underfoot, and priceless statues often lie covered with creepers.
Enough of the city has been resurrected to give the visitor an impression of how it originally looked but without the over-restored look that detracts from so many classical archaeological sites. Cyrene still has very few visitors and correspondingly few facilities. Pack a meal, and you could easily spend a day or several wandering and exploring.
Tokra:Tokra was one of the five cities of the Greek Pentapolis, the site is 70km north-east of Benghazi .Tolmeita:North-east along the coast, 37km from Tokra, is the ruined city of Tolmeita (formerly Ptolemais). Tolmeita's attractive palm-fringed setting, and its transition from Greek to Roman occupation, make this a worthwhile excursion.
Al-Bayda:Al-Bayda is a pleasant, if unspectacular, city on the northern fringe of the Jebel Akhdar. Al-Bayda, the city makes a good base for exploring the ruins of Cyrene , Apollonia, Qasr Libya and Slonta. Al-Bayda was one of the main strong holds of the Sanusi Movement during the Ottoman period. Shahat: The modern village of Shahat , 17km east of Al-Bayda.
Apollonia:Apollonia was the harbour for Cyrene , 18km west, and because of this it played a critical role in the prosperity of Cyrene and the other cities of the Pentapolis. Most of what remains today dates from the Byzantine era (from 5th to 6th century AD) when Apollonia was known as the "city of churches". It had five basilicas and 19 towers.
Tobruk: Tobruk, city and port, northeastern Libya , on the Mediterranean Sea . It is 142km west of the Egyptian border and the scene of some of the most important WWII battles, is a household word. Its only draw card is the war cemeteries.
Al-Jaghboub:Al-Jaghboub is a town supported by reservoirs of fresh underground water and a healthy supply of dates, the town is famous for its hard-won self-sufficiency. There are also some decaying, largely untouched, two storey traditional houses built of rock and palm trunks.
Sabratha:Wonderfully preserved ancient Roman city. The ruins of the ancient Roman city of Sabratha , around 80km west of Tripoli , are among the highlights of any visit to Libya . Sabratha boasts one of the finest theatres of antiquity.
Gharyan: Gharyan sprawls across the top of a plateau and is one of the last towns of any size before Sebha, 690km south across the desert. Gharyan's main attractions are it's underground houses, built by the ancient Berber inhabitants of the area. Their unique design arose very much from the environment in which Berbers lived.
Yefren:Yefren is one of the more appealing towns in the mountainous region. It sits high on a series of rocky bluffs, overlooking the flat coastal plain, and is surrounded by attractive wooded areas.
Kabaw:The pleasant Berber town of Kabaw , 9km north of the Gharyan-Nalut road. This stretch of countryside is one of the more fertile areas of the Jebel Nafusa and the sight of shepherds with their flocks in the surrounding fields is not uncommon.
Nalut:At the western end of the Jebel Nafusa, the regional centre of Nalut is home to yet another exceptional Berber granary. Nalut is a decent place to break up the long journey between Ghadamas and Tripoli.
Sebha:Sebha is the largest settlement in the Libyan Sahara and now serves as a sprawling garrison town. Sebha is an important transit point for Sahara travel. The area around Sebha is quite fertile with barley, wheat and onions the main crops.
Al Jufra:Halfway between Sebha and the coast, east of the Tripoli-Sebha Highway , are the three adjacent Al-Jufra oases of Houn, Sokna and Waddan. Bizarrely, Al-Jufra was announced as the capital of Libya in 1987, but the idea never caught on.
Germa:Germa 150km from Sebha, is one of the largest settlements in Wadi Al-Hayat and carries with it a wealth of historical associations. The modern town lies near the ancient city of Garama , which was once the capital of the Garamantian empire and is well worth visiting.
Ubari:The friendly town of Ubari has little of interest to travelers, but you're likely to pass through here en route to Jebel Acacus. It's also the only town of any size between Al-Aweinat and Germa
Al-Aweinat:The pleasant, small oasis town of Al-Aweinat lines the highway with its trees and houses. Al-Aweinat can make an alternative base to Ghat for exploring Jebel Acacus.
Ghat:The ancient trading centre of Ghat is one of the most attractive of Libyan oasis towns. A highlights is the well preserved, enchanting mud-brick medina in the heart of town. It is also one of the few permanent Tuareg settlements in the Sahara
Wadi Methkandoush:Wadi Methkandoush lies along the southern side of Msak Settafet. It has one of the richest concentrations of prehistoric rock carvins in the world. Most of the carvings in the soft sandstone date back at least 12,000 years, making this one the oldest rock art sites in Libya.
Sports and Recreation
Sports in Libya
Soccer, also known as European football, is the most popular sport in Libya. Boys and young men enjoy informal matches on the streets of cities and villages, as well as in desert oases. Students play in organized teams, from elementary school until university. Libya's professional soccer teams are members of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Football Federation and of international and African soccer federations.
Horses have been an important part of Libyan culture for more than 3,000 years. Today, Libyans race horses or compete in chariot races. Fantasias, displays of special riding skills, are an Arab tradition. Camel racing is another popular sport. In the south, people race a unique breed of camel in a sport called mehari. In these races, two riders compete. The skill and fearlessness of the rider is more important than the speed of the camel.
Along the coast, many people enjoy water sports such as swimming, water skiing and scuba diving. Families often have picnics on the beaches and children play games with wooden paddles and balls. Libya's larger cities have tennis courts, bowling alleys and golf courses.
Games such as chess and dominoes are popular in Libya. In the desert, Bedouins play a traditional game in which a grid is drawn on the sand and the players take turns placing pebbles in the grid. The winner is the first to get three pebbles in a row. Isseren is a popular children's game. Players throw six split sticks into the air; they earn points for each stick that lands on the ground split side up.
After independence, Libya developed its sports teams so that they could compete internationally. The country first participated in the Olympics in 1968. However, Qaddafi did not send athletes to the 1972 Olympics. Libyans did not participate again in the Olympic games until 1992, when a small number of athletes represented the country in Barcelona. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, three Libyan athletes competed in marathon running, judo and tae kwon do.
Increasingly popular among tourists, desert safaris are the big guns in most tour providers' arsenals. One of the most popular destinations is the Idehan Ubari, with its towering sand dunes and desert lakes. Further south, the prehistoric rock art of the Jebal Acacus is also a major drawcard.
Libya's coastline is dappled with excellent beaches, some of which are all-natural and unadorned, while others have been thoroughly resortified. The ones closest to central Tripoli are usually somewhat messy, though the water's clean enough and they are convenient. For a more natural setting, try hitting the sands around Benghazi in Cyrenaica. A nascent diving industry has begun making bubbles in Libya, with the submerged ruins near Leptis Magna and Apollonia as their most exciting offerings, and there are a few water sports available at the beaches just south of Tripoli.