We were both very comfortable in the big bed and kept hitting snooze on our mobile phone alarms, while outside it was still dark and we could hear the evocative sounds of the muezzin’s calls to prayer: Allahu Akbar (“God is great”). At breakfast there were some other Libyans/Arabs but no westerners, again. We met Walid and Issam and checked out of the hotel. It was lovely, fresh, clear, bright weather and air, with great views over the plains. We got back in the Mercedes van and drove to nearby Qasr el-Haj. “Qasr” literally means “castle” or “fortress” but the term is used here to refer to the grain stores.
We descended from Yefren to the plain, drove west for a short period in front of us the mountain range and then turned off to a small village in the plains below the hills, where we visited the Berber granary stores. There was a small gate and an attendant, nothing more. The granary itself was a circular construction, several storeys high, with lots of little ventilation windows on the outside, and was constructed of rocks and gypsum, repaired and maintained over the ages. Walid told us that it was about 900 years old. We entered the “fortress” through the gate in the side, with some Berber tools on display. Inside, the fortress was a fantastical space, circular, with lots and lots of little rooms, individual stores, all around the inside, with doors fashioned out of broad planks of fibrous palm tree wood. It was a photographer’s dream, with its film set picturesqueness (?) Half of it was still in the shade, so I was happy to linger for a while and wait for the light to improve. A Star Wars film set would be an appropriate way of summing it up. One set of steep, narrow and uneven steps led up to the top of the wall and after several hesitant attempts I plucked up the courage to climb to the top.
As we left the fortress some other visitors arrived, a rather odd grouping of a few middle-aged Greek women in city clothes with a small very black man who I think was their guide and a somewhat more coffee-coloured large man wearing Gadaffi-style sunglasses and a blue Loden-type coat. We had a short stroll around the other parts of the Berber village and returned to the main entrance. A Berber man was sat by one of the walls on some matting and had a big brass (aluminium, made in China, actually…) teapot on the go on a fire. We stood around, talking with the tea man and the two Libyans, who turned out to be very friendly and polite. Walid knew the large man. Ness “kali spera’d” one of the Greek women as they walked by and this got a smile. We had some small glasses of the sweet thyme tea and then got back in our van.
We drove on towards Nalut, following the road which headed west, staying to the north of the Jebel Nafusa range still. The landscape was still mostly open plain, sandy and rocky, with signs here and there of seasonal streams but otherwise dry. There was some limited traffic on the road. It was big open landscape with some low bushes dotted around. We passed some camels. Now and then as we drove on a slight elevation we got an impression of how wide open and empty the landscape around us was. We did stick close to the Jebel Nafusa though and near Nalut we turned south to re-enter the hills, and followed a valley which led to a climb at the end, to the flat top of the range where Nalut was situated.
Somewhere before we reached Nalut, we pulled over at a petrol station to fill up. There were many Tunisians queuing up in clapped out cars, filling up with cheaper Libyan fuel. Walid negotiated straight to the front of the queue and we were away again in no time. On the green concrete protective barriers along the road, i.e. against the mountain side, there was lettering with quotations from the Green Book. Across the valley was written in white “Welcome to Nalut”. We drove through the small town towards the Berber fortress here. Here, as in Yefren, we could see many people in traditional Arab/Berber clothes, long dresses of dark brown wool, with pointy hoods. Also their faces, dark brown and grooved. I actually find faces far more interesting than buildings but am still not adept at getting good “people pictures”. Men wearing the typical “pork pie” type hats, women in veils, details like this which really define where you are more than a pile of stones can. Also the sounds and smells, impossible to capture.
The granaries here at Nalut were different from those at Qasr el Haj. The outer wall betrayed very little of what lay inside, which was a densely packed collection of grain stores built on top of one another, with crazy organic angles all over, as if a child had built a giant sand castle. It was a fantastic construction, and Walid left us free to wander around it at leisure. We clambered up and down the narrow little steps, and marvelled at the other-worldliness of the sights. Now no longer in use but being maintained by the local community for tourism. Around the granary lay the old Berber village, with olive oil presses and other farm buildings. We toured through the village and back round and visited the small gift shop the owner/caretaker had set up in one of the former Berber homes, decorated with rugs and wall hangings and lights, as it would have been, and with sandstone carvings for sale. We bought a small “2008”, feeling obliged but under no pressure to buy. We left Nalut to begin the long drive to Ghadames.
From here the landscape started to change as we left behind the Jebel Nafusa and started to head south. We were still on a high plateau with endless horizons – well, certainly they were very wide open! There were fewer bushes, only some small ones scattered very loosely, and there were more sand drifts that had built up in places. On the horizons we could see the eroded piles of rubble and rocks which surrounded the low flat hills. There was a good atmosphere in the car, some conversation, some jokes, but not feeling the need to talk all the time and quite happy to spend a lot of the time simply looking at the landscape. Somewhere after Nalut we stopped at a service station for lunch. It was basic but had been set up as a waypoint for tour buses, with two dining rooms with long tables. We had lunch together – soup, salad, lamb stew, rice, beans, courgettes, oranges – and then Walid and Issam went for their prayers at the small mosque that had been built in a corner of the service station. We waited outside and sat on a bench consisting of a palm tree log. We saw another man perform his prayers on a mat by the low wall.
We drove on towards Dirj, south and heading into the desert. Around us the landscape was huge and empty. That is, except for the pylons carrying the power lines and the construction works of the Great Man-made River, a hugely ambitious construction project which is laying pipelines to transport water from the deep desert reservoirs to the cities of Libya. We could see the concrete sections of the pipeline lined up for a very long stretch and the works continued on and on and on. But further on we lost sight of them and all there was, was the road, stretching ahead as far as the eye could see, and the desert all around us, and above it the big African sky, with only some wispy clouds. The drive became faintly hypnotic and the scale of the landscape was massive. [I neary forgot to mention the minor accident we had somewhere before Nalut. A young lad in a clapped out Peugeot pulled out in front of our van, I saw it in slow-motion but Issam couldn’t avoid him in time. No great harm done, just some scrapes and dents. At Nalut Issam had managed with some sand to remove the worst traces of the incident.]
We stopped for some photos now and then, of camels, of the sky, etc. We were definitely starting to get the feeling that we were heading into remote and empty places now. After several hours we reached the small town of Dirj, no more than a cross-roads with some houses and shops and a petrol station. The people looked different, darker and dustier, and this was the start of Tuareg country. There were clearly also some long-distance lorries and people from other parts of Africa. We stopped for some tea/coffee at one of the cafés to take a break and then continued the drive, turning west to head to Ghadames. At a few intervals there had been police checkpoints where Walid had to hand over a copy of the forms showing our itinerary and the tour operator’s details. The most remote one of these was on the stretch between Nalut and Dirj, a lonely outpost with a couple of soldiers and a pot of tea on the boil. Driving west to Dirj meant that the late afternoon sun was shining directly in our faces, which must have made it very hard for Issam driving. We watched the sun set behind the flat-topped hills in the distance and later ahead of us started to see the lights of Ghadames as dusk started to set in. The sunset lit up the few clouds and provided a glorious finale to the day.
We drove into Ghadames, which felt remote, out of the way, and was rather dusty. It had been a significant trading post and caravan town for a long period stretching back to before Roman times and through to the present day. So, while it is remote it was certainly not the “back of beyond” but more a long-standing hub in the Sahara, on the major trading routes. Best refer to Lonely Planet for the rest of the story. Walid and Issam drove through the blocks of the town, along the wide empty streets lined with modern two-storey concrete houses, to drop us at our hotel, the rather bland-looking but functional Kafila. We checked in, with Walid just doing a quick pre-check to make sure all was in order (e.g. hot water) before we dumped our bags.
It was basic but clean and fit for purpose. It turned out that we were the only hotel guests. I was hoping to see a bit of the town in the evening, but dinner had already been arranged for us at the hotel so we agreed to meet Walid after dinner at the hotel, for a “paseo” into town. The friendly waiter was a smiling man from Gambia. A bit before eight o’clock he called us in our room to say “hello my friend, the dinna is reddy”. We were the only diners and a place setting had been set for us at the very end of a long table. Dinner was served and consisted of soup, spaghetti with a meatball and orange peel, etc. Afterwards we sat in the “lounge”, an empty room with a few Chinese-style chairs, tables and settees, and wrote our diaries for a while before Walid and Issam, who were staying in a different hotel, came back to meet us again at nine o’clock. We drove the short distance of a couple of streets back to the centre. Along the way we passed a large mosque with its big dome and twin minarets, of which I had taken a nice picture earlier, as it stood outlined, silhouetted against the deep blue late dusk sky. Earlier on we had heard the muezzin’s calls ringing out across town from multiple mosques. Now it was dark and quiet although there was the odd car or pick-up that spluttered along the street, and some shops were open, with household goods, CD’s and DVD’s, and barbershops. We walked around with Walid, while Issam had gone to the internet café to catch up on his internet chat. Earlier during the day he shown us some pictures of him together with candidates at the local version of a “Let me be famous” kind of programme. One of them was with a pretty girl who I think he said was the winner, or he knew, or something. We strolled through the streets of Ghadames. The shop making the famous local slippers was still open and we went to have a look. It was a simple workshop with a few leather goods on display in the window. Inside the workshop several young boys were working on the slippers. It was clearly a family business. We took a look and observed the handiwork for a while and resolved to come back tomorrow.