Alison Darby This flagship journey is truly a voyage of superlatives. The mix of culture, adventure, scenery, walks, tip-top accommodation and gallery of characters met “en route” are unparalleled. Read More
The Hubble Family At Deogarh we had bike rideswith our 3 year old on a handlebar seat!and horse riding; at Bhenswara we spotted leopards on a night time safari, had henna painting and bullock cart rides Read More
Tracy Munford The trip was amazzzzziiiinnngggg!!!!!!! Bike ride was great, helicopter was great, guide was great, in fact everything was great! Read More
Libya: more than just deserts
If Tripoli is your first sight of Libya, prepare to be dazzled. Literally. The Bride of the Sea, as she is evocatively known to Tripolines, is stunningly white – an unforgettable feature of arrival here for as long as anyone can remember. Try this traveller’s view from 700 years ago: ‘When we approached, we were blinded by the brilliance of the buildings, from which the burning rays of the sun were reflected. I was convinced that rightly is Tripoli called the White City.’
Gleaming, Tripoli rises before you, staring out across the Mediterranean with insouciance and swagger, sweltering under a shameless sun just as she has for the three millennia since the seafaring Phoenicians established a trading post here. For centuries, this was the most important terminus of the slave trade routes of Tripolitania – the Roman province of the Three Cities – that penetrated across the desert deep into sub-Saharan Africa. Tripoli was linked to the outside world through this wretched trade.
Libya’s global connections may have declined over the past few decades, but they are picking up again now as it comes in from the metaphorical cold (in fact, the glorious climate is one of the country’s many charms). Still, the lingering sense of isolation adds to the exoticism of a country that has the finest Roman ruins in the Mediterranean, miles of unspoilt, sun-kissed beaches and the most extraordinary desert landscapes you’ll ever see.
And don’t forget the warmth of the welcome here, something that travellers have faithfully reported for centuries. Libyans greet you with the enthusiastic over-the-top hospitality that is the Arabs’ stock in trade. Greetings run into minutes. The pace of life – once again, changing as modernity starts to intrude – is a world away from the hurried West, and long may it remain so. Don’t give your BlackBerry another thought.
Head into Tripoli’s Old City and thread your way through Suq Al-Mushir, the gateway into the medina, to drink tea, smoke a shisha, haggle over trinkets and lose yourself in the dusty, winding alleys that make up this bijou market. One of my favourite landmarks is the old British Consulate on Shar’a al Kuwash, marked by a plaque describing the building’s illustrious history as a staging post for important voyages of discovery.
These pioneering 19th-century missions into the Sahara have been described as ‘so-called European geographical and explorative scientific expeditions to Africa, which were in essence and as a matter of fact intended to be colonial ones to occupy and colonise vital strategic parts of Africa’.
Once you’ve glimpsed the decaying Arch of Marcus Aurelius – best viewed from Dar Zomeet, an inspired conversion of a 19th-century Arab house in the heart of the medina and a good indication of the new, only recently unthinkable, Libyan luxe – your appetite for all things Roman will get the better of you and it’ll be time to hotfoot it along the coast. Any trip to Libya must include the two other cities that, together with Tripoli – which the ancients knew as Oea – made up Tripolitania: to the east, stately Leptis Magna; to the west, for years my favourite, the diminutive jewel of Sabratha.
There is no question about it. Sabratha is one of the Mediterranean’s great Roman sites. If fate had plonked it in neighbouring Tunisia instead of Libya, it would be awash with tourists. As it is, most of the times I have been lucky enough to wander among its tumbled columns and pedestals, I have had the whole place to myself. That won’t last forever, though, so better visit now before the hordes arrive.
Sabratha dates back to Phoenician times, probably between the late fourth and seventh centuries BC, when those irrepressible, seafaring merchants established it as an emporium or trading post. They introduced agriculture to the coastline, encouraging the cultivation of olives, vines and figs. Well before the Romans set foot in North Africa, Tripolitania was a great exporter of olive oil for use in Rome’s baths and lamps, if not its kitchens – the effete Romans considered African oil far too coarse for their delicate palates.
After oil came wild animals, exported in staggering numbers to feed the bloodlust of Rome’s circus-goers. Tens of thousands of elephants, flamingos, ostriches, lions and wild boar were shipped to their destruction. Titus marked the inauguration of the Colosseum by dispatching 9,000 animals into the arena to fight the gladiators.
Augustus had 3,500 African animals killed in the 26 games he gave to the people, while Trajan had 2,246 large animals slaughtered in a single day. On one occasion, Caesar sent 400 lions into the arena to kill or be killed by gladiators, outdone by Pompey, who sent in 600. What Strabo called North Africa’s ‘nursery of wild beasts’ couldn’t take such wholesale decimation and its animal population never recovered. If you’re hoping to spot a lion, don’t hold your breath.
Wander slowly through the Forum Basilica, where Claudius Maximus, Proconsul of Africa, acquitted the Latin writer Apuleius of Madura of a fabricated charge of witchcraft in 157. Behind you, the magnificent theatre, a warm terracotta in the late-afternoon sun, dominates the eastern part of the city. It was built in the late second century at the outset of the Severan dynasty – a time that would prove to be Roman Africa’s finest hour. It is hard to imagine a more romantic and dramatic spot, the cool blue sea visible only yards behind the three-storey scaenae frons that towers 82ft above the stage.
Gracious marble reliefs on the stage front depict the three Muses, the goddess Fortuna, Mercury with the infant Dionysus, the Judgement of Paris, Hercules, and personifications of Rome and Sabratha joining hands. Intoxicated by his plans to re-create the Roman Empire, Mussolini reinaugurated the theatre in 1937, almost 1,800 years after its birth. Time your day trip right and you can watch a magnificent lilac sunset flood across the sea from the serene Temple of Isis.
If Sabratha is bijou, Leptis is nothing short of big time. It is an august, truly imperial place that owes its greatness to its most famous son, Septimius Severus, the first African Roman Emperor, who seized the throne in 193. Elevated to power in Rome, he never lost sight of his African origins and Leptis became one of the foremost cities of the empire.
Architects and sculptors descended in droves from Rome and Asia Minor to create monuments such as the two-storey basilica – overwhelming in its sheer scale, gorgeous in its design, paved with marble and ruthlessly decadent with its soaring colonnades of Corinthian columns embellished with shafts of red Egyptian granite. Up went the Arch of Septimius Severus, built in 203 for the Emperor’s visit to his birthplace – an immense testimony to Rome’s mighty sway with marble reliefs detailing triumphal processions, naked winged Victories, captive barbarians and a united imperial family. A new forum was built, the circus was enlarged and the port rebuilt to accommodate 1,000-ton ships guided into the harbour by a 100ft lighthouse. Leptis had never known such glory and never would again.
When Septimius died campaigning in York in 211, the city embarked upon a long decline. Fifteen centuries later, Louis XIV had many of the city’s treasures exported to Paris. For the art historian Bernard Berenson, writing to his wife in 1935, the ruins of Leptis were unforgettable – ‘evocative and romantic to a degree that would be hard to exaggerate’. Deep in drifts of sand, choked by spreading trees and plants, hot beneath the streaming wind that rushes in from the sea, they still are today.
With Tripoli and Libya’s peerless Roman ruins behind you, the desert beckons. Of course it does. The Sahara really doesn’t get much better than in Libya, from the rolling waves of the Ubari Sand Sea – dune-bashing if you must, but you’d be better off, if time allows, taking a camel rather than a four-wheel drive – to the rusty wasteland of the Hammada al Hamra (Red Plain) and the lunar landscape of the Tadrart Akakus.
Wherever you are, you’ll never forget your first sight of the sand dunes. They open out before you like an unconquerable army, with a rearguard reaching deep into the horizon. Their smooth curves stretch towards the sky, plunging sharply into deep troughs, blown into elegant silhouettes by the invisible wind.
Then there are the gem-like oases, such as Gabraoun and Umm-al-Ma (Mother of Water), which are miracles of life and limpid water amid the burning wilderness. There’s no more enticing place on the planet to camp out for the night, or dip into for a quick swim. The solitude experienced amid these silent kingdoms of sand is like nothing else. There’s no point resisting: you’ll be forever smitten.
The desert has that effect on you. As Sir Richard Burton, no mean desert traveller himself, put it back in the 19th century: ‘Your lungs are lightened, your sight brightens, your memory recovers its tone, and your spirits become exuberant; your fancy and imagination are powerfully aroused, and the wildness and sublimity of the scenes around you stir up all the energies of your soul… all feel their hearts dilate, and their pulses beat strong, as they look down from their dromedaries upon the glorious desert. Where do we hear of a traveller being disappointed by it?’ We never do.
One of the most extraordinary landscapes of the Libyan Sahara is the Tadrart Akakus, with its spectacular sculpted sandstone vistas, rocky mountains and magnificent rock art dating back into fathomless time – 10,000BC and beyond (those at St Awis are particularly well-preserved). Think The English Patient, only much better and for real. Don’t forget to pack Herodotus’s Histories, like Ralph Fiennes’s character, the Hungarian explorer-spy Count László de Almásy.
Chances are you’ll be able to share this otherworldly place with its equally remarkable people. The Tuareg have fascinated visitors ever since Europeans made their first tentative forays into the desert. Their pedigree as guides is long and distinguished, if occasionally a little Mafia-like.For centuries, the Libyan Tuareg derived their living from escorting caravans through the desert. Merchants were invariably strongly ‘encouraged’ to retain guides or armed guards for the journey through areas under Tuareg control. Charges were based on the estimated value of the goods in transit and the supposed wealth of the owners. Caravans foolish enough not to co-operate ran the very real risk of being plundered by the same men who had offered themselves as escorts. The Tuareg supplemented these earnings by raiding neighbouring territories for booty, livestock and slaves, trading salt with merchants from the north, and maintaining herds of camels, sheep and goats.
These days, the Tuareg tend to be more familiar with four-wheel drives than camels, but their knowledge of the desert is still second to none. You’ll enjoy your time with them. And, fortunately for the modern traveller, you’re a lot less likely to be fleeced than the merchants and explorers of old.
Let us create your perfect bespoke adventureClick Here
Choose one of our favourite exclusive itinerariesClick Here
Explore our Wild World, from top-end luxury to extreme adventureClick Here
Enjoy one of our highly original small group toursClick Here
Get In Touch
- Call Us: 1 800 454 1080
- Ask an Expert