Our ridiculous predicament in Ras Ajdir, the small border post between Tunisia and Libya, began three days ago. The slow emigration procedures on the Tunisian side of the border had taken ages and we arrived dead-tired late at night, obviously not the best of times to cross a frontier.
Despite our valid visas and an official invitation to the country, the grumpy Libyan officer decided he didn't like our faces. He sent us back to Tunisia straight away, waving off all of our protests. We demanded explanations, but he only mumbled something about a new law of Mohammar Ghaddafi's before he ditched us. "Individual travellers on motorbikes are no longer permitted to enter the country without a guide," he said. We should come back the next day.
Fortunately, we had met Jamil, a young Tunisian, earlier that day. He must have smelled the rat, for he had offered his help in case we encountered unexpected problems with the Libyans. Not only had he invited us to share a delicious traditional couscous meal, he had exchanged our Libyan dinars, too, and at a fair rate, on the black market. With nowhere else to go, and knowing that a bed would be waiting for us in his home, we gladly returned to accept his friendly offer.
Jamil served sweet mint tea in the morning and wished us good luck in our second attempt to cross the border. We felt we would need every bit of it, too, when shown to our seats in the shade of the Libyan immigration office. The place seems so bleak and forlorn. Nothing but a few white barracks in the desert. Tourists on all-inclusive tours wave at us through the windows of their air-conditioned buses. They all pass through without incident.
But Uwe and I must wait for a Mr. Aboud to come from the capital, Tripoli, to collect us. He had agreed over the phone to be our turbaned guide for the "small" fee of $ 250. "That's more than a bargain," he said. "My price is mere peanuts to a pair of Germans like you!" Entrusted with our passports once he arrived, he disappears into another of the stark low-rise buildings. "Don't worry. I'll be back in five minutes," he promised. We never saw him again.
Instead, about two hours later, a fretting, fuming border guard waves the passports in front of our noses. "How come I've found these in the ditch?" What the hell? We could only surmise in reply that Mr Aboud's mission wasn't very successful and so he tossed them there. We felt stupid - yes, just like "greenhorns" - having left our most valuable documents with a stranger, but at least we got them back without wasting money on a dodgy guide.
We couldn't give up though. The route across northern Africa through Libya is the only relatively safe way to Egypt. From there, our journey would take us upstream on the Nile, through war-torn Sudan and Ethiopia, and down into South Africa.
While we argued with the immigration officer, a Tunisian interrupts, and by his manner it seems he asks the Libyan a friendly question. Better for him if he hadn't, no matter what he asked. He gets a slap to his face as answer.
Nice guys, these Libyans!