North Africa: Trans Sahara Part One

North Africa: Trans Sahara Part One
Using the worldwide web to make my travel preparations, I sit for hours in front of my monitor, scanning maps and calculating GPS-data. Immersed in the process, I almost feel like I'm already motoring north of Tschad in the Tibesti Mountains. In reality I am still at home in Salzburg, Austria. It is the middle of October and the mountains surrounding Salzburg are already snow-capped.

My trip begun, it's not the good old Habib that carries me from Genoa to Tunis but a new boat called Carthago. On board some of my fellow passengers and I are concerned about the problems we may encounter entering Libya. According to an unverified notice, entry for those travelling alone may not be possible even if one possesses a valid visa; therefore, I decided to join forces with two Bavarians and try our luck together at the border.

Over the last few kilometres, on the way to the border, the number of black marketers waving bundles of money increases drastically. Completing the entry formalities is a slow process, but finally one of the officers finds a suitable plate to bolt on my motorcycle and I am ready to enter the empire of Muammar al-Kadhafi. I part company with my Bavarian friends, who take the direct route to the south, and travel along an excellent asphalt road to Tripoli.

Increasing traffic flow tells me I'm approaching the capital of Libya and I curb my KTM at the reception entrance to the Libyan Palace Hotel. The small roads in the old part of Tripoli exhibit a lot of ancient Arabic atmosphere and on several occasions a friendly soul at a table in one of the numerous street-side coffee shops invites me to pull up a chair and have a cup or to puff away at his water pipe.

The route to Sabha appears as a monotonous stretch of asphalt flowing straight ahead to the far horizon. Villages noted in my map turn out to consist of little more than a few houses and a petrol station. A petrol price of five cents per litre is almost negligible where the travel budget is concerned. Dunes on both sides of the road become more frequent and larger, and after a rather boring journey I finally reach Erg Ubari, which lies like a huge sea of sand before me. With my luggage safely stowed in the campsite in Terkiba, I eagerly mount my Pirelli MT 21 and motor off to try my first ride in the dunes. Tire pressure lowered to 18lb/in, finally, late that afternoon I climb the first dune at high speed. Easier than I thought: the biggest difficulty is to find the right speed in order to reach the top on the one hand and to avoid being catapulted over of the dune by carrying too much speed on the other hand.

The beginning of October does not seem to be the main travel season in Libya - apart from me there is no one else on the way to the Mandara Sea today. Early in the morning, only loaded with what is essential, 10 litres of water, my sleeping bag and few bites to eat, I start my journey on quite compact sand. Here, amid these dunes, I notice for the first time that the hours of preliminary work at home become more and more valuable. Thanks to the GPS, I don't encounter any problems finding the right way to Mandara. I am, however, heavily disappointed when I arrive there - the Mandara Sea is all dried up. The abandoned lakeside houses are slowly but surely dilapidating, quite a dreary sight. After a few kilometres through low dunes I reach Um el Ma, "The mother of water." Massive dunes, some reaching heights of 100 meters, surround this sea, its shore lined by palms. It is already noon and I decide to take a rest under a palm tree, but my nap is soon disturbed when thirty noisy jeeps loaded with travellers from France mar the holy silence of Um el Ma. After a minute's stop, taking photos, they disappear as quickly as they appeared, continuing their journey through the dunes.