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This weekend saw me realize a childhood dream: spending a night in the Sahara desert! It was an absolutely magical experience which exceeded all my expectations and confirmed a couple of things for me: Libya has a lot to offer for the adventurous souls who are willing to explore; Libyans are quickly, in my opinion, rising the charts for the friendliest people in the world; deserts, despite their aggressive and harsh appearance, can be among the most breathtaking landscapes on earth.

This trip to the Sahara desert started off as a weekend trip idea after I read about the Ubari lakes. Initially I was thinking of going solo for this (by the way ‘solo’ in Libya means alone but with a guide). However when I asked my workmate Abdul about the trip (he used to be a tour guide in Leptis Magna), he said he would join me as he had never been there before. Two plus guide. Then I happened to mention the trip to my housemates (thinking they would not be interested), who suddenly perked up and said Agentetambemvai!(‘We are going too!’). Four plus guide. Then one of my housemates mentioned this to some friends of his and they repeated the above statement. Six plus guides and more cars would be needed. The process above repeated itself and by the start of the week we were a group of twelve plus three guides.

And at that stage it was a hard trip to organize as no one had camping equipment, not everyone wanted to camp, and some people were scared of going into the desert. I managed to get everyone excited about the idea of camping but by Friday the twelve had been reduced to six.

Abdul, my Libyan workmate, organized transport and drivers for us and managed tents for those who didn’t have equipment.

The plan

Leave work a tad earlier and catch a flight to the southern town of Sebha. Our drivers would pick us up from the airport and drive us into the desert. We would set up camp, eat, smoke shisha, and enjoy the solitude of a desert night. The next morning we would get up to see the sunrise and then have breakfast. We would then head towards the Ubari lakes where we would spend the day. After a day at the lakes, we would head back to Sebha and fly back to Tripoli.

On paper this plan sounded perfect to me. In reality, the trip would exceed all my expectations.

The journey

We got to the airport and awaited our flight to Sebha airport. A little interjection at this point; I’ve travelled with my shisha (or nargile/argile) before and always take it as carry-on luggage. Most times in Europe I’m asked to open the box so that airport security can check the contents and in Frankfurt it got tested for explosives, but I’ve always been able to bring it on to a plane with me. However, airport security in Tripoli, where smoking shisha is commonplace, made us check in our shishas. No, I don’t get it either.

We boarded our tiny little plane that looked a lot like a private jet but wasn’t. An hour later we landed at Sebha international (apparently) airport. I don’t know what is required for an airport to be called international, but this airport was about the size of my living room, so we assumed it was either a bad typo or illusions of grandeur from this little town. We giggled a bit and made our way out of the airport to meet our drivers (guides) Othman, Belkasem, and Ali.

We got into our cars and made our way to a little market to buy supplies. Once we had everything we needed we got into our cars and made our way into the Sahara desert. We drove for about 45 minutes before arriving at our destination: a nice big dune which we would call home for the night. As I was the only experienced camper, I set up my tent quickly and went into the desert to help our guides find firewood. We found some dead bushes and collected the wood and took it back to camp and started the camp fire.

While Belkasem and I were building the fire, Ali was making dough. Abdul had told me that they were going to make bread for us, using fire and sand. So while Ali was making dough, Omar and I prepared our shishas (which had survived the cargo hold) and the others sat around the warm fire. I had been told (and had read numerous times) that the Sahara can be cold at night, but when we arrived there around half past eight the weather was actually very comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that I changed into my shorts.

As we smoked shisha, the bread making was about to start. Ali had rolled the dough into a disc (like a very thick pizza or bizza as they say in Libya). They then moved the coal from the fire to one side, put the dough in the sand, covered the dough with sand, and then put the coals on top of the sand. That was our Sahara oven.

Felipe brought his iPod speakers and I put in my iPod and played some Tinariwen, a Tuareg group from Mali who play what is known as desert blues. It’s a style of music I liked but had never actually listened to in the desert. But listening to Tinariwen’s music in the place it was created gave the music the life and soul it lacks when played in any other setting.

Sitting in the sand by the fire, smoking my shisha, and listening to the desert blues under the full moon and stars in the Sahara is something that I definitely will not ever forget and really was a dream come true.

After about 30 minutes the bread was ready. And believe me, the sand bread I ate with my coffee was some of the best bread I’ve had in ages! Our drivers then made dinner for us. I can’t remember what the dish was called but it was good! As we sat there in a circle around this pot eating the food with our hand and bread my housemate said ‘This is perfect!’. The sentiment was repeated around the circle and then we all looked at Belkasem, Othman, and Ali and said in unison ‘Mia mia!’ which is what the Libyans say when something is very good.

We got ready for some sleeping in the freezing Sahara night, well most of us, as Felipe for some reason decided to have a little party in his tent… on his own… with his Ipod dock and ipod… singing along loudly to Swiss German music…  I think he was the Sahara’s first victim on this trip. Illness? Insanity.

The next morning I woke up at half past six and then got everyone else up so that we could head off to the dune to see the Sahara sunrise. I never thought it could get as cold as it did in the desert. It was freezing! I was so happy to have my skiing hat and scarf with me. However as it turns out we actually woke up too early so we sat on the dune for an hour before seeing the sun. However we did see the moon setting which I’d never experienced before and then witnessed the Sahara dawn. Seeing the undulating dunes slowly becoming visible as daylight creeps across the desert is something quite spectacular. Eventually the sun peaked out over the horizon and revealed the true extent of the Sahara’s colour, contours, and shapes to us. To describe it as beautiful is a major injustice and I lack the vocabulary to come up with another adjective. I will simply state that it needs to be experienced first hand. The breathtaking dawn and sunset was the cue for heading back down to camp to prepare breakfast (boiled eggs and coffee) and pack up.

Once again we were on the road, this time heading deeper into the desert towards the Ubari lakes. Driving through desert landscape towards the lakes brought home how tough and unforgiving the desert could be, but its beauty is undeniable. The hour-long drive through the dunes was monotonous, however that monotony was completely broken when over the ridge of the dune we caught our first sight of Lake Gebraoun. The complete contrast between the yellow sand and the greenish blue water is quite an awesome sight. Gebraoun’s shores are littered with the remains of abandoned towns, camps from various tour companies, and Toureg handicraft stalls. We spent roughly an hour by this lake taking photos and walking around the camps. I also practised my very bad and basic French with the Tuareg hawkers.

From here we moved to Lake Mavo. It’s a smaller lake which isn’t shouldered by the gigantic dunes like Gebraoun, yet it is still impressive to see any reasonable expanse of water in the middle of this arid landscape.

The best was clearly left for last by our guides. Lake Umm al-Maa is smaller than the others, however its elongated shape fringed by palm trees and shouldered by some big dunes made it my favourite of the three lakes. It was here as well where we would have lunch, shisha and a good chill out session. I decided to go for a swim in the lake while everyone was preparing lunch. Going into the water was a strange sensation as it was very cold close to the surface and got warmer the deeper you went. Combine that weird thermic difference with a lot of salt and you get a strange swimming experience.

After the swim, we all settled down for a nap until lunch was ready. As per usual, lunch was followed by shisha and some tea and coffee. And then for the last time that day, we packed our gear back into the 4×4s. We had one more stop before taking the long road through the desert back to Sebha. Mandara used to be the biggest of the Ubari lakes but intensive agriculture and evaporation have left the lake bereft of water.

With that final empty lake, our day in the Ubari lakes was over. It was an amazing weekend trip with a good bunch of people who had the right adventurous spirit to make the trip fun and interesting. Our drivers Belkasem, Othman, and Ali were amazing: always friendly, always happy, and wanting to show us things. Their amazing meals and bread gave the trip a special feel to it and made me happy to be in a country where locals want to share with you.

I now look forward to another trip in this amazing country.


First published in January 2010 on Travelling Tonito's Adventures in the Sahara.  Republished with permission in November 2010.

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by Tony Fernandes

This article was first published in the blog Travelling Tonito's Adventures in the SaharaBased in Tripoli, Tonito’s blog is always entertaining and full of life. Make sure you check out this blog to follow Tonito’s journey as he embraces life in Libya.


Published Nov 2010