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ACACUS

WHERE THE TUAREGS ROAM AND THE CAMEL IS KING

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.





Ever since seeing photos of the Acacus Mountains I had been fascinated and desperate to go there but considering the amount of driving involved I decided to visit over Eid Al Fitr as my normal one-day weekend would not be long enough.

Day1: Tripoli to Sebha


Abdulatti and I flew from Tripoli to Sebha  (the third time I’ve done this trip). Othman, our guide/driver and friend from the previous excursions to the desert, picked us up from the airport and we went straight to the supermarket to get our supplies for three days and three nights in the desert. He then did something that both me and Abdulatti did not expect. He invited us to have
iftar with him and his family and we naturally accepted the invitation. I was intrigued at the prospect of spending iftar with a Libyan family for the first time.

Iftar with a Libyan family was quite different from what I had experienced in Abu Dhabi. We arrived at Othman’s house and were escorted to the main reception room where Othman’s brothers and cousins were already sitting, eagerly awaiting the prayer in order to break the fast. We sat on the floor around a communal platter where all the food was placed. The fast was broken with dates and a glass of milk, then the main dishes were brought in consisting of a delicious lentil soup and an even more delicious stew, which were all eaten from a communal bowl. They kept insisting I eat more but I was full and  said in my pigeon Arabic La’a Shukran, anaa kolo kabira! (‘No thank you, I’m too big’ i.e. too full or fat for more.) Coffee and tea was served after our meal and the men started chatting . At no time did I see the women of the house as they were in another room, which is normal when there are guests at home. I don’t have any photos as I thought it would be inappropriate to take any and I also didn’t want my hosts to feel that they were a tourist attraction.

Abdulatti and I said our thank yous and goodbyes and made our way into the desert. It was only around 11 when Othman found us a nice spot in the dunes to camp in but I was already so sleepy that I as soon as I had pitched my tent I crawled inside and fell asleep.

Day 2: Ghat and entering the Acacus

The next morning I was awoken by the sunlight penetrating my tent so I got up to look at the amazing sight of the golden desert sands rippling out before me and even though I have seen this spectacle of nature more than once, I will never get sick of it. 

The drive to Ghat was long and monotonous. Six hours on the road where the landscape at times just looked like a barren wasteland of rocky flat desert with the occasional bush and tree to remind you that things can actually live out there. At police checkpoints we were stopped about five times, though in most cases only a greeting was exchanged before we were waved through.

We arrived in Ghat at 1, not the best time to explore the medina due to the heat, but we had no choice.  Even though I didn’t have any expectations, for the first time in Libya I was left disappointed. The medina looked and felt derelict; yes, I understand it was early afternoon on the first day of Eid, but still ... After exploring the eerily abandoned medina we got back into our car and headed to the town of Awaynat where we would enter the Acacus mountains.

Our long drive into the Acacus was broken only by a short lunch.  After driving through some farmland, most of the remaining route was along an open stretch of flat rocky desert. There is something foreboding about being in a place like this:  ‘What happens if the car breaks down?!’  I kept dozing off due to the heat and monotony of the drive.

After an hour (or twelve) I was awoken by Othman, ‘Tonito! Look! Acacus!’  And there before us in the distance the basalt rock monoliths stood guard at the entry of the mountain range. Our first stop would be a rock formation called Adhad, or the finger. Here we got out and climbed up the rock which seemed poised to fall over at any second. From here Othman took us to our next point of interest which was a rock engraving of a woman and child. After some more photos, it was time to look for a place to camp for the night.

We headed straight into the mountains, and it looked as though one day a giant had taken a bucket of sand and emptied it over the mountains. There is also a strange change that occurs during sunset as the rock monoliths lose their almost aggressive aura and suddenly it feels right to be surrounded by all this rock and sand, like you are meant to be there, like it is home.


Once Othman had found us a nice camping spot,  Abdulatti and I went out looking for firewood while Othman got dinner started. When the fire was going strong and dinner was simmering away, I opened up my ‘golden box’  and prepared a
shisha. Surrounded by rock formations and sand we had our dinner under a blanket of bright stars. The serenity of this night was only heightened when I put some Tuareg desert blues on the iPod. Tinariwen lulled us into submission to the desert’s inescapable beauty with their mesmerizing guitar riffs and so we went to sleep on the sea of sand with the rocky plinths.



Day 3: Exploring the Acacus

I emerged from the tent to find the sun peaking above the rock formations and at the same time illuminating them with an orange-brown hue and once again the beauty of the Sahara left me speechless. I really can’t get enough of this stunning landscape!

More driving through the flat rocky desert to get to another part of the Acacus, though this time Othman had a Bob Dylan CD to relieve the monotony of the route. There was something different about the sand and that’s when Othman said something about
moya (water) and mashalla (God is good) at which point I realized it had rained here recently. Soon it was obvious by the pools of water everywhere.



The other surprising thing was to see goats grazing and watermelon-like fruits growing in certain places. Othman then went on to explain that the goats belong to the Tuareg  and that they plant the fruits for sustenance. As Othman was explaining this, out of nowhere two dogs appeared and frantically chased the car and as we looked back we could see a Tuareg in the distance calling the dogs back. I had read that many Tuareg still live off the desert but found it hard to believe until I saw the dogs, fruit and the Tuareg herder.




Our first stop was Afozedzhar, a mammoth natural arch which makes you think about the creative (and destructive) powers of nature.

Back into the car and off to find some rock art. As we were driving around the wadi I spotted what looked like shelters in the distance, which Othman confirmed as being Tuareg dwellings. Othman then drove towards the dwellings. I couldn’t believe my luck, we were going to meet genuine desert-dwellers! We were greeted by Ahmed, a young Tuareg and his younger brothers Faqi and Mohamed. Othman was speaking to Ahmed about the rain  and Abdulatti started chatting to the young ones. He asked them if he could take photos, and they, to my surprise (and relief), said no. It was encouraging to see that these Tuareg weren’t there as a tourist gimmick and weren’t interested in having their photos taken.

Othman went on to buy a goat skin from the Tuareg family. I’m still not sure what was the purpose of the goat skin but later on that day he did fill it with water and empty it again, which I found disconcerting as I was not looking forward to drinking water from the head of a water-filled goat skin.

After Othman’s purchase, we were off into the wadi and soon  found a cordoned-off section by the rocks and our first rock drawings, the hunting scene. These 1200-year-old drawings are a UNESCO world heritage site and are scattered all over the region. Unfortunately many of these drawings have been vandalized, but a fair number still remain in good condition.

We then headed towards a shady cave in the mountain where we decided to have lunch. It was surprising to me that in September the weather was bearable and actually quite cool in the shade.

Rest time over and back to the road for more odd rock formations and more rock art. After visiting the wedding scene rock drawings, Tin Halega natural arch, Tan Loubbou arch and other rock formations with no name I started to wonder whether the sun was affecting me as I kept seeing Homer Simpson, elephant feet, birds’ beaks, etc.

The sun was setting and  Othman once again outdid himself by finding us a very nice, secluded camping spot surrounded by the jagged rocks. That evening Othman was clearly in an English-learning mood as we started an impromptu English/Arabic lesson. The desert sands of the Sahara were our desk; the rocky plinths and the shimmering stars of the milky way the walls and roof to our classroom; and all the while Tinariwen’s mesmerizing desert blues played in the background.

Day 4: Return to Sebha and Tripoli

The next day we got up with another beautiful sunrise. On the way back to Sebha we passed the Adhad, the finger rock formation, to which Othman pointed and said what sounded like ‘dildo’! Abdulatti and I looked at each other and burst out laughing! Othman  laughed sheepishly and then said the word again which was actually
dedo (the Italian word for ‘finger’). After seven long hours we were back in Sebha and waiting to catch our flight to Tripoli.



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



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Published Nov 2010

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