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2006 Jordan and Syria

Part 3 of this Journey

The nine hour voyage from Nuweiba, in Egypt, to Aqaba across the Gulf of Aqaba was tedious. The ex Danish Ferry was very old and seemed to go exceptionally slowly and the ship was very crowded although not full of vehicles. We had booked our passage in Cairo and there we had to pay in US dollars a total of 237$ (260€ or about £190) for our camper and two passengers. We soon decided to lash out the 10€ (65 E£) for a cabin and had a good rest. When the ship eventually docked it was already dark and fortunately the formalities took only about 90 minutes. Our group had a visa but we had to pay diesel duty, compulsory third party insurance and a passport fee which totalled 208 Jordanian Dinar (260€, £142), before we left the port. Fortunately the campsite at Aqaba is just a few minutes down the coast towards the Saudi Arabian border so we got there quickly for our 2 night stay. The site offers an open sandy field facing the sea, electricity, water and a small WC/Shower block (but we chose not to use that).

The next morning we found out we had to put our clocks on another hour because of Jordan Summer Time which is CET + 1 hour. We soon caught a bus from outside the site into Aqaba at a cost of 0.5JD (0.55€, £0.37) and enjoyed a new shopping experience, no more being hassled to “come into my shop”, a good lunch at Ali Baba’s Restaurant and we met Radif who was an extra in the film Lawrence of Arabia and could not wait to show us his memorabilia.

There are three ways north from Aqaba, The Dead Sea road, the desert road and the King’s Highway. Initially we took the desert road to Wadi Rum, having made a brief diversion to the local Safeway supermarket. The Fiat that had first broken down was having major problems again and was seeking help in Aqaba but when it caught us up it had developed a major diesel leak.

We spent a day exploring the wonders of Wadi Rum in some Bedouin Jeeps, plus we enjoyed a great walk and some fantastic bird watching seeing especially the Egyptian Vulture launching off the high cliff faces. It is in places like this that motorhomes are unbeatable, camped right in the heart of Wadi Rum at the edge of the small Bedouin village surround by the most magnificent scenery you could ask for. How else could you cook kippers and poached eggs for breakfast in this location? (Sadly they were the last from our small freezer!).

The next day we planned to drive the 125kms (80m) to Petra along the Kings highway but first there was the problem of the Fiat that just would not go for more than a few seconds. Eventually it was agreed that the large MAN based motorhome in the group would tow him to Amman a distance of 300kms (190m) with another smaller camper acting as tail end Charlie. We then left along the King’s Highway, so called because Moses sought permission to use this route for his passage from Egypt, to the Jordan Valley, from the local Kings. It is a marvellous route rising to 1700m with great views across the rift valley towards Israel and the Negev Desert. We saw eagles and falcons as we stopped to let a large flock of sheep pass by along the narrow road and were soon in Wadi Musa the town above Petra. It was great not to have the police either present or constantly stopping us and recording our registration details which had become the norm in Egypt. Here we camped in the car park of a small hotel and were able to use the showers and toilets that were provided especially for campers at the same level. Built into the side of a cliff we were at level 0 and reception was on Floor 6 but that did not distract from the good Turkish bath and the Internet point that was available. The tow vehicles eventually caught up with us having left the Fiat in an Amman garage.

Duly rested we were ready to explore the wonders of Petra. The hotel minibus took us down through the village to the ticket office and we walked through the canyon towards the first sight of this Nabataean treasure. Built it is thought in the 6th century BC it is quite awe inspiring and you quickly get used to the vendors of horse, camel and donkey rides. As we progressed through the valley beyond a small boy on a donkey appeared alongside us. “What’s your name?” he asked my wife, “Judith” she replied. “I am Fariq” he said and then looked at me and said “And you are Michael”. Now no one calls me Michael, only my mother and I had nothing showing my name. So how did he know? We tried asking but he just smiled and said “I am a Bedouin”. After some weeks I have still not solved this fascinating puzzle. Fariq reappeared later that day and told us all about his family and put us on the correct path for some mosaics in a Byzantine Church, he never once tried to sell us a donkey ride or souvenir and for a 9 year old he spoke perfect English.

After a truly fascinating, puzzling and tiring day we returned to our hotel for a good nights sleep. The following day I spent some time checking our vehicle; oil, water, tyres, batteries etc. before enjoying another long Turkish bath. The news about the Fiat was encouraging a new diesel pump had been fitted and the leak cured. After a day of comparative rest we continued along the King’s Highway towards the Christian town of Madhaba where the town centre church of St George welcomed us in there car park and we had a great dinner in the Haret Jdoudna restaurant in the town. St Georges is the home of a fascinating mosaic showing the known world about 2000 years ago, orientated to the east from the Mediterranean.

From Madhaba we went the short ride to Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have seen Jordan for the first time. Mount Nebo is at 1200m and you have fascinating views of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. We then descended from 1200m to minus 400m to the banks of the Dead Sea in just a matter of minutes. We had swum in the Dead Sea a few years ago, when we visited Israel, which was fortunate because this time we didn’t try to repeat the experience as it was cold with a strong wind blowing. After a night camped on the banks of this salty lake we made the steep climb up to Amman which we had to cross to get to the German sponsored school where we were to stay for a few nights. As we entered the school the first sign across the large landscaped gardens was to the metalwork shop but it directed you to the “Forgery Training Department” this was just one of many interesting translations we came across on our journey.

Amman is situated on the site of the earlier city of Philadelphia and, like so many, built on seven hills. We had a fascinating day touring the capital with its impressive mosque and citadel before heading further north to Jerash. Jerash is an old Roman City that is well preserved and we enjoyed some interesting entertainment when the locals put on a chariot race, and some Roman Army manoeuvres in the Roman Hippodrome. With the commentary in English it was a real piece of theatre and light hearted fun. Unfortunately the campsite was some distance from town but we soon found a friendly taxi driver who was a fountain of knowledge and reasonably priced. He took us to a large family restaurant for Sunday lunch which was packed full of locals and as they did not have any menus in English or German we had what everyone else was having and that turned out to be a truly memorable meal.

From Jerash we drove north to the Syrian border on the road to Damascus. Getting out of Jordan was fairly simple but time consuming and cost 15JDs (18€) after we fought off the locals who just pushed in at every opportunity. Having driven the 5kms across no mans land, covered with olive and cedar trees and some well armed soldiers, we reached the Syrian border. The formalities took just over 3 hours and diesel tax was 83€ per week or part week, our original plan was to stay 9 days but that was quickly changed to save the second 83€ payment. Diesel in Syria was 7S£ per litre (0.11€ or £0.07) but we soon realised that the pumps were not particularly accurate and that was not to our advantage. The campsite at Damascus was not easy to find and that lead to an interesting tour in itself.

Damascus, said to be the oldest city in the world, was wonderful, we toured the souk and ventured in to the best ice cream shop in Syria, or so our guide book told us. It was great, meeting the locals (there must have been at least 250 people inside) and trying the ice cream and rice pudding. Then we tried a tea shop before visiting other parts of the souk buying things we realised we could not live without or so I was told! Of course we did not miss the obligatory visit to the citadel and mosque.

Damascus behind us and we were driving east, through boring never ending desert, the signs kept saying Baghdad. Our lunch time stop saw us next to a worried looking driver who was delivering tanks (water) to Iraq. The worrying thing was he wished us luck. When we got to the sign that read Baghdad 100kms (63m) we turned north towards Palmyra our next stop. Here we camped alongside the Roman ruins in the car park of the Zenobia Hotel. The guardian took it upon himself to wash all the camper vans, whether you wanted it or not and wanted 3€ (£2), the state mine was in after 12 weeks travelling it was well worth it. We spent the next day walking around the ruins, and the temple of Baal, and the old city which was a great experience and worth the journey. Here we met a young Swiss couple who had shipped their Land Rover to India and then had driven through Pakistan, Iraq and Turkey to get into Syria, their stories were fascinating.

Already thinking about a trip to India we drove west from Palmyra towards Homs. The desert was just as bleak but as the Syrians had recently withdrawn a large Army from Lebanon we soon realised where all the hardware and troops were now stationed. When we stopped for coffee the police were on us within minutes, but after a friendly chat we finished our coffee and proceeded to Krak des Chevaliers, a Teutonic Knight’s Castle built between the 11th and 13th centuries. We spent a few hours climbing up the highest parts and wandering down all the inner areas of this historic monument. It was strange to think that Richard the Lionheart walked on these ramparts during the crusades.

From Krak we descended down to the valley below and drove north to Allepo, Syria’s biggest city. In fact we stayed some 20kms west of the city in a small village campsite next to a mosque. We got a bus into Aleppo so that we could visit the famous citadel, and of course the mosque, and spend a few pennies in the souk which is allegedly the world’s largest. We stayed in town for the evening to sample Syrian cuisine in a famous restaurant and this meant we had to get a taxi back to the campsite at about 11.30. The price was fine but the taxi driver’s driving was an absolute nightmare, we came across a three car pile up and said if they drive like this guy it is no wonder there aren’t more accidents. Anyway we got back and prepared to set off the next morning for the Turkish border some 26kms away.

At the border the most important thing was to get our carnet stamped showing our exit date so that we could get our cash deposit back. Unfortunately the border was chaotic and we were forced to join a queue of dozens of trucks. Nothing was moving and talking to a few of the drivers it was clear that it would take them 5 days to get through to Turkey because of problems caused to normal trade routes by the Iraq war. We were then told that unless we moved quickly we would be trapped for 3 days as the exit was being closed. The only thing was to try the other way and go through the other entry gates, this seemed to work but the narrow road through the 8kms of no mans land turned out to be a double queue of trucks, some trying to leave and others trying to enter. There gap between the trucks was just a few inches and it seemed impossible to make any headway.

However a few smiles and hand gestures and hey presto a small gap opened and we started the drive of a lifetime, if the wing mirrors could get through then so could the rest of our van. Truck driver’s who were going to be there for up to 5 days anyway were most co-operative, and most moved just enough for us to pass. When we reached the point where the driver had disappeared we were forced to head for the small hard shoulder, ensuring the we did not fall into the ditch, then we got back into the middle “lane” again. When we thought we nearly had the problem solved we met, head on, a group of Australians doing exactly the same thing after some heated negotiations they pulled in between two trucks so that we could pass. After nearly 2 hours we made it to the Turkish frontier. Inside Turkey there was a queue nearly 12kms long of parked trucks of every description waiting to join the 5 day queue.

Whilst this was not the end of our trip it is the end of this story. We thoroughly enjoyed the 5 months that the whole trip took and would encourage others to do the same magical circle through North Africa and the Middle East.

2006 Eqypt The land of the Pharaohs

Part 2 of our Journey

Entry into Egypt could at best be described as boring. We spent many hours in a variety of windswept compounds completing all the necessary formalities. Departure from Libya took only 90 minutes and involved returning the Libyan number plates and ensuring the carnet de passage was correctly stamped recording our departure. On the Egyptian side we had to get Egyptian number plates, driving licence (in Arabic of course and showing the new registration number), passport stamps and carnet de passage duly recorded.

There was an interesting interval when they needed to see the chassis number on the vehicle; fortunately they knew exactly where it was so a quick turn of the front wheels duly exposed the number. Then they needed to see the engine number, neither we nor they knew where that was so a length of wire was strung around the engine and sealed with an official lead seal duly stamped. We assumed this was to ensure we did not sell the engine whilst in Egypt. We were told that there would be big problems if this wire was cut or damaged, however when the next official arrived he realised that all engines in the convoy had been sealed with the same number so he gave up that exercise, we still have the wire wrapped around the engine as a souvenir.

Having fitted the new plates and duly armed with our new Egyptian driving licence and our correctly stamped passport and carnet we entered Egypt after about 6 hours complete with a police escort of two policemen and four armed soldiers. Entry fees totalled 263.50 E£ (£26) and our escort took us to our first camping place near Sidi Barani which was on the parking lot at the rear of a Tamoil service station. Not the best site for our first night in the Land of the Pharaohs but the small restaurant did serve a tasty meal.

Our armed escort spent the night in the same place and we were soon to get used to having them around even though the personalities changed daily the old blue Chevrolet pick-up was never going to be far away. We spent 30 magical days touring around Egypt and would have stayed longer but we were told a fee of at least 100€ would be pay be payable for each day over 30. On the plus side diesel was readily available at about 0.62 E£ per litre so filling cost only about 4.30€ (£2.75).

On the first day our lunch stop saw us at Marsa Matruh on the Mediterranean coast and we had the opportunity to shop to our hearts content in the various small shops and enjoy a hot meat pie baked by the friendly local butcher. The afternoon saw us continue our journey across the flat, barren landscape to El Alamein. There were few cars on the road and the roads themselves were reasonable once you allow for the continuous potholes and speed bumps. Having visited the Italian War Memorial we camped that night at the German War Memorial where the local Bedouin in charge gave us water and electricity. The following morning we spent a couple of hours at the El Alamein Museum and the Commonwealth War Cemetery before joining the new toll motorway towards Cairo. An overnight diversion into the Qattara Depression, some 40 metres below sea level, enabled us to spend the night at Wadi Natrun alongside a Coptic Monastery, where we enjoyed a fascinating guided tour conducted by one of the monks.

The next morning was interesting, our police escort vehicle had a flat tyre and they had no spare or the means to remove the wheel, it also had water pouring out of the radiator but that was the least of their problems. With our group’s help the wheel was removed and the vehicle left on a jack. Clearly they were not going to be with us for a while, so we continued our journey to Cairo but it was not long before another escort vehicle came alongside. Just before Cairo and having paid the 4E£ (£0.40) toll we thought we had seen our first mirage a large Carrefour supermarket! But there it was and 2 hours saw us replenish our stock cupboard which was getting a little bare after 7 weeks of travelling.

The second mirage was to follow quite soon, as we entered Greater Cairo and trying to get around a chaotic roundabout there on our right was the Pyramid of Kheops, unbelievable and a tantalising glimpse of what was to follow over the next few days. Not wishing to oversell themselves our campsite was described as “alongside a polluted open sewer and infested by rats and wild dogs”; here we were to spend the next 5 nights. Still it could have been worse and life was just about tolerable even if the mosquitoes did bite with a vengeance. Over the next few days we would spend hours at the Cairo Museum, the Pyramids and the Sphinx, the stepped Pyramids at Saqqara, the Cairo Citadel and at the Son et Lumiere at Giza. Hopefully my photos at flickr.com will go someway to adequately convey the awe and wonder of these great sites.

With some sadness, and itching bites, we said goodbye to Cairo and headed out into the western desert for the next 5 days. The western desert came as a sharp contrast to the chaos of Cairo, firstly there was little or no traffic and the roads got progressively worse; more bumps, more potholes and less tarmac. The other contrast was our permanent police escort did not follow us and we were left to our own devices. Firstly the desert was scrubland at times, and especially near any settlement, strewn with rubbish. The predominate flower of the desert here was the plastic bag, black, white and sometimes stripped blue; they stuck to anything and everything. To our right on our southern journey lay the great sand sea and slowly any sign of vegetation disappeared and rock and sand formed the entire landscape. After 250 miles we reached the Oasis Bahariya and camped at Ahmed’s Safari camp, fortunately it had showers and shade which had come to be the most important luxuries. We had gone past the stage of looking for good toilets and used our on-board Thetford all the time, and always found somewhere to empty the contents even if at times it was to fertilise a small piece of the desert. Our Zog was an essential piece of kit since it obviated the need for chemicals and thus we did not pollute the environment.

After a short drive, the next day, we were in the black desert, then the crystal desert, and finally the white desert, where we ventured off road and camped wild. The desert sunset was quite spectacular as was the clear black sky that revealed the universe in all its glory. Wild camping off road is not without risk, we followed some local guides to a safe spot and apart from generating clouds of white sand we were fortunate not to have any problems. The following days would see us at Oasis Dakhla and Oasis Kharga where our night’s campsite varied from a Bedouin settlement to the car park of a 2000 year old burial ground.

In every village you go, no matter how quiet it appears, if we stop there is soon a gaggle of youngsters all asking our name and where we are from? In one village we stopped for some fruit and as always the children arrived, one boy aged about 10 years old had a smart fairly new bike and we asked him his name. “Mohammed” he said in reply and he asked if we wanted to buy any of his souvenirs, mainly hand made baskets etc. As we were looking a young girl about 4 years old arrived with a nice basket. We asked the price and she looked at Mohammed, “Ten” he said. So I asked her and she said “Hamsa”, that’s the Arabic for five. She followed me to our camper and I paid her ten after all, she then went back down the road and gave Mohammed the money. I think that young man will go places.

The real delight for me came the as we were crossing the desert towards Oasis Kharga, a solar eclipse. Perfect in Libya but 90% where we were and we stopped at a small desert café to enjoy the spectacle. The locals seemed totally disinterested but the local children soon gathered. We showed them the eclipse through out special glasses and they soon disappeared. But they quickly returned with school books and showed us the moon titled in Arabic and English. Great excitement followed as they saw the eclipse progress and even the older customers got involved.

However our journey had to continue and we progressed through a series of Police and Army checkpoints, which had become a regular feature with our vehicle numbers always being recorded, towards Luxor. About 20kms out we were stopped by the police and then escorted at 80kph by them to the campsite in the town centre. Every side road and bridge was blocked by local militia ( a sort of Arab Dad’s Army armed with rifles) and locals just stood and watched as we sped towards the magical city of ancient Thebes. Here we camped in walking distance of the Karnak and Luxor Temples in a small “campsite” which was really the bricked enclosure in front of a cheap hotel. However it had water, showers and a bar/restaurant so all was not bad. Our sightseeing included the Temples, the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut plus the chance to visit the other local museums.

After two exhausting days our journey was to continue to Aswan. But now the convoys were under much stricter police control. Every tourist vehicle, minibus, coach or camper had to be in a certain place by 7.45 to join the 8am convoy. Lots of police/army vehicles would now accompany us at 90kph the whole way (130m) to Aswan. We were allowed a short diversion into Edfu, to see the Horus Temple but only with police presence and prior approval. In Aswan, and anywhere nearby, you are not allowed to sleep in you mobile home, so we stayed in a hotel with our vans parked outside. Here like many other places on this trip we made sure we ticked off another few visits from “1000 things to see before you die” by having drinks on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile. Inevitably we also visited the Aswan Dams, the Temple of Isis and had a Felucca trip on the Nile in addition to enjoying the luxuries of a modern hotel, including getting all our laundry done.

Another tourist convoy took us south of the Tropic of Cancer to Abu Simbel (200m). Camped overlooking Lake Nasser we had ample opportunity to visit the Temple of Ramses II and see the sound and light show in the evening. But the following day saw us crossing again the same blank desert landscape in police convoy to Aswan where our hotel awaited us for a second brief stay. The following day the police convoy which included about 15 coaches and countless minibuses and taxis escorted us back to Luxor and our familiar brick compound. After a nights rest we were really looking forward to another tourist convoy, this time it took us to Port Safaga on the Red Sea coast, a distance of 270 miles, and was probably the longest convoy yet. About half way the whole thing stopped at a desert café, where all the coach and minibus passengers piled into a small coffee shop. Fortunately we could brew our own and enjoy a quiet few minutes before the mad rush started again.

In Port Safaga, having duly filled up with diesel, we stopped at a small campsite situated right on the beach. After a days rest we felt fit to face the journey north to Suez, once again without police escort. This trip was going to prove to be the start of a series of problems faced by some of our fellow travellers. By mid morning one of the Fiat based vehicles had broken down, dirty diesel was the diagnosis and emptying the fuel tank and cleaning the diesel pump only offered a temporary cure. We all eventually arrived in Suez and stayed in the town centre camped in the garden of the Youth Hostel.

The following morning we went through the tunnel under the Suez Canal and left Africa and entered Asia and the Sinai. Our trip through Egypt was beginning to come to an end since we had to leave on day 30 at all costs. After a stay in Sharm el Sheik we headed towards St Katherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai, but on the way we stopped for lunch at Dahab. Dahab was to be the location of a serious terrorist attack a few days later in which many people were killed or injured.

Our campsite near St Katherine’s was the local football pitch, which put paid to a local match, but again another Fiat based vehicle suffered from dirty diesel and was left with another vehicle in the baking Sinai desert. Trying to tow a 3500kg vehicle even with a bigger motorhome was not going to be easy and was abandoned when the tow vehicle constantly overheated. As we prepared to leave St Katherine’s the next morning the “broken down” vehicle appeared having had its diesel pumped cleaned and another electrical problem resolved. The tourist police were helpful but this camper faced a long and lonely night in the desert if it was not for the assistance offered by one of our group. We heard a few days later of a lone Dutch motorhomer who was found in the same place who, having stopped, died sat at the wheel.

To leave Egypt we had to get to the Port of Nuweiba to catch the ferry to Aqaba in Jordan. The short land journey is not possible since it means entering Israel and we would then be prohibited from entering Syria. After a day on the beach we duly presented ourselves at the port on our 30th day in this magnificent country. Of course we needed about 3 hours to clear all the formalities before boarding the recycled Danish ferry. We had to return our Egyptian number plates and driving licence, and most important get our carnet de passage stamped recording our departure. They did insist on checking our chassis numbers again but no one came to inspect the wire around the engine, so I could have sold my engine after all! That wire and the small lead seal will be one of enduring memories of this fascinating journey and our entry into Jordan, some 9 hours later, will be in the third and final part of our story.

2006 North Africa and the Middle East

Part One – Tunisia and Libya

A 12 week adventure, with a motorhome, through Italy, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey ending in Greece needs tremendous planning and preparation. Not only do you need to ensure that your vehicle is fit for the voyage but you need to obtain documents not normally needed for most motorhome journeys. An International Driving Licence and International Vehicle Registration Document are perhaps the easiest as both are available from the RAC and AA.

For us the most problematic document was the Carnet de Passage that is needed for most of the countries that we would be travelling through. This simple document avoids the necessity to pay import duty for the temporary importation of a vehicle. This too is available from the RAC but it is costly; our 4 year old Rapido is worth at least £25,000 so the RAC asked for a bank guarantee or insurance cover of £125,000 since we were going through Egypt on this trip. The insurance cover costs £12,500 and only half is repaid if no claim is made against the carnet, a bank guarantee proved impossible for us. Fortunately ADAC, the German automobile club came to our rescue, they provided the carnet for a cash deposit of 15,000€ (£10,000) and the full amount was repaid at the end of the trip and they charged only 154€ (£100) for the service. They have no problem providing carnets for foreign registered vehicles.

The next hurdle is the question of visas. Libya in particular is almost impossible for most motor-homers as you need an official invite and to be accompanied during your entire stay. Here our old friends at Perestroika Tours in Germany had the solution and we joined their international tour for this journey.

The final problem and almost insoluble for most UK motorhome owners is insurance for the whole journey. Our camper is registered in France and naturally has French insurance which covers fully comprehensively many of the countries automatically and any other country for up to 90 days so for us it was not a problem. You need to check with your insurers early in the planning process. It is possible to buy third party cover at the borders, where cover is not provided by your insurers, and sometimes this is compulsory even when you are covered.

From the vehicle viewpoint, and having experienced this journey ourselves in the spring of 2006, I would ensure your tyres are good and the valves have been renewed. Also despite what your service schedule might say have the oils in the engine, gearbox and rear transmission changed, also have new oil, air and fuel filters fitted and carry spares. Good brakes and suspension are also essential as they will be tested to the limit. Over this 5 month trip the problems encountered by our small group, fuel pump/filter problems, punctures and tyre valve problems, could in the main have been avoided if prior servicing had been completed including the points made above. The other problems we had perhaps could not have been foreseen nor avoided and were electronic in nature not helped I am sure by the holes, bumps and poor roads encountered almost everywhere.

Although our journey really started in Florence and we spent 8 days travelling to Palermo in Sicily, this first part of our story will cover Tunisia and Libya. For our 7 metre camper and two passengers the ferry from Palermo to Tunis cost 264€ (£180). The voyage takes 11 hours and you need to add at least 4 hours for the formalities at both ends. For us the crossing was very rough and many of our group suffered sea sickness, as did many other passengers, so perhaps a cabin would be a good additional investment. Having filled in 4 forms; 1 for each passenger, another for the driver and 1 for the camper we braced ourselves for arrival in Tunis. Fortunately the formalities were speedy and efficient and the staff polite and helpful. Just avoid the many touts who want to help you for a fee. Once out of the port Tunis is just 15kms away and a large car park provided a safe and comfortable overnight venue. We stayed in this car park for 2 nights so had plenty of time to visit the Medina in Tunis and catch the train to Sidi Bou Said, about 20kms to the northeast of the capital. The tourist police came 2 or 3 times to the car park to check we were alright and had no problems.

The next day we started our journey south, initially heading for Kairouan. A perfectly timed coffee break saw us along side the remains of a 90km Roman aqueduct that originally served Carthage with fresh spring water. Substantial parts of the aqueduct remain and it is well worth the stop. By now we had begun to wonder why most vehicles toot twice when they were near us; but it was just the Tunisians saying hello, nice to see you, so we relaxed and waved back. A perfect lunch break found us at Thuburbo Majus and the remains of a spectacular Roman city and after a pleasant afternoon drive we camped that night in the car park of the Hotel Continental in Kairouan. Fortunately Tunisian roads are generally good and fairly quiet particularly the further south you go and diesel is cheap at 0.64 Dinah per litre (0.40€ or 28p). However further south petrol stations are few and far between and even those shown on maps may not be open so we kept topped up to avoid problems.

The next few days saw us at Tozeur, Douz, Matmata and many other places on route. Everywhere we were well received by the Tunisians and although the campsites are not of western European standards they are adequate and generally clean. In Tozeur we camped for 2 nights at the campsite Beaux Reves (beautiful dreams) so had time to take a 4 x 4 trip out into the desert and the mountains close to the Algerian border. The following day’s drive across the causeway that dissects the Chott El Jerid, Africa’s largest salt lake, was stunning with mirages in every direction. Even in late February temperatures were above 20 degrees and the days mainly sunny with clear blue skies.

We were able to visit on our way the location used in the original Star Wars film and fans will recognise the name Tataouine from the film, which is a village in southern Tunisia but a planet in Star Wars.

On our last day in Tunisia we made an early start for the Libyan border as we knew the formalities would take some hours to complete. Departure from Tunisia was comparatively quick taking not much more than an hour then the fun began. Whilst still technically in Tunisia every camper in our small convoy was subjected to a search by a Libyan Customs Officer and a non-uniformed official who literally emptied every cupboard and storage space in every vehicle looking for alcohol. Of course we all had some and this was placed in a visible position when they moved to the next vehicle. The alcohol police, as they became dubbed, were extremely thorough and missed nothing, we had heard that in earlier years the “pork police” had been similarly effective. The uniformed official told us we were in serious trouble and the matter would be reported. This process took almost 4 hours to complete and in the end they confiscated half of our drink, generally the really good stuff, and left us the rest.

We then proceeded, duly chastened, to another area where our passports were processed, our carnets stamped and checked, and our Libyan number plates issued. Various fees were payable even though we had our visas in place. We also obtained our compulsory third party insurance. Total costs were not far short of 200€ (£138). We were comforted by the fact that this was just a practice run for the far more lengthy process that we would endure at the Egyptian border later in our journey. In the end we entered Libya just as dusk arrived and were faced with an 80 kilometre drive, led by our Libyan minders, who would be with us for the next 11 days. Just before Sabratta, where we were due to camp, we entered a small town. It was like going back forty years, shops were open and the traffic chaotic, it was like we had joined a stock-car race with numerous semi derelict cars chasing each other around the cramped narrow roads. Fortunately our first night’s parking place, alongside the youth hostel, was not far away.

During our 11 days in Libya we would travel along the Mediterranean coast, because driving through the interior of this magnificent country is mostly only possible with 4x4 vehicles. This gave us plenty of time to visit the former Roman “league of the three cities” or tri-polis: Sabratta, Leptis Magna and Tripoli. Leptis Magna, a UNESCO listed site was particularly spectacular and camping in car-park No 1 gave us ample time to explore and the chance to take a bus trip to Tripoli, which is rather calm and quiet compared to other capitals.

It is quite apparent that most Libyans enjoy a good lifestyle and we were welcomed where ever we went. Indeed the people we met were kind, helpful and generous and it took us a couple of days to realise that when we bought bread and payment was refused just what was happening. Bread in Libya is subsidised and we were buying such small quantities that payment was declined. However we experienced the same phenomena when we tried to buy some flowers, the shopkeeper asked where we were from and then said “welcome, please the flowers are a gift” Now I could just see that happening in the UK to a foreign visitor!

The second half of our trip across Libya saw us visiting Sirte, Ajdabiya, Tolmetha and Cyrene before heading to Tobruk. We stopped at the Commonwealth War Cemetery just before Acroma, 20 kms east of Tobruk, and were shown the graves of 2 holders of the VC and that of the only women, an army nurse, to be buried there. We spent our last night in Libya camped alongside the German War Memorial high above Tobruk, having driven through this bustling town. With all the road signs in Arabic we quickly devised a way of finding the route we needed, Benghazi became “snake and W” because that is just what the end of the word looked like, but with our eyes trained to read left to right we were of course reading the end of the word first; still the system seemed to work. Generally the roads were good although large potholes, speed bumps and wayward manhole covers caused a real and ever present problem.

We took a diversion one day to visit the magnificent engineering project called the Great Manmade River which is pumping millions of gallons of water each day from deep in the Sahara to the many populated towns on the Mediterranean coast. Permission was easily obtained from the local officials for this extra trip and we could see for ourselves this outstanding achievement. On the same day we met another sandstorm but this time with an extra twist, a simultaneous heavy shower, which left thick mud clinging to almost every exposed and unexposed part of the vehicle; so don’t try this trip if you like to have a clean motorhome.

Campsites in Libya are non-existent but museum car parks, youth hostels and Scout HQs were very welcoming resting places and sometimes were even able to provide electricity and a very welcome shower. Diesel is readily available and is less than in Tunisia, 0.08€ or 6 pence a litre, but unless you are happy to wade in deep stagnant diesel a supply of disposal overshoes is essential when filling up.

An early start to the Egyptian border is essential since the formalities on both sides can easily take 8 to 10 hours and requires patience and tolerance. The last 140 kms in Tunisia were through barren, flat and uninteresting desert and we were at the border shortly after 8am where we joined the first of many queues. Entry into Egypt will be covered in the next part of our story.