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5 Apr 2006 - Ghat - Jabal Akakus
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View across old Ghat to the castle Interior of a house in old Ghat. The roof is missing and it has been used as a rubbish tip, an all too common sight in Libya. Ghat, sand dunes and Jabal Akakus, plus a satellite dish or two - the view from Ghat castle 
When we stopped for tea yesterday some debate was had about whether we should come to Ghat at all, because we learned that the usual southerly route into Jabal Akakus, which passes very close to the Algerian border, was closed due to tensions with Algeria. We could have stayed in a campsite where we were, but would Ghat be interesting enough to warrant coming here, then retracing our steps for heading into Jabal Akakus from the northern end? I thought so, for we would not have seen the fine cliffs and this desert outpost, and Sabine was keen to come so she could judge whether to bring later tour groups here.

So it was we therefore had to retrace our steps back to Serdeles, but not before looking around the old ruined city and castle, now surrounded by the new town. In character, it was not unlike the old city of Ghadames, but nowhere near as well preserved. There were few roofs over the streets and many houses had lost their roofs too so the place was in an evident state of decay. Amongst the narrow streets occasionally you find some Tuareg stalls in a better preserved house, selling similar silver and ebony ware as we had seen previously, but at higher prices. There was very little trade - we seemed to be the only visitors - and they didn't get much business out of us, having had our fill from previous encounters.

The town is dominated by an Italian fort, which being built of stone and only 100 years old, was in a good state of preservation. It must still have a use for we found the gate locked and a conspicuous red and white communications mast has been constructed inside.

We hit the road and arrived back at Serdeles in time for a rest and a leisurely lunch in a round house at the camp site at which we might have stayed. In fact all our lunches were quite leisurely affairs as nobody really wants to rush around more than necessary in the heat of the mid-day sun. In the village we stopped to buy some supplies and kit ourselves with material for Tuareg head dresses so that we could truly look the part in the days to come!

Then, finally we left the road and bumped into the desert and the 4x4s finally came into their own. The Jabal Akakus now lay to our right (west) as we headed south and was visible in the distance some 10 or 20 km away. We were soon into a landscape dominated by rocky outcrops sculpted by the wind into all manner of fantastic shapes. I'm sure if this had been China they would all have been given names. Many were squat, but particularly impressive was a thin rock balanced on a pedestal, looking just like an Easter Island head, but maybe 50m tall. All were weathered almost black, in great contrast to the golden sand all about, and even the rock itself was a pale pink or yellow sandstone when fresh.

We stopped at this one, but many other forms we saw only from the vehicles as we continued. I grabbed many shots this way but it was difficult to know how many to photograph as we didn't know whether better delights were to come. In fact photography from the moving vehicle was always something of a gamble - the drivers sped on like they had seen it all before (which of course they had) and just as you lined up for a shot the car would bump over something and the moment was lost.

Presently we turned west to expore a deep natural amphitheatre that housed rock carvings of people and animals, the first of many that were we to see in the coming days. Predominantly these exist, or at least are still preserved, in places where the rock overhangs a protected spot, and this was no exception. Here also we encountered a party exploring the region on camel back, a very leisurely way of exploring the environment and one that must really make you feel part of it, more so than us in our vehicles.

We then stopped in another wadi, just as dry as the first, to examine paintings of animals and people. The figures were rather like match-stick people in a Lowry painting, but done in red and white and a good deal smaller than the previous carvings, being up to around 30cm (1ft) high. These particular ones showed camels, indicating an age of 2000 years or less, since camels were not introduced to these parts until around the time of Christ. Meanwhile there were also depictions of giraffes, which died out here many thousands of years ago. Perhaps this indicates that a series of generations of paintings exist, although to the untrained eye they all looked fairly similar in style.

As sunset approached we found ourselves a sheltered spot to camp, on a shallow dune banked up against a ridge of rocks. It is good practice in these parts to camp elevated off the desert floor if possible, to avoid the unwelcome attention of creepy crawlies like snakes and scorpions. Much less lives in the shifting dunes than on the harder ground lower down. We clambered up a steep sandbank to watch the sun go down over the jagged peaks of Jabal Akakus. We were not disappointed and were treated to another fine sky - perhaps not quite as colourful as the one in Ghadames but in this dramatic setting who was worrying?

Dining was by the light of the first quarter moon, almost overhead, and an inspection lamp rigged up to one of the car's batteries. Getting the eyes as much dark adapted as possible by avoiding looking at the moon, I managed to convince myself and Guenther that we could just see the zodiacal light as a slight brightening of the sky in the region of Taurus, but the moonlight did not make it easy.

The moon did encourage us to talk long into the night before we finally retired to our tents for our first night under canvas in the desert. A fine end to a good day.

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