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7 Apr 2006 - Wadi Tashwinat - Idhan Murzuq
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Abdul looks at Jupiter through the telescope in our natural planetarium More rocks sculpted by the wind into strange forms Rock silhouette - a psychiatrist's patient's nightmare! 
Once again I awoke before dawn to find the sky still dark, and again the Milky Way stretched in a band across the sky. With the telescope to hand it was possible to examine parts in more detail, especially the more unfamiliar (at least to northern observers) galactic centre. Here the view was filled with hundreds of stars, and a grey background was the result of many thousands or millions more, able to be seen en-masse but individually too faint to reveal themselves in my 3-inch (80mm) telescope.

Abdul was especially fascinated, and Guenther and Matthias were persuaded to leave their tents to enjoy the sight. In the south west lay Jupiter, with only 3 moons visible - one of them must have been in eclipse behind the planet or maybe in transit across the face of it. Because we see the Jupiter system edge on the 4 Galilean moons seem to shuttle back and forth like beads on a string, and from time to time they pass in front of or behind the planet.

Venus was not yet visible because the cliffs to the east were too high, so it did not make its appearance until the sky was quite light. The telescope revealed it as a bright yellowish white half moon shape, with a phase of around 50% - being a planet with an orbit that lies within that of the Earth it is quite normal for it to present some of its dark side towards us. As the sky grew lighter, and well after sunrise, the telescopic view improved as the sky background brightened and reduced the dazzling contrast with the planet itself. To the naked eye it remained visible too, with the aid of nearby rocks to guide the eye to it.

After breaking camp we explored the wadi further, seeing a waterfall (dry), more paintings and carvings and another high rock arch with an strange fluid form. While I was in the lead car we also engaged in a brief chase, crashing over the rough stones in pursuit of a pair of barbary sheep (or ibex as we first thought they were), but they dashed off up and over some rocks before a camera could be brought to bear - hardly subtle stalking!

Before reaching the arch we again crossed a landscape of sand and strange wind-sculpted rock formations. Seen against the sun they would be a psychiatrist's dream to present to a confused patient to imagine what objects they can see in their varied outlines.

Towards lunchtime we visited another Tuareg family (no photos allowed unfortunately), the head of whom seemed to be doing well at 82 years old. He was pleased though to show us photos of himself with Italian archaeologists who were excavating the area as far back as 1947. He also showed us a thin flexible spear of the type used to hunt sheep such as we had chased earlier. It seems in fact that ours was the first sighting, such as it was, of the creature in the area for 7 years. His house was of traditional construction, basically a palm frame covered in palm fronds, but he had no problem incorporating modern materials into it, such as an aluminium girder and plastic sheeting - a strange combination of old and new!

Lunch was again taken in the lee of a shady cliff. Then we headed east and made good progress across a dusty, gravelly plain called Waditaita. It was virtually featureless but obviously well traversed given the number of tyre tracks headed our way.

In the distance ahead of us lay the mountainous dunes of Iguidi Ouan Kasa, which, after about half an hour we reached and crossed via a reasonably flat route.

Then it was back onto the plain, wonderfully smooth so it was possible to maintain a good speed of around 80 - 90kph (50 - 55mph). However, it seemed a lot faster as we sped along in loose formation. kicking up plumes of dust in our wake. Anybody familiar with Mad Max 2 will know the scene. The little blue pickup, despite its age, was quite capable of leading the charge on occasions, despite a tendancy to overheat - hood open and clouds of steam at almost every stop in the daytime heat. It was in fact was the only one of our three vehicles not to suffer any mechanical failure during the course of our trip.

Before long another line of cliffs appeared far ahead of us, the western edge of Masak Mallat. Our route took us through an embayment in the cliffs so we ran parallel to them as they gradually closed in on both sides of us. However, no steep climbing was involved as instead we rose gently to perhaps half their height then flattened out on a stony plain.

Part way across this was a patch of desert littered with a multitude of small stone towers. These marked the site of a petrified forest, but were all helpfully constructed by previous visitors to make up for the absence of any real fossil trees in life position. However, pieces of brownish-grey silicified fossil wood was present, liberally scattered over the desert and in some cases the cairns were constructed from it.

Time to move on again, and we eventually came to more dunes, the western edge of Idhan Murzuq, the Murzuq Sand Sea. This was to be our home for the night, camped on the lower slope of a large golden dune. The sand was beautiful underfoot, of even grain size and with no stones - walking barefoot was usually easier than with shoes or boots. However, the steep leeward side of dunes was hard going and poor Matthias never made it to the top to watch the sunset this evening - I blame too many cigarettes! The sun set through a dusty atmosphere this time, thought it was possible to watch the it reach and disappear below the distant horizon.

As usual, dinner was taken under the stars, and in due course Abdul, Ali (our cook) and I settled down on the mat for another night under the stars. It was not as warm as last night as we had no rocks to act as a night storage heater, but we judged it still warm enough to dispense with tents.

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