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28 Mar 2006 - Al Bayda to eclipse camp, near Jalu
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Bridges old and new Service station: a few others have the same idea Rest area: not far from the eclipse now 
A long bus ride into the middle of nowhere today to our eclipse camp about 60km from the small desert town of Jalu. The first couple of hours was back to Benghazi, on the way taking in a small detour into a deep gorge to photograph an impressive 150m high bridge, over which we had had passed a couple of days earlier. Difficult to get a good view of it really, but it made an interesting contrast with the old lattice girder bridge in the valley below. This was the site of a fierce battle between the Libyans and the occupying Italian forces in around 1930, but calm prevails today.

Past Benghazi we turn south and follow the coast, but some way from it, so all we see is a flat sandy plain. After stopping in Adjabiya to buy some supplies for the days ahead, we moved on into the desert proper. The scrub gradually diminshed the further inland we headed but the roadside rubbish did not get any less, though it changed its character away from bags and tins to car and lorry tyres and assorted pieces of metal and vehicle parts. In some places the tyres have been lain on edge to construct borders around people's properties - certaily more imaginative and presumably environmentally friendly that the concrete blocks usually used for this purpose.

The journey south continued for hours through a largely flat featureless sandy or dusty plain. For several hundred kms a row of electricity pylons keeps the road company on the left (east) and to the right (west) periodic evidence of a buried pipeline - the so-called Great Man Made River - which conveys ice-age water from the heart of the Sahara to the populated north of Libya. I shall talk more on these engineering feats another day.

We made a few comfort stops on the way, including a service station which was promptly invaded by a dozen other tour buses all heading south for the eclipse too, a small roadside stop set up by some entrepreneurs cashing in on the eclipse, and also the town of Awjilah. These last two we shall visit again on the return journey and spend more time there. Awjilah lay just outside the track of totality, wide at around 180km at this point. Some 40km further on lies the small town of Jalu, and my now we were in the eclipse zone.

Jalu lies in the middle of Libya's main oilfield, whose presence was betrayed by smudges of smoke on the horizon from the flares burning off excess gas, and at night from our eclipse camp, one field was visible by lights on the southern horizon.

As you travel on roads in Libya, which are generally of good quality, you encounter police check-points at quite regular intervals, though further apart the further from civilisation you are - maybe one every 100 - 200km. Apart from keeping tabs on you, they are said to provide a service in remote areas to ensure that you actually reach the next way point and have not got lost or broken down. One such checkpoint south of Jalu had a large camp on a low hill to the left, which we initially thought was our eclipse camp, but no, we travelled on further before finally turning right off the main road onto a track carved into the sand. At the end of this, about 8km, we were confronted by a huge tent city, quite literally in the middle of nowhere.

The camp was organised into several zones for the different tour operators - some tents were large luxurious ones and others resembled an UN refugee camp - these were ours! Our camp was in fact still being built because, as we discovered later, several operators, including ours (Numidia Tours) had camps in individual locations, and has just been ordered by the government to relocate them all to one single location, this one. In all, some 3000 people were to be catered for here.

After some confusion, especially as it was beginning to get dark by now, we located tents that were designated for us - 2 person bell tents - and sorted out who would share with who. Initially we were near the edge, but all the while more tents were being put up so it wasn't long before we seemed to be in the middle of the tent city, making the job of finding the tents again something of a challenge in the dark, especially as they all looked pretty much the same. It also wasn't helped by the fact that all lighting came from floodlights on the edge of the camp, which completely destroyed any night vision while providing very little light on the ground between the tightly packed rows, making the guy ropes an ever-present trip hazard!

Dinner was a complete shambles, especially as we had only one marquee for serving, eating and entertainment rather than the originally intended three. Initially everybody sat down, cheek by jowl at long tables, but when it became clear that we had to go up and get our meals canteen style, it was complete bedlam, with people still entering the tent joining straight into the scrum ahead of people already with places at table. Only Abdul, who, wearing a bright orange football sweatshirt that gave him some degree of official credibility, struggled to turn the huge rabble of people into something akin to a queue. Many people simply gave up and left, but most of our party persevered, and when the of us, Roger, made it back to his place after about half an hour, the delighted cheers and clapping soon spread to the entire assembled throng - some humour in the face of adversity.

A band was also warming up during all this, if canned backing music and horrible screeches of microphone feedback can be considered as warming up. However, we were in no mood for this, and quite sensibly they decided to give up until later.

The food itself, when finally obtained, was served from great dishes and cauldrons onto stainless steel trays, prison style. Traditional but reasonably tasty though, and plenty of it - soup, rice and / or cous-cous, sauce, a lump of unidentified meat, salad, bread and some fruit.

Didn't notice at what time we finally staggered out of the heat and confusion into the cool night air, but at around 11pm a fireworks display started up, which carried on intermittently for the next couple of hours. The band finally got going around this time too, with a good thumping beat, a quad-biker was taking people our for a spin (quite literally) in the sand, kicking up dust and the engine buzzing away in an irritating fashion, and people were still arriving and tents being put up. As you can imagine, star-gazing was out of the question and sleep wasn't easily forthcoming either. I think things began to calm down at around 3am, but with the ceaseless rumble of the generator all night, what sleep I finally achieved was scarcely more than dozing. It didn't seem to bother Paul, my tent-mate, too much, as he had skipped dinner and gone straight for an early night.

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