Desert secrets

Sara Wheeler finds trading — and smuggling — alive and well in the northern Sahara.

ABU BAKIR, our driver and factotum, carries a large carpet shoulder bag that belonged to his father and grandfather before him. It contains tea-making equipment: a beaten silver tray, two silver beakers, a teapot and a camel-hair buffing cloth.

Wherever camp is established, Abu Bakir settles on a square of carpet laid on the sand and starts the tea ritual. Foam holds the key to a successful brew, hence a lot of high pouring from beaker to teapot and back. After turning in each night,

I fall asleep to the clink of tea glasses and the murmur of voices.

A thousand years before camels came to north Africa, merchant caravans journeyed across the Libyan Sahara to the Niger bend in pursuit of ivory, essences and rare woods. The voyage back to the coastal ports, where Punic merchants jingled silver coins, was more than 2200 kilometres. It was one of the oldest trading routes, linking the heart of Africa with successive northern empires. Despite its remote and treacherous terrain, Libya still services commerce, as I discover on my own journey.

The road south from Tripoli is a study in desiccation. Following the trade route, my guide, 27-year-old Abbas, drives through the foothills of the Jebel Nafusa and the landscape dries before our eyes. In the middle of our first day on the road, Abbas announces that we are to visit a smugglers' warehouse. We pull up outside Qasr al-Haj, an almost perfectly intact 12th-century Berber granary.

The sky is clear blue and the slopes of Jebel Nafusa shimmer. The pottery colours of the Qasr seem to grow out of the desert. Inside, a dusty corridor opens on to an arena lined with five-metre-deep cubby holes, each used for a family's winter supply of barley and wheat and now, apparently, a hiding place for contraband. The oasis settlement at Nalut, on the western edge of the Jebel Nafusa, has been a resting place for traders since the fourth century BC. It remains a staging post but, following Muammar Gaddafi's edict that each town in the Libyan interior must be painted in its own co-ordinated colours, the municipal buildings are now decked out in outlandish peach and green.

People melt away as one tracks the traders south: 85 per cent of Libyans live on the Mediterranean coast. Libya may be the fourth-largest country in Africa but only 10 per cent of its land can be cultivated. The interior is immune to the cultural flux that shapes the coast.

It is Berber territory. Abbas never misses an opportunity to promote his own Berber ethnicity. Although he lives in Tripoli, he says he does not feel Libyan. "The only thing we share with Arabised Libyans is religion."

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Walking the covered lanes of Ghadames, an oasis town 550 kilometres from Tripoli, one senses the ghostly presence of mediaeval traders, reclining in the shade of pomegranate trees in cool courtyard gardens. Ghadames was once the pre-eminent Saharan trading hub (today the walled old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site). Marseilles cloth and Venetian paper went south, precious stones and ostrich plumes headed north - and news came in from everywhere.

South of Ghadames, we enter the wilderness of Hamada al-Hamra and pass three cars in 150 kilometres. This expanse of desert scrub has harboured smugglers since the time Europeans were emerging from their caves. Traffic thickens only as we approach Sebha, a horrible modern hole. Today's traders deal in people, spiriting Africans up to the coast and across to Sicily.

At the Ubari petrol station, young men fill rows of jerrycans strapped to the roofs of their Toyota LandCruisers, the whole forecourt a seething souk (market) of Tuareg and Berber faces. Petrol is 16¢ a litre in Libya and 10 times that in neighbouring Tunisia.

Around Ghadames and Ubari, people fill cans and custom-built 100-litre tanks to siphon off in more lucrative markets.

I ask Abbas whether fuel accounts for most of the illegal trade, "No!" he says, laughing. "We smuggle anything. I made a lot of money last year importing canned dog and cat food from Tunisia. I bought cans there and sold them for 10 times as much here." At Ubari, we link up with three more team members and a second jeep. Like Abu Bakir, our cook and headman are Tuareg, the once-nomadic tribe of the central Sahara who protected the trade caravans. They wear hooded burnouses and the tagelmust, the long length of fabric wound into a turban and face cover.

Off-road, we enter the desert proper through Masak Mastafat, the northern gateway to the Acacus massif's basalt columns, sandstone buttresses and rolling sands - lots of rolling sands. There, the five of us camp for four nights. Everyone enjoys it. Darkness descends with African haste at 6.25 and after making our pop-up tents secure, we sit around a fire eating barley soup and camel couscous sharpened with dollops of harissa.

At meal times, a desert sparrow might visit our camp. But it is at night that the Sahara comes alive. Ensconced in my tent, I listen to gerbils scratching around the guy ropes. In the morning, I follow the delicate tracks of wolves and fennec foxes. Soon after striking camp one day, we surprise two heavily laden vehicles, with five men and two children nearby. Spotting us, the adults kneel down and pretend to pray. I ask Abbas what's stashed under the tarpaulins. He shrugs and suggests Sport cigarettes, the red-and-white packets that decorate every street in Tripoli. But I wonder.

On the last night, we pitch camp in the lee of a volcanic outcrop. Desert rain has washed away the porous rock, creating a wild and fantastic outline. When lightning strikes, surreal rock silhouettes leap to life. The camp is alongside Mandara, one of a dozen lakes in the south-western Libyan Sahara. A water project has left it dry but the next day I swim in Umm al-Maa, a block of opaque green water nestled in a palmy basin. It is so salty my feet won't stay under. All around, Niger Tuareg play noughts and crosses in the sand.

Driving out, a cry goes up in our LandCruiser. "Signal!" We stop. Everyone gets out. I'll always remember the figure of Abu Bakir, burnouse flapping, holding his phone aloft in salute and squinting into the sun.

Trip notes

Getting there

Emirates flies to Tripoli via Dubai, priced from $2654. 1300 303 777, emirates.com.

Touring there

Peregrine Adventures has a 12-day Libya Explorer tour, beginning in Tripoli, that includes travel to Ghadames, Jebel Nafusa, Sebha, Ghat and the Acacus Mountains, priced from $2950 a person, twin share. 1300 791 485, peregrineadventures.com.

Bunnick Tours has an eight-day Independent Libya tour that includes travel to Ghadames, Nalut and Leptis Magna, priced from $2390 a person, twin share. 1300 664 170, bunniktours.com.au.

More information

libya.embassyhomepage.com, libyaonline.com.

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