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Thursday, May 21, 1998 Published at 22:14 GMT 23:14 UK

Tourism Libyan style

Libya has many Roman ruins - some of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites

As part of Libya's efforts to circumvent international sanctions, the government in Tripoli is tentatively encouraging the development of adventure tourism in the desert areas bordering Algeria.

A lack of infrastructure, coupled with a local population innocent of foreigners' ways, certainly make this a travel destination with a difference.

But maybe not for long, as Jonathan Fryer discovered.

The streets of the old medina at Ghat are eerily silent. As with all the historic southern Libyan towns along former camel caravan routes, the inhabitants have been moved out of their picturesque mud-brick homes and rehoused in functional concrete villas, complete with running water and electricity.
Jonathan Fryer's report in RealAudio (3'59")

Many of the old settlements have quickly crumbled away. But some, like Ghat, are being restored, in the hope of turning them into tourist attractions. As yet there are no shops selling postcards, nor ice-cream vans. But as I climbed up to a rooftop to get a better view of the castle on a nearby hill the other day, somewhere out of the shadows half a dozen Touareg emerged, and laid out handmade trinkets on a felt cloth on the ground.

These proud desert nomads are swathed in blue or white robes, their heads entirely wrapped in turbans that keep out the sand and the wind, revealing only inpenetrable eyes.

They wander across southern Algeria and Libya, and northern Mali and Niger, resentful of man-made frontiers, and wary of their Arab neighbours.

Diffidently, in melodic whispered French, the Touaregs in Ghat proffered handtooled tobacco pounches, a few silver bangles, and a tiny musical instrument hammered out of what looked like a large sardine tin and four nails.

Hardly a hard bargainer

When I asked the price of this surprisingly tuneful invention, the vendor's eyes took on a look halfway between panic and despair.

"Oh, you name a price," he said, "anywhere between one and one hundred dinars..." In other words, anything between 30 US cents and $30.

Never adept at bargaining, I gave up. Resigned sighs all round.

Just outside Ghat is the end of the road. One minute, one is hurtling along an empty tarmacked highway, then suddenly it stops, and all there is is sand.

This is the gateway to the Arkakus Desert, with a little tin shack functioning as one of the security posts that are found at every junction along Libya's roads. My companions and I toppled out of the jeep while our passports were scrutinized.

Desert rock resembles Buddha on traffic duty

The Toureg guide, spotting a dead tree stump in the distance, rushed off with an axe to chop it down, for fuel for cooking.

By the time night fell, we were deep in the mountains, the fantastic shapes of rocks blasted by the wind and the sand rearing up all round. One was a majestic lion, surveying the landscape about him. Another looked disconcertingly like a Buddha on traffic duty. Under our feet, real live scorpions disgruntledly scuttled away as we set up camp.

In the first light of morning, before the glare and the heat wore us down, we went off in search of the creatures that had brought us to this land: camels, horses, giraffes and rhinos, even a playful dancing baby elephant - all finely drawn and painted blood red on the rocks.

Hundreds and hundreds of extraordinary testimonies of a period six or even eight thousand years ago, when today's deserts were fertile savannah, teeming with game. Through this painting, early civilizations recorded their life and environment.

Wall paintings are being washed away

The walls of one cave depict the preparations and ceremonials for a wedding - or did. For as the Touareg guide explained, since he was last there, only a year before, half of them had gone. Some had clearly been chipped off the rock as souvenirs. Others had simply been washed away, by people throwing water at them, to heighten their colour for photographs.

In a matter of months, the legacy of thousands of years is being lost. The great irony is that by the time Libya gets its tourism industry properly organized, the desert's main attraction may well have disappeared.

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