With just the two of us…David & John
With Keith gone, the on-board personality dynamic changed. For a few days, the sand and dust were the same, but there was a new ‘gloom.’ We had left Tunis and headed due South – into the Sahara. We decided that a beach might lift our spirits, so at El Fahs we ‘hung a (big) left’ and headed for Hammamet, Sousse and El Djem. Sparkling blue water and a colloseum!
For a day we played tourists again – splashing in the surf (such as it was) and exploring the old Roman ruins. We decided that the beach was best – left El Djem for Sfax – and for a while we drove the coast road all the way around the Gulf de Gabes and crossed the Libyan border just beyond Ben Guerdane.
We arrived in Tripoli at night and, after so long in the Sahara, the night lights across the bay were enticing but we only stayed a day – funds were awaiting us at a bank in Benghazi – so we drove on – through Al Khums to Leptis Magna.
Leptis Magna is (now) a World Heritage site. It was founded by the Phoenicians in the 10th Century BCE, it survived the Spartan colonists, became a Punic city and eventually part of the new Roman province of Africa around 23 BCE. As a Roman city it prospered – Emperor Septimius Severus was one of its benefactors. Sacked by a Berber tribe in 523 CE it was abandoned and quickly reclaimed by the desert. Although it provided a source of building materials to various pillagers throughout history, it was not excavated until the 1920s. The remains (one of the best preserved Roman cities) have attracted less attention than deserved and since our visit…
the political situation in Libya has made travel to the site difficult. There is more on recent excavations here… We must have run out of film at this stage because (between us) we have few photographs – so we followed the coast – East again to Misratah.
“There’s a bloody great Marble Arch up ahead” – and there was! About 100 miles South of Misratah we came across our first mirage – we thought… We had been finding old artillery shells in the desert (and stowing them in the truck!) for the past few days – and passing old blown up tanks – so we knew we were entering old battlefields.
On again – around the Gulf of Sirte – through Al Uquaylah and Ajdabiya – and finally arrived in Benghazi on (would you believe it) another bank holiday! John’s desperately needed funds were in that bank so we parked the truck in the main city square – and waited.
This particular square was about to become the high-(low)-light of John’s entire trip… We need to explain something about John… despite growing up on a farm – and in rowing clubs and rugby clubs – he (somehow) developed what is know in those circles as ‘latrine shyness’ – the need for closed doors and complete privacy! Normally a quite ‘laid-back’ character – he was always appalled at the tendency in North African cities for the locals to squat wherever they felt the need – and to wander away ‘from the evidence’ without a second thought!
Something he never failed to comment on – until Benghazi… and a savage dose of food poisoning. David and Peter were in the medina – buying fresh provisions – and John was guarding the truck – it was noon when the stomach cramps struck… no public toilets – no hotel bars – NOTHING! He dressed in his hooded Moroccan djellabah – and just made it to the other side of the square – where – he… It’s moments like that you expect to run into old school friends – but it WAS a bank holiday in Benghazi – and he survived to tell the story – sheepishly!
He never took any more photos of us – in similar circumstances!
The bank finally opened – John got his money – and seemed unusually happy to leave Benghazi! East – ever East through Tukrah, Tulmaytha and Al Bayda to Tobruk – where we stopped and unpacked some old WWII maps. We were entering an area of much more recent history…
And – just as we were getting into a military mindset – the British Army rescued us. We had broken down in the desert – just outside Tobruk – part of truck was cracking up with the bad roads. They welded it together for us and let us stay at their camp overnight. Sausages, eggs and chips – at last – and English beer – under a beautiful African starry sky! They also confiscated all our souvenir artillery shells… “You’ve carried them in THAT thing – HOW Far?”
We crossed into Egypt at Sollum – we had all the appropriate visas but that wasn’t the point – we were not allowed to enter Egypt until we had beaten the border guards at arm wrestling! This took all day! We gave them rice – they gave us fresh bread… and then to El Alamein – where we stopped – and reflected… and reflected… Tobruk, Sollum, Sidi Barrani, Mersa Matruh, El Alamein – nearly 500 miles of war cemeteries.
Those war graves were only 20 years old – and most of the occupants were even younger. One tombstone read… “To the world he was one – to us – all the world.” He was an 18 year old NZ private soldier – lived so little – gave so much… John found an uncle’s grave – then another. A German kid on a bike – also looking for family graves – joined us for a meal – it seemed to help.
David remembers being… “VERY emotional visiting the El Alamein war graves. Row upon row – hundreds of them – British, German, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, South African, Indian, Italian… The desert is still there! I’ve since returned with Patricia and it still brings a lump to my throat”
We could not believe the beautiful colour of the sea. We now know it is a very similar colour to the Caribbean or the Great Barrier Reef – but we did not know that at the time. We were now only 100 miles from the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria. A bustling thriving town with cars, trams, donkeys, camels – and butchers’ carts loaded with carcasses – and flies! After so many months in the Sahara – the traffic was TERRIFYING! The Corniche is a glorious 3km walkway along the harbour dotted with restaurants, markets and historic buildings.
Then through the verdant Nile Delta to Cairo. Day after day of driving across the Sahara – we all got to Cairo, brown on our right side and pale on the left side from our driving position!
Peter left David and John in Cairo – and flew back to Australia via Hong Kong – where he was to work for the next few years as a photographer.
And then there were two!
We were (again) ‘adopted’ – this time by a charming Egyptian Copt called Elhamy Riad Gindy. He assisted us very kindly with our visit to this incredible city. David has visited him on numerous subsequent visits to Cairo.
We spent several weeks in Cairo – there was so much to see – and we often split up to follow individual interests.
Everybody visits the Great Pyramids in Ghiza – and the Sphinx – but we managed to get inside Cheop’s tomb. We also visited the Cairo museum – and Tutankhamon’s Tomb and treasures – with armed guards – we saw the massive statue of Ramses II – and John managed to get special permission to visit the Mummy Room (not open to the public) – and although “the mummies of some pharaohs of the 18 to 20th Dynasty found in Thebes…” are still mentioned on the museum’s website – it is unclear if they are still on display.
John also wanted to visit the ‘Step Pyramid’ of Zhoser at Saqqara – then a two day horse ride into the dessert. He managed to hire a horse and guide and spent a night in a hut in the dessert in Saqqara. He was also invited to join with an Egyptian Army Officer’s rowing crew – for a training session – on the Nile.
While all this was going on, David was thinking (as always) of more practical things – like who was going to share the expenses of our return trip
through Europe to London! Somehow – somewhere – he found an American – Dennis Brisbane from San Diego – and there was an uneasy briefing session where we explained the rules of the truck… no smoking – and no drugs… That warning would revisit us on the last leg of our journey!
On our final day in Cairo there was to be a Presidential Parade. Don’t think it was arranged for our benefit – but we decided to see it anyway. The previous night we parked the Old Blue Truck in a square which we knew would be on the parade route and – of course – we were told to move it – and of course we refused. There must have been a shortage of tow trucks in Cairo in those days because we were still ‘arguing the toss’ with several (presumably) security guards
when we heard the sirens of the approaching motorcade… The guards tried to push us out of sight behind the crowd – and we pushed back.
We DID get to see Colonel Gamal Abdu l-Nasser – from up close – as he drove by – but then the security guards turned on us – with renewed interest!
It seemed like a very good time to move on…
We drove (quickly) out of the city and north – back to Alexandria – where we made arrangements for the shipment of the truck (and ourselves) to Beirut – in Lebanon.
Now go to… e. Cairo to Istanbul
A good Atlas of North Africa is here:
A link for those interested in WWII history is here: