The Oasis of Tripoli
19.01.1965 - 30.01.1965
Our plan, as we left Cairo, was to get to Tripoli in Libya as soon as possible. There we hoped to meet up with our American friend in the oil industry who earlier had assisted us in trying, unsuccessfully, to get visas for Saudi Arabia. We had met the Rees family when they were stationed in Sydney, and had been surprised and delighted when they were transferred to Libya, providing us with an opportunity to see them again on our travels. To reach Tripoli we had to traverse over two thousand kilometres of mostly arid country, the Western and Libyan Deserts, famous battlegrounds of WWII.
All day train trip, via Alexandria and Alamein to Mersa Matruh. We saw the Commonwealth War Cemetery at El Alamein as we passed through, though it was difficult to visualize the great victory of General Montgomery over Field Marshal Rommel, which took place there at that tiny village in the middle of the Western Desert. It was just a dusty whistle stop. The dust kept blowing into the carriage all day long, and settled on everything. Arrived Mersa Matruh, and found the Youth Hostel to be quite good, and on the main road to Sallum, the border town, which will be convenient for hitching tomorrow.
Strange sight : at the restaurant we ate in tonight, there was a battered old WWII campaign chair which had painted on it “Rommel’s chair, 1942”. I wonder if the Desert Fox really sat on it.
‘Main road to Sallum’ is a good one - we waited six hours on the outskirts of town for a lift which never came. Not a single vehicle passed going that way, except for a bus or two early in the morning when we did not want one. Six bloody hours, and the wind was blowing a tempest. Obviously no one was going to drive into a desert sandstorm. As the wind picked up and the sand started swirling around we huddled for a while against a stone wall, but when it got worse, almost suffocating, we found shelter in an empty building nearby. We were stuck there until 2.30 pm, when it abated enough for us to return to the hostel. Later we went into the town to eat and to see about a bus for tomorrow. A mini bus is leaving at 8 am in the morning, and the driver will accept Libyan money, so I guess that will be it. I am in the lowest of moods. Utterly miserable about everything : this dead end hole, being low on funds, possible border troubles, lousy weather, travel tiredness - the works. I only hope that Tripoli and the Rees improve my morale a bit for the last leg to London.
Ade owes me: 6p for dinner
5p for ½ cake
½p for sweet
8p for cigarettes
10p for hostel - plus $10
Thursday 21-1-65 to Saturday 30-1-65
There is quite a lot to write about since the last entry ten days ago. Our luck changed somewhat the following morning, when we picked up a bus that was returning almost empty to Algiers from Cairo - only 10 passengers in a fifty seater. The Algerian crew were quite friendly and we agreed on a price of 7 Libyan Pounds per head. This was quite expensive, but we decided it was well worth it, as it would be a quick trip and would save us all the long hours of waiting for lifts, plus associated overnight expenses. It left Mersa Matruh at about 8 am and further on we got through the border post at Sallum without trouble. Hallelujah! We weren’t even asked for our currency forms - such a relief. Since it was Ramadan the bus did not stop for lunch, and we decided not to eat until the others did, after sunset. They didn’t like us smoking either, but occasionally we disappeared to the empty seats down the back. We were well past Tobruk before I inflated my mattress, stretched it from seat to seat across the aisle, and fell asleep. When I awoke we had stopped in Benghazi for the night. The driver had driven until 3 am - quite phenomenal. I felt a bit guilty that we passed as quickly as we did through Tobruk, where Australian soldiers so distinguished themselves under siege in WWII. It is a peaceful and pretty little town today, completely rebuilt since the war, and the driver at least took the scenic route round the edge of the harbour. During the 2 ½ day bus trip we saw mainly desert all the time, and went through one sandstorm, just before and after we passed under the huge Marble Arch, constructed in Mussolini’s time to mark the border between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Tripolitania was generally more fertile and cultivated, with lots of Australian Eucalypts. We did not see many people at all. The other passengers on the bus were quite friendly, and the 2 ½ days did not drag - I was never really bored. Considering the distance I think we made good time. We arrived in Tripoli about 1 pm on Saturday 23rd, changed money at Barclay’s bank, and having taken leave of the bus walked to Mr Rees Office. He met us all smiles and said we were to stay at his home, but since he did not have the car, we would have to get there by bus. He gave us the key to his house and we left to find it. We had a hell of a time doing so, but finally made it. It was a shock to enter a house in Libya and discover a setting that I was familiar with from Sydney. It had not occurred to me that, of course, they would have had all their furniture shipped over.
The next week was pure bliss. It was a beautifully appointed home - big lounge, T.V. room, plenty of food in the fridge. They were hospitable no end, and I became more at home there than anywhere else on the trip.
It was a good life. We would get up at 10 am, get our own breakfast, then take the bus into town, and having fixed up our business come back for lunch. Four of the eight nights we were there we ate out at hamburger joints, and it was great to be Americanized. We had our own room, hot water galore, had all our clothes washed and pressed, could watch TV in English from the Air Force base, like in Tehran, and there were plenty of Cokes and snacks. We also had the use of two typewriters. It was wonderful, and a very good stopover for many reasons. Firstly I started to write articles, thus giving Ade the initiative also. I completed an introductory article, put down notes on another, and half finished a long one on Nepal. Secondly, we did not need to ask for a loan, thank God, as when we went to Barclays, I found out that I could get money sent from London without difficulty. Two days later we received francs and deutschmarks to the value of 25 pounds sterling. With this in our pockets, we decided that it was no longer necessary for us to cross to Syracuse, as we were planning, and make a dash for London, but that we could make it to Morocco and go up through Spain. This had the advantage that we would complete our originally intended trip, and we would not be unduly prolonging our stay with the Rees’ until the 5th Feb, the date of the first sailing we could get.
On the Saturday night, the night before we left, they took us out to the Airbase for dinner, and drove us through the city on the way back. Tripoli at sunset and at night was quite spectacular, very Italian in style, clean and well kept, and the drive was a perfect way to end our visit there. The following morning Mr Rees drove us out onto the road, gave us a Libyan Pound to get us to the border, and after saying goodbye returned with the lunch we had left behind. That was the last we saw of them. They are wonderful people, and for sure I will keep in touch with them.
The day after we arrived in Tripoli we heard on the news that Sir Winston Churchill had died. It was disappointing not to have been in London for the funeral, but at least we were able to watch it on T.V.