We fly out of Tripoli aboard Alitalia to Rome in the afternoon, flying over the Mediterranean Sea and spotting both Mount Etna and Sicily along the route.
Our bus that meets us at the Rome airport is very deluxe: a Mercedes with lots of room (since several of our group left us in Tripoli to return home directly). We check into our hotel, the Grand Palazzo Carpegna. Our hotel rooms are tiny, but very well appointed. In retrospect, this turns out to be the best accommodation we have in the two week trip.
Before dinner a few of us gather in the hotel lounge and have a couple of drinks over stories of our Libyan adventure. These drinks are somewhat of an event, considering we have just traveled a week in a dry country. The strongest drink you could order in Libya was an espresso!
Our bus picks us up at 8pm this evening to take us to Castel Gondolfo for a tour of the Vatican Observatory.
March 29, 2006 – Wednesday – Total Solar Eclipse Day
After our long drive across the desert yesterday, everyone is well-rested and ready to go this morning. Breakfast is a bun and some cheese from Mahmood Poonja (Bestway Tours & Safaris). Then a few of us go over to the coffee shop for our morning coffee before setting up for the eclipse.
First item of business for most of us is equipment checks and setup. We have lots of curious Libyans and fellow campers from around the world asking us questions about ourselves, our equipment, and (in the case of the Libyans) what we thought of their country. The atmosphere is very energized! We have two weathermen with us, as well as a half dozen experienced eclipse chasers who I find personally very helpful.
Patrick, Marvin and I all wear our Ghutras, which cause all sorts of fellow eclipse chasers and Libyans to either take our pictures, or want pictures taken with themselves standing beside one (or all) of us. We ditch the Ghutras after the eclipse is over. Lunch is served around 3pm, which thankfully is very well organized today.
As we count down to First Contact, people are really getting excited. Finally, “first contact” is shouted out, and we all look up (through filtered glasses) to see the first chunk of the Sun being eclipsed by the Moon. What a strange sight! Over the next few minutes more and more of the Sun is eclipsed, until we feel the temperature of the Saharan heat start to drop. Next comes a strange colour change of the surrounding light. As things start to darken more, the temperature drops more – a total of 7 or 8°C by the end according to one of my fellow observers, Jim Low, who is measuring the temperature throughout the eclipse.
At Second Contact, the Moon totally eclipses the Sun, and the Diamond Ring (see image below) appears for a brief few seconds, closely followed by Bailey’s Beads and solar prominences. What a sight, and it happens so quickly! Then for 4 minutes we have the total eclipse to enjoy viewing and photographing. The Sun’s corona is magnificent, with streamers of plasma flowing outward from the Sun. I am taking photographs all through the sequence. The full eclipse phase is so strange, since no solar filters are needed to observe the Sun while it is fully-eclipsed by the Moon. I can appreciate why some people become so emotional during an eclipse.
Too soon we come to Third Contact, where we have to again use solar filters, since the energy of the Sun is now back at close to full strength. Some of our group observe until Fourth Contact, making observations along the way. Being less dedicated, I stop photographing during this phase, and just enjoyed the occasional glance at the eclipsed Sun through my filtered binoculars.
A solar eclipse can be enjoyed in many ways – direct observation, photography, and observing changes in the light, ambient temperature and wildlife in the area, or just sharing the experience with others. We have a great group, with everyone helping each other to enjoy the experience. We do a fair bit of ambassadorship for Canada, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and astronomy in general – “Sidewalk Astronomy” in the Sahara!
So I have observed my first total solar eclipse from the middle of the Libyan Sahara Desert – very exciting! Bailey’s Beads, the Diamond Ring, solar flares and the corona were all superb as viewed though my binoculars and through my Canon EF 400mm L series telephoto lens on my Canon Digital Rebel dSLR. The photos I take of the event turn out very well.
We depart Eclipse Camp around 4pm bound for Benghazi, and arrive back in the Garyounis Resort at about 10pm. After a quick dinner, I shower off that desert sand and then go to bed. It has been a long, but very rewarding day! The eclipse was a tremendous success, with the weather being absolutely perfect.
March 28, 2006 – Tuesday – Benghazi to Eclipse Camp
We leave at 8AM this morning on our bus headed to the Eclipse Camp, south of Jalu. After stopping to pick up some water and box lunches, we finally get underway at 9:30am. We make several pit stops along the way, including a lunch stop on the roadside. We see some sheep and camels being herded beside the road.
On the way down to the eclipse camp, we go through multiple security check points. Security has been high throughout this trip – we have a Tourist Police aboard our bus at all times, as well as our Numidia Tours guide and our driver. The Libyans are taking no chances of any “tourist incidents” happening for this Solar Eclipse event!
We have arrived at the eclipse camp! My GPS says we are at N28° 13′ 48″ E21° 30′ 44″. This camp is amazing:
Hundreds of tents in each of three large sites
Souvenir and coffee shops
Showers and flush toilet latrines – running water coming from tanker trucks
Wireless Internet and telephones – electricity from a generator running 24 hrs/day
This evening the organizers in the dining hall lose control of the crowd of 500-1,000 who show up for dinner around 8pm. Libyans are crashing the line, pushing the tourists back – a bad scene. Most of my group eat dinner around 9pm. Needless to say, we are exceedingly hungry by then! I find a small stuffed camel in one of the shops, which will make a nice gift for someone special when I return home.
There are perhaps 500-1,000 people at our camp, and I can see at least two other camps nearby. Everyone is excited to finally be at our destination – the reason for our long journey. After some supper, most of us adjourn to a coffee shop setup in the desert, and shoot the breeze for awhile, then retire to our tents. We were all tired after being in the bus and on the road for 8 hours, so sleeping in the desert is a fitting end to the day.
After lunch, we go to the Tripoli airport. It is controlled chaos, since we have to sort out our luggage, some of which was brought on a separate bus. Then we are all checked in as a group, since the tour operator holds all the airline tickets. The flight to Benghazi is on a Buraq Air Boeing 737-300. We departed on time, cruise at 460kt at 29,000ft. The flight is 90% full of Bestway Tours‘ three groups. At Benghazi Airport, we board our bus and head for the Garyounis Resort. We have a police escort the whole way – complete with sirens and flashing lights!
When we arrive my bag is missing, but it is found on one of the other buses. We have supper at 8:30pm, and afterwards Ralph tells us the eclipse camp arrangements have changed. Apparently our camp was hit with a sand storm, and the government had security concerns, so they insist our camp be moved to south of Jalu on the centerline. This is actually a bonus, since we would have had to be bused to the centerline in the morning from where we were to camp originally.
March 28, 2006 – Tuesday – Benghazi to Eclipse Camp
We leave at 8AM this morning on our bus headed to the Eclipse Camp, south of Jalu. After stopping to pick up some water and box lunches, we finally get underway at 9:30am for the long journey south to the middle of the Sahara Desert.
This morning we pack, have breakfast, and check out of the Garyunis Resort. First stop is a walking tour of Benghazi’s high end shopping area and its Souk. Benghazi is relatively new, since it was badly bombed during WW II. Some of our group find a great fabric shop with some amazing patterns and colours on imported fabrics. Several women in our group buy lots of fabric to take back home. We have lunch at a Turkish restaurant, which serves us a very nice meal: salad, grilled ground meat (skinless sausages) and chicken chunks, and warm flatbread.
We were then driven to the airport and depart for Tripoli on a Buraq Air Boeing 737-200. We are staying at a different hotel this time: Bab Al-Bahr Hotel. I think it is a grade better than Al-Safina Hotel, where we were staying before. The only problem is that it isn’t close to the Souk, so several people in my group hire taxis. Personally, I’m not interested in more shopping, and decide to catch up on my blog at the Internet Café located in the lobby. Several clients in the Internet Café see me posting my eclipse photo, and want the URL to send in their email messages to their friends and family.
Today, on our second full day in Libya, we travel to the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna, 120km east of Tripoli.
It looks like Fatid (from Numidia Tours) will be our tour leader throughout our stay in Libya, and again, we also have a member of the Tourist Police on board. Part way to Leptis Magna we pass through a check point, and papers are given to the officials before we proceed.
Like Sabrata, Leptis Magna is a huge ancient city located on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a much bigger city than Sabrata. There is a huge arch at the entrance to the city erected by Septimus Severus, who was the emperor of the Roman Empire for several years, and who was a resident of the city at the time. There is a huge theatre, impressive roads, a harbour, and temples galore.
On the return trip back to Tripoli we pass through two more checkpoints. As we travel in Libya over the coming days, we become used to these check points. It appears Libyan citizens are not free to travel their country unless they have good reason to do so. I expect if their papers are not in order, they will be turned around and sent back at these check points.
Today on our first full day in Libya, we travel to the ancient Roman city of Sabratha, about 80km west of Tripoli.
Sabratha’s golden age can be traced to the era when four Roman emperors reigned: Antonius Pius (AD 138-61), Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (AD 161-80), Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus (AD 180-92), and finally Septimus Severus (Ad 193-211).
Sabratha was part of the Phoenician, Greek and Roman empires, among others. The first thing you see as you walk through the gates is the Sabratha Theatre to your right across a meadow, with glimpses of the blue Mediterranean Sea behind it. This theatre is without a doubt the most impressive Roman stone theatre to be found anywhere, including the theatre in the sister city of Leptis Magna. It has been beautifully restored, and the location close to the shoreline of the Mediterranean sets off the beautiful stonework. Theatrical productions continue to be staged here today, and I can understand why, since acoustics are impeccable in Roman-designed theatres.
Despite everyone expecting to feel our jet-lag from our long flights the day before, we did very well covering this huge site. I really didn’t appreciate the scale of this ancient coastal city.
March 25, 2006 – Saturday – It’s 6:30am when I wake up, and when I stick my head out the hotel window, I hear the Muslims being called to worship by chanting being broadcast from loudspeakers in minaret towers in the mosques around the city. Today we travel to the ancient Roman city of Sabratha, about 80km west of Tripoli.
March 26, 2006 – Sunday – Today we travel to the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna, just over 100km east of Tripoli. There are lots of olive trees along the highways around Tripoli. Sheep are sometimes being grazed in the olive groves, and are always being watched by shepherds. I even spotted a sheep dog once!
This afternoon, I join three of our group for a walk through the Souk (market) in the Medina (old city). This evening, there is a Tuareg cultural display across the street from our hotel, so after dinner a few of us walk over to see the displays. The Tuarag women are very camera shy, so I put my camera away. Later in the evening there is Tuarag folkloric dancing and singing, and our little group end up being the guests of honour! Despite it being very dark, I take some video and hope for the best.
March 27, 2006 – Monday – This morning Fatid takes us on a walking tour of the Medina, which included a tour of the Souk. I take several photos in the Souk today because it is less busy. I’m very careful to avoid taking photos of local people whose faces would be recognizable. The Tuarag women last night were shielding themselves from any cameras. I know Arabs do not like their photos to be taken, especially women.
On the way back to our hotel, we stop at the Safir Restaurant for lunch. One of the other Libyan tour guides joins our table, so I ask him what one litre of gas costs. He tells us most cars use diesel, which costs 0.15 Dinar/litre (about 0.09€/litre). Later, Fatid helps me find some Arab headgear: a Ghutra (fabric) and an Igal (rope) to go with it in the men’s wear section of the Souk just before it closes. I now have a “Lawrence of Arabia” head cover to wear when we get to the desert, so I will probably use it during the eclipse observations to ward off the expected hot temperatures.
We are told that Libya has about 40 years of oil supply left, and coincidentally, they also have about 40 years of water supply left. Our bottled water comes from the Great Manmade River – a water supply system that pipes water from aquifers found deep under the Sahara to the coastal cities in a huge network of aqueducts.
After lunch, we go to the airport to catch our flight to Benghazi, our jumping off point to see the Total Solar Eclipse from the eclipse camp south of Jalu, in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
March 31, 2006 – Friday – After breakfast this morning we walk through Tripoli to see the Jamahiriya Museum, which houses many of the originals of the statues we saw copies of earlier at Sabratha and Leptis Magna. There is a 5 Dinar camera charge at the Museum (10 Dinars for video), which we encountered at all historical sites in Libya. It would have been valuable to have an English-speaking guide, since all the informational signs were in Arabic.
Our time in Libya ends today with a flight to Rome aboard Alitalia airline.
Air Canada did a good job today. I have avoided flying Air Canada since 1967, so I have to say this is a pleasant surprise. My bags arrive as promised and undamaged; the flights are all on-time, and the in-flight service is quite good. I stay overnight at a hotel near the Toronto airport.
March 23, 2006 – Thursday – Toronto to Tripoli
I had a good night’s sleep last night. I return to Pearson Airport, where I meet our leader Ralph Chou and the RASC Eclipse group. I have made t-shirts for everyone who wanted them (see logo to right), and give them out while we wait for our Alitalia flight to depart for Milan and onward to Tripoli. It is a long day – about 12 hours flight time and 15 hours elapsed time between Toronto and Tripoli, with a stop in Milan to change aircraft.
March 24, 2006 – Friday – Tripoli, Libya
The airport is quite large, however as we expect, the entry process with the Visas is painfully slow. Once the official realizes we are all listed on a single Visa form, he finally checks us all off and we are on our way. Both Mahmood from Bestway Tours & Safaris and the representative from Numidia Travel (Bestway’s partner in Libya) are there, along with a very nice air conditioned bus. The warm Sun and 23°C temperature feel good after all the cold, damp weather we’ve endured on the west coast of Canada. As we drive through the outskirts of Tripoli, we notice lots of families having picnics, one family under the shade of each tree. It is Friday, and until sundown, it is the Muslim day of rest.
After our arrival at the hotel, Ralph quickly assigns a roommate for those of us in the group who are traveling solo, and then we all disappear to our rooms to get some well-deserved rest after our long journey from Canada.
Tripoli is a very interesting city: very large, very Arabic, and very well developed. The city and the rest of the country are interesting, mainly because so many cultures have historically occupied this area. Oea was the Roman name for Tripoli, and the Phoenicians were here before the Romans. The Ottoman Turks were also here for over two hundred years, however eventually the Arabs took the place over once they ousted those terrible Italian armies and colonizers! King Idris was ushered into power by the United Nations after WWII, and then 27 year old Mu’ammar Gaddafi seized power on September 1, 1969 without even stepping foot in the country. By the way, “The Man” is not talked about in polite company by Libyans.