Libya by Microlight

3rd October  Tunis

A long day. A long week.

I left Somerset on Monday morning in dreary weather at 7am, just after dawn.. Half way down the take off roll the engine started running rough and I aborted. It’s never happened before and I wasn't going to launch myself anywhere - let alone across the Channel and the Mediterranean with a dodgy nodding donkey. No mechanic. I eventually located an engineer who had done some work on the engine before who appeared at midday - and after a full up and down and lots of telephone calls we pronounced it cured (if there was ever anything wrong).

An hour later I was being routed by Jersey air traffic straight over the top of their runway at 800 ft and then over St Brelarde's bay where we used to spend our childhood family holidays. One miserable sandwich later in Dinard (what has happened to French food?) it was south to the Loire which I followed for about fifty miles before the cloud started to get lower along with the daylight. It was time to land.

Chatellerault sounds nice - but isn't. The next day, scratching bedbugs, I got to the airfield at dawn and took off into glorious sunshine that went the same way as it had the night before as I headed south and east towards Lyons. Lesson No1 in flying is that the weather never, ever, gets better....so I returned to Chatellerault to think again.... in glorious sunshine. Tried again after midday having now missed the third Easyjet flight home from Nice. Same again so changed tack and headed south and slightly west(the wrong way) towards and beyond Limoges - which was a good call as the cloud lifted and the country become very beautiful. I saw a small airfield on the chart called St Flour in the Massif Central and landed for a pee and fuel. Wild place. Cows, cold (3500ft) and locals who looked at my registration number in disbelief as they combed the straw from their hair (the registration number is GEECC - Golf  Echo Echo Charlie Charlie and it was the Golf (British) registration, not the rather poor pun, that got them.

The last leg was magnificent as I climbed above the cloud and the Massif with the Alps jutting out to the East. When I arrived in Cannes, the culture contrast with St Flour was rather extreme when I parked up with all the Bizjets and helicopters. One more rotting le sandwich in Nice airport to round off a culinary experience only rivaled by Nepal.

I was back in Cannes on Friday to meet my  brother and sisteradventurers. As a general rule (moi aussi) most pilots are anoraks who think they are Spitfire pilots - but the advantage is that one can talk isobars and transition levels without your neighbour drowning in the soup having passed out with boredom. The disadvantage is that I may even start boring myself.

We set off early for a long day to Tunis across the Mediterranean. The weather was good on take off but the cloud descended as we approached Corsica - which turned out to be spectacular as I hit the coast at about 700 ft and was flying round Martello towers with a majestic background of sun and clouds over the mountains behind. Ajaccio air traffic was on strike (this is France, of course) so I routed inland, flying around the peaks en route to Figari in the south which is a rare beast indeed - a charming airfield.

The same could not be said of Cagliari in the south of Sardinia which turned our to be the most expensive pee I've ever had at Eu117 - though the handling girl (that's what she introduced herself as) was very pretty. I found myself sandwiched between a Ryanair and an Easyjet flight as I trundled my aerial lawnmower down the taxiway to take off. A bit grown up. The flight to Tunis was in formation with one of my new anorak friends. The sea was golden red in the late afternoon and it did feel like an adventure flying from Europe to Africa. A real big airport landing as well - thick with Jumbos and lots of technical stuff I only half understood.

4th October Gadames

Two days in the sun. Tunis is ok - but I don't think I’ll be booking the next holiday there.

There was a drama on leaving as the first Mrs Ellingworth called from the check-in at Heathrow to say that the computer had said no to her Libyan visa arrangements (she doesn’t ‘do’ water and was joining me in Tripoli). Needless to say the steel magnolia prevailed with five minutes to spare just as we were about to start up. Tunis Carthage is a grown-up airport with lots of huge flying hardware moving about. I had an inadequate photocopied airfield plan on which a B and an A looked like the same sort of blob. There was a bit of consternation in the cockpit when the instruction from the tower came to 'Taxi Alfa via Taxiway Quebec to Line up behind Quatar Air at Holding Point Kilo'. This was not a time to bluff. The controller was very nice and within two minutes a car with 'Follow Me' written on its back window appeared and signaled me to follow.

Nothing much that I saw of northern Tunisia made me revise my holiday plans - though the Roman Amphitheatre at El Djem was spectacular.

Only the Colosseum in Rome is bigger - and it dwarfed the little town that formed its skirt. It was a long flight to Tripoli and the controller routed me over the sea to the east of Jerbba which is supposed to be Odysseus's island of the Lotus Eaters. Ernle Bradford, who wrote a fascinating book about the 'real' Odyssey, reckoned that his hero left Troy and got caught in a Meltemi in the Northern Aegean and was blown south, past Crete to the coast of Africa. If you've ever sailed in a Meltemi you'll know that the only option in an open boat would be to run before it - so I buy the theory. And they reckon the Lotus was some very good weed. No wonder they stayed a few years there.

The flight was a tad under four hours and after about one and a half I began to regret the third cup of coffee and the second glass of orange juice at breakfast. I had a purpose-made receptacle specifically designed for such an eventuality - but I had never used it before. The seating in my (very little) plane is what would best be described as reclining - imagine lying back on a sofa with your feet on top of a Labrador. To complicate matters there is a stick between your legs (not that one). It was tricky, but deeply satisfying, until I hit a patch of turbulence. DIY laundry that evening.

We landed in Mutiga airport in Tripoli which Gaddafi shares with the military and the occasional internal flight. It was littered with old Antonovs and Tupolevs, with or without propellers. Amanda had arrived safely with an aeroplane battery that was sorely needed by one of the others in our party. It had had a medley of customs men somewhat flummoxed. She thought they thought it was some sort of sex toy.

Tripoli itself is rather pleasant. It has the typical corniche of most arab ports and a ramshackle mix of old Italian architecture - including Romanesque style churches from the Italian occupation (which was indescribably brutal) - and the arab venacular into which are threaded souks, Roman Arches and ruins. No one ever hassles you - the souk is still for locals not tourists -  and it has enough bustle to make it fun without being as over-powering as, say, Cairo. The colonel is everywhere in an array of pantomime costumes and green is the colour - green revolution, green square, green flag, green book - you get the idea...

We flew today to Gadhames which is on the Algerian border nearly 300 miles south-west of Tripoli. As one would expect, the country starts built-up and relatively fertile but the desert takes over after fifty to a hundred miles - a plateau of gulleys and small escarpments. There appears to be nothing there apart from stones and spinifex bushes. But people and animals are living there - goats, donkeys and camels in solitary collectives. Occasionally there is evidence of a water-hole but the thought that anything or anyone can live, or even think of making a living in such a baked plain, is humbling indeed.

We were flying at different levels at different times. Once away from Tripoli radar the choice is (unofficially) yours. It is quite difficult, with no human reference point, to feel how high you are when flying at low levels. A row of telegraph poles gave a useful reference. We were told that this problem of perception is accentuated over the sand-sea where we will be tomorrow. As a group we had our own frequency and so instead of the usual call-sign formality there was plenty of anorak-talk and the excitement of one of the party landing on a road to re-fuel. It was pleasant, every now and then, to climb to 10,000 feet and cool off in silky air away from the heat-induced turbulence of the surface.

Gadames is an oasis town and now a Unesco World Heritage site. It is a semi-underground mud-built city from the 10th century which was abandoned only about twenty years ago because of the impossibility of installing water and sanitation.

Though the population now lives around it in breeze block houses, they re- populate it in the summer where the natural air conditioning supplied by the tunnel-like streets, lit and aerated by wide air-shafts to the sky, make it a naturally cool place to live when the temperature in the shade passes 50 degrees. I swam with the local boys in the oasis pool amidst swirls of water rising from the aquifers below - water that has probably been stored there for millennia from when the climate was rather different.

Deep south tomorrow to Ghat - in the bottom left hand corner of Libya bordering  Algeria and Niger

6th October Ghat

Took off from Gadames at dawn. It is the loveliest part of the day; cool, but not nearly as cold as I have been in the desert, shivering inside two sleeping bags and wearing a woolly hat. There is no  turbulence as the ground hasn't heated up - and the light is magical giving the desert a pink hue that leeches away as the sun climbs.

We followed the Algerian border south tracking the occasional road and pipeline that culminated in a huge gas plant about a hundred miles in. Soon after that we entered the sand sea - and it is well described as it seems to have no end. There is the occasional depression amidst the dunes where there would appear to be flat gravel - the only possibility, if it all went quiet up front, of not bending the hardware. Tried not to think of the English Patient.

At Ghat the temperature was 44 degrees: not as bad as it sounds as the air is so dry that a wet shirt dries on you in five minutes. I have adapted one of those silver foil windscreen covers that reflects the sun and stuck it to the top of the canopy. It is surprisingly effective along with side scoops that funnel air around the cockpit. We also have ‘taxi driver’ bead seat covers so that, short of having air-conditioning, we are perfectly comfortable.

We refuelled and flew 20 minutes to a desert strip that went through the Jebel Akakus - country to rival Monument Valley: deep canyons with scoured river beds holding the occasional scrub tree, huge sandstone pillars weathered into sculptured shapes and dunes piled up against cliffs. The strip was only an area marked at either end by a pair of lozenges made by driving a vehicle in a rapid circle. White camels were standing under a pillar of rock that looked like a woman holding a child. My landing was fine but the plane behind buried its front wheel as it taxied. Lots of pushing and advice from everyone for the poor pilot....

On a rock nearby were rock drawings of an elephant that clearly used to live here when the climate and the landscape was like that of East Africa. There was also one of a woman baking bread. Both these have been dated to 8000 BC - five thousand years before Cheops built his pyramid. Now it rains, on average, only twice a year - and one of them was last night when there was a torrential downpour - the sort that has you soaked in the twenty yard dash to your tent. The smell was of a sauna as hot wood became wet.

The next day we were driven by Toureg down a valley of towering pillars of weathered sandstone, some like mushrooms and others of Luxorian magnificence and impossible physics, at a terrifying speed in old Land Cruisers with dodgy steering. We survived.

The flight to Ubari was timed to coincide with the sun setting at our backs. Different country, all utterly desolate, unfolded as we progressed east. A two thousand foot escarpment opened up to canyons and flattened plateaus of basalt that acted like protecting skin to the sandstone below.

Spots of rain and foreboding clouds gave way to a haze as we approached the sand sea that was oranged and shadowed by the evening sun. This in turn petered out to a plain with an escarpment in the distance broken by a valley into which we headed. A side valley revealed an island in the sand. A slow pass with full flap revealed a top so flat and smooth that we could have landed on top of it.

Another day, another plane and a load of camping gear would give us a camp site that could only be achieved with ropes and would leave you alone with the sunset of a lifetime over the sand sea to the west. Clouds appeared. We climbed to the cool of ten thousand feet to play in them but the density altitude defeated us as the engine performance curve petered out leaving us to glide to Ubari with the escarpment marching away into the haze like sea-cliffs overlooking a silver sea.

There were smiles on our faces.

8th October  Ubari

The camp at Ubari was fine for anyone who had been to an English public school. As long as there is a shower, a cold beer (non alchoholic) and a bed (without bed bugs) we're happy. En passant, the no-alcohol regime is very over-rated - neither of us feel any better....

A day off flying. Dawn in the dunes that rear above the camp. I could very happily spend a week amongst any dunes for the beauty of the dusk and dawn - surely one of the most sublime phenomena in nature: for me the most beautiful. We drove into the sand-sea - and it was quite a ride. It has to be done fast to keep momentum for the uphill bits and on the flat stretches they reached 80mph. The downhill bits feel like you are dropping off a cliff - but actually it's not that steep as no dune can exceed 37 degrees as it will collapse under its own weight.

The destination was the desert lakes that are unique in the world. In the middle of the sand sea are three lakes each about 2-3 acres in size surrounded by palms. They are fed by aquifers, but evaporate off, so are bitter like the Dead Sea - but less so. You can float with you arms out but you don't want to get it in your eyes. Also, unlike the Dead Sea, you don't get a stinging sensation in the end of your willy...

In the shack where they were selling warm cokes I spied a snow board and boots: too good to miss. As I strapped in at the top of the dune falling down to the lake, I found that the toe straps only partially worked - so I'll blame my two cartwheeling falls on that. Snow boarding and swimming in a lake in the middle of the biggest dessert on earth -  not bad, eh?

That night we decided to leave our mosquito ridden camp, with a dog that barked like an engine turning over all night, to sleep in the dunes. We walked away from the oasis and away from any vehicle tracks in the sand and laid our beds out under a star-filled sky in the absolute quiet of the desert. Quiet that is until we heard sounds of shouting and saw the light of torches. Because we are such dangerous bunch we have to travel with two (very charming) goons to 'protect' Libya from us. They are known to us, affectionately, as 003 and 004 It was they, with our delightful and wonderfully un-PC guide, Abdul. We had to go back to the camp, Abdul translated, as 004 said it was 'too dangerous'. The steel magnolia was sent in to save the day. 'We live in a country where it is always raining and cold and we love Libya because it is so beautiful and we can see the sky etc etc etc....' Putty in her hands. British Airways didn't stand a chance nor did they. Abdul didn't believe she could do it but eventually 004 relented and we enjoyed a dawn of orange, sculptured shadows and a silence such as only exists in the desert.

I am writing this on the ground along a dead straight gravel road about 40 miles short of Tripoli with Amanda sitting on the wing and a little Berber boy trying the headset on while his grandfather and two sheep look on grinning (the grandfather that is). We started this morning with an initial flightto a re-fuelling stop over the sand sea and the lakes that we had visited the day before.

The distance to Tripoli was at the extreme of my fuel range - and so it proved to be with a headwind. Rather than push the luck (never a good idea in aeroplanes) we decided to make a precautionary landing (always the best fun) on a long gravel road where we have been the entertainment of the week to all and sundry passing by - everyone very concerned and smiling as we await a jerry can to see us on our way. One farmer, laughing till we thought he'd die, backed his truck up to the front of the plane, attached a rope from the truck to the propeller and got his friend to take a photo while he tried to keep a straight face...

10th October Malta

It all worked out fine in the end but it was quite dramatic. One of the others flew on to Tripoli to get a jerry can of fuel and returned to get us. The rules are that you are allowed to fly up to half an hour after official sunset - which is when the sun goes below the horizon - if you don't have a night rating. It was dusk when they arrived and Sam (our ex-army air-corps leader/guide with thousands of hours) waved Amanda into the other aircraft and jumped in with me. We took off and as we got to Tripoli it was definitely dark even if the rule-book didn't say so officially - with the result that I did my first night landing.  I've always been dubious about night flying in a single engine plane as the question has never been answered, to my satisfaction, as to where you land if the noise stops - on the light bits or the dark bits? I still feel the same - though it was rather beautiful. Sam had to produce a report for air traffic on the 'safety incident'. It was a work of fiction that will have him shortlisted for the Booker....

Next day Leptis Magna - about an hour down the (not very attractive coast) from Tripoli. Tripoli means three cities - of which Leptis was one in the Roman world. It is, I think, much more impressive than Pompeii - mainly because it was then a rich provincial capital - but also because it simply got buried by sand (having been devastated by an earthquake in the late 4th Century which did for most of Roman North Africa). Only a third has been excavated and its position, right on the Mediterranean means that it still stands on its own and isn't surrounded by the modern detritus of breeze-block bungalows. Amanda returned to London amidst much lamentation. My fellow anoraks are very nice bunch and the jokes are really very good. Anything like this, where everyone has a shared interest and adventure, brings out the best in people.

Last leg yesterday to Malta. We are all now getting quite slick and used to loose formation flying (to keep an eye and ear out for each other). A weather front was moving in from the west and we met it half way across the 200 mile stretch of water. It’s amazing how used one gets to long water crossings. I really like them as it’s normally very smooth (no hills and heating ground to disturb the air) and there is always something wonderful about a landfall. Seeing Malta coming out of the murk made me think of the Spitfire pilots, launched off a carrier, at extreme range, to go to Malta's aid during the siege. Most of them went into the Mediterranean because the Airforce had been using statute miles for their calculations - and the Navy nautical miles...

We had visited Malta a couple of years ago. Valletta is a beautiful baroque city built around its legendary harbour - and so is Mdina in the centre of the island. The rest is rather built-up and shabby with a North African feel to it, even though it is part of the EU.

I am leaving the plane here today as the weather forecast is terrible until Wednesday and I would rather leave it somewhere where I can get to cheaply and quickly when I spot a weather window sometime over the next month. It's a good two days flying up Italy and France so I would rather do that with a fat high sitting over Europe than picking my way around showers under grey skies. One of my new anorak friends is retired and has time on his hands and is quite keen to ferry it back for me - so I might take him up on that.

Back to normal life via Easyjet. It's flying - but it isn't really, is it?


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