This year I took part, for the second time, in the Libyan Challenge. This is a non-stop 200k race in south Libya; the requirement is to traverse the sands using a GPS and a back-up compass; winding around the mountains and valleys of the beautiful Akakus Mountains.
The race has 10 checkpoints and each of these is about 20k apart. The terrain is very hard and the temperatures went up to 55 degrees in the sun.
The Akakus are some of the most beautiful mountains and desert in the Sahara and each range seems to have been specifically carved out of the rock by a sculptor. Arches and bridges abound and the remains and cave paintings of the original inhabitants show them hunting game about 3,000 years ago. This means that the area resembled the Serengeti Plain in Kenya. Ghat was itself a Roman town and therefore must have been supported by other towns every 20k from there to the coast – a trip of 15 hours by car. Most of these are now buried beneath the desert sands much of which will have occurred in the last 2,000 years. This brought global warming into focus for the first time in my life.
We stayed in a “hotel” just outside of town. It was a collection of mud rooms, a straw roof with a three beds in each room. At the end of the block are a communal shower room and a toilet. The toilet was the continental type that you need to squat over and imagine that you are a RAF bomber pilot in the second world war and ensure you hit your target and not any part of your clothing. It all takes some planning – the French are so much better at this than we are. The shower is just a pipe out of the mud wall with one shelf. The walls are dried mud. At the very end are the wash basins under a canopy but open to the world.
The dining room is a collection of tables under a canopy next to the kitchen. Very simple and very relaxing; we soon mellow into this way of life and the cares of the UK drift away as we look across the endless sands.
Following the usual introduction and equipment checks we all get to sleep. This year many friends have shown up to compete and it’s a great reunion. Laurent and I are talking to Sandy McCallum, a Canadian who holds the Guinness world record for the most desert events in a year (7). We realise she was the same lady we met previously in a sandstorm in Morocco. This happens a lot in races you come across someone who you think is a stranger and soon you realise that you met previously on another race.
We left for the start on the Monday morning knowing that we had 4 days to complete the race. The coaches got stuck in the sand and we completed the last 5k in a truck with a Tuareg who tried to barter with us for the women.
Unfortunately for him they spoke French and after listening to us explaining to him that:
- they could cook
- they could bear him many children
- they had good teeth
They proceeded to add their own terms to the negotiations, such as trips to Paris and shopping at Chanel, which made them somehow less attractive to our host.
In a non-stop race that lasts for 2-3 days; constantly on the move. We started each day at about 7am and walked and jogged, where possible, through to 3am the following morning, when we arrived at another checkpoint. Some runners dropped in the desert at night too tired to complete the stage.
The gun went and we set off across an arid plain and up 2,000 feet to the summit of a mountain range before descending into the arid region of the northern Akakus. The heat kept on rising as did our heart beats and our chests strained to breathe. I took this slowly thinking that I had entered a race too far and that I might have to retire at checkpoint 1 whilst a voice in my head said that I had seen all this before and that no decision would be made until the evening as it would all settle down. It did.
I got to checkpoint 1 to find runners who I thought to be many kilometres ahead lying on the ground. This is always true of non-stops; you are forever finding runners catching you up you thought were 10k behind and catching runners you thought were 10k in front of finished. It is never over until it’s over.
At checkpoint 2 more runners were lying on the ground being sick with heat stroke and unable to drink or eat. The sun and the desert had won. People started to drop out. My running partner was slowing due to blisters and I was determined to make better progress this year. I left Liz ( Liz Evangelista) at the checkpoint with our friends Andy Tsoi and Laurent Locke who had completed the race last year and pushed on with a female team called the “Sandcats” to checkpoint 3, 32k away. It was 8 pm and better to do this in the cool of the night. Having arrived at 3am I slept for 3 hours and awoke to find my companions gone. I worried about Liz and the others and held back for an hour and then left with Keith who was new to the sport.
We moved into the South Akakus and the dunes and sand carpeted the ground majestically, sweeping up to the jagged rock outcrops that stretched to the clear azure sky. The sand sparkled in the sunlight. It was the most beautiful and dramatic place I had ever been to.
We came to a stretch of dunes and halfway across we did a 360 degree turn; looking at the landscape we could see 5 miles in any direction; not a soul or creature moved. We were really alone. Then Keith ran out of water. We continued for 3 hours sharing mine until we both ran out. We put up with the dehydration and slowly made our way to checkpoint 4. Keith got heat stroke. You have to be a bit ruthless at times like this. Yes you can help but not at the expense of yourself. This is a race; if you make mistakes you have to learn from them and pay for them.
Checkpoint 4 was “the Elephant’s foot” and we had arrived here in the afternoon whereas the previous year I had taken a further 6 hours to get here. So far so good.
We left for checkpoint 5 going down the same endless canyon that I had been down the previous year. Keith was having a bad time. He was hallucinating and suffering from dehydration. A moth flew into his torch light and he started screaming “Bats! There’s hundreds of bats here”. Well I could only see one moth. I made him sit down and gave him a few dyralites in a drink to restore his sugars. After a few minutes we continued. I knew that this canyon would take 3.5 hours to walk down and by the end of that time we were still not there so we were slowing down. I started to see things – garden fences hung with rose bushes in full bloom repeatedly blocked my path and I had to keep telling myself they didn’t exist and walk through them. The fences became brick walls and I still went through them. I just wanted to see the checkpoint and get some sleep. Eventually we came around the corner and there was the checkpoint on the other side of the canyon. It was much easier to see at night than it was during the day.
We carried on though the night to checkpoint 5. I awoke the following morning and felt something warm behind me. “A snake!” I tensed and rapidly returned from the Land of Nod to utter stress in 0.8 of a second. I was convinced it was a sand viper and that I had to get this completely right or I was dead. I jumped up and spun to find one of the girls cuddling me for warmth.
My bum was on fire due to constant chafing and sand. I needed to finish. I decided to complete the last 100k in one go. The girls had taken a wrong turning in the valley and had managed to walk up the side of the mountain to a ridge before realising they were wrong and by that time they had lost hours. It happens – disorientation becomes easy especially when there are no maps on the race and so no points of reference to compare.
The Sandcats, Keith and I all left together after breakfast. I knew this part of the course from last year and we took off at a good pace; we passed the Garamantes cemetery, a lonely spot of little rock gravestones set in the middle of a barren rock plain, visited only by the odd passer-by and understood by few; it is probably over 100 years old. We got to checkpoint 6 and after a short break we ascended the mountain and crossed it in bright sunshine. Last year we had undertook this in pitch dark with no moon at 2 am and this had been the most nerve-racking part of the race. It was very different in daytime, the sunlight not permitting the mind to play it usual tricks and hallucinations.
We traversed the plateau at the top without incident and looked across the lunar landscape to the skyline. We clambered down the steep cliff – this was really dangerous last year.
This time we came across the largest fossil I had ever seen we must have passed this in the night last year and so lucky to see it again. The descent was much easier and less nerve-racking – and we reached checkpoint 7. A brief stopover and we were off, all convinced that we were on course to finish that day. A few kilometres out a sandstorm came over the course and the GPSs stopped working. We continued, walking two by two to check the route and we took a reading on a compass and followed it. Fortunately it was correct and we made checkpoint 8 at midnight to find 15 runners sleeping waiting for the day and the storm to blow over. The organisers advised us to stop but Sandy and I had experienced 10 sandstorms between us and felt we were OK to continue. We did the last part of the race through checkpoint 9 and to the finish, across dunes going almost due south.
We continued for 6 hours stopping to cut up Keith’s shoes which he had purchased too small. His feet were “exploding”. We slit the backs of £90 Salomon specials and immediately he sighed with relief. We finished in good spirits and due to our constant movement in the sand storm we finished 46th out of 74.
Getting into the finish, you re-acquaint yourself with the basic creature comforts of life. Hot tea, a Coke, warm bed and the relaxing sigh that you know you have finished; once again been successful and able to look forward to a couple of days’ relaxation. There is also the thought that some of the runners are still out there.
The following day we go into Ghat. Ghat is an old Foreign legion town and it’s dominated by the old fort. The town is well known as the “town that melted” due to heavy rains literally melting the mud houses. Most people have abandoned this part of the town but some still live there. This is where the silver sales men live.
Laurent and I join a team to go off to purchase some presents. We try to find the guy we met last year “Chief of the cheapest of the cheap” , but were told he had left because he went bust.
We go into a whitewashed mud house to be met by three Tuareg. They have all their wares on a Berber carpet on the hard floor. We pick several and ask the price. Then the haggling starts. Laurent goes into one, gesticulating in French that this is an outrage, his grandmother is rolling in her grave. The Tuareg says he’s affronted. Oh Great! In come more Tuareg and they are all armed. It’s a bit alarming if you are a quiet Brit who is used to going to Waitrose and enquiring about the price in sanguine terms.
Laurent carries on as the price works its way down ever so slowly. The Tuaregs look us up and down and I do wonder if we are not going to be staying there permanently. But you can’t stop Laurent who is into a “Hamlet” like performance that would have made Laurence Olivier proud. Pacing up and down shaking his hands as if the Tuareg have insulted him and must be part mad for even suggesting such a derisory discount. Finally to everyone’s relief we seem to come to a deal. Laurent says what do I think and I say fine. We purchase the jewellery and sit down to a fine cup of mint tea with our smiling and laughing friends who obviously enjoyed the show.
We next go into the town. The people here don’t just like Gadaffi – they adore him. And it’s easy to see why. You can’t buy a loaf of bread in Libya because it’s too cheap. Put a farthing down and you have bread thrown at you there is just so much. The electricity stays on all day. Street lights are on in the bright Sahara morning. The roads are very good and the hospital in Ghat is excellent. Everyone has TV and even Tuareg tents have dishes beside them; all pointing to Gaddaffi TV.
This is the only down side. I go into an internet café in down-town Ghat to see a football stadium full of women on the TV on the wall. They are crying and screaming waiting for Gadaffi to turn up. He arrives looking as if he has been up all night with his all-female personal guard. He waves his hand to the left hand side of the stadium and the screams just erupt. He repeats on the right and they do the same.
I love going to foreign places. In China Chairman Mao is everywhere, in Russia its still Lenin and Marx. Here it’s Gadaffi in bars, airports, bus stations and on walls, his face follows you everywhere. He has done so much for the common man. He is financing the largest project in the world to bring sub-terrain water from the Sahara to the people by piping it across huge distances.
The Akakus region remains the most beautiful part of the Sahara. It stretches into South Eastern Algeria and is a part of the Tassili mountains. If you ever get a chance you should go there.