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January, 1998

What a day this is! While my daughter and her friends set off to explore on bikes, I book a jeep tour into the Libyan desert. We have to surrender our passports. Not as easy as it sounds. First we have to find the official to surrender them to. We drive round and round the village, passing a huge cabbage many times until it becomes my marker of the circuits. Finally we track him down and set off. Five minutes after we turn off towards the dunes we stop in a clump of eucalypts to collect firewood and bond: two people in Cairo learning Arabic; an American lawyer teaching at a university in the Ukraine; an Australian economist and human rights worker who speaks Hebrew and Hungarian and is wearing pink hippy pants; a Swedish biologist; and me, an English teacher from Broken Hill.

We set off again, placing bets about the next stop – roadworks in fact: trucks and vociferous men and a cement strip to negotiate. After that we finally enter the dunes. The driver takes mischievous delight in watching our reactions to vertical drops, and leaps out to take photos with the motor still running and the jeep held at 45° by a dodgy set of brakes.

We stop at hot springs for lunch, where I sit mesmerised by the bubbling water and its shapes, and absorb the biblical scene: dry stony hills and a well in the desert wilderness. I don’t eat: I’m nursing a rather disturbed tummy. Then a bit more dune plunging, where I take the way of the coward and slide down under my own steam. At prayer time we reach a cold lake and the guides spread out their mats on the sand.

The sun is beginning to drop and the dunes acquire angles as the shadows deepen. We climb towards a place of fossils, intricate smooth polished hieroglyphs. One is circular with a stylised flower-shape picked out in dots. I photograph madly, forlorn about my chances of capturing desert immensity. We stop again on the roof of the dunes for the sunset shots. The hills turn pink and the outline of the dunes sharpen: some of the more distant ones have the pinched top of a Cornish pasty.

Now the real fun begins. We get stuck in heavy sand and the truck is mechanically recalcitrant. When the driver opens the glove box looking for a solution, he reveals a tumble of tangled wires, greasy tools and unspooling cassettes. As he puzzles over the truck problem, something rounded and pink and blurry appears on the horizon. Slowly it breaks free of clinging sand and becomes a full moon. We watch in delight until the truck starts again, and we head back to the springs, where the guides eat their Ramadan breakfast and we sit around their campfire.

The adventure isn’t over yet. We have to take at least three run ups to crest a dune, even though we’re on the track. And then the man with the passports is “not here”, “asleep”, “come back later”. We end up in the same eating place as my daughter and her friends who are playing poker at the next table. We refuse to pay the guides until we are in possession of our passports and they join us for dinner. The captain eventually wakes up, returns our passports, and the adventures end.

A few more Siwa shots

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