I thought about writing a descriptive account with high and low points of our trip back to Italy..(yes, alas we had to come back) but then realised that this would probably be very tedious and have opted for a much more healthy ‘NO COMMENT’ on the mechanical side…..or lets say a much shorter comment. In brief, after the second broken head cylinder gasket (after about 700km) the truck was first pulled then loaded on to two different trucks (on occasion with somewhat unorthodox systems of loading and unloading) it was pulled on to the boat and driven/pulled off, to finally find its resting place in a small woodwork factory near Civitavecchia, where the engine (with CHUNKS !? of metal missing from its engine block) was taken out to be replaced hopefully in a weeks time by a another newly reconditioned engine. During the whole process, the children were deliciously oblivious to our difficulties, and thought it was all great fun travelling on a truck without a driver.
Passing through Tunisia was strangely peaceful. There was an air of optimism on the streets and the military presence seemed relaxed and friendly, with soldiers giving kisses to little Giulio and Lusira, although (understandably) less happy with me photographing their tanks. There was still a curfew with cars rushing urgently to their destinations followed by a strange unnatural silence after 10 o’clock, making me think about the many other areas of the world where this limitation has become the unhappy norm. (there was talk of removing it the week after) The biggest most noticeable change in the landscape was the total disappearance of the billboards portraying Ben Ali, that for 24 years dominated the cities and every public space. In the small roadside restaurants I had fun spotting the tell tale nail holes and clean squares where the president once stood, in some cases covered by the Tunisian lemonade ‘Boga’ adverts, or just simply removed from its frame, standing empty waiting for the next ruler. The massive 10-metre billboards were still illuminated with nothing inside; on occasion little signs of burning were perceivable, making his exile truly and irremediably complete. My best and sincere wishes for a better future to this country that I have grown to love.
..And us, where too next, today news from Egypt is hopeful…maybe we’ll see the pyramids after all, probably via Greece and Turkey, Syria and Jordan.
Libya, a country that is better seen than described. Small population, vast landscapes and thousands of kilometres of sand dunes, rocks, high plains, oasis … all the best that the desert can offer. All this beauty, my sons’ second birthday, evenings spent by the fire and new friendships clenched…have in the end been overshadowed by strange events..
After 3 weeks immersed deep in the desert the unthinkable has happened. Something i have always been aware of but have actively shifted to the furthest part of my conciousness…a serious engine problem in the middle of the high dunes, off any piste and in an area where only a 50 ton bulldozer could drag you back to civilization.
As we approached a small dune we suddenly felt the power slip away from the engine, and worrying big puffs of black smoke appear, accompanied by a strange whistling noise. We are forced to stop for the night, there is silence and a few hours of light to try and analyse and quantify the damage.
In front of us there are 50km of dunes that separate us from a small village and a tarmac road. I try not to let my gaze rest on the particularly beautiful but high dunes infront of us…
By night we still haven’t established the exact damage, instinctively we think of broken or bent valves, we have opened the head but can’t establish precisely which valve could be damaged, the sand in the air makes any operation on the engine very uncomfortable, try as you might mini particles are everywhere…Time for sleep (hmmmm) I think of the book i am reading to help me put things into perspective…it describes much more dramatic situations during the rise of Idi Amin in Uganda and the wave of violence that accompanied it….Much as i would be devastated at having to leave my truck in the cradle of a dune to be slowly and surely swallowed by the sand (as many i have seen and photographed in awe) shed of its sybolism it is after all only something material. Dreams are nevertheless surreal and vivid….and we lie with our eyes open in the darkness for much of the night.
The next day we wake early. I leave Luca, Stefan and Peter to try and figure out which valve is broken, and to cut of any diesel to it and go with our guides Ali and Belgasm to try and find the easiest and most direct way to escape from this maize of dunes. The truck runs surprisingly well on 5 cylinders, but as we proceed white smoke mixes with the black puffs. It takes us 6 hours to reach the campsite, and by now the power has almost completely seeped away from the engine, there is so much white smoke we no longer dare to speak. A phone call to our mechanic confirms our recent doubts, the head cylinder gasket is broken, not the valves. We can no longer move the truck and will have to open the engine here and hope to find the spare parts to repair it.
Many years of travel in various situations has taught us not to rush any decisions and let time wash away anxieties and make way for reason. The calm always follows a storm and every drama has its special reason and mysterious momentum. Whichever direction it leads us, there will be new encounters, and most importantly, a little personal reflection and growth. The uneasiness will inevitably give way to that precious feeling of difficulty overcome
The campsite is unusually empty, and we discover that whilst we were obliviously immersed in contemplating nature, the rest of North Africa has been thrown in to turmoil. Popular uprisings have taken hold first of Tunisia and then Egypt. The long ruling (24 years) Ben Ali has fled from his country after the dramatic deaths of 100 civilians during a protest march. Unrest has stirred many neighbouring countries with similar synarious. Tourists are scarce, and come only by air.
Which way to go, east or west? Egypt.. or Tunisia and then back to Italy to repair the truck and study a new itinerary over Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordania….The engine is more damaged than we thought, a scratch in one cylinder….we have repaired the head cylinder gasket with a hand made one, tailor made by a friendly Egyptian and the truck sounds good, but we have to drive at least 1000km to evaluate the situation (oil consumption etc.) Only time will tell..
Which ever way we go, I will miss the easy smiles and strong tea and the children will miss the gentle company and constant stream of biscuits and sweet things, that are a fundamental part of Arabic hospitality.
….Well that was a 10 days ago (only?!!) . Time has in fact told on both scores… the situation in Egypt has escalated and there are tanks and violent encounters on the street, the president doesn’t want to leave, unlike Tunisia things are unlikely to resolve themselves in a short time. Meanwhile the test run on our engine has been disastrous, we’re using more than one and a half litres of water every 100 km, the only sensible decision is to go west…. and that’s another story. Read on in a few days, when i will be able to reveal the rest of the story.