Not quite the final frontier, but certainly the hardest nut to crack. At 6.45am local time, just over 24 hours and 1,813kms after crossing the Nile at Abu Simbel, we rolled up at the tiny white-washed sentry post after saying goodbye to "Turbo" and Hatem, who have fixed things for us across Egypt.
We have shaken hands with our new team - an armed guard will lead us, another armed guard will follow. Nobody seems at all bothered by the Union Jack across the front of the Panda.
And so it has all come down to a charm offensive. Two small boys both aged ten ask for "money, money!". They get some chewing gum and pens but as they don't go to school they're not a lot of good.
Libya has the tatty remnants of a Libyan flag flying over an arch, and a rusty pole that lost its sign is about to fall over, the scruffy customs sheds are empty. This could be anywhere in North Africa. We are doing plenty of talking… Nobody is telling us "foreigners are banned" - and it looks like our preparatory work has made a lot of impact. Libyan officialdom seems very pleased to see us. Everyone is smiling.
Long bread rolls arrive in the passport office which has no doors and windows, the perfect excuse for officials in hooded cloaks huddling over the desks to stop work. It’s breakfast time. It's all a game of patience - this is not the moment for hustling. Eventually, a big rubber stamp with a red handle is found in the bottom drawer... things are now looking up. But! Just wait five minutes! We must now wait for a fax from the police station up the road.
A chilling reminder of Libya's recent past... as we waited for stamps in our passports, there were three muffled explosions. We ask the obvious question and back came the reply, with a casual shrug of the shoulders, "People with no visas, they risk walking around the outside of the walls, here ...setting off land-mines". Nobody left the queue in the shabby passport office to go and look.
Suddenly, our passports are back all approved !!! ...and we are on the move passing through a rusty gate. Three Libyan car-mad enthusiasts have come to see the Panda in the flesh and cheer us on our way, waving frantically. We are now driving into Libya - when plenty warned us it would prove to be a border too far, an immovable anvil which would see the hammer come down on our nine months of planning.
Our two cylinders are purring with a contented thrum, pulling us into yet more desert scenery. It's to be a day with the Sahara on our left, the sparking Mediterranean out over our right elbows, and 1,500 kilometres ahead before Tunisia.
We dined on the hoof today, eager to put as many kilometres of Libya under our wheels as possible. Two Hot Pack meals cooked up in the passenger footwell, Beef Casserole for Paul and Veggie Curry for Philip. The self-heating bags continued to cook on while the Panda-Pair scoffed their grub… soon the inside of the car took on a new smell… burning carpet. Our second course consisted of finishing the Dutch cheese that David Williams handed us back in Nairobi with a bag of local flat bread, not dissimilar to pizza minus the topping. Now and again an arm would appear out of a window from the escorting cars holding out black plastic bin-bags with tins of drink - Red Bull, Vimto and fruit juices.
Our two armed escorts are driving an old Mitsubishi Lancer and a newer Kia, and they're having to work hard to keep up at times as on the sections with no speed limit the Panda bowled along with the speedo-needle hovering over the 90 mph mark. The engine thrums as fresh as it did when driven out of the Mellors of Wantage showroom.
At fuel stops the Panda dives to the front of the long queues, the roof lights flashing. Locals get out of their cars to come and shake the crew by the hand. Paul gets a hard slap on the back while sucking on a carton of Kia-Ora orange-juice, and his Farm Africa T-shirt instantly gains a long orange streak... everyone is delighted to meet us.
Tobruk, Sirte and Misrata pass by as the Panda gobbles up the 1,500 kilometres to the border of Tunisia. The Panda passes rusting tanks left by the roadside, and pick-up trucks with big machine guns, one truck has an anti-tank rocket launcher, reminders of the anti-Gaddafi revolution.
On into the night. The Panda stops at a camp site under a bridge near Misrata, where so much of the fighting took place. A group of local youths are huddled around a fire, brewing a pot of tea. The Panda pulls up cautiously some distance away. Philip gets out, and slowly wanders over to sit by the fire. The local lads seem pleased to have someone new to talk to, even if the conversation is a bit limited. They are keen to show the Panda-Pair their 106mm rocket launcher and SPG-9 bazooka... and they give the crew a cup of black tea. Local youths are the same the world over, just not enough to do - and home life is just plain boring when you can play with real weapons and smoke fags around a camp fire along with mates who also face an uncertain future.
A little further on the Panda is flagged down by a group of locals who are keen to pose for pictures with our car. They have been waiting in the cold night air for over an hour, having followed our adventures on this website. Children run around shouting. "Fantastic to see you!"
We crossed from Libya into Tunisia at 4.0am - the night air was freezing, and running round empty custom sheds chasing down the stamps in shorts and t-shirt is not a lot of fun, particularly when one essential official is asleep in his car covered in blankets. It was a time confusing game of hide and seek in the dark.
To reach Tunis there is a mere 600 kilometres on top of the 1,500 just knocked off in crossing Libya.
The early mornings seem to suit the Panda the best, and with Paul asleep after a gruelling session of night driving with countless checkpoints and speed bumps, he handed over to Philip and instantly fell asleep. The road up through Tunisia proved a delightful change. Good but a bit bumpy gets the pulse stirring and the revs rise and fall with the little turbo engine singing its heart out. It's the final day in Africa.
The sun comes up and the first sight of the Mediterranean sees the Panda carving its way between the trucks towards the Tunis port, probably running quicker now than at any time since Cape Town. Darting through the roundabouts and sprinting from corner to corner, small seaside towns and villages are rapidly dealt with. The roads become quieter and the Panda Pair with the compass on the dash showing North push on under the swaying branches of the gnarled and twisted cork trees that line the road, overhanging branches swing in the sea breeze, waving the car onwards.
The crew are snatching their first rest with a hot bath in the Hotel Sidi Bou Said, overlooking the sea. In a few hours the Panda boards the GNV Florencia and sets sail for an overnight run to Palermo. The route plan uses as much land mass as possible, so it’s Sicily at the toe of Italy and the long haul across Europe. Of course the Panda cannot possibly go to Sicily without taking in some of the hallowed ground of the fabled Targa Florio road-racing course... is a little diversion allowed?
The crew had spent the afternoon resting in Tunis. Paul processing pictures, Philip meeting with Dhafer Bassalah a local rally enthusiast who is leading a revolution within the national motor-club to set up a totally new organisation. Over several rehydrating glasses of orange juice we hear of Dhafer’s pent up frustrations. The existing club had been receiving substantial annual government grants… but there have been no accounts for the past 12 years. Perhaps a microcosm of the problems Tunisia has been going through in recent years.
Soon it was ferry time… then, the ferry was delayed by two hours. Tunisia is in crisis following the funeral of the assassinated opposition leader. There is an impression of paralysis with nobody wanting to be responsible for making the smallest of decisions. There was also a mini crisis in the Panda-team as an over-officious passport officer could not find the entry-stamp in Philip's passport - just a case of an old passport having too many stamps. It took some running around various large sheds to find his superior, who spoke no English. Panic attack over, the Panda finally climbed the ship’s ramp. And so we set sail for Sicily and chugged on through the night.
On a chilly morning under a clear blue sky the mountains of Sicily hove into view on the distant horizon. The shorts are remaining in the travel bag and a blue poncho that looks rather similar to a cabin blanket is around Philip's neck as the Panda Pair made their way around the decks looking for a bite of breakfast, carefully stepping over dozens of bodies cocooned in blankets on the floor. The best that could be found was a plastic cup of American coffee and a half-warm chocolate croissant. While sipping the over-strong piping hot coffee, a TV monitor sprang into life to entertain the cafeteria... with an old black and white Norman Wisdom film, all dubbed in Italian. It's Norman Wisdom in a policeman's uniform being chased over back garden fences by other uniformed coppers - all shouting Italian. You couldn't make it up.
Down below, the rumble from the engine room changed to a deeper throb, the ship slowing. Have the stoker's arms become tired of shovelling on the coal? ... Doesn't he know he has two passengers with a race to win?
During the last 24 hours snow has hit Italy all the way south to below Naples. To avoid higher roads we had a plan to divert to the Adriatic coast. Our hand was forced when the police closed the A3 and diverted all traffic to the east. This route is a little longer but hopefully will see the 3P's near Milan very early tomorrow. From their position at 20:00 GMT it is 900kms to Milan.
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