I must admit that it was a very far cry from a normal art gallery. In the scorching desert heat, the sandy wadi behind me as dry as dust and the nearby sun-drenched rocks too hot to touch, I’m admiring walls covered in artistic images of crocodiles, giraffes, elephants, herds of antelope and hunters giving chase with spears and clubs. It’s a pretty unlikely location for any of these images. Because here in Libya’s Akakus Mountains (the Jebel Akakus) in the very centre of the Sahara Desert there is no chance of a giraffe surviving in today’s arid conditions. And there are no streams for many hundreds of kilometres that could possibly nurture a crocodile or encourage a hunter to lie in wait for large game to kill.
Photo Gallery of Kenya National Wildlife Travel
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Here on sun-shaded rock faces, while they probably took a bit of a rest from their everyday work, one-time local inhabitants decided to make a few drawings. They left no written records, but their legacy of vibrant rock drawings and carvings provides evidence of the savannah, marshes and rivers that once occupied today’s desert. Some are in outline only. Others are coloured. There are amazing images of crocodiles, giraffes, elephants, herds of antelope, and of hunters giving chase. There are people herding domesticated livestock, riding in chariots, of adults and children. Of a couple holding hands as if attending some ritual. Even of a young woman having her hair combed by another, ready for her wedding perhaps.
Incredible though it seems in today’s Sahara – at over 9 million km2, by far the largest of the world’s deserts – all of these animals, and others, were once its common inhabitants. And not really that long ago either. These exquisite images date from a time, between 8000 and 5000 bc when the Sahara was not a desert but a lush, fertile land capable of supporting a vibrant and extensive human community more akin to the savannahs of Africa today. It wasn’t the enormous arid barrier that migrating birds now have to endure flying over twice a year. When the Sahara was more akin to a fertile grassland dotted with trees and watered by streams and rivers, most migrating birds would have been able to stop and feed, fuelling up for the remainder of their enormous journey. Today, that’s virtually impossible.
But this incredible resource of rock art, distributed across about 1,300 scattered rocky sites, is not solely a unique record of early life in the Sahara. It is also a documentation of a past era of climate change and its human impacts having a resonance for life on our planet today.
Some years before the rather optimistically named Arab Spring delivered chaos and armed conflict amongst a myriad competing factions to post-Gaddafi Libya, I was with a group from the 153 Club (a club for enthusiasts and travellers within the Sahara) doing a 750 km minibus drive from Tripoli to Sabha in the southwest of Libya. From there we transferred to four Toyota 4WDs with Arab drivers and our Libyan guide, Aref Salim, who had a special knowledge of these artistic artefacts.
Also with us on the minibus to Sabha, but no further, was an armed, plain clothes guard supplied compulsorily by the Libyan police. Dressed in casuals, he spent much of his time asleep, playing games on his mobile phone or chatting up one or two of the women in our group. Whatever function he was with us to perform, his presence was obligatory. It seemed to consist of bobbing up and down excitedly every time we encountered a police roadside checkpoint (there are many, so much bobbing) while our driver handed the friendly police a copy of our itinerary and, maybe, some cash to oil the wheels of travel and to help the police who otherwise here scratch a living. Whatever his function, the roadblocks proved no barrier to our progress.
Today’s Jebel Akakus is an arid scene of dark, unvegetated, rocky mountains interspersed with gravel plains; terracotta-coloured, sandy wadis with a scatter of shrubs; and massive, wind-carved dunes in which very few people are today able to eke out a difficult and nomadic existence based on grazing a few goats. The remaining desert inhabitants, the Tuareg – a few families of which are still semi-nomadic here -are incredibly proud of the rock drawings which they treat as a precious inheritance handed down to them by their forebears.