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The next stage was a domestic night flight to Sebha, where Muhammed handed me over to Amgar. Apparently a’ Gooley (my spelling) is a solid Tuareg name, meaning he who owns a goat, camel or cow.
The patterns are much easier to spot from a few thousand feet than they are from a canoe, the way the Pacific Islanders have mastered over the centuries.
The wind that had created this swell is such an important piece of the natural navigation jigsaw and I was happy to note its effects in the combing of the palm trees as the aircraft began its final approach. Nobody travels independently in Libya these days, Gaddafi made the decision to forbid it.
As the aircraft descended towards Tripoli I noticed the sets of swell in the southern Mediterranean marching to the east-southeast.
He talked about the use of the sun, the importance of smell – especially of camp fires – and how moonlight is a better bet than torchlight for finding your way at night. We spoke mostly in French, which neither of us were brilliant at either.He also explained that he has watched GPS users get lost in the desert frequently, particularly at night because even though it tells them they are back at their starting point, light levels have changed subtly and the desert no longer looks familiar, they begin to doubt their instruments – a recurrent navigational problem that aviators are trained to guard against. Amgar was ecstatic on discovering that my surname was Gooley.The following article by Tristan Gooley was published in Navigation News in March 2010.My research to date has failed to uncover another soul who has ever headed into the Sahara with the aim of learning more about how the Tuareg navigate in the desert.
My driver told me that independent travel used to be allowed, but some tourists had damaged some rock art and so it was now forbidden. Some navigational clues here included the niche in the wall of the mosque, ‘al Qiblah’, indicating the direction of Mecca and the paint peeling on the southern side of the minaret tower, but not on any other side (Tripoli is north of the Tropic of Cancer and so the fierce midday sun is always due south). Communication was going to turn out to be a struggle for the duration.
This did not need to be a negative for me as I planned to gently interrogate the Tuareg whilst there, so I just did my best to make sure that if I was going to be escorted, it would be by the Tuareg themselves. Muhammed, my Tuareg guide, took some convincing that I was genuinely more interested in discussing Tuareg wayfinding than I was in chatting about the Roman era in Libya, but he finally succumbed. During that first basic meal I learnt that Amgar’s English was near non-existent and confirmed that my Tuareg and Arabic were equally weak.