It was always tense at the Libyan border.
It took a couple of hours to get through the melée at the best of times. All humanity was there. Migrant workers, goat herds, farmers, businessmen. And secret police, too.
Once, on the way in, we were questioned by a mysterious officer with Carlos the Jackal sunglasses and a pistol beneath his leather jacket.
It was hard to feel comfortable under interrogation with $5,000 in cash stashed secretly inside my socks — the only way to pay a Tripoli hotel bill back then, in those days of the UN embargo.
Another time across the frontier at Ras Ajdir, the driver went the wrong way around an oil drum and we had to go right back to the start of the queue and start our two hour wait all over again.
And getting into the country was just the beginnning. The five hour drive from Tunisia to Tripoli was easily the most dangerous trip I ever made.
With no spare parts available anywhere in the country, wrecks were rolling all around us.
Libya was an uncomfortable kind of place in 1997. That sense of unease only grew more intense as we travelled on to Tripoli. The depth of isolation which enwrapped us there at the end of our long desert journey was intense.
Try to imagine waking up somewhere which took longer to reach from London than Sydney. Where the carpet in the hotel had clearly not been vacuumed since the day it was laid in 1970. Where the phones hardly worked, and made mysterious clicking noises on the rare occasions that they did.
It was clear that Tripoli had been attractive once, with Italian gardens on the seafront, an intriguing labyrinth of a souk and spectacular Roman remains. But it was hard to appreciate the fine triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius when it was piled high to the top with refuse sacks.
We walked around the city at will, but I never dared to run in Libya, or saw another runner either. Tunisia and Morocco had their problems, but Libya was completely different. We were spat at on the street that year.
The whole city was suffering then. The country was generating enormous wealth from its oilfields, but her population saw none of it at all. The shops were empty of food. There was rubbish on every street corner, and a haunted, wary look in every eye.
By the time I returned again in 2003, Tripoli had begun to change. There was food to buy and new shops had sprung up selling imported electrical goods.
A smart restaurant had appeared beside the Roman arch, and just off Green Square, we even found a cappucino bar. With daily flights between Tripoli and most European capitals, it seemed that the country was about to open up.
Gone were the calls to join quiet, edgy meetings with shifty grey middlemen and fixers in hotel lobbies. The Syriana days may not have been entirely over, but it felt as though Libya was slowly rejoining the world.
* * * *
Now, eight years later, the Arab Spring has cut its swathe of protest across North Africa — the area I used to work back then — and is making inroads across the wider Middle East as well.
If the spark of change was in the air, then perhaps Tunisia seemed the least likely place for a revolution to ignite. The country was much more European-looking. More prosperous, more open, tolerant, and free.
But perhaps that’s exactly where a protest could gather pace. Once Ben-Ali had gone, then it was an increasing difficulty curve to bring change to Egypt next.
After seventeen frenzied days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square had done their work, it seemed that anything was achievable.
Benghazi was bound to be the focus of unrest. The east of Libya was never entirely tamed. Yet neither was the west. The fourteen armed checkpoints between Tripoli and the border were evidence enough of that.
As we watch a desert war unfold around the Gulf of Sirte, let’s not forget that Misrata, and the western towns of Zuwarah and Zawiyah rose up as well.
The people there along the old route into Libya will be suffering now. Let’s hope their pain won’t last long, and that freedom in North Africa will soon have its day.
222. Cuba 2 – Viñales: Talking ’bout a revolution
103. Atlas shrugged – in the mountains of Morocco
161. Kenya 1: The road to Mombasa
211. The price of oil: 4 – a rising road ahead
102. Moroccan red – Marrakech
164. Kenya 2: The dusk behind the beach
Libya crisis: ‘dire’ humanitarian need in Misrata and western Libya