Jet and Rent: Motorcycling in Libya

It's easy to rent a motorcycle in Libya. We did it, here's how.

Name: John Hogan
Bike hired: 1993 Honda 450 Steed
Miles covered: 580
Total cost: £1,213
Pros: Totally unique, no tourists, Leptis Magna
Cons: Complicated visa, dodgy driving
Adventure rating: Very high

Welcome to the country they said we would never reach. This is Libya, a place that 100% of the tour operators I spoke to said had no motorbikes to rent. And as ever, we proved them wrong. Now if I say Libya to you, chances are that you’ll say terrorist. Don’t worry, it’s natural, most people would say the same because that’s the only picture the news has ever painted for us. But there is much more to Libya today. At 1.7 million square miles there is way too much to take in over just 5 days so I based myself in Tripoli, and took in as much as my Honda Steed (look it up on Google) would allow.

The plan was to get a feel for a country that, while only a three-hour BA flight from Gatwick, might as well be on another planet. And other than seeing Ewan and Charlie giggling and tittering their way like children across Libya in The Long Way Down I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The country has lived under the strict control of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi since 1969. Journalists are tightly controlled (I had to go in masquerading as a bike mechanic) and tourism is embryonic. On arrival, I expected Libya to feel fairly volatile. I pictured it as a melting pot of shady, skulking characters on every corner who would monitor my Western ways. At their leisure I would be kidnapped and win a leading role on an Al-Jazeerah TV network being beheaded with a rusty spoon. But walking out of the terminal all I found was a bustling modern airport and plenty of warm sunshine and green grass, so I slipped on some sunnies and headed into town to meet my guide and contact, Jassim. Maybe this wouldn’t be so scary after all.

Tripoli is a weird and wonderful city. One minute you’re looking at a back street in Rome, the next a mirror image of rural France, then what I could have sworn was Marble Arch popped into view. Get used to being surprised around every corner in Libya and leave your preconceptions at the door: this place is nothing like I expected it to be. After handing over a small fortune at the guesthouse ( Libya is not a cheap country to visit) I was keen to get on my Honda and discover the country properly from the saddle.

First I had to get used to the bike, and more importantly the local driving style. To get a driving licence in Libya you send your picture to the government and they send you back a licence, that’s it. A shakedown spin round the block reveals that my Honda has handlebars made of snakes, the wheels are bent and the brakes are largely useless, but it’s far from un-rideable. Up early the next day and we head south along the coast towards Benghazi, heading for the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna.

Out on the coastal highway, top gear (50mph) sunglasses on and some super-smooth tarmac, this is more like it. Palm trees and honeybees, sun on my neck and a smile on my face. I’m riding towards Leptis Magna 90 miles east of Tripoli, in Libya, on a motorbike and the whole experience is truly mental. Then we get there and I wouldn’t doubt that this is the best example of a Roman city in the entire world. It is truly breathtaking, perfectly preserved buildings and roads stretching in all directions. Seemingly undiscovered by western tourists, it swallowed up a whole day of my trip. Apparently 60% of the city is still under the ground. And I forgot to bring a spade.

Over a coffee that afternoon with a bunch of guides and policemen I get a real Italian vibe. The men are gesticulating wildly while they talk, each louder than the other. I pick up enough to gather that they are talking about women, but every now and then their tones are dropped to barely audible and they huddle in close and discuss something else. One of the policemen jokingly threatens to arrest me if he smells alcohol on my breath, then laughs demonically and tells me how much he loves vodka. Ghoma, one of the guides insists on talking flirty French at me and keeps eyeing me up. I politely accept a Turkish coffee but give him a death stare when he tries to stroke my hand. I ask about the lack of tourist trade and they explain that thanks to the huge oil reserves Libya has they have no need for the extra income. When I ask why there seem to be areas of great poverty the reply is hushed and hurried. Gadaffi controls everything, but he only cares about the oil. Nothing more.