The Libyan Visa

2nd November: Mum reckons I'm stubborn like dad, but being a research scientist she's a bit hard-headed herself (growing up in this family was a bit of a pain really). So when I decided to travel from Zurich to Cape Town without flying it was going to take a real emergency to get me into a plane.

The tricky bit was to get to Cairo. Once in Cairo it would be easy: Sudan, Ethiopia, East Africa, South Africa. But to get to Cairo from Europe was proving to be difficult. The "Arab Spring" during this time meant increased security, travel restrictions, and even open conflict in many of the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. The Venice to Alexandria ferry was suspended, and the next cargo ship taking passengers to Egypt wouldn't be leaving Malta until December, a month away.

This left me with 3 options: overland through Turkey, Syria, and Jordan; enter Cyprus either via Turkey (illegal) or Greece (no regular boats) and then take the ferry to Israel; or take the ferry to Tunisia and try to transit across Libya. The travel advice for Syria at the time was absolutely not to go there (and if there to get out), while for Libya it was to exercise extreme caution and not to go to towns between Misrata and Benghazi. Gaddafi had just been executed and the population appeared to be euphoric, so I thought my chances to get in and transit would be good.

7th November: The plan was to take the ferry to Tunis, visit the Libyan embassy there and hopefully secure a transit visa. Information on the internet regarding Libyan visas was non-existent, and in fact the listed address for the Libyan embassy in Tunis was actually the residence of the Algerian ambassador, one of whose guards kindly walked me over to the actual Libyan embassy - about 15 minutes away.

The embassy building is a multistory modern concrete block, with a large wooden door facing the main road. A maze of barbed wire and sandbags surround the main side, with military trucks on either end and languid soldiers with their fingers on the trigger guard. It was the Monday after Eid and there were more people on the streets than the day before, so I was hopeful as I approached a guard at one end of the barbed wire. He shook his head slowly.

"Closed. Tomorrow 10am."

I was told that government offices were often closed the day after Eid, and sometimes the whole week after it, so I wasn't too disappointed. I returned the next day and a different guard shook his head at me.

"Closed. Tomorrow 9am."

9th November: On Wednesday as I approached the main door one of the guards motioned me to go around the side down an alley. Here there were dozens of men and a few women hanging around waiting, and I guessed this was where the actual embassy entrance was located. On this side of the building there were two doors. One had a metal gate and the second was wooden with a security camera and a short flight of steps leading up to it.

But the crowd wasn't interested in the doors, rather they were looking intently at one of the barred windows, and sure enough at 9:30am the window opened, a man looked out at the crowd, who rushed up to the window, each person waving a bundle of paper. Another guard saw me and pointed to a second window a few metres down, which was also barred and a little higher. Someone had placed an old tyre and a few stones beneath so that a person could step on them and reach the window to exchange papers.

There were less people gathered at this window, and among them were two foreigners, both journalists it turned out.The first seemed quite nervous. He wore a T-shirt, a small backpack, a beard, and a British accent.

"PressTV. I'm a journalist. I have my invitation on this USB, just give it to the consul," he explained hurriedly to the man behind the window, who regarded him without interest.

"Sorry. Need paper. Print it."

I asked him later how long he'd been waiting for a visa: "A week. I got to the border the day they changed the rules. Before, you could just speak with the border guard but now you need an official invitation from inside Libya. I've been waiting 7 days." He scratched his beard and looked sideways about him before striding off to look for an internet cafe.

The second journalist was American. He had curly hair and thick framed glasses and seemed much more relaxed - or resigned. "New York Times," he said as he placed his press credential on the windowsill while balancing on the old tyre. He had an Arabic interpreter with him, who wore a sharp suit. Some exchange in Arabic took place between the interpreter and the man behind the window, and after awhile the journalist and the interpreter walked away slowly.

My passport was returned soon after. "No visa. Need letter. Get letter." Basically I needed someone inside Libya to apply for a visa on my behalf. It is issued as a letter, which I then present to an embassy to have my passport endorsed. There were no transit visas, only visitors visas or business visas or tourist visas.

10th November: So the hunt for the Libyan visa turned into the hunt for a Libyan sponsor. I left a few messages on internet forums and then inquired at travel agencies and the Air Libya office, without luck. Next I tried shipping agents, the harbour master at La Goulette port, and finally the next day made my way to the city of Sfax where there was another Libyan consulate.

This consulate was a single story concrete block, with a yard of which one side was lined by barbed wire. A guard checked each person who entered. Inside the building there was a tiny window at the far end of a hall, around which gathered a few dozen men clutching pieces of paper, much like the group at the first window at the embassy in Tunis. A few men hung back, one of whom asked me if he could help.

"Yes, I'd like to apply for a visa for Libya."

He exchanged a few sentences with another man behind a desk, and told me: "You need a sponsor, someone who can apply in Tripoli on your behalf." I looked at him expectantly, not saying anything. He sighed: "Look, I'm going to Tripoli tomorrow. Maybe I can help you. Give me your mobile phone number."

14th November: And so I had a fixer for a Libyan visitors visa. In fact, I had one for each type of visa: a tourist agent replied to one of my emails, indicating he could obtain a tourist visa within a few days, and an English gentleman by the name of S. wrote an email saying he could obtain a business visa within a few days also, which sounded a bit dodgy to say the least. All I could do was wait, and so I went to the border to wait, hopeful of receiving a letter by email which I could print and show directly to the guard at the border and get through.

(I forgot to mention that I entered Tunisia without a visa, thinking it would be easy to obtain one on arrival. When interviewed, I naively told the sergeant my purpose of trying to obtain a Libyan transit visa, and for this he gave me 15 days and even asked for a bribe! And so I bribed a guard to stay for a shorter time than I was entitled, which was 3 months for an Australian tourist on arrival! That's why I was in a rush to get into Libya, I was running out of time...)

15th November: After a few days the tourist agency replied: it would cost $50USD, plus compulsory guide and vehicle costing $100USD per day for a minimum of 4 days. I asked if we could take the bus, but without response.

S. also replied: $50USD for the visa, $500USD to be escorted into Libya by guard, plus $500USD to be escorted out of Libya by guard. So much for the business visa. My last hope lay with the Libyan I met in Sfax. He didn't give a definite response, so he must've been trying. But it wasn't looking good, so I reluctantly headed back to Sfax to try the harbour master there to see if any ships were going directly to Egypt, and maybe find another fixer.

At this point I received an email from a Libyan consular officer from Malta saying the following: "It is possible to transit Libya. Just go to the border guard at Ras Ajdir and tell him you want to transit and he'll let you through."

16th November: This gave me fresh hope, and that same day I took the minibus from Sfax back to the border, a journey of 5-6 hours, arriving in the night and staying in the house of a kind fellow passenger. The next morning I took the short taxi ride to the border post and prepared myself to try bluff my way through. Along the way we passed three UNHCR camps, one of which the driver explained was the largest in Africa.

Once at the border I strode confidently to the Tunisian guard, who at once summoned his supervisor. The supervisor examined my passport and asked me in French, "Where is your visa?"

"I don't have one, the consul told me I could go through without one."
"That's not possible. You must have a visa."
"Call the Libyan guard," I implored, which he did to be fair. A short conversation later and all hope was gone and I was turned back. I returned sadly to Ras Ajdir, but remembered I still had the phone number of my Libyan contact, whom I called.

"I'm sorry, but the responsibility is too great," he said, before my phone ran out of credit. Nevertheless I went back to the border a second time to try bluff my way past using the phone number of my Libyan contact: "See, I have a person in Libya willing to invite me." Unmoved, the supervisor said, "Get him to apply for a visa for you in Tripoli."

17th November: My Tunisian visa was expiring in two days so I had to leave the country. Since the Libyan consul in Malta seemed fairly positive in his previous response I thought about taking the ferry to Sicily, then Malta, where there was a weekly ferry to Tripoli. This time I called Malta to make sure, but the response of the consular officer by phone was less encouraging than by email: I needed a sponsor.

Finally, I headed towards the port once more, a last throw of the dice, to look for cargo ships going directly to Egypt. A cruise liner had just docked, its massive bulk dwarfing the little souvenirs building on the wharf. A few Tunisians dressed in costume and leading a pack of camels were angling for customers. Persistent taxi drivers patrolled the exit of the souvenirs building offering to take passengers into town for a couple of euros.

I managed to get through the building all the way past the Tunisian security desk to the entrance of the liner. Here I was stopped by the guard:

"I'd like to speak with the captain or purser please."
"I'd like to... er... join the cruise."
The guard chuckled. His mate, a big burly bloke, smirked at me.
"Sorry. No. It's impossible to join the cruise," he said patronisingly.
"Can I just speak with the captain?"

He started smirking as well, and I wanted to knee him in the nuts, but decided against it, and walked back into town.

19th November: And so I was in the line for the midnight ferry to Sicily, where I would be crossing to Bari by train, to Greece by boat, and then bus through Turkey, Syria, and Jordan... See. Told you I was stubborn.

- Libyan tourist visa try Temehu. Minimum $400USD, but can be shared between a few people.
- Libyan business visa is $1000USD.
- Libyan transit visa not available.
- Libyan visa at the border not available.
- Bus from Tunis to Tripoli everyday except Saturday departing at 4pm.
- Ferry from Tunis to Sfax to Tripoli is not running.
- Ferry from Malta to Tripoli is run by Zammit Shipping, departing Wednesday.