Ghadames is 420 miles from Tripoli, the capital and principal port of entry to Libya, and the only way to reach the Saharan gateway town is by road. Fortunately, there is much to see along the way.
Gasr El Haj, Gasr Nalut, and Gasr Kabaw, all of which lie on or near the two-lane highway, are centuries-old, otherworldly structures of stone and mud that look like high-rise apartment blocks for desert gnomes. In fact, they are now-unused storehouses where rural families kept their stocks of wheat and olive oil under communal security arrangements.
The storerooms, some more than 800 years old, were in use until recent decades. Huge old pieces of pottery for keeping oil and a variety of old farm and work implements lie where they were abandoned. The sites have not been prettied up, much less restored, and this, combined with the remoteness and the absence of other tourists, encourages a feeling that this is exploration as much as it is ''touring."
Another fine surprise just a short drive from the main road is Tormisa, an abandoned Berber village of unknown age perched at the edge of the high plateau from which the eastern beginnings of the Atlas mountains plunge steeply toward the coastal plain.
There, Ibrahim Suleiman, 19, welcomes a slowly growing trickle of wanderers, and tells them of Berber customs and traditions told to him by a beloved uncle.
Here, he points to local plants with medicinal properties, including one he calls ''kubbar" that, when lightly chewed and pressed against the forehead, causes a radiating sensation that does seem effective against headaches. There, he points out a basin carved into the solid rock of the mountaintop inside a building that once was the village mosque.
Before his ancestors became Muslims, Suleiman says, the building served some Berber communal function, details of which are lost, he says, except the knowledge that the basin was used to give children their first baths.
Suleiman can make last-minute arrangements for visitors to spend the night on the wild, remote mountaintop, in one of the old houses that he has made into a museum of the town, but this is for adventurers only, as advance arrangements are not possible and there are no utilities.
The countryside around Tripoli is littered with plastic bags, rusted-out cars, and other trash, but after a while this ugliness gives way to orchards, then to the uncrowded, generally good-quality road. Speed is not always possible, though, as occasional stops are required when large herds of camels and sheep take it in their heads to cross, sometimes pausing for prolonged periods on the highway.
Stops also may be required where drifts of reddish sand have built up faster than the government can bulldoze them out of the way. It is not a do-it-yourself drive; rental cars with Libyan drivers are available at reasonable prices.
Eating along the way is problematic. The only places seem to be former tourist stops that have had no business for years. They tend to serve dry, leathery chicken accompanied by hard, badly cooked, rice. It would be a good idea to bring a picnic lunch from Tripoli when headed south, or from Ghadames when returning.
CHARLES A. RADIN