Part of the occasional Sahara A to Z series Hang around long enough and you’ll get the full set
Back in 1965 the pro-Western Kingdom of Libya was just fourteen years old. US and UK military bases used the desert for training and testing, then the discovery of high-quality, low-sulphur oil just 200km from the coast transformed Libya’s fortunes.
Gaddafi’s coup was still a few years away.
Like many former french colonies, Chad had gained independence in 1960 but, as has been the case on and off since then, France retained military and Foreign Legion bases there. In the film you’ll see a French tricolour still flying in Zouar.
And best of all, the Chadian civil war was still a few months away, so what better time for a bunch Oxford university students to drive 5000 miles to Zouar for their summer hols in a a couple of 88 Landies and a 2WD Ford D-series lorry loaned by Ford. This was a time when it was still common for truck manufacturers to prove their vehicles on Sahara expeditions.
The film includes episodes of Tubu horseplay, lashings of corned beef and a Landrover door that just will not shut!
Interestingly you’ll also see a woman making flour with a grinding stone of the sort still commonly found abandoned all over the Sahara, wherever people once lived. As the narrator says ‘in remote parts of the world it’s hard to tell when such [Neolithic] tools were last used.’ At 14:20 there’s also an engraving of what might be a Garamantean chariot. Germa, the former Garamantean capital in southern Libya, is not so far from Zouar.
Visiting Tibesti has not really been an option these last few years; an ongoing civil war made it too risky. But around the beginning of 2010 I received signs that things were settling down, which was confirmed when I read a report of a visit to Emi Koussi by Italian tour operator and Chad specialist, Spazi d’Avventura. I decided to contact Jorge, a Portuguese guy that used to live in Chad, with the question of whether he knew a good guide. He directed me to Tchad Evasion, the main operator in Chad, but when I contacted them they said a travel permit for Tibesti would be difficult. They could could only guarantee a permit for Ennedi.
I contacted Jorge again, and asked if he knew some other people that could help me. He gave me the name of an American expat in Ndjamena, who has been studying the Tubu language since 1993. The American turned out to be a great guy. The situation in Tibesti was not really stable, he said, but if we contacted the right people a touristic visit should be possible. He said he knew a Tubu colonel in the Chadian army who could be our guide. After some discussions the colonel agreed. We would pay him 150 euros a day, all local taxes and permissions included.
Together with Ab, a Dutch friend we has been travelling all over the Sahara, I decided to look for other people to come along. We wanted six people in total. I would drive my Toyota HJ61 along the Atlantic from Holland to Ndjamena, Ab would ship his Nissan Patrol to Cameroon. We would all meet in Ndjamena. From there we planned to travel north to Mao, Zouar, Bardai, Faya, Ounianga, Fada and Guelta Archei in the Ennedi, then via Abeche to return to Ndjamena. We thought the 4000 kilometers would take us about 30 days.
Once in Chad it turned out the colonel was busy with his work, which made him decide to send two of his cousins. One of them turned out to be a really nice guy, the other one wasn’t. The colonel gave our guides a Thuraya sat phone so they could call him if necessary. Before we left Ndjamena we visited the governor of Tibesti, who happened to be in town. Like the colonel he assured us our safety would be guaranteed. He hoped many more tourists would come to Tibesti in the near future, so that the local population would have a new source of income.
The first couple of days of the trip were not easy. The truck tracks north of Mao were often too deep for our cars, so progress was slow. But we enjoyed the many camels along the route and the famously overloaded trucks coming down from Libya. Unfortunately the engine of the Nissan got very hot, which caused us to stop frequently. After five days we finally arrived in Zouarké, a police checkpoint about 30 kilometers west of Zouar. The cousins of the colonel were received warmly by the police officers, also we in turn were treated very well.
The next day we visited Zouar, where we spent the night. From there we went back to Zouarké and continued to the Trou Natron, an volcano crater about one kilometre deep. The road was awful, with many big rocks, but the barren landscape was amazing. The 90 kilometres took us about six hours. From Trou we continued to Bardai, a beautiful oasis surrounded by strange-shaped rocks. The market was full of Libyan goods. We spent the night in the garden of a building that until 1999 was used by the French military who still have close connections with Chad.
We could not continue east to Yebbi Bou as planned, because Tubu rebels are causing problems there. In 2007 they kidnapped an American missionary, who was only liberated after nine months. So we drove back to Zouarké, and continued from there southeast to Faya. The Nissan, that was doing well in the mountains, started overheating again in the soft sand. To cool down the engine we drove a lot at night. At one point we passed one of the many Soviet tanks abandoned following the Libyan war with Chad during the 1980s when the Chadian Toyotas proved far more mobile in the desert.
In Faya we took two days rest and decided to sell the Nissan, after we found out we could hire a car with driver for about 100 euros a day. We continued to Ounianga, Fada and the famous Guelta Archei where we met other tourists for the first time during our trip. All my travel companions spotted the crocodiles in the guelta, I missed them because I was not patient enough. When visiting some natural arches in Ennedi we also met a French television team, making a documentary on the touristic potential of Chad. From the guelta it took us four days to drive back to Ndjamena.
I travelled by camel on a 28-day journey with one camel and a guide departing and returning to Fada. The trip started on 8th December 2011, and finished on 4 January 2012. The journey was excellent, the guide very good (although he could not speak any French or English, and I could not speak Goorani).
The trip covered several of the Ennedi highlights, including Guelta Archei (3 nights), Puit de Tokou (2 nights), Guelta Bachekele (noted as ‘Ba Chekele’ on the 1974 IGN 1:1m NE34‘Largeau’ sheet – top left, click to enlarge), 4 nights, Monou, Rocks of Terkei (2 nights), Guelta Deli, Baki and then returning to Fada. We travelled about 5-6 hours a day but spent several days at some sites. The weather was excellent, with only 2-3 days of quite strong wind. Food for the trip was basic, based on variations of spaghetti, rice, sardines, dried tomatoes, onions and tinned peas.
The trip was easier to organise than I had expected. I arrived in Fada on one day, discussed my reasons for coming to Fada with the Police, and they produced a guide for me. I suspect a relative of one of the Police. I organised a written contract, outlining a rough itinerary, stating the price, start and finish dates on my second day in Fada, and started the trip the third day. I was conscious for my own security that the Police should be aware of my travel plans, and the identity of my guide; this was all done before I departed.
The region is quite spectacular, with huge vistas of the desert with great rocks worn into all sorts of shapes, along with cliffs, arches, overhangs, ‘organ pipe’ stands of rock, and it was also enriching to see and meet the people who make their lives in this harsh environment. There were rock paintings to be found in caves – it was good to be able to have time to ‘discover’ my own as well as those known to the guide. There were many camels, all looking in very fine condition as well as goats and sheep. There was some wildlife to be seen – Dorcas Gazelle, crocodile (Guelta Archei -I had most success seeing the crocodiles early in the morning before the camels arrived), Hyrax, Fennec Fox, Jackal and Barbary Sheep (mouflon) at Guelta Deli. I am sure they were Barbary Sheep, but I need to do some research when I return home. Owls often called from the cliffs at night. I had a great time, and we returned on the 4th January to Fada, as agreed.
Practicalities I obtained a 3 month visa from Brussels, and travelled to Ndjamena on Air France from Paris. You need to report to Immigration Office in Ndjamena upon arrival. You need an Autorisation de Circuler (A. de C.) before leaving Ndjamena. This takes a minimum of three days. Day 1 visit the Tourism Office near the airport to explain your itinerary to the official. When discussing the itinerary, make it clear that you expect to finish the trip by a particular date – probably the date on which you plan to leave Chad. They then prepare the A. de C., and you collect it the next working day. You then take it to the Office of Public Security 300 metres down the road for official stamping, and return there the next working day to collect the A. de C. It is advisable to take several copies of the A. de C., as it can save time when you report to the Police/Public Securite in towns along the way. Then you can go. (Hence it is best to start this process on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday – not on a Thursday or Friday, as you will have to sit out the weekend for the next working day.)
I took with me the inadequate very short chapter on Chad from Lonely Planet, as well as the very informative ‘Petit Fute Guide to Tchad 2011-2012’ 3rd Edition (2010). This 240 page guide has lots of information about things to see and do in Chad, as well as accommodation and GPS waypoints, but assumes that you have your own vehicle, so is not very good for getting about using local transport.
I travelled by bus from Ndjamena to Abeche (last internet). I then found a 4WD going north to Biltine, where I stopped overnight at the Restaurant Al Afia. (There is no accommodation in Biltine). I found other transport going to Kalait further north. (It is not marked on all maps, but is located a little further north than Oum Chalouba). There I stayed with the driver of the 4WD, as again there is no accommodation there. Transport to and from Fada is not available every day. I was lucky, and got a ride on an ancient Toyota Land Cruiser the next day. I arrived in Fada the following day. There is no accommodation in Fada, and was given the OK to stay in a Police cell at the Commissariat. Neither is there a restaurant in Fada so note that eating options here are limited. Cell telephone service is available in Fada and Faya.
To leave Fada, I had to wait for three days before I found an empty supply truck returning to Kalait. I then travelled from Kalait to Faya on top of an ageing Mercedes truck with 40 others, and stayed in Faya for 4 nights. Again, there is no accommodation in Faya – the only Auberge mentioned in guide books – the Emi Koussi – has closed. I stayed with a family near the Place de Marche for 4 nights. The people of Chad were very helpful and accommodating. To return to Ndjamena, I went by 4WD which took 2 days, although can take longer. I had thought about visiting Tibesti, but decided to see Ennedi ‘properly’, and to see Tibesti on another trip. This is as well, because when in Faya 10-13th January it was very windy and very cold, making sightseeing very unpleasant to say the least.
The Camel Trip Costs. I paid CFA 10,000 or €15 per day (CFA655 = €1) for the camel, another CFA 10,000 per day for the guide, a lump sum of CFA150,000 (€235) for the basic food (sugar, spaghetti, sardines, tea, onions), and I spent another CFA 50,000 (€75) on ‘extra’ food, including tinned peas, biscuits, several kilos of dried milk, dried tomatoes and some extra sardines. (The options are very limited in Fada). The sting in the costs was the Tourist Tax levied at both Guelta Archei AND Guelta Bachekele. It is charged ‘per group’ – so if you are a ‘group’ of one then you have the honour of paying the whole fee. The tax is CFA50,000 (€75) per group at Guelta Archei, and I paid CFA40,000 (€63) at Bachekele, although the Police advised that it was CFA50,000.
We had one large camel, which I was free to ride, on a shared basis with the guide. Mostly I preferred to walk, because although a great baggage camel, it needed work to make sure it kept walking at a reasonable rate in the correct direction. You are also freer to take photographs while walking. Take a warm sleeping bag, as some nights were quite cold – say around 5-8 degrees C. My guide Karli Kallia – known by the Police as a camel guide, was excellent.
Together with four friends, I recently completed a four-week tour in Chad. One car came from Belgium via the Atlantic Route and then through West Africa. A second car was rented (with the compulsory driver) for 80,000 FCFA/day (‘XAF’; €120).
Our itinerary (see map, right) took us from Ndjamena anticlockwise down to Mongo, Zakouma NP, up to Abéché, Kalait, Ennedi, Fada, Demi, the Ounianga lakes, Gouro, Yebbi Bou in the Tibesti then Faya, Moussoro and back to Ndjamena.
Although the era of ‘mass tourism’ might be said to have arrived to northern Chad, the Authorisation de Circuler is still compulsory, as is the registration in Ndjamena (procedure still the same). However, we didn’t have a single police/gendarmerie check during the whole stay. Only the newly created Office du Tourisme Tchadien (known to everybody as ‘OTT’) checks the AdC in Fada and Ounianga. In Gouro and Yebbi Bou the Gendarmerie/Sous-préfet were vaguely interested in it too.
During the season the main sites around the Ounianga Lakes and in the Ennedi massif are visited on a daily basis by the tour groups of Point Afrique. Seven sites in this region now charge 5000 FCFA/person (€7.5; change from the former 50,000 FCFA per group policy) and even issue receipts. Some souvenir sellers have also have appeared. In Bachikele, near Guelta d’Archei, the chef du canton tried to charge us the old rate; we refused and left but were still, apparently, chased by young men with AK47s. We complained to OTT in Fada and the ‘délégué regional au tourisme’ admitted this was the fourth time this season this happened at Bachikele. But OTT does seem to have some kind of authority; they quickly found our guide in Fada and all of a sudden every Chadian that argues with tourists becomes very easy-going when OTT is mentioned (concrete example taken from a discussion with a guide we hired that wanted more than the agreed price…).
We took a guide from Fada to Gouro through Demi and the Ounianga lakes which is not absolutely essential but was still very useful (six days – 140,000 FCFA). The second guide (Gouro to Yebbi Bou, Meski, Rond Point de Gaulle and Faya) cost us 170,000 FCFA for five days. A guide south through the Erg du Djourab is not necessary unless there’s a sand storm; the tracks are very obvious and the balises clearly visible.
The three-day route from Ounianga Kebir to Kufra in southeast Libya sees only erratic traffic since 2011 and merchants were complaining. However, the Sebha to Faya piste through the Passe de Kourizo sees quite a few Mercedes trucks plying the route in about five days. We saw a few en route and about a dozen Libyan trucks in Faya. There is a Libyan consulate in Faya but only Tubus risk this drive (see also this).
As it probably comes from Libya, fuel is much cheaper in the north, but as before is sold only in 220-litre drums for between 75,000 and 90,000 FCFA. In the north it’s also much easier to find petrol as many cars are imported from Libya. In the Tibesti it might even be difficult to find diesel. In Ndjamena a litre costs about 550 FCFA (€0.84) in a fuel station.
Mobile coverage was widely available in the south. In northern Chad Salal, Faya, Gouro, Ounianga Kebir, Fada and Kalait had signals. The network broke down in Gouro three days before we came.
Road to Sudan
From Abéché it’s possible to drive to Sudan; the border seems open. However, the Sudan embassy in Ndjamena only issues visas to residents of Chad. There’s also a consulate in Abéché but we weren’t able to check with them. There seems to be tarmac from El Geneina to Khartoum, but the trucks go in a convoy escorted by the Sudanese army every week or fortnight. I imagine one could show up in El Geneina and join the convoy or pay the army for a private escort. Abéché to Adré takes 3-4 hours. The road from Ndjamena through Mongo to Abéché is tarred almost all the way (will be finished in a few months). There are about six toll stations, each is 500 FCFA/vehicle and a receipt is issued.
Travel in the Sahara has long been disrupted by the activities of AQIM and similar groups including Boko Haram based in nearby northeastern Nigeria. And as we all know, Chadian troops are currently engaged with French and Malian forces in Operation Serval in northern Mali and there was a coup in CAR a few days ago, and you wonder if this might lead to a resumption of the normal Chadian state of affairs. Hopefully not. Our conviction was that as long as we stayed clear of border areas we would minimise the risks.
President Deby has recently decided on the creation of many new Départements, Régions and Sous-préféctures. Almost all villages in the north are now virtually sous-préféctures where the sous-préfet (usually a local elder barely speaking French) appreciates visits from the foreigners. They are the link between the State and the local tribal authorities and get new Land Cruisers, offices and even a residence. I imagine this is another way for Deby to strengthen his grip on the north. He himself originates from just south of the Ennedi and his tribe, the Zaghawa, extends as far as Bachikele and Monou. I cannot imagine that some of the revenue from tourism doesn’t flow back to high circles in Ndjaména. I therefore think there is a major interest in safeguarding security and preventing foreign infiltrations in Chad by ensuring a revenue and the preserving the power base of the President. That’s the assumption under which we travelled but only the future will tell if we were right.