Gerbert van der Aa is a Dutch journalist specialising in the Sahara and author of In Search of the Tuareg. Photographer Sven Torfinn accompanied him on this trip through Tunisia, Libya and Chad.
See also this.
In February 1999 I visited Libya and Chad, travelling with a friend in two Mercedes 190 town cars. Everyone told us we’d never made it to Chad with this type of car but I’ve done this sort of thing before and knew the limits of 2WDs. In Libya we tried to drive to Lake Gabron in the Ubari erg (Route L3), but couldn’t reach it. The first day one of the cars flew too high when my friend gave it a bit too much power to get up the dune. Luckily only the radiator and the fan were crushed. The next day we tried again, but got stuck almost every kilometre, even with tyre pressures at 0.6 bar (8 psi). We were digging our cars out of the sand all day and in the end decided to turn back.
So we didn’t have much hope that we’d reach Ndjamena. Many Libyans said the tracks to Chad were even worse than the tracks to Gabron, but we decided to continue anyway. On February 22 we arrived in El Gatrun, the last Libyan town before the border with Chad. People there told us there’d been no Libyan vehicles going south for four months because the Chadians closed the border. The reason, nobody seemed to know. A guide was very expensive (1000 US!), so we decided to drive without one and use our GPS with the coordinates I got from Klaus Daerr’s website. We drove with an Italian Land Rover.
Everything went wonderfully well. After three days we arrived in Wour without hitting mines. Only the last ten kilometres were difficult for our cars due to the many rocks in the soft sand. We cracked the sump of one of the cars but repaired it with glue – I was surprised it worked and I was ready to leave the car in the desert. In Wour we had three punctures at the same time and so the Italians, who were in a hurry, carried on. In Wour everyone was very surprised to see two normal Mercedes coming from Libya. It had never happened before, they told us. But they assured us that driving from Wour to Ndjamena would really be impossible with these cars.
There were a lot of soldiers in Wour where we found out there is quite a heavy war going on in Tibesti. Aouzou was occupied and Bardai surrounded by rebels led by former defence minister Togoimi, a Tubu himself. We drove on to Zouar with a compulsory guide. He was about 17 years old but didn’t speak Arabic or French, only Tuburi. We paid him the fixed rate of 350FF. There were endless sandy wadis and we were digging out constantly but each time our guide just said travail (‘work’) – about the only French word he seemed to know – and then sat under a tree until we’d dug out the cars. When we asked him to help us, he did not react.
We entered Zouar from the south with a military escort. Entering from the west through the ZouarkÈ Valley seems impossible with normal cars. In Zouar we saw even more soldiers than in Wour. We stayed two days and had to camp with the soldiers. Because of the fighting, the situation was quite tense. Although the local commander said there were no problems, one of the soldiers said his convoy had been ambushed near Zouar a week earlier and a couple of soldiers had been killed. But we had to go on.
Zouar to Ndjamena
We drove in three days to Faya. The road was not that difficult although we broke and repaired the sump of the other car and luckily met no rebels. We saw lots of unexploded ammunition and old tanks left behind by Libyans during their retreat from Chad. If more tourists visit the area, accidents will surely happen because sometimes you don’t see the shells in the sand until you drive over them.
Faya is a lovely oasis. From here we took a guide, Haliki Kodimi, 60 years old and a very lovely man to help us through the big dunes of the Erg Djourab. We had plenty of digging to do but three days later arrived without problems at Kouba Oulanga, halfway to Ndjamena. From there the piste to the capital was quite easy but dusty. All around people were very surprised to see two Mercedes coupes coming out of the desert. In Ndjamena nobody asked us for a carnet or insurance. We sold the cars in Ndjamena and flew back home.
It was a wonderful trip. Libya was especially nice with very kind people. Chad is a bit more ‘cadeau-country’, but very beautiful. I don’t think I would try the same route with a normal car again. It’s much more difficult than Algeria-Niger or Morocco-Mauritania. But if anyone wants to try it: we have proved you don’t need a four-wheel drive. Because we sold our cars for quite a good price (25,000FF each), the trip only cost us 4500FF a person. Both the Italians and another Swiss couple we met in Libya arrived in Ndjamena OK.
Gerbert van der Aa