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.
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.
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.
AQIM 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.