Arch Hunting in Chad

Arch-huntig in Chad

Since the first reports of the early Africa explorers of the 19th century it is known that the Sahara is really not the safest place on earth. But it was always possible to visit at least some of the magic places in the central Sahara with limited risk. Unfortunately the situation became a lot worse in the last couple of years. Nowadays you have not only to handle the “normal” criminals, kidnappers, smugglers and corrupt officials, but also the terrorists of Al-Qaeda and the so called “Islamic State”. One of the few islands of relative stability left is Chad, the country south of Lybia. With the financial and military help of France, Chad managed to keep the situation under control so far.

In 2011 and 2012 my wife and I visited Chad for three weeks each time. In 2011 the traverse of Emi Koussi, an extinct volcano and actually the highest elevation not only in the Tibesti Mountains but in the whole Sahara, attracted us, in 2012 it was the Ennedi Plateau, a wonderland of rocks, outstanding rock art and home of some of the very last desert crocodiles. Both trips had the character of little expeditions and definitely needed a good preparation and organization. This job was done perfectly by Spazi d’Avventura, a little Italian family based tour operator with decades of experience in Niger and Chad (www.spazidavventura.com).

Both trips started in N’Djanema, Chad’s capital, which can be reached by plain via Paris with Air France or via Addis Abeba with Ethiopian Airlines, which is also a pretty good and reliable carrier. Spazi picked us up directly at the airport and helped with the paper work for immigration. We soon found out that we all came from different European countries with different languages but fortunately every one was happy with English. Our two (Tibesti) respectively three (Ennedi) Toyota Landcruisers were loaded soon and off we went!

In many African countries the Chinese are building new roads and so it’s the case in Chad too. Nevertheless we reached the end of the pavement in a few hours. From thereon it was off road driving, sometimes easy, sometimes difficult. It took us three full days to reach the Ennedi and even two more to get to the border of the Tibesti. These days were a bit boring because there is not much to see in the Sahel zone. Most of the time. All the more it became exciting whenever we reached a water reservoir or a well. It was absolutely fascinating to see the nomads come and go with all their different type of cattle, goats, sheep, horses and camels but it was also very sad to find long stretches of land with almost no more vegetation, the result of grazing too many cows here. The more north(east) we came, the less people we saw and all at a sudden we found ourselves within the world’s biggest desert, the Sahara.

Safe driving in the Sahara needs some precautions: at least two cars, lots of spare parts, and someone who can fix a lot more than just a flat tire, and without a garage. If you can’t take enough fuel with you in canisters, then a private gas depot somewhere is necessary. Spazi had all of this.

The importance of safety precautions became obvious to us when we met a group of people (men, women and children) right in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from the next little village and water source. The day before their tuck suddenly stopped and they were not able to repair it, and they had no satellite phone to call for help. It was just a lucky chance that we came along. It took our car mechanic about 20 minutes to find out that the injection pump was out of order and the battery was dead. We gave these unlucky fellows as much water as possible and then had to leave. This is Africa!

Water is of course rare in the desert. Whenever we came close to a well, we took the opportunity to fill up our stock of water. Normally lots of nomads were already there waiting to take their turn. In situations like this our local guide Muhammad was of inestimable value. This was not only the case in the Ennedi but in particular in the Tibesti which is even more wild and untouched. Muhammad arranged for an additional guide for the drive through a field of land mines, and also for a couple of locals with pack camels for the traverse of Emi Koussi on the first trip. Muhammad was respected a lot because of his status as a “mustati” -- a man who has finished the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. In spite of the knife in his sleeve and the Kalschnikov assault rifle on his back, he was a nice guy.

Hiking the Ennedi was most often nothing less than spectacular, at least for inveterate desert lovers like me. It was not too tough because we always had a long lunch break at a place with nice shade. We reached the campsite normally in the late afternoon, erected Spazi’s excellent desert tents, had tea or explored alcoves close by for rock art. Dinner was great Italian cuisine. When it was not too windy we slept outside the tent and enjoyed the night sky full of stars.

With the exception of the huge Aloba Arch we never looked for arches on purpose, but ran into them more or less accidentally. In the Tibesti we found just a handful of them, but in the Ennedi arch-hunting became the pure stress. On every hike we saw several really big, beautiful and most remarkable arches. Some of them have been known to us for years from the pioneering work of my friend Gunter Welz (www.archhunter.de), others were known only from aerial photos, and many were completely new.

As you know, there are arches spread out all over the world. But they are not equally distributed over the Earth’s surface; some places have large clusters of them. The best places for arch-hunting I have seen so far are Arches NP in the U.S., Kukenan Tepui in Venezuela, Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria and...the Ennedi Plateau in Chad! If you are interested in more photos, please visit my website www.hike-wild.de. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to email me (Peter-Felix-Schaefer@t-online.de).

Organization of a tailor-made trip for arch hunters to the Ennedi is easy, but to get a good price at least 5-6 people are necessary. The best time of the year for a trip is from November to February, with the very best month being November. It might become one of the most memorable trips of your life!

(Editor’s note: Although NABS members have travelled in Chad without incident, readers need to be aware of travel warnings issued as of February 2014: The U.S. State Department “recommends citizens avoid travel to all border regions, particularly those areas adjacent to Chad’s eastern border and the Lake Chad region” -- which are not areas included in a trip to Ennedi. The British Government has published a map of areas of Chad where it advises against all travel, and this map includes the entire Ennedi area. The Australian government states “We strongly advise you not to travel to Chad due to the threat of terrorist attack, kidnapping and high levels of serious crime and lawlessness.” The Canadian government also advises to “avoid all travel” to Chad.)

(C) 2015 Peter Felix Schaefer