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TRAVEL – Sahara Sojourn



Much of Chad lies within the Sahara – a desert that covers one-third of Africa. A remote backwater, it rarely features on a traveller’s bucket list. But SA4x4 reader Grahame McLeod made it here with a bunch of like-minded Italian travellers on a tour with a trio of tough Land Cruisers. Once blacklisted due to war and conflict between rival tribal warlords, this part of the Sahara is now open to tourism. This month, the first part of a rough 1 500km journey to the Tibesti Mountains…

The rugged Tibesti Mountains are as far as you can get from civilisation in Africa. Situated in the centre of the Sahara, in northern Chad, it’s a long four-day 1 500km journey from the capital, N’Djamena, much of which is on tracks, or pistes, that is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the area attracts only a few hundred determined adventurers a year and, in 2016, I was to be one of them! From Johannesburg, I travelled by Ethiopian Airlines to N’Djamena with a night stop in Addis Ababa. Arriving in N’Djamena, I met up with my fellow travellers; like me, they also wanted to travel to the middle of nowhere in search of raw adventure with Milan-based tour operator, Spazi D’Avventura.

Meeting Pierot, Tibesti connoisseur

After breakfast, we met Pierot, our guide – a short, thickset guy, sixtyish with greying hair and a face covered with a good growth of stubble showing that it had not seen a razor for several days. A chain smoker, with a pipe in his left hand, he would spend much of the time on our trip in deep thought presumably planning his next move – where to go and set up camp. Like a detective, he would be on the lookout for clues in choosing the best place to camp – the amount of shade, protection from the everpresent wind… And, during lunch breaks, he would be in his element sitting cross-legged in the sand, face downwards, in deep conversation with one of the drivers. Most days he seemed to wear the same garb – a whitish peaked cap and a beige jacket, which fitted in well with the colour of the desert sand. At least the dirt would not show up clearly on his jacket! A pair of dark Revo sunshades completed his outfit. He was also a stubborn taskmaster and would insist on us keeping to time, especially when leaving after breakfast in the morning. In this case, he was certainly not typical of your average Italian who is usually considered to be a happy-go-lucky person who is not always well known for punctuality. At breakfast, each day, he would give us the time for departure and woe betide if we were not ready! He would also warn us where it was not safe to take photos – his word was the law here! But we were in good hands; Pierot had lived in Chad since 1992 and had started up the company in 1997. After introducing ourselves and loading up the three rugged, die-hard Land Cruisers, Pierot insisted that we make a quick getaway from N’Djamena. At first, I wondered what all the fuss was about; after all, we were on holiday in laidback Africa! But he told us that just two months before, the terrorist Jihadist group, Boko Haram had attacked the Chadian army near Lake Chad and there had previously been suicide bombings in N’Djamena itself. Better safe than sorry!

The Bahr el Ghazal

Leaving N’Djamena, we moved northwards through the Sahel, a semi-arid shrubland area which lies to the south of the Sahara. We passed through several small villages with thatched mud-brick huts; between the villages, I saw goats and camels nibbling away at the leaves of thorny acacia bushes. We also passed fields planted with sorghum and large herds of longhorned cattle herded by cowboys on horseback. At Massakory, 150 kilometres from N’Djamena, the tar finally gave way to a rough sandy piste. We finally pitched camp in the Bahr el Ghazal, an ancient dried-up valley which starts its life in the desert and ‘flows’ southwards towards Lake Chad. As we set up our tents, the cooks got supper underway. On most days, we had meat, veg, and starch – more often than not some type of pasta. Each meal would be rounded off with cake. Indeed, one of the highlights of the whole trip was the cakes. Each night Pierot would bring out a different one from somewhere else in Italy. And, to ward off the evening chill, we were treated to glasses of piping hot karkaday tea; reddish-purple in colour, it is made from hibiscus flowers. But that was not all; at the evening bar, we could choose between red wines and a selection of spirits, minus the ice.

The great whiteout

The next day, we awoke to clear skies and light winds. But, towards midday, the wind picked up, lifting clouds of dust high into the air. This was the Harmattan, a cool dust-laden wind that blows during the dry winter season over much of west Africa. With headlights on full, we reached the fringes of the desert at the remote outpost of Salal at midday. Here, the incessant wind was fast piling up the sand around the flat-topped single-storey buildings. Seeing that the colour of the sand was similar to that of the buildings, I reckoned that it was only a matter of time before the buildings finally succumbed to the wind and simply collapsed and crumbled away. Besides raising camels, it would appear that the only activity carried out here by the locals around the village was digging their homes out of the ever-growing sand drifts. Sand removal is the business to get into here; armed with a few bulldozers and large trucks, I reckoned that I could make a small fortune. After all, they say that there is money in dirt!

The great lake

Next day was Christmas and we woke to clear skies and a gentle breeze. At first, we crossed a flat landscape underlain by sheets of a whitish rock known as diatomite. This soft, chalky, and fine-grained rock contains the skeletons of very small organisms such as diatoms, or single-celled algae, and is deposited in shallow lakes. Such a lake probably existed here during a wetter period about 6 000 years ago. Named Lake Megachad by geologists, they claim its area may have exceeded 800 000 square kilometres, extending over much of present-day Chad. By contrast, present-day lake Chad covers an area of just 1 350 square kilometres. The greatest depth of the mega-lake was probably about 170 metres, while the present lake has a maximum depth of only 11 metres. As the super lake later dried up, its waters probably carved out the valley of the Bahr el Ghazal. The phenomenon reminded me of Lake Makgadikgadi, which once covered much of northern Botswana; it later dried up leaving behind the present Makgadikgadi salt pans.

Troubles in the sands

Towards midday, we entered the Erg Djourab, a sea of rolling orange- and apricot-coloured dunes. The piste ahead was now little more than the tyre tracks of the previous vehicle in the sand, which soon became lost to view as wind-blown sand quickly filled them in. Not all was lost, as empty 210-litre diesel drums live out their retirement here as piste markers. Even if they are blown over and buried by the sand, large disused truck tyres are also placed to help you navigate your way across the wilderness. However, in the middle of the dunes, neither drums or tyres are anywhere to be seen. Instead, one relies on tall red and white metal poles strategically located in the dunes, complete with metal tags showing the direction and distance to Faya, the ‘capital’ of the north. It came as no surprise that getting stuck was now the order of the day, even for our robust Land Cruisers! As elsewhere in Africa, mechanical sympathy is generally unheard of in these parts. On seeing soft sand ahead, the drivers slammed down on the gas pedal, causing the rev counter to leap into the red zone, or even off the dial. They continued to do this until one of three things happened: the vehicle became hopelessly bogged down to its axles in the sand, the vehicle’s wheels spun furiously and sunk deep into the sand in a cloud of dust, or the vehicle miraculously made it through. In the event of the first two, we first pushed the vehicles backwards and then, with all the energy we could muster, forwards. If the wheels started to spin and sink into the sand, then the steel recovery ladders were the last resort. With the ladders placed ahead of the rear wheels, a final all-out push usually did the trick. Although it was hard work, we all chipped in, and when we were through we would then cheer and clamber aboard to repeat it within a few minutes. I felt sorry for the large trucks that used the piste. Their monumental weight caused them to sink deep into the sand, and no amount of manpower could shift them. Then they would have to wait for something big to come along and pull them out. The waiting game, of course, might take days; it was no wonder that we often saw mats and blankets rolled out on the sand and wood fires burning for cooking the evening meal…

Fa>ya – ‘city’ in the desert

oasis in northern Chad and home to some 14 000 souls. Here we stayed at a tourist campement – small huts made of walls of palm leaves and equipped with neon lights that had long retired from active service, and disgusting blocked communal loos. Beyond the perimeter fence was the oasis, an island of green in the desert with vegetable plots in the shade of date palms. But, since it was Christmas Day, most of us chose to wet our parched throats with more than one glass of the hard stuff. Next morning, we made our way through narrow sand-choked alleyways lined with mudbrick, single-storey houses, to the centre of town. But there were no air-conditioned concrete and glass office blocks or supermarkets here. Instead, there was a bustling open-air market with women sitting on the sand under ramshackle roof shelters made of acacia branches overlaid with a jumble of animal skins, mats, and anything else at hand. Most of the produce was fresh: rice, salt, flour for bread, couscous, garlic, beans, dried and fresh tomatoes, chopped okra, peppers, and what appeared to be the speciality of the oasis – stacks of purple-skinned onions. Most customers were women doing their daily shop. On one side of the market was a line of small stores flanked by an arcade providing welcome shade for the shopkeepers inside. Looming over the market stood the new main mosque; an upmarket affair painted in a beige colour with two slender white minarets and a prayer hall topped with a brilliant green dome. The main drag leading off the market was a wide and sandy thoroughfare lined with open-fronted mud-brick shops with corrugated iron verandahs. Here there was no rush. Men dressed in white robes and turbans (djellabas and cheches) pass the time exchanging the latest news with their mates whilst their womenfolk, in colourful gowns, go about the arduous work of ensuring their pantries back home are well stocked. We saw the occasional goat making its way to the market to forage for tasty morsels and young guys dragging small trolleys behind them. The occasional Land Cruiser also passed by, though I did see one new white saloon car and wondered how it got here given the state of the ‘roads’ we had travelled along and that we were now 1 000km from the capital. Taking centre stage along the street was a traffic circle – the only one in town. This was no welltended circle of shrubs and neatly cut grass, but merely three old tyres stacked on top of each other and painted in the red, yellow, and blue colours of the Chadian national flag. Unlike the capital, Faya appeared relaxed and laid back. As elsewhere in the Sahara, I realised that rural areas are usually relaxing and safe to visit no matter the danger or risk which might be present in the cities. We then headed off to the ‘gas station’ several blocks from the downtown zone. Here we filled up at what passes for a filling station in these parts. But forget those filling stations along the N1 with gleaming fuel pumps, service attendants in clean uniforms, convenience stores, supermarkets, restaurants, and restrooms with running water and flush loos. This one consisted of nothing more than a one-room shack with a line of 210-litre drums outside. The drivers simply siphoned what they needed into 20-litre jerrycans and then loaded them onto the roof rack. But it was service with a smile and the ‘pumps’ are open 24/7. The filling stations here rubbed shoulders with rows of vehicle repair shops selling spare parts, with old radiators, gearboxes, and engine blocks lying out on the street. If you felt peckish, waiting for your truck to be attended to by a bunch of local bush mechanics, then restaurants are at hand. Not the sort with chairs, tables, utensils, and aircon, and certainly not with colourful menus advertising a multitude of dishes. Instead, in the street, legs of mutton were cooked on a metal grill over an open-wood fire. You simply point to the part of the beast where the ‘chef’ should slice off a few slivers of juicy and tender mutton. It was primitive, though food cannot be fresher than this. The poor beast had probably met its end just a few hours before, as there are no freezers to keep meat here