November 2020: Chad is a huge country and aside from Zakouma National Park in the south, it’s most interesting parts in my opinion are found in the northern Sahara Desert. In my quest to visit every country of the world, I really looked forward to visiting Chad and I didn’t want to settle with just the capitol, Ndjemena. Instead, I really wanted to see the northern desert. Specifically, the Ennedi plateau in northeastern Chad, a place that I have wanted to visit for years but didn’t because of the cost and time needed by car (6 days round trip) just reach the Ennedi .  I was never much of a group tour traveler, and it seemed that the only economically reasonable way to get to the Ennedi is to share the cost with others.  When one of my friends with the financial means to do so, offered to hire a Cessna Caravan to eliminate the 6 days mostly featureless round-trip drive to the Ennedi, I was ecstatic.

My friends and I were traveling Africa for three weeks and two of those weeks would be dedicated to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro now that the mountain was void of tourists during the pandemic. Without the plane we just didn’t have enough time to reach the Ennedi by car and so a plane was the only option.

As if traveling to Chad wasn’t difficult enough there was the extra added layers of confusion due to Covid requirements. I learned during Covid travel that each country has created an extremely complex and ever-changing list of Covid requirements that are not consistently interpreted and applied.  With Chad, the biggest concern is that there technically is a 14-day quarantine period. Of course, the last thing I wanted was to be quarantined for 14 days in Chad. After reaching out to some local contacts in Chad, whom I asked to verify directly with immigration officials at the airport, I discovered that even though officially quarantine was required it wasn’t enforced providing your stay in Chad did not exceed 6 days. The logic behind this was beyond me but this was what we needed to know and so we booked our trip. Of course, there is always the possibility that the rules can be changed by the time we arrive especially in a country like Chad that receives so few tourists. The logistics of a trip to the Ennedi are too much to plan for an individual especially since our time was so limited. I organized the trip through a fixer in Chad.

Map of our route
Sun setting over the river in Ndjemena

Day 1: We arrived at the capitol, Djemena in the early afternoon from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Contrary to my concerns that we would have trouble at the airport, as soon as we arrived, we were met at the plane by immigration, provided VIP treatment and whisked through immigration without waiting in a line or filling out any forms. I later found out that one of the guys that works with the travel company also works in the airport and convinced immigration that we were arriving diplomats.

 

This resulted in our special treatment. I also found out that we were the first tourists to arrive during the pandemic, so it is likely that immigration was just thrilled to receive foreigners.  Upon arrival, we went directly to our hotel-Radisson Blue since we were tired, and jet lagged. We knew that tomorrow would be a long day and we would need to depart in our Cessna Caravan in the early morning for the long 4-hour flight to the Ennedi.

 

Ennedi Desert

Day 2: The next morning, we were transferred to the airport and directly to the Cessna Caravan, workhorse plane of Africa, a 12 seated single engine turbo prop plane, which is capable of landing in non-paved runways. We met our pilot, Jay, a real polite and enthusiastic, competent pilot from southern India. We departed the Ndjamena, which was green and surrounded by rivers and waterways and we departed to the north eventually entering some of the most desolate landscapes I have ever seen. Our flight level was only 12,000 feet so we had great views of the desert below. We landed in Abeche for a fuel stop since there would be nowhere to get additional fuel in the Ennedi. The landscaped began to change as we entered the Ennedi plateau. The featureless desert began rise and form into amazing red and orange buttes that looked like something from the deserts of southern Utah.

 

 

Ennedi from the plane

Pilot Jay after securing the Cessna Caravan plane in Fada airport

We landed in a sandy runway a few miles away from the dusty village of Fada. There was nothing at the airport but one aluminum hanger and a nomad hut with goats grazing in the front, where the caretaker of the airport lived.

Our two 4wd Toyota Landcruiser’s were parked over by the hanger building with our crew 

(Toubou guide, Toubou driver from the area, English translator and cook). They had just arrived early in the morning from a long three-day drive from the Ndjemena with all of our food and supplies. To find food and such vehicle in the area would be impossible.

One of our vehicle in the Ennedi

We also needed two vehicles minimum to go anywhere in the Ennedi in the event of engine troubles or getting stuck. There are no roads, the path going forward is all offroad across sand and rock.

We invited our pilot, Jay to join since our crew accidentally forgot to pack him food and he seemed eager to see the Ennedi. Plus, he was very interesting, and we loved hearing about his adventures flying all over Africa. 

Just the week before our trip, he flew into Bangui, Central African Republic. His Sat phone was also something nice to have access to in case of an emergency. We had lunch in the hanger, while trying to keep the sand out of our faces from the fierce desert winds. Afterwards we set off into the Ennedi. Our guide had a place in mind for camping that he promised we would love.

 

The drive through the Ennedi

The Ennedi is a desert a few thousand feet high on a plateau. But because of the rainy season, which just recently ended, grass was able to grow. The Ennedi doesn’t receive a lot of rain but what little rain it does get is enough to leave grasslands blanketing the landscape. The grass is highly coveted by the Toubou nomads who bring their camels from all over the Sahara to feed in the Ennedi.

In addition to the camels there is a lot of wildlife. We saw antelope, monkeys and according to our guide there are leopards that live in the mountains that come down to hunt at night.

Best Place to Observe the Stars

Jimmy in his tent

All day we didn’t see anyone in the remote Ennedi. Then suddenly we saw a group of young men that looked sub-Saharan. Weary of bandits in such a remote place, our guide approached the men cautiously. It turns out that they were illegal migrants crossing the Sahara in the hopes of reaching Europe and their transport had abandoned them without water. Now they were walking to Fada. We shared some water and food with them, and they continued on their way.

We reached our campsite area around dusk. Giant bizarre rock formation surrounded us. It was a moonless night and the stars never appeared brighter as they did in this place far from any major city. We shared a bottle of whisky our pilot provided and toasted to being in such a beautiful and wild place.

Rock formations by our campsite

Our campsite

The next morning, I awoke at sunrise explored some more and returned to camp to have breakfast before we broke camp to continue our exploration of the Ennedi.

Day 3: We drove to a cliff with some caves. Inside the caves were clusters of well-preserved thousand-year-old petroglyphs dating back to wetter times because of the pictures of cattle and other animals that existed before the area was desert.

We continued on driving deeper into the Ennedi, sometimes following a track while other times driving off into trackless areas. During the rest of the day we stopped at arches, places with incredible rock formations and at times we would come across Toubou nomads.

Me admiring the petroglyphs with a Toubou turban wrapped around my head.

Toubou Nomads of Northern Chad

Toubou nomads historically live in northern Chad, Niger and in southern Libya and have a reputation for being the fiercest warriors in all the Sahara. They commonly carry daggers and AK47’s. In the 80’s Qaddafi’s Libyan forces tried to invade Chad but were fought off by the Toubou and sent retreating back to Libya. The Toubou I saw raised camels and goats. Although many we came across were nomadic, we did see some permanent Toubou villages with grass huts. The Toubou are shy and compared to other nomads I met in the Sahara; they are seemingly less friendly. They were not only opposed to being photographed themselves, they also were very opposed to having their camels photographed, weirdly enough. But I did come across some nomads that did agree to let me photograph them.

Toubou nomad traveling with his goat

Toubou nomad traveling with his camels

Toubou Village

During our trip in the Ennedi we went to two oasis areas. The first oasis was near a village and contained hundreds of date palms. To enter the oasis, we needed permission from the village chief. The chief was blind and could not join us, to ensure that other villagers would allow our passage, he sent his young boy son to join us. Since our vehicle was full, the boy son had to sit on our guides lap as we drove to the oasis. The boy although very young was already acting like a chief and was not shy about giving us orders.

 

Toubou Nomad

We also visited the largest arch that I have ever seen. I walked below the arch looking up to the top which must have been a thousand feet tall. 

For our second night in the Ennedi, we camped near the canyon walls. At night we made a bonfire and had a large dinner with fresh vegetables and fruit that were imported from Ndjemena but in the dry desert environment tasted incredible. We used Jay’s sat phone to call Richard’s travel agent to cancel our trip to Istanbul and to re-book us to Tanzania via Addis instead.  

 

Me Looking Up at the Arch

Our campsite was another magical place. The stars again were out in full force and so were the scorpions. They seemed to be attracted to the heat of the bonfire and one by one they lined up to off themselves in the flames of the bonfire. The next morning when I packed up my tent, we found dozens of scorpions that had taken shelter under the tent during the night. I asked the guide if they are dangerous, and his response was yes very dangerous. This made sense because they were small. The old rule for scorpions is the bigger they are, the less poisonous.

 

Desert Scorpion 

Guelta d’Archei Camel Oasis

Day 4:  In the morning we ventured off to hike over the mountain and into the Guelta d” Archei oasis. This hike was the highlight of the trip. We climbed up and over the mountain along a ridgeline and once we came down to the other side, we began to see evidence of water bubbling up from a spring. There were vultures on occasion. As we descended pools of water grew in size and were green with algae. Some appeared to be a few feet deep and spread out under boulders. We saw crocodile tracks near one pool and our guide saw a small crocodile sunning itself before it disappeared. The oasis is known as one of the only places in the Sahara that still has crocodiles. Approx. 20 of them still live in the oasis.

 

Guelta d” Archei Oasis

Guelta d” Archei Oasis

I was absolutely in awe of this place. The contrast of the green and lushness of the oasis with the arid sandstone walls was magical. We climbed up a cliff to a viewpoint and looked down into a pool of the oasis that opened up into a large area. This area is also where the cliffs are the tallest, easily standing a few thousand feet tall. This is one of the main watering areas for nomads to bring their camels. The camels may not drink again for weeks after visiting this place. A group of a few hundred camels appeared. We sat above them watching from a few hundred feet above. It was like a scene out of Star Wars. The moaning and groaning of the camels below reverberated throughout the canyon sounding like Wookie’s in heat giving the place an even more surreal feeling. At one point I thought I would try and communicate with the camels, and I started to loudly mimic their noises. I didn’t expect any kind of response. However, the moment I made a so-called camel sound, about 50 or so of them stood dead still looking up at me, frozen in their tracks and within seconds they all stampeded out of the oasis. I did not expect this response and felt really bad because one of the nomads standing below with the camels looked up with a face full of disgust. Oops!!

We stayed perched up on the cliff for hours. The place was captivating. The camels returned to drinking and we all spread out precariously trying not to slip and fall of the cliff. Richard relaxed listening to his music enjoying the atmosphere of the place.

Eventually we had to come down. I went for a quick dip in one of the oasis pools mindful for crocodiles, I didnt go in very deep.

Then our guide presented us with two options. Either we hike back up the mountain the way we came or we continue down the canyon and cross the oasis pool though the narrow canyon into waters that are atleast waist high. Either paths would eventually lead back to our campsite and our vehicles. He promised that the crocodiles were shy and so we crossed the water to where the camels where. I was scolded by the nomads for taking photos of the camels.

Nomad Camels drinking from the oasis, Guelta d” Archei Oasis

Guelta d” Archei Oasis

The water was cool and refreshing but a little too dirty to bathe in as we approached the area where hundreds of camels were standing. The cliff walls in this area were enormous and there were several caves at the bottom of the cliffs. In one of the caves, one of the nomads left camel harnesses and other possessions. The cave was likely being used as a shelter for the nomads during their journey.

Our Toubou guide as always spoke to every nomad.  He explained that they are all known to him, and he wants to keep good relations between them and any tourists that he brings into the Ennedi. I would attempt to greet them with the traditional Islamic greeting, and they would politely return the greeting, but the nomads always seemed less than thrilled by our presence.

We walked through the canyon where the water dried up and turned into mud. From there we walked in the blazing sun around the entire mountain to our camp, where we stayed the night before and set off from this morning. The whole round-trip hike took up half of the day and from here we set off for our return to Fada, stopping to visit more places along the way.

Ancient Seabed Floor

Where we ate lunch on the return to Fada

Tank Battlefields in the Desert

Along the drive back, we came across an area where dozens of abandoned tanks and military vehicles laid strewn across the desert. We climbed on top of them. I was aware of the possibility of unexploded ordinances and warned my friends. I’m glad I did so because one friend was just about to pick up a shell that was lying next to a tank.

Our driver explained to us that his uncle was the one that shot the tank I was standing on with an RPG from the distant mountain top. The tanks were part of a Libyan invasion from Qaddafi to seize territory in Chad. The Toubou were part of the resistance and fought the invaders back to Libya. The driver’s uncle had a shoot-out with the tank during this war.  I asked what happened to the tank’s occupants and he smiled and said all of them burned up in the tank.

Me sitting on a Libyan tank

Un-exploded Tank shell

On the drive back we stopped to walk through more amazing landscapes sometimes encountering a lone nomad in the middle of nowhere.

Toubou Nomad boy in the middle of nowhere with his camels

Ennedi Landscapes in the shape of people

We returned to the airport, picked up a worker from African parks who had a contact that could sell us beer in fada. So, we went into town and met his contact in a mud hut and did some kind of under the table illegal black-market transaction to purchase warm beers. I’m guessing the area is under Sharia law. Then we returned to the hanger, met up with a few other African parks workers, one a pilot, and had dinner outside drinking warm beers under the stars on our last night in the Ennedi.

The airport hanger where we slept

Day 5: Early in the morning we woke up and said goodbye to our crew who would be driving back 3-4 days to Ndjemena, while our flight would take approx. 3 hours. We took off from the sand runway and our pilot treated us to some low-level flying over the Ennedi before turning to Ndjemena. The flight back took us over even harsher desert than on the way to the Ennedi. The landscape was more sun bleached and barren and I kept imagining what we would do if we needed to make an emergency landing below. On occasion I would see a group of nomads making their way through the desert below. I imagined living with them for weeks waiting to be rescued.

We arrived in Ndjemena, and had just enough time to go to a hotel, eat lunch and take a Covid test. A doctor met us at our hotel, took our nasal samples and only a few hours later brought us our very dubious PCR paper test results to the airport, which we needed to leave the country. As is the case with leaving countries like Chad, our departure was straightforward but eventually we were able to board the plane and we were off to our next destination, Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia.

Video of our flight departing the sand runway in Fada

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