Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Cruising Africa’s unknown backwater – Chad (part 1)

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 of places to see. Indeed, it sits squarely on the edge of the Sahara tourist map. Once blacklisted due to war and conflict between rival tribal warlords, this part of the Sahara is now open to tourism. GRAHAME MCLEODmade it there with a bunch of like-minded Italian travellers on a tour with a trio of tough Toyota Land Cruisers.

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 are not for the faint of heart. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the area attracts only a few hundred determined adventurers a year… and a few years ago I was one of them!

From Johannesburg, I travelled by Ethiopian Airlines to N’Djamena where I met up with my fellow travellers. Like me, they also wanted to travel to the middle of nowhere in search of raw adventure.

Pierot, the Tibesti connoisseur

After breakfast, we met Pierot, our guide – a short, thickset guy, sixty-ish with greying hair and a face covered with a good growth of stubble. He was a chain smoker and with a pipe in his left hand, he would spend much of the time on our trip in deep thought, where he was presumably planning his next move.

Like a detective, he would be on the lookout for clues in choosing the best place to camp and during lunch breaks, he would sit 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-coloured jacket. A pair of dark Revo sunglasses 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. He would give us the time for departure and woe betide us if we were not ready! His word was law here, but we were in good hands. Pierot had lived in Chad since 1992 and had started up his tour operating company in 1997.

After introducing ourselves and loading up the three Land Cruisers, Pierot insisted that we make a quick getaway from N’Djamena. At first, I wondered what all the fuss was about. We were, after all, on holiday in laid-back Africa! But he told us that just two months ago, 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, and I saw goats and camels nibbling away at the leaves of thorny acacia bushes between the villages. We also passed fields planted with sorghum and large herds of long-horned cattle herded by cowboys on horseback. At Massakory, 150km from N’Djamena, the tar finally gave way to a rough sandy piste.

We set up camp in the Bahr el Ghazal, a dried-up valley which starts its life in the desert and ‘flows’ southwards towards Lake Chad. As we pitched our tents on the hard clay riverbed, the cooks got supper under way. On most days, we had meat, veg and starch – more often than not some type of pasta such as ravioli or spaghetti. Each meal would be rounded off with cake. The cakes were one of the highlights of the trip.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 karkanji tea. Reddish purple in colour, it is made from hibiscus flowers.

For the hard stuff at the evening bar, we could choose between red wines and a selection of spirits, but minus the ice!

The great whiteout

The next day we awoke to clear skies and light winds. However, towards midday the wind suddenly picked up, lifting clouds of dust high into the air. This was the Harmattan, a cool dust-laden wind that blows over much of West Africa during the very dry winter season.

We reached the fringes of the desert at the remote outpost of Salal at midday. Here the incessant wind was fast piling up sand around the flat-topped single-storey buildings. Seeing that the colour of the sand was similar to that of the buildings, I thought to myself that it was only a matter of time before they finally succumbed to the wind and simply collapsed and crumbled away.

Later in the morning, the wind picked up even more, causing whiteout conditions similar to what might be experienced by polar explorers in a raging blizzard. Having passed Salal and unable to find shelter for a lunch break, we stumbled across a traditional home. From the outside, the single room structure looked simple and humble, and it was made entirely of brownish palm mats. Less than two metres tall, it was two metres wide and eight metres long. To survive intact during the Harmattan season, it had been firmly lashed to the ground by ropes.

Inside, it was a different story. The roof was supported by three rows of upright, forked acacia poles and was covered with long strips of curtain material consisting of alternating brown and dark brown bands which were decorated with floral designs and rich embroidery. On the sandy floor lay a large, reddish, Moroccan-style carpet with ornate floral designs.

At one end of the room was a pile of mattresses. At the other end a wide variety of kitchen utensils was stacked up on a table – metal and enamel pots of different sizes, teapots, glass storage jars, and even a set of glass goblets decorated in a rich golden colour. Hanging from the roof were vividly coloured hand fans complete with handles like table tennis bats. I was reminded to never judge a book by its cover – outward appearances can truly be deceiving!

The great lake

The next day was Christmas, and we awoke to clear skies and a gentle breeze. We crossed a flat landscape underlain by sheets of a whitish rock, known as diatomite. This soft, chalk-like fine grained rock contains the skeletons of very small organisms such as diatoms, or single celled algae, and is deposited in shallow lakes, the likes of which most likely existed here during a wetter period about 6 000 years ago.

Geologists have named this one Lake Mega-Chad, and they claim that, as recently as 7 000 years ago, its area may have exceeded 800 000km2 and probably extended over much of present-day Chad. This is in stark contrast with Lake Chad, which covers an area of just 1 350km2 and has a maximum depth of only 11m. The greatest depth of the mega lake was about 170m and as it later dried up, its waters probably carved out the valley of the Bahr el Ghazal.

Troubles in the sands

Towards midday we entered the Erg du Djpurab, a sea of rolling orange- and apricot-coloured dunes. The piste ahead was now little more than the tyre tracks of the previous vehicle and soon became lost to view as the wind quickly filled them in with sand. But not all was lost – empty 210-litre diesel drums live out their retirement here as piste markers.

Those that were blown over and buried by the sand were replaced by large disused truck tyres that help you to navigate your way across the wilderness. However, in the middle of the dunes both drums and tyres were nowhere to be seen.

Again, all was not lost – tall red and white metal poles were strategically planted in the dunes, complete with metal tags showing the direction and distance to Faya, the so-called capital of the north.

Getting stuck was inevitable, even for our Land Cruisers! As elsewhere in Africa, mechanical sympathy is generally unheard of in these parts. Our drivers, on seeing soft sand ahead would slam their feet down on the gas pedal, causing the rev counter to leap into the red zone. They continued to do this until one of three things happened – the vehicle becomes hopelessly bogged down to its axles in the sand, its wheels spin furiously and sink deep into the sand in a cloud of dust, or it miraculously makes 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 these in place in front 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 cheer and clamber aboard to repeat the process within a few minutes.

I felt sorry for the large trucks that used the piste. Their 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…

Faya, the ‘city’ in the desert

The dunes finally gave way to a sandy gravel plain peppered with orange and apricot dunes, including some of which were streaked white. The going was now much easier, and we finally arrived at Faya – the largest ‘city’ and oasis in northern Chad and home to some 14 000 souls. Here we stayed at a tourist camp – small huts made of walls of palm leaves and equipped with neon lights that had long retired from active service.

Beyond the perimeter fence was the oasis, an island of green in the desert and since it was Christmas Day most of us wetted our parched dry throats with more than one glass of the hard stuff.

The next morning, we made our way through sand-choked narrow alleys, lined with mud brick single-storey houses, to the centre of town. But there were no air-conditioned concrete and glass office blocks or supermarkets here. Instead, we came across the market, a bustling open-air affair with women sitting on the sand under open-sided shelters with roofs of acacia branches overlain with a jumble of animal skins, mats and anything else at hand. Most of the produce was fresh – and wow, what a variety! Rice, salt, flour for bread and couscous, garlic, beans, dried and fresh tomatoes, chopped up 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 on one side by an arcade providing that much welcome shade for the shopkeepers inside.

Looming over the market stood the new main mosque, painted in a beige colour with two slender white minarets and a prayer hall topped with a brilliant green dome. Leading off the market was the main drag – a wide, dead straight, reddish sandy thoroughfare lined with mud brick open-fronted shops with verandahs roofed with corrugated iron sheets. Here there was no rush. Men dressed in white robes and turbans passed the time exchanging the latest news with their mates whilst their womenfolk, in colourful gowns, were going about the arduous work of ensuring that their pantries back home were well stocked. The occasional vehicle – mainly Land Cruisers – passed by, and I saw one new white saloon car. How it got here was a mystery given the state of the ‘roads’ we had travelled along and the fact that we were now some 1 000km from the capital.

Taking centre stage along the street was a traffic circle, the only one in town. This was no well-tended circle of shrubs and neatly cut grass, but rather three old disused truck tyres stacked on top of each other and painted in the colours of the Chadian national flag – red, yellow and blue. Unlike the capital, Faya appeared calm and laid back and I realised that, in developing countries, rural areas are usually relaxing and safe to visit no matter the dangers or risks in the cities.

We then headed off to what passes for a filling station in these parts. Unlike those in South Africa that come with gleaming fuel pumps, service attendants sporting bright uniforms, convenience stores, restaurants and restrooms with running water and flushing loos, this one simply consisted of a one room shack and a line of 210-litre drums outside. The drivers simply siphoned what they needed into 20-litre jerry cans 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 rub shoulders with rows of vehicle repair shops selling spare parts such as old radiators, gearboxes and engine blocks lying out on the street. And if you feel a little peckish waiting for your truck to be attended to by a bunch of local bush mechanics, then there are restaurants close by.

These do not come with aircon, chairs, tables, tablecloths and eating utensils, though. Also, do not expect colourful menus advertising a multitude of dishes on offer! Instead, in the street, legs of mutton are cooked on a metal grill over an open wood fire. You simply point to the part of meat you want a piece from, and the ‘chef’ will slice off some slivers of juicy tender mutton!

Food cannot be fresher than this. These poor beasts probably met their end just a few hours earlier as there are no freezers to keep meat here! I have eaten buffet meals in the restaurants of three- or four-star hotels in Botswana before, only to end up with diarrhoea a few hours later. This is because any meat not eaten may simply be put in the freezer overnight and then warmed up again the following day – an ideal environment for nasty bugs to thrive in! This time though, I remained unscathed, and the runs never appeared!

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