It’s been over a month since I posted a new blog.
But hey, I’ve been in one of world’s least visited countries — and in an area that’s considered incredibly remote, even by Sahara standards.
I signed on for another expedition organized by my good friend Andras Zboray, who has been patiently searching out and meticulously cataloguing prehistoric rock art in the Sahara for well over a decade.
This was initially supposed to be a camel-supported trek to survey the Korossom, Karnasahi and Fofoda sites in the southern part of the Ouri depression, along the eastern side of Chad’s Tibesti Mountains. These sites are extremely remote and were inaccessible for over a decade. Less than two dozen people have ever seen them.
Well, I’m pleased to report that we made it there and back. But unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to work with camels…
We arrived in N’Djamena on the midnight flight from Istanbul, got a few hours sleep in an “airport hotel”, and were told the next morning that the village of Aozi, which was supposed to supply our trusty dromedaries, had jacked up the price for camels enormously, even beyond the already high rates we’d agreed to. I guess they figured on cashing in now, because no other expeditions are likely to attempt this region again.
Such a development could have crippled our trip, but thankfully we had some good news too: satellite imagery had revealed a track leading down to Aozi and the Ouri, and the word on the ground was that it should be passable by 4×4.
This is the only way onto the plain, the other end of the wadi being heavily mined. And so we would attempt the entire expedition by vehicle.
We loaded the trucks very quickly the next morning and headed north out of the city before noon. The paved road stopped about an hour outside N’Djamena, and our route became a network of tracks.
As the days wore on, we saw the landscape change like a film unrolling outside the dusty glass. The first stage took us through two days of driving across the Bahr El Gazel depression. It’s part of the prehistoric bed of Lake Megachad, and it made for some miserable camping. That fine powdery dust gets into everything. But it would soon be replaced by nice clean sand.
After another driving day we left the Sahel behind, its large herds of cattle vanishing with the last of the plants. Then came vast empty stretches of sand, where the Kanembu people raise herds of camels and sell milk to passing trucks.
We spent another long hot day crossing through a belt of soft sand dunes, with plenty of pushing each time a car got bogged down. But our camp that night was a good one, on clean sand at the foot of a towering sandstone inselberg, beneath stars that faded out layers and layers beyond antediluvian time.
The approach to the important northern oasis town of Faya was finally announced by steep rocky passes, and by carefully marked tracks that passed through mined areas left over from the Libyan war.
Faya was a very long way from the south. Chad is one of the poorest and least visited countries in the world, and the Sahara regions of the north feel like another planet entirely.
We still had another 4 or 5 days of hard slogging to reach the area of our objective, but by now we were deep in the desert, surrounded by the landscapes we’d all come to see.
We spent a couple more days skirting the Tibesti foothills, camping on dunes and enjoying increasingly cool nights, before turning up a long wadi that led into the heart of one of the world’s least explored mountain regions.
The unruly tribes who inhabit this natural fortress are one good reason for its isolation. Jeffrey Tayler described the Tibesti as having ”…terrain with a daunting barrenness and fierce inhabitants that have long made northern Chad one of the most isolated and ungovernable parts of Africa, and one the French never managed to pacify.”
We saw our last military checkpoint at the entrance to the valley of Enneri Miski, two days drive from the village of Yebbi Bou.
The isolation we experienced here was social and political as well as geographical. Yebbi Bou was at the heart of the most recent Toubou rebellion. It’s an attractive village set on a high ridge over a vast palm garden, but it wasn’t exactly the most welcoming place. Even the government soldiers seemed to steer clear of it.
We were tolerated there but not much more — thanks to a large payment to the village for protection. And after some bargaining, we also obtained our last supplies of fuel.
The original plan was to proceed on foot from there, with camels carrying our necessary gear and water. The deal had fallen through, however, and we now needed to get all five of our Land Cruisers safely down onto the Ouri plain.
The “track” we followed crossed vast fractured fields of sharp black lava, soft sand and riverbed dust. We spent an entire day lurching across miles of stones in search of the track that would wind down the side of a deep ravine. But as the night drained from the sky we had to conclude that we were lost, and we spent the next day backtracking, using up our precious supply of fuel.
We eventually did find the track at the end of the following day, and we descended several thousand feet by way of a route fit only for goats and mountain sheep. It was a monumental 3 day struggle, but we were now very near to our objective.
At the village of Aozi we topped up our last supplies of water at the only well in the area, and we picked up a local guide. The man from Aozi didn’t know much about prehistoric rock art sites in the area, but he did have an approximate idea of which areas at the other end of the plain are still mined, so he was a good person to have along.
From Aozi, we spent another couple days creeping down a boulder-filled wadi, rebuilding the road as we went. I only saw tracks from one other car on that route — and a lot of scrapes on the rocks from where it had bashed its differentials. I’m told this track was one of the area’s few uncontrolled routes into Libya, and that it was probably used by smugglers.
I’ve done vehicle-based expeditions in the Sahara and other parts of the world many times before, but I was astonished at the punishment these Land Cruisers took. We managed to get them through without rolling or wrecking any of them, and with only 3 tire punctures the entire trip.
By the time the tents had been pitched and the water boiled for tea, it had taken us two days of flying and 8 rough 4×4 days to reach the Ouri plain. Even by Sahara standards, this is one of the most cut off places on the planet. And it was finally time to get down to work.
Only one prior expedition has ever explored the place, 15 years earlier, before the last Toubou rebellion. Our plan was to visit some of the major rock art sites that they had found, and to search the area for new undiscovered sites.
Today the Sahara is the world’s largest desert, occupying ⅓ of the continent of Africa. But it wasn’t always an empty wasteland…
The desert was once home to a large population of cattle herders during the Holocene period, between 8,000 – 6,000 BC. And the rock engravings and paintings that we found also depict animals like elephant and giraffe , creatures that vanished from the region when the rains stopped and the land dried up.
I’m not obsessed with rock art by any stretch. I was mostly there for the landscape. To wander alone, following my curiosity. And to simply sit in silence in the middle of that vast unpopulated place. Walking alone out there is the closest thing I can think of to exploring another planet, and it fuelled the dreams I’d had as a child.
But these sites were a lot more interesting than the paintings I’d encountered two years before at Jebel Uweinat, in the eastern Sahara. There were a lot more human figures in the Tibesti paintings, and they seemed to depict a narrative, or occasionally some sort of feast.
These images were personal, and I felt like the artist was trying to tell me something, to pass on a message that still echoed down thousands and thousands of years. The style was often quite beautiful too, with great artistry and firm determined brush strokes. I liked these scenes best when I could contemplate them alone, in the cool afternoon just before sunset.
I managed to discover two new sites of my own on this trip too, and I’ll share photos of them in a later blog.
When all was said and done, we only had about 9 days in the region we’d come to explore. And then it was time to retrace that long hard 8 or 9 day route all the way back down to the south — through the mountains and across the dune fields and the hot dusty remains of prehistoric Lake Megachad — back to the capital.
Most African capitals aren’t places to linger, and we had no intention of sticking around. We only had 4 hours in N’Djamena for showers and a quick meal before boarding our midnight flight.
We’d been totally cut off during our month in the north. When we returned to the city and semi-civilization, the news was full of fighting in next-door Nigeria, where the Chadian army is active against Boko Haram. The Islamist group had just attacked villages on the other side of Lake Chad, and the workers at the hotel where we cleaned up where following the news with great anticipation.
When we flew out, I got a taste of just how fast an Airbus can go. Our pilot pulled into a very steep climb as soon as our wheels left the runway, and then spiralled upwards to gain altitude directly above N’Djamena before crossing over the Nigerian border to our stopover in the city of Kano.
A good friend of mine who did time with Special Forces referred to this a “tactical ascent.” The pilots were obviously concerned about shoulder mounted surface-to-air missiles, and they weren’t taking any chances.
Our flights completely avoided overflying Libya too, and we took a roundabout route that went straight up Algeria and passed over Malta. (Yeah, I had to fly east to Istanbul in order to backtrack 2 hours and pass directly over my apartment on the way down to Chad.)
But the journey was worth it, as long journeys often are.
For now, it’s nice to be sleeping in a bed again rather than having my feet and head pressing into opposite sides of a very small tent. I’m relieved to be eating something other than freeze dried food. And it’s great to wash with water rather than 3 wet wipes per day for the past month.
But I can’t say I’m glad to be back to the freezing heat-less house in Malta. I don’t plan to stick around here very long.
In the meantime, please stay tuned to the blog. I’ve got a lot more cool stories to share from the Tibesti, and I’ll be posting photos and video over the next few weeks.
But I wanted to give you a quick overview of the trip in the meantime. And to let a few friends and family know that we’re still alive and resting up.
Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2015