This trip, to my last four remaining African countries (in central Africa) is jinxed before I even set off. I’m leaving without two of the four required visas, but more of that later. My first stop is Chad and I have that visa. I’m flying Air France, via Paris ,to the capital N’Djamena.
The plane is an hour late taking off and packed to the gunwales with French rugby supporters, who have just seen England handed their biggest home drubbing ever. They’re wielding flags and other memorabilia. I fall over a flagpole and take an ingloriously ignominious header, down the aisle of the plane. It’s definitely not a try and my hand requires ice. Then I have to run for my connection and go the wrong way on the navette, in the biggest airport in the world. I just make the connection. No time to buy provisions, but the lovely French stewardess plies me with champagne so the world immediately looks better.
Immigration at N’Djamena is quick and easy. No-one so much as hints for money, although this is yet another African country, where the vast majority of people live well below the poverty line.
N’Djamena, the capital, is the largest city in Chad by some way. Perhaps surprisingly, in this arid country, it rose to prominence as a port city. It’s situated at the confluence of the Logone River with the Chari River. It’s also almost on the border with Cameroun, as well as being very close to Nigeria.
The city has little of note to report. There are a scattering of very modern buildings - split arches, a dome tipped TV station skyscraper, the Chad National Museum, the Al-Mouna Cultural Centre, Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, several mosques (roughly 55% of the population follow Islam and 40% are Christian), a market, some roundabouts with sculptures and the president’s palace. No photos allowed.
Time for some R and R in the Radisson – the epitome of luxury here. Though sadly, it doesn’t run to tonic and the water gives out totally in the middle of my shower and hair wash. It stands in its own enormous compound, well-guarded, on the River Chari. The river feeds the huge expanse of Lake Chad and features small islands, little fishing boats and hippos. (I’ve only read about the latter.) There’s a huge pool by the river. It’s a great place to rest up, ready for the upcoming exertions and to check occasionally, for the elusive semiaquatic mammals. It’s apparent they’re not going to materialize for me and I have to be content with life on top of the water, fish (plenty of silvery splashes as they leap around) and canoes.
It’s a very long drive (two days) to Zakouma National Park, where I’m going on safari. And we’re told that recent rains have reduced the roads to ruts and doubled the journey time. We’re going to wild camp on the way. Most of our proposed journey lies through orange, essential travel only territory, according to the FCO. A chunk from N'Djamena, to the main road east, is coloured red. Violence related to civil war, kidnappings, car jackings and theft are cited. I've had a Facebook message from someone saying they were kidnapped here in 2008. And two guys in the bar here are inquiring about security and wondering if it's safe. I'm having one of those 'Am I mad?' moments.
We are a group of four: Sarah who lives in Wales, Karen from Fort Lauderdale (who has a formidable camera lens and proper safari gear all packed into hand luggage) and Gunnar from Malaysia. Our two Land Cruisers also contain Mike, our guide from Zimbabwe, two drivers, a cook, and Tahir, our transfer leader and interpreter. Chad's official languages are Arabic and French, but it is home to over 200 different ethnic and linguistic groups. The Babel Tower of the World.
We’ve been instructed to be ready to leave at 5.30 a.m., so I’ve complied, though early morning starts are far from my favourite thing. Naturally, the crew don’t turn up till 6.30 a.m. when the sun is well over the horizon.
Chad is divided into three belts: The Sahara Desert zone in the north, an arid Sahelian belt in the centre and a more fertile Sudanian Savanna zone in the south. The latter bridges the gap between the dry north and the central African rainforests, and that’s where we’re headed. I should also mention Lake Chad, to the north of N’Djamena (I flew over it to get here). This is the second-largest wetland in Africa, and gave the country its name. Chad, somewhat ironically, is sometimes known as The Dead Heart of Africa, because of its central position and because it's so dry.
As predicted, the road surface deteriorates rapidly, once we are out of the capital, though we still have to pay tolls at the regular péage points. Potholes proliferate. We career on and off the raised carriageway, bouncing along the sand and salt licks beneath. The route is mainly rural, with flat, yellow desert scrub, acquiring a greenish tinge, as we progress east. The towns are lined with open shops and thronging market stalls. Horseback riders and high flat facades give them a wild west feel.
The Sahelian villages have round huts, with frilly flamenco dress roofs. Some of the dwellings are festooned with small round gourds, trailing from vine plants - Christmas houses. Roofs are used to dry crops and stack hay, away from animals. Cereals are stored in large painted clay pots. The main transport is motorbike or ass. Those with a little more money have horses and most of the goods go by donkey cart. Meandering donkeys or camels hog the road, unwitting sleeping policemen. (Which incidentally they call dos d’anes - donkey backs in Chad.)
As I’ve already said, this is a very poor country. Much of the land isn’t suitable for agriculture and most of the people scrape a living by herding camels, cattle, goats and sheep. These drift by, a never ending stream. There is some oil in Chad (replacing the traditional cotton growing industry), but ongoing civil war and coup d’états and refugees pouring over the Sudanese border from various crises there (most notably Darfur), have increased the economic pressures. I’ve also read that the country holds vast reserves of oil, uranium, and gold. I’m not sure what’s happening about that. Tahir knows very little about it. As is so often the case, corruption goes hand in hand with poverty. There is very little mining development it seems. Though there is definitely a Chinese presence here, with the usual road building programme. That’s usually associated with mineral extraction.
This is a very controlling regime, with an extremely poor human rights record. Chad ranks the second lowest in the Human Development Index. Online maps are restricted in Google and Chad has only one television station (Tele-Tchad), which is owned by the state. Radio is the main source of media coverage in the country.
Understandably attitudes vary from shy, but friendly (a wave of the hand) to suspicious and a little hostile. No cameras here, thank you.
At N’Goura, a group of pointy topped kopjes, heaps of smooth round boulders, enlivens the horizon. It’s roasting hot. Over 40 degrees. One of the land cruisers is low on fuel and we stop to buy some a jerry can’s worth. Filling stations are in short supply and so is fuel, it seems. Tahir explains that Chad’s ex colonial masters, the French , have hijacked supplies since the Ukraine war began. The drivers fill up using a funnel and a muslin cloth. Cook Jerome ventures off to buy meat for dinner. I’m wondering how he’s going to keep it fresh, in this sweltering heat.
South-east now to Mongo, switch backing. The town is named for the many delicious mangoes grown in the area and sold by the wayside. Some of the frilly roofs are joined by red (natural clay) brick houses and walled compounds. More stunning inselbergs, a swirl of ochre, framed by a perfect azure sky. Now, both vehicles need petrol. We find a garage with diesel (long queue of motor bikes waiting for petrol) and, relieved, set off up the road. Then, Tahir realises that they haven’t collected their change and we have to turn round and fetch it.
The poor drivers who have been at the wheel for over nine hours now, set up our tents for us. Dinner pops out of the back of one of the cruisers - two hobbled chickens. No need to worry about our lack of a fridge - though bath temperature drinking water isn’t hugely pleasant. The fowl are dispatched with rakes, boiled (the feathers come out more easily) and fried.
We have thin foam mattresses and Mike has lent me an air bed. Even so, the ground is appallingly hard. My shovel bounces off it. No toilets and no holes in the ground and no ability to dig one. My stomach is already playing up. At least two of my companions snore. It’s not the best of nights. Camels, goats and cattle are meandering, chewing their breakfast bushes around our tents, when we wake up. It doesn’t make early morning ablutions any easier.
But thankfully, the forecast very bad roads do not materialise. Now, we’re entering the savanna region. It’s still flat and golden. But there’s some agriculture and lakes, heaps of catfish being smoked on the banks, unappealing rows of charred whiskers. We bounce a little on the sandy route, weaving in and out of palms, acacia and occasional villages. And ever more camels, goats, cattle.
The sign at the entrance to Zakouma isn’t wildly auspicious, 'You Are Now in the Park', it says, in French. But the wildlife has a much better handle on a welcome. A large troupe of baboons appears immediately, alongside a pair of warthogs. Elephant, giraffe, buffalo, various bucks and antelopes follow, in quick succession. There’s a mammal performing, at each stage of our journey to the camp. Which is just as well, as our transport team haven’t a clue where it is. They thunder past the animals, who go flying off in all directions. ‘Isn’t there a park speed limit?’ I inquire of Tahir. ‘No,’ he replies obliviously. Jerome has already cheered earlier, when we almost ran over a puppy.
The room is fairly described as basic, in an oddly turreted bungalow. My room has dangling wires, where the ceiling fan used to be. Fortunately, there’s a portable alternative. No hot water and I shower with some trepidation , but the tepid water is actually tolerable, in the heat.
The lodge has a bar, with good food and a bar. What more could you ask for? There’s a very expensive Wi-Fi hotspot, a crocodile river and a viewing platform with a hide. Elephant come down to bathe and drink. Lion even pop up on a regular basis. All is fine on the western front.
Zakouma is famous for its river systems, rich floodplains, and seasonal wildlife migrations. In the wet season, the centre of the park is marshy wetland, with large lakes and overflowing rivers. It’s virtually impassable. Safari season is the dry season, when the animals flock to the huge pans and waterholes left by the receding waters.
Zakouma National Park was established in 1963, renowned for its huge herds of elephant - over 4,000 of them. But the elephants had learned to congregate so closely because of the persistent threat from ivory poachers. By 2010 the park had lost 90% of its elephants. So, African Parks, a non-profit making conservation group were invited to take over. Gun battles and assaults on park headquarters were eventually eliminated.
The days are long. Driver Hassan Zachariah takes us on morning drives (start at 6 a.m.),afternoon drives (back as the sun sets) and night drives (back at 10.30). The latter involve torches being swept along all the roadsides, searching for reflections in the eyes of startled animals. There are an abundance of sinister yellow crocodile eyes in the pools. Hassan doesn’t speak any English, so I’m official interpreter. My reward is a gin and tonic. (They’re one up on the Radisson). I need it after the long days. My companions are seemingly inexhaustible.
The only other lodging in Zakouma is Campe Nomade, which caters solely to the affluent. They fly up in small planes and are ferried around in safari vehicles with leather covered seats. The glamping style tents are erected in a new spot each year and the likes of us are not allowed in the vicinity when anyone is in residence. We’re permitted to explore the Rigueik Pan, where the camp is based, when all their clients are out elsewhere. It’s on a different scale - a huge expanse of sage green, cinnamon brown and charcoal soil - herds of buck and giraffe grazing contentedly. It's a perfect spot for a sundowner.
It’s the dry season in Chad and we have been told, quite firmly, that it will not rain - by locals and tour operators. This is the Dead Heart of Africa. So, I haven’t brought any wet weather gear. And the equipment provided conforms to the same beliefs. Zakouma isn’t open in the wet season, when it becomes a huge swamp with much of the land submerged. (We’re careering over cracked mud for much of the time).
There’s no weather proofing on the safari vehicles and a plethora of small holes in the roofs. Nevertheless, storms range on the periphery of the park for most of our stay. It rains for 10 minutes, on our way to Rigueik, enough to soak us and then dry out. There’s an absolute deluge, another evening, in search of elusive pangolins and aardvarks. Everything I’m wearing is drenched and so is everything I have with me. This time we’ve skidded to a halt.
The famous Zakouma elephants (they have very small tusks - perhaps an evolutionary response, or is that too quick for Darwin?) now number almost 600. And, because they’re no longer so anxious about predators, the herd tends to split. We’re told it’s mainly in two parts at the moment, with numerous solitary or small group males. We see those every time we venture out. We’re told that the largest herd is down in the palm forest (which isn’t really a rain forest) and we’ve planned to go there. But the unheard of rain in the dry season has put paid to that. Tinga GPS says that the rest of the herd is just 20 minutes’ drive away. So we’re out looking for them instead.
The elephants, however, are still not that happy about human proximity. They’ve retreated to thick swathes of forest. We circle for some time, with no sighting, before deciding to give up and go in search of other wildlife. Or so we think. It’s not till I notice the same fallen tree yet again, that we realise that Hassan has not given up, despite instructions. A hair-raising ride across thorny scrub and many flailing branches, to the edge of the herd. It’s impossible to see them properly, in the foliage. There’s a great deal of trumpeting. Mike says they’re distressed, so I don’t like to venture closer. So near and yet so far.
Zakouma is, in theory, home to the Big Five. But black rhino have only just been introduced and are an unlikely sighting. Lion, yes, ( female lions, some with cubs, male lions are more evasive, like the female elephants.) elephant, definitely yes, leopard, one, blinking, at night and buffalo. We do get to see a huge herd of buffalo - some 600 together. This is another success story. The park’s buffalo population was reduced to about 220 animals in 1986, but now numbers over 15,000.
Zakouma is also home to 50% of the global Kordofan giraffe population. We encounter these regularly, lolloping across the pans, chewing the acacia and, very slowly and cautiously, lowering their heads to drink. They’re a gorgeous rich brown pattern.
Other than those, here is my Zakouma mammal tick list:
Defassa waterbuck, bush buck, Bohor reedbuck, Thompsons gazelles (red fronted - Hassan calls them something gazelles)), Egyptian mongoose, banded mongoose, warthogs, vervet and patas monkeys, olive baboons (a scattering of Buddha statues squatting erect on the plain or participating in sprint races thundering along), oribi, roan antelope, topi (called tiang here), cheetah (fleeting backsides), buffalo, crocodiles, common genet, civet, serval, , Lelwel’s hartebeest, Buffon’s kob, diminutive common duiker, striped ground squirrel, lesser galago and spotted hyena (wandering with two babies).
This is a shorter list:
Monitor lizards, Nile crocodiles, agama lizards, tortoises and three pythons (this is a first).
There’s also a plethora of birds. These slow our journey immensely, as Gunnar and Mike are intent on identifying very single one. I’m probably not going to list them all:
Gloriously bright show off bee eaters, green, little green, and bright northern carmine (flocks lifting off from the banks of the pans in hundreds as they decide where to drill their nests), marabou storks, saddle bill storks, yellow bill storks, woolly necked storks, African open billed storks, crowned cranes (multitudes of them), vultures of several types (hooded, leopard, white backed, white headed Rueppells and griffon - four different types in a row on one carcase), ostriches, long crested eagles, fish eagles, owls ,eagle, scops and otherwise, Abyssinian rollers( looping wonderfully behind us and posing on the slimmest of branches), ground hornbills, northern hornbills, red billed hornbill, tiny red billed queleas, (massing on branches until they sag and then taking off in a cloud of thousands, filling the sky and making waves like the murmuration of the starlings in England - Watch My Video on You-Tube), pelicans, assorted herons, grebes, hamerkops, sacred ibis, bateleur, harrier hawk, goshawk, lizard buzzard, black bellied bustard, African jacana, thick knees, green pigeons, turacos, coucals, malachite kingfisher, hoopoe, nightjars, lapwings, beautiful sunbirds, drongos and oxpeckers.
The highlights of our wildlife observations:
A lion attacking a buffalo and coming off worst, hyenas gorging on a stinking giraffe carcase, a ground hornbill spearing and eating a small snake which he flaunts under the beak of his mate, lions with a waterbuck kill, teeny lion cubs - four being suckled by their mother (Gunnar deems this a good moment to tell us that he was breastfed by his mother until the age of six), another pair of lionesses with two youngish cubs and giraffes sparring, thumping each other with the sides of their necks.
The most unusual encounter is a civet trying to nip at a python. He’s fascinated. Does he really think the python is food potential and not realise that the menu is likely to end up reversed? Luckily for him, he decides that our flashlight is getting in the way of his adventures and he saunters off.
It’s an impressive encounter list, but sadly, nothing to add from my small, shy or impossible lists. I’ve been told that aardvarks (anteaters) are a possibility, but all we see are their claw marked holes. No (even more elusive) pangolins either, despite relentless searching.
Camping on the return journey is even more eventful than on the way out. The ground is still rock solid and the tent pegs can’t be hammered in, to hold down the flysheets. And it’s clearly going to rain (in the dry season). The other three have their guy ropes attached to one of the land cruisers, which is driven into the middle of the camp site. My tent has been placed a little way off, to try and avoid the snoring. So, the water containers are utilised to hold the sheet down. Which is fine, until the crew need water and come to fetch it late at night, whilst simultaneously having conversations on their phones.
Tahir warns of snakes in the area, which doesn’t thrill me. But it’s actually a scorpion that’s running rings outside my tent, its stinger waving aloft. There’s also a huge ants’ nest (big ones) just in front of me. Come on aardvarks. This is your opportunity. And just to add to the confusion, the wind roars under aforesaid flysheet and it rains. But fortunately not in buckets.
Karen emerges in the morning, as always, with a full face of make-up, false eyelashes and immaculate clothing. How is she doing it?
Safely back to N’Djamena, with only one flat tyre, and without running out of fuel. Though it was a close run thing. We’ve done well.
The country's only international airport is small and with very few facilities. There’s one counter serving drinks and snacks in the departure lounge. And there are outdoor escalators, but they don’t work. Equatorial Guinea next.
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