When I open the pages of my notepad to write this story, I can smell the desert: that dry, scorched aroma belonging to a place elsewhere – a landscape so far off it feels like a kind of promised land. It was January when I went to Chad’s remote Ennedi Massif – a 40,000sq km plateau about the size of Switzerland, which in 2016 was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site and has more recently been the focus for significant conservation work through the NGO African Parks. Months later, in lockdown in rural England, the grains of sand clinging to the notebook’s pages seem to me as fantastical as tiny shavings of stars, each bleached particle a stowaway from another time.
But these fragmented memories of place, and the news of small wildlife successes in the middle of a pandemic, shouldn’t sugarcoat the complexities that make up this region’s extraordinary story. Ennedi is part of the predominantly Muslim northeast of this former French colony. Chad is a landlocked country, one side of it Saharan, the other scrubby semi-arid Sahel, with barely any infrastructure. After independence in 1960, political chaos led to violent tensions and by the mid-1960s Chad had tumbled into one of Africa’s longest-running civil wars. In 1990, the military commander Idriss Déby entered the capital N’Djamena unopposed. Thirty years on, he’s still in power.
These days, there are some reasonable hotels (many of them busy with the Chinese workforce building Africa’s mines and roads) and a French pâtisserie, L’Amandine, selling dainty macarons. Chad is more secure than its immediate neighbours – Libya to the north, Sudan to the east, the Central African Republic to the south, Cameroon and Nigeria to the southwest, and Niger to the west – but that’s no great boast: Chad’s proximity to these troubled nations doesn’t put it at the top of any tourist bucket list because it also has security risks of its own.
The UK foreign office has turned Chad into a swathe of red (advising against all travel) and yellow (advising against all but essential travel). Logistics are challenging, even for Africa, with unreliable sheduled domestic flights. There are private charters to Fada, which is the historical capital of the Ennedi region. Alternatively, you travel here by road from N’Djamena, which involves a tough two-day drive.
But what looks bad on Google isn’t always the whole story. In 2015, I visited Chad for the first time to report on a story about elephant conservation. On my last night in N’Djamena, I got talking with an Italian called Rocco Ravà at the hotel bar; he was running a specialist desert tour company founded by his parents, Piero Ravà and Marina Clessi. Their expertise was the central Sahara, including the Ennedi Plateau and the Tibesti Mountains in the country’s north.
Piero, an experienced alpinist, had first come to Africa to work as a doctor in Kenya in the early 1970s. He fell in love with the desert on the overland journey back home to Milan in 1975, and returned two years later with his young family and two four-wheel drives to lead tourist expeditions – first in Algeria, then Niger, Mali and Chad, shifting their geography as Saharan politics ebbed and flowed. “The dunes were my playground, where there was only one rule,” says Ravà of his childhood in the Saharan sands. “I wasn’t allowed to break up the crests until the tourists had been, so their photographs looked pristine.”
By the age of 25, Ravà was helping his father provide expedition logistics for the Frenchman Théodore Monod, one of the most significant Sahara researchers of the 20th century. But it was by no means easy. In 1998, Ravà was leading a group of trekkers on Emi Koussi volcano in Tibesti when his party was ambushed by six armed rebels. Two of the foreigners were taken hostage. Ravà, conversing in French, negotiated with the kidnappers; he told them to take him, not his clients, which they agreed to. All night the rebels marched him over the volcano. On the third night, when one of them asked why he didn’t complain, he answered them in Chadian Arabic, with a few words of the local Toubou language. “They realised then that I wasn’t a classic white man,” said Ravà, who was later busted out by 600 government troops in a firefight.
Ravà and I stayed in touch after that first meeting. Thinking there might be a book in his family’s extraordinary desert story, I wanted to see northern Chad for myself. Security advice kept changing. Ravà kept providing reassurance: “They have never had a tourist kidnapped in Chad,” he said, “except me, and I’m not a tourist.” Then he told me about a deal he’d struck with Ben Simpson, one of the most pioneering pilots in Africa. Tropic Air Kenya, whose helicopter division Simpson set up, operates heli safaris in remote places all over the continent.
With Ravà’s ground knowledge of Chad and help from Abakar Rozi Teguil of the National Tourist Office (ONPTA), the logistics and permissions were now in place for a rare desert encounter. On 10 January, I flew back to N’Djamena, hoping this would be the adventure that would take me close to those extraordinary words of freedom in one of the masterpieces of desert literature: Wind, Sand and Stars, written by the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who flew mail routes across the Sahara between the wars. Saint-Exupéry talks about the dangers of a thirsty imagination. “I know it’s a mirage,” he writes. “But suppose I feel like plunging into a mirage? Suppose I want to feel hope?” In a plane crash, his fellow survivor discovers a single orange amid the wreckage. “I lie on my back and suck the fruit, counting the shooting stars,” said Saint-Exupéry. “For a moment, my happiness is infinite.” I found it easy to fall for such heroic optimism.
We met on the tarmac of N’Djamena airport, Tropic Air Kenya’s blue Airbus H125 packed for its month-long desert sojourn. Simpson had just come in from Kenya. A second helicopter would join us in the desert, for one of the larger client safaris that would follow (a group of eight friends), for enhanced security (so the pilots could help each other out if the circumstances required) and for wildlife conservation work, which makes up between five and 10 per cent of Tropic’s pan-African business every year. While in Chad, Ravà had arranged for Tropic to help with animal GPS collaring for the Sahara Conservation Fund, and some work with African Parks – two international NGOs working with the Chadian government to secure Ennedi’s long-term protection.
We took to the air, Ravà and Simpson seated upfront. As we banked away from N’Djamena, a parched, endless plain of dust opened up in front. Beneath us were circles from abandoned homesteads imprinted on the earth. When we stopped to refuel in Abéché, the local security official was so glad to see a visitor he gave me a guided tour using the airport’s bus. He drove me out past the windsock – the only bolt of colour for miles around – to the plane wreckage sitting to the side of the runway.
If this was getting weird, it was also only the beginning. Back in the air, Ravà told me about a time when much of Chad was under a vast inland body of water – the so-called “Caspian of the Sahara”. In its more recent history, some 10,000 years ago, it was green, running with elephants, antelopes and giraffes. In Ennedi, he said, there had been enough grass to keep cattle, the evidence inscribed as petroglyphs on sandstone overhangs. Ravà talked about his personal count of rock-art sites in Ennedi (220, and rising), and how the massif had been continuously occupied by humankind since Neolithic times. These days, Ennedi is still an Eden in the middle of the Sahara. The surviving “rivers”, as well as wadis, which collect seasonal rainwater, make it one of the few patches of true desert where life can exist.
It wasn’t long after this conversation that the sand began to show a blush of sage green. We skimmed past natural pyramids of rock, each weathered outcrop poking out of the sea of sand, when up ahead a vast ridge appeared, the spurs reaching out like the fanned teeth of a bulldozer. As we rose higher, I could see the baked plateau stretching out into the endless horizon. We banked left, and the landscape gave way to tall, phallic pillars, to bulb-shaped protuberances. We banked right, and it changed to a thousand narrow spires. We flew low along riverbeds, turning in pirouettes around lonely columns backlit by the slow-sinking sun.
The euphoria was almost overwhelming as we arrived in what felt like the navel of another universe: a sheltered circle of honeyed sandstone cliffs at the centre of which stood a crescent of elegant white tents, and a single, open-sided mess tent full of rugs, leather cushions and lanterns. It was here, at a long table, that Ravà and Simpson would draw up the next day’s plans with Abderaman Dellei, one of Ravà’s Toubou guides: skinny as a rake, clad in a leather jacket whatever the temperature.
I loved Warda Camp – opened in 2018 and newly upgraded this year, created by SVS Tchad and perfect in its simplicity: a thick duvet, a fly swat, a soft light for reading, an iron trunk and seagrass carpet, with hot showers shielded by canvas to the rear of each room. We ate fresh salads and barbecued meats; the bread tasted of Tuscany, and the wines were good. At night, we drank mossy Scotch whiskies around a campfire of slow-burning acacia wood.
Each day brought a different expedition – flying, hiking, picnicking above a 60m-deep ravine. We walked the length of Bachikele, one of Ennedi’s most important oases, where locals gathered with herds of camels, goats and sheep. The nomads dried their clothes on the roots of Rauvolfia caffra trees, the water as clear as tears. Then a dramatic shift in perspective when Simpson flew us with artful precision up narrow valleys, as if he were threading a needle of rock with his nimble 2.25-tonne machine. Ravà would point his finger, we’d land and find rock art – sometimes new even to him – in the nooks and crannies. Ravà identified a rogue evergreen tree, native to the Central African Republic, rooted in an oasis. “The plants tell a long story about Saharan journeys,” he said, “how places like Ennedi functioned as rare refuges between the Gulf of Guinea on the shores of west Africa and the Gulf of Sinai on the east.”
When we landed at Abayke, we wandered through an ancient ironworks, the clumps of smelt lying on the sand as if the people had just got up and left. Their stoves, which could be as old as 3,500 years, were still sitting in the drifts.
There are stories of a last giraffe seen here in the 1950s, an oryx in the 1980s. When Ravà showed us an image of a rhino painted some 4,000 to 5,000 years before Christ – scribed in ochre, milk and albumin, on a part of the plateau you could only reach by helicopter or a 10-day camel trek – I felt keenly aware of what was already lost. Simpson saw it differently: “Imagine what else is out there, and how much there is still to be discovered.”
He was right. There were Dorcas gazelles, olive baboons, Nubian bustards and, if my eye could have reached deep enough into the canyon, the last of the Sahara’s desert crocodiles. There was life where I’d expected only dust. In a graveyard of Libyan tanks, their gun turrets sticking out of the sand like submarine periscopes from swells of sea, we found unspent ammunition – relics of the 1987 Battle of Bir Kora, when Gaddafi sent in a 1,500-strong armoured task force and T-55 tanks, only to be pushed back by the Chadian army in Toyota pick-ups. Among makeshift graves, including the skulls of men barely concealed by slates of rock, were footprints from an animal: tiny pricks of life that the sandstorms hadn’t yet erased.
And then, the moment it all made sense: the 45km-long Koboue Abyss. In any other country, this would have the status of a national icon. In Chad, it exists undisturbed. We hovered over the gully’s neck. Beneath us, a waterfall tumbled into a pool of blue.
“The first time I saw that waterfall I cried,” said Ravà.
I looked at him, and wondered about the man the desert makes. In my notepad are scribbled lines from Wilfred Thesiger when he ventured to Tibesti in 1938: “In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilisation; a life unhampered by possessions.” When Ravà was with his kidnappers – one of whom he’s still in touch with – he said he finally understood the source of Toubou strength: in their extreme isolation, they felt no fear. The desert isn’t romantic, said Ravà; you survive it by being ruthlessly pragmatic, by being able to be alone.
Except there was more to it than that. When I saw the Ennedi landscape for the first time, it struck me with the force of paradise. I found it profoundly moving that its beauty could still affect a man who had been brought up under its burning sun. Chad is not for everyone: risk is a very personal thing. But as I write this in isolation in England, Chad’s magnificent desert is a place to which I long to return.