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 be as fantastical as tiny shavings of stars, each bleached particle a stowaway from another time.
Sophy Roberts’ Chad highlights (no sound) | Video: Sophy Roberts, Alice Daunt
But these fragmented memories of the 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 scheduled 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 to give an account of an anecdote about elephant protection. 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.
Tropic Air Kenya’s helicopter in front of Aloba Arch, with a group of local Bideyat children
Tropic Air Kenya’s helicopter in front of Aloba Arch, with a group of local Bideyat children | Image: Sophy Roberts
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 Holy person Exupéry who flew mail courses over the Sahara between the wars. Holy person Exupéry discusses the threats of a parched creative mind. “I know it’s an illusion,” he composes. “Be that as it may, assume I want to dive into a hallucination? Assume I need to feel trust?” In a plane accident, his kindred survivor finds a solitary orange in the midst of the destruction. “I lie on my back and suck the natural product, checking the falling stars,” said Saint-Exupéry. “For a second, my bliss is limitless.” I thought that it was anything but difficult to succumb to such courageous hopefulness.
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 are available from Kenya. A second helicopter would join us within the desert, for one of the larger client safaris which may 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 once a year . While in Chad, Ravà had arranged for Tropic to help with animal GPS collaring for the Sahara Conservation Fund, and a couple of 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 up front. As we banked away from N’Djamena, a parched, endless plain of dust opened ahead. Beneath us were circles from abandoned homesteads imprinted on the planet. once we stopped to refuel in Abéché, the local security official was so glad to determine 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 had been also only the beginning. Back within the air, Ravà told me a couple of time when much of Chad was under an enormous inland body of water – the so-called “Caspian of the Sahara”. In its newer history, some 10,000 years ago, it had been green, running with elephants, antelopes and giraffes. In Ennedi, he said, there had been enough grass to remain 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 therefore the way the massif had been continuously occupied by humankind since Neolithic times. lately, Ennedi remains an Eden within the centre of the Sahara. The surviving “rivers”, also as wadis, which collect seasonal rainwater, make it one of the few patches of the true desert where life can exist.
It wasn’t long after this conversation that the sand began to means a blush of green. We skimmed past natural pyramids of rock, each weathered outcrop poking out of the ocean of sand, when up ahead an enormous ridge appeared, the spurs reaching out a bit 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 thus the landscape gave because of tall, phallic pillars, to bulb-shaped protuberances. We banked right, and it changed to a thousand narrow spires. We flew low along riverbeds, delivering pirouettes around lonely columns backlit by the slow-sinking sun.
The euphoria was almost overwhelming as we arrived in what felt a bit like the navel of another universe: a sheltered circle of honeyed sandstone cliffs at the centre of which stood a crescent of chic white tents, and one, open-sided mess tent crammed with rugs, leather cushions and lanterns. it had been here, at an extended table, that Ravà and Simpson would draw up subsequent day’s plans with Abderaman Dellei, one of Ravà’s Toubou guides: skinny as a rake, clad during a leather jacket no matter the temperature.
I loved Warda Camp – opened in 2018 and newly upgraded this year, created by SVS Tchad and excellent 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 thus the wines were good. At night, we drank mossy Scotch whiskies around a campfire of slow-burning acacia wood.
Each day brought a special expedition – flying, hiking, picnicking above a 60m-deep ravine. We strolled the length of Bachikele, one of Ennedi’s most critical desert springs, where local people assembled with crowds of camels, goats and sheep. The wanderers dried their garments on the foundations of Rauvolfia caffra trees, the water as clear as tears. At that point an emotional move in context when Simpson flew us with guileful accuracy up slender valleys, as though he were stringing a needle of rock nearby his agile 2.25-ton machine. Ravà would point his finger, we’d land and discover rock craftsmanship – now and again new even to him – inside the alcoves and crevices.
Ravà identified a rogue evergreen tree, native to the Central African Republic, rooted in an oasis. “The plants tell an extended 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 thus 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 within the drifts.
There are stories of a final giraffe seen here within the 1950s, an oryx within the 1980s. When Ravà showed us an image of a rhino painted some 4,000 to 5,000 years BC – scribed in ochre, milk and albumin, on an area of the plateau you will 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 therefore the way much there’s still to be discovered.”
He was right. there are 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.
during a memorial park of Libyan tanks, their firearm turrets projecting of the sand like submarine periscopes from swells of the ocean, we discovered unspent ammo – relics of the 1987 Battle of Bir Kora, when Gaddafi sent during a 1,500-in number reinforced team and T-55 tanks, just to be pushed back by the Chadian armed force in Toyota pick-ups. Among temporary graves, including the skulls of men scarcely disguised by records of rock, were impressions from a creature: small pricks of life that the dust storms hadn’t yet eradicated.
And afterwards, the second everything appeared well and good: the 45km-long Koboue Abyss. inside the other nation, this is regularly prepared to have the status of a national symbol. In Chad, it exists undisturbed. We drifted over the crevasse’s neck. Underneath us, a cascade tumbled into a pool of blue.
“The first time I saw that waterfall I cried,” said Ravà.
I verified him and wondered about the person 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 alongside his kidnappers – one of whom he’s still in-tuned 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 having the power to be alone.
Except there was more thereto than that. once 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 an individual who had been mentioned under its burning sun. Chad isn’t for everyone: risk could also be a really personal thing. But as I write this in isolation in England, Chad’s magnificent desert could also be an area to which I long to return.