Chad Trip Report - Will Bolsover

Will Bolsover

25 Jan 2016

Exploring Africa's wild frontier, Chad

Update 1

I approach Chad with a note of caution… Admittedly it is not at the top of everyone’s bucket list for a variety of reasons, however, over the last few months a selection of people have mentioned that I must visit.

So, off the back of swimming with sperm whales in Dominica, I have an 8hr layover in London before continuing on via Addis Ababa to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Arriving in the early afternoon, we (I met up with some fellow travel companions on the flight) make our way to our hotel which is a short 10min drive away. Opened only a month or so before, we are staying at the rather lavish Hilton. Set amongst a backdrop of the wild west of northern Africa, the Hilton is a welcome but rather strange addition. On entering, you are treated to a huge welcome hall which opens into one of the longest bars I have seen in Africa. From here, it opens out onto a terrace which overlooks a tiered swimming pool and the river. The rooms are clean and comfortable as you would expect of a Hilton and the service is good. The only small reminder that you have that you are still in Chad is that they can’t accept credit cards…and yes, they do have an ATM in the hotel itself, but it doesn’t work! Cash it is then!

Settling in, our small party of five sets off accompanied by Madje and Yusuf our local guides, to explore the town. Our first stop is to the ‘forex bureau’. Well at least this is what Madje has called it. As it turns out it is in fact a small empty room behind a glass door where we are welcomed to sit down with our ‘trader’. Shoes off and cross legged on the floor, the five of us already feel at home as bundles of cash are fingered through in exchange for crumpled dollar bills. Our trader friend is more than happy for us to take pictures (something that we have been warned not to do in the city for fear of offending people) and chats away as we secure the required funds. From here we continue on a short drive until we reach the local market.

The market is like no other market I have experienced in Africa. 

Whilst the streets of the city are wide boulevards (very French) with high security walls surrounding the bordering properties and empty of people, the market is buzzing as people go about their everyday business and stalls are crowded into every space available. Each avenue has its own niche, with sunglasses stalls, meat vendors, fresh vegetables, clothing, luggage and more.

From the market we move on to another local past time, that of horse racing! As we step out of our vehicle at the local ‘track’ (a dust bowl with a football pitch in the centre and a 200 seater stadium at best), we mix amongst the local crowd as the excitement builds for the last race of the day. The local attire involves long flowing robes, head scarves and a smattering of dark shaded glasses, so our beacon of five white faces soon attracts a few inquisitive locals! We couldn’t be more warmly welcomed and accepted into this community occasion though, as they explain what is about to take place, the favourite to win and how many laps of the course they are about to undertake… And suddenly they are off! About 15 horses with their local riders come pounding down the dust track towards us as the leaders leave the weaker horses in their cloud of dust… riders dressed in a variety of brightly coloured riding attire drive their horses onwards keen to secure the prize money. Whilst not quite the Grand National, this is probably one of the most involved community gatherings I have had the pleasure of being part of. Following the race, we drop in on the stables next to the track where we meet with one of the owners of the horses (who is also a local parliamentarian). He explains the comings and goings of such an event and that whilst there is always some money involved, this is purely about a passion. These races are run every Sunday, with a Grand Prix at least once a month and even travelling afar to Cameroon for foreign events.

Update 2

An early start as you would expect considering where we are and where we need to go to…

0500hrs wake up call, a light snack for breakfast and we set off for the airport for our 0700hrs flight. After finding our way through the car park and airport security, we are met inside the terminal by Phil, our local representative from the missionary airline that we are going to fly with. Ushered through security with ease, we then board an airport bus and transfer a few minutes to the hangar where our plane (a 12 seater Caravan) awaits. After a quick loo stop for everyone in advance of the 2hr flight, we all jump on (including two local missionaries) and set off on our journey south east towards Zakouma National Park. We set off that is…following a prayer said by the pilot (he is a missionary pilot after all!!!). He assures us is for religious reasons rather than safety reasons! The journey is fascinating purely due to the sheer aridity of the scenery that is passing below, only occasionally interrupted by the sporadic mountain or two dotted throughout the desert scenery, or the pastoral trails of cattle as they travel through in the company of the nomadic caravan…

Zakouma soon creeps into view as the vegetation grows thicker, spots of water appear on the landscape below us and we descend to our airstrip. Met upon arrival by the African Parks team we are whisked away to our exclusive camp for the next few days - by whisked I actually mean kangaroo-hopped as we stop every few metres for my fellow companions (who I soon discover are avid bird watchers) to identify the next species that is hot on their list!

The camp itself is almost Bedouin in style. 

We arrive to a low slung tarpaulin fixed between a shade of trees, furnished with Arabian style carpets, old oak chests, leather-bound books and large cushions strewn about the floor to relax on in the heat of the day. The tents themselves are jazzed up mosquito nets (20ft by 10ft) with a comfortable bed tucked into one corner, a trunk as a bedside table, a hanging rack for clothes and an outdoor chair to relax on in the heat of the day. The bathroom is traditionally designed a few metres behind your tent in a wicker enclosure that encompasses a comfortable self-composting loo, a bush shower and a basin with a ready supply of bucketed water next to it. Whilst this may not seem much for the $800 per person per night that you are paying, this is simple elegant luxury at its best. Camp Nomade is raw and new and fun and real. This is what we need in travel today and this is what Chad provides.

What can I say, our first afternoon out and about on a game drive involves…birds…and lots of them. I am not sure that we even make it more than a kilometre or so from camp as my fellow travel colleagues turn out to be not just bird watchers, but birding gurus!!! We stop on multiple occasions for an array of species, but even the birding cynic in me has to admit that the birdlife here is stunning to say the least. The pans and seasonal lakes, are home to a vast array of fascinating birdlife from pelicans and crested cranes to kingfishers, raptors and what can only be described as millions of queleas.

Throughout the afternoon we bunny hop (stopping and starting for the birders) across the nearest pan with birdlife flitting off in every direction, giraffes lolloping across the horizon, topi and hartebeest munching on the abundant grasses and buffalo skittishly peering out from the acacia bushes. The afternoon is followed by a night game drive as we meander our way back to camp. Genets, civets and honey badgers all make an appearance, but the star of the show for me on this first night is a serval…a cat that I have seen a few times before, but one that always fascinates me as it slinks off into the bushes…


Update 3

Our first day of full game drives takes us out across the pans, encircling the variety of lakes that are slowly shrinking with the onset of the hotter months and the increasing temperatures. Buffalo wallow on the fringes and the various grazers (topi, hartebeest, waterbuck, the odd rare red fronted gazelle), all munch their way across the plains. Nothing seems too fazed by our presence even though Zakouma is still fresh to this new wave of tourism. 

There is no question that this park has a magical edge and this only gets better as the season progresses (the park closes in mid-April), as the waters dry up and the resident game starts to congregate around the principal water sources. Home to giraffe, buffalo, elephant (although very skittish and remaining largely in the southern section of the park which is more inaccessible), the aforementioned grazers, lion (a population of at least 150), there is a vast amount to see, but maybe not the quantities that other countries can offer. This is no surprise as Chad is a unique destination to say the least (!!!). 

However, Zakouma offers something more in its own individual niche of flat pans and abundant birdlife.

Lest I forget, we have actually seen (and heard every night whilst asleep in our tents), lions on every day that we have been out in the park so far. First day was a group of 3 or 4 with a couple of young males as they slept in the bush. Second day was a healthy looking female, wandering the fringes of a retreating lake, dipping her head down to take a cautious drink of water and then continuing along the park track as we follow slowly behind. We eventually leave her as she settles down to rest in the shade of a termite mound and we…set off in search of more birds!!!

Update 4

Another morning game drive takes us up to approaching 120 bird species that we have spotted in the first couple of days alone. With approximately 370 in the park we have a way to go, but all the same making steady progress! I have been ‘assured’ that my fellow travellers are confident that there will be more than the 370 or so listed species anyway so we may even have that to look forward to!

The afternoon, we set off in the direction of the African Parks HQ to meet with the team and learn about the conservation efforts going on in the park.

We have been nothing but welcomed throughout our stay so far and there is no change here. Imogen (tourism liaison), Darren and Rian (conservation officers) all welcome us to the HQ and show us around. It’s the epicentre of what goes on on a day to day basis within the park and from here the control centre monitors all of the patrols and any activity in the surrounding villages which now also play a major part in this conservation story. With up to approx. 80 rangers, African Parks is key in ensuring the survival of this pristine wilderness. Chad itself has seen years of turmoil, however now, it is relatively settled; the surrounding countries however are still ‘in flux’ and therefore this instability can have a knock on effect within the park. Once home to thousands of elephant, the population is now in its hundreds (approx. 400). This population is dramatically more stable however as a result of African Parks. With some elephants collared, daily poaching patrols go up over the park (by Cessna plane) sectors to get a bird’s eye view of any activity. Thankfully the presence of African Parks means that the elephant population is now increasing, poaching is on the wane and the wildlife is becoming more trusting.

This afternoon we are treated to a flight up over the park as we all agree to donate some funds to this frontline conservation effort. Flying northwards we fly over herds of a thousand strong buffalo, galloping giraffes, crested cranes taking flight and more. On exiting the park boundaries we come across the odd nomadic caravan here and there with their horses and makeshift homes. Turning south we follow the river and soon come across the resident elephant herd, 400+ strong as it hides amongst the thick acacia scrub. This herd has traditionally been poached quite hard by horseman with long spears meaning the defensive mechanism of the herd is to form an almost ‘bait ball’ rotating round and round in circles to protect each other from their oppressors. As times have changed though and the poaching methods have advance to automatic guns, this rolling ‘bait ball’ has only served to harm them as they turn in circles making for easy prey. Thankfully the harsh days of poaching seem to have passed and the herd grows stronger and also more trusting, day by day.

Update 5

Our previous day’s flight over the park is an obvious highlight and an educational experience all round. Today however we have another treat in store, as, following our morning game drive and a lazy lunch, we set off approx. 2hrs drive into the southern sector of the park towards the Selamat River where we are to enjoy some fly camping for the night. As we move southwards we encounter more giraffe, roan antelope, patas monkeys and approaching the banks of the river itself, hue Nile crocodiles. Walking along the banks of the river (we are walking the last few hundred metres into camp), we arrive at camp, which, is strangely located only metres from the river’s edge and therefore only metres from the numerous resident crocodiles that we have just seen. Now having spent years in Africa avoiding exactly this precise scenario for very obvious reasons, logic says to ‘run’! Our hosts however are of a different mind and repeat what they have said previously on this trip that these Nile Crocodiles are purely fish eaters… Very bizarre and as I say, completely against every instinct I have from my days in Africa. 

As the minutes pass however we do soon realise that our hosts are correct; these huge Nile crocs are not in the least bit interested in us or our presence as they go about their everyday business snorting in the shallows and every now and then splashing into the water making all present flinch in preparation, as habit has taught us.

The night soon approaches and we enjoy a home cooked stew sitting in chairs only metres from the river's edge. As we turn in, I can’t help thinking that our tiny mosquito net tents would make for an easy croc target and that for tonight, my bladder will have to remain strong!

The morning arrives and movement around camp begins with our small group surreptitiously making their way to the toilet and back and onwards to the camp fire for a morning tea or coffee. Hot drinks downed, we set off on a walk along the river bank to see what we can find. Whilst there is plenty of game here, it is incomparable to anywhere else on the African continent that I have been to. There are no herds of elephants drinking at the water’s edge, no hippos wallowing in the muddy waters; Chad instead has its own identity, not big and brash like some of the more mainstream African destinations, but more timid and welcoming but always with a surprise around the corner. This morning that surprise was lions! As we meandered along the river bank, the lions that we heard overnight suddenly call out, much closer than before! We continue on, but more aware this time as we hear lions calling from both the left bank and deeper into the forest off the right bank as well. Then, suddenly a few hundred metres away on the opposite bank of the river, out steps a healthy male lion, stepping across the river bank and down to the fresh water to slake his thirst. In any African country it is both humbling and a privilege to see these magnificent predators when on foot and as we gaze on, our feline friend slowly looks inquisitively in our direction and then slowly ambles along the opposite bank towards us. A ripple of excitement as he slowly becomes bigger to the naked eye, until, he stops, and crosses the river on to our side… Luckily, this is where his curiosity ends and he carries on up the river bank and melts away into the forest.

Calling our explorations to a close, we turn and make our way slowly back along the river in the direction of our camp. As we climb the river bank however to be greeted by our waiting vehicle, our morning walk has another twist in store for us. From maybe 30 metres away back down in the river bed we here a strangling cry coming from something in trouble and as we peer down through the branches from our stadium like viewpoint, we see a waterbuck struggling along the river bank with a hyena in tow clamped on to its underbelly. The waterbuck struggles forward defiantly trying to keep on its feet, until it collapses and the hyena strengthens its grip and the rest is history. The calls however have called in further interested parties and as we turn to look, we see a lioness peering out from the opposite river bank curious as to what is going on. We pull back from the scene, not wanting to interfere, and make our way round by vehicle to the other river bank from where we descend by 4x4 to the river bed and to where now three lionesses have pulled the kill up into the bushes along the river bank and are tearing into the now silenced waterbuck.

Our return journey back to Camp Nomade is quiet as we reflect upon what can only be described as a uniquely individual experience.

Update 6

Today, the market beckons. We set off a bit later than usual (0700hrs) and make our way at a slow pace (stopping for the odd birding observation along the way!) to Khach-Kacha market. An approximate 1.5 – 2hr drive brings us to what seems to be an oasis of life in the middle of nothing. Along the way we are lucky enough to stop and meet one of the Chadian nomadic tribes that travels through this region year after year. More than welcoming, we meet with one of the brothers, explore his low slung house and pass the time of the day. As it happens, he is also off to the same market as us, so we part ways and set off once again.

The market itself is unbelievable. 

Thousands of people have come from miles around to this weekly market to buy and sell, trade their goods, or just for a good meet up and to pass the time of day. We explore under the watchful eye of Mohammed our esteemed local guide, who assists us in making local purchases, translates the local curiosities as to why these strange white people are to be found in literally the middle of the desert in Chad and explains to us the comings and goings of to what is the everyday life of the local Chadian people. From the camel and donkey car parks (there is a separate allotted parking plot for the camels and the donkeys – although in the donkey parking area we struggle to work out how anyone on returning to collect their donkey recognises which is their individual donkey! – maybe there is a donkey valet service which we are yet to know about?!), to the goat market, the herbs and spices to the meat market, we are welcomed inquisitively.

My personal favourite is the welder; we come across a generator banging away as it pumps out fumes and wonder what it could be powering? We follow the various cables along the ground to 20ft away where there is a young man working away in the midday sun, welding pieces of metal together hard at work to earn his money. Whilst this may sound trivial, the size of the generator can be described only as ‘over enthusiastic’ for the actual job that he is doing, but then again what do we know about welding…

As we leave the market behind, I am sad not to be able to spend longer here. 

We have enjoyed but a glimpse into this far off culture that is still yet to be influenced by the harsh realities of the western world. This is a hectic calm in the middle of the desert, somewhere that people come to meet, trade, and pass the time of day, somewhere that I almost feel guilty of being part of, as if in some way I have imposed my western lifestyle on this untainted oasis.

Our final day on the plains of Chad are spent hunting out the hyena den that we spotted from the air only a few days before. With an approximate GPS point, we close in as a female hyena lopes off into the distance. A healthy den site, we hang around to see if anything else appears, but for this time we are not in luck and we make our way off again to explore the pans…

So our time here has come to an end and as I sit here outside my tent overlooking the pans, I can truly appreciate the sheer uniqueness of what Chad has to offer. 

No it is definitely not for everyone. There are however very few places left in the world today that you can experience such wilderness and rawness as this landlocked country has to offer. Yes, Chad has had its security issues and to be honest still does. This is through no fault of its own though as both the people and the President are keen to make this country work. The President himself is hugely respected and is an avid supporter of tourism, conservation and Zakouma National Park itself. The outside world however still tars Chad with a tainted brush and until it shakes that image it will always struggle to get a foothold. Whilst that may be a shame, maybe quietly on the inside that makes me happy, as in my mind Chad can always remain that African true wilderness that we hear about of old. 

If you like the sound of Will's Chad adventure check out our Wildlife and Wilderness in Zakouma National Park Safari!

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