Chad is one of the most spectacular countries that I have had the pleasure of visiting! It harbours the little-known Zakouma National Park, in my opinion one of the best locations for a wildlife safari in the whole of Africa, and now it is possible to adventure into the visually stunning Ennedi and Tibeste regions in the north of the country, which sit amongst the desert sands of the Sahara. This offers one of the most exclusive and exciting travel experience there is to be had, anywhere in the world.
I highly recommend that serious explorers consider taking this helicopter safari to Chad’s Sahara, truly immersing yourselves in the spectacular Sahara Desert with all the geology, wildlife and historical wonders that it has to offer, many of which are never seen by the outside world.
For me, the Ennedi region is such a spectacle, filled with geological features that look like they belong on an alien planet. I have stayed in simple yet comfortable fly camps, situated in the shade beneath these sandstone structures that tower overhead, and had the fortune to meet the nomadic Tubu people who make this part of the Sahara their home. Some have settled and raise livestocks from small homes made from bundled grasses, but others still live a nomadic lifestyle.
The Sahara desert is legendary, yet so few people ever get the chance to see the ‘real’ Sahara for themselves. Day trips and over-night camping excursions from North African tourist cities may give one a taste, but what if you want the exclusivity to explore the almost-undiscovered wonders, alongside the freedom to do and see exactly what you wish?
The Sahara isn’t endless sand dunes bereft of life as one may imagine from popular culture. There is so much more to see here, from other-worldly sandstone structures, lush oases, volcanic mountain ranges, ancient rock art and fascinating nomadic culture.
With only around four trips available per year due to tight restrictions on visitors, only a handful of people may have the opportunity to experience this dramatic and breath-taking landscape in their lifetimes – this safari is unique and exclusive!
You will also have the rare benefit of being able to ‘make it up as you go along’; the helicopter and pilot guide are there to take you on exactly the journey that you wish for, exploring the regions that interest you the most. Here, you only have yourselves to please; no set itineraries, no route maps, only freedom!
There are a number of highlights that one may choose from for this helicopter safari. In general I find that spending five nights in each of the two regions gives one the best chance to get the most out of the journey. Split your time between two camps in the Tibesti Mountains and spend another five nights in Ennedi Massif region, staying at a desert fly camp.
The massive deserts in the north of Chad are broken up by the breath-taking Tibesti mountain range. This volcanic massif is the most prominent feature of the Sahara desert, sprawling 480km across the border into Libya. Some of the higlights of the Tibesti Moutains include:
1. Emi Koussi, a pyroclastic shield volcano which lies to the southeast reaches of the Tibesti Mountains and is the highest point of both the Tibesti Mountains and also the whole Sahara at 3415 metres. Its caldera spans an impressive 12 miles wide and 4,000 feet deep, with a smaller crater nested within this. Emi Koussi was first summited in 1938 by Wilfred Thesiger, where lava domes, cinder cones and numerous lava flows were found within the calderas, and are still present for you to explore on your heli-safari to Chad.
From the northern peak of the crater rim, it is sometimes possible to see the entire Tibesti Range, a breath-taking sight! On the journey to and from Emi Koussi, one can swoop through vast canyons, feeling dwarfed between the towering rock faces. There are also sandstone pillars at Ourti, scattered amongst the desert sands.
2. Tarso Toon, meaning ‘high plateau’, is a large shield volcano topped with a wide crater, a fascinating feature of the Tibesti range. One can take a helicopter flight to them to look out from the rim of the crater across the rest of the range and into the wide flat caldera before exploring the region.
3. Ancient rock art is found extensively in the Tibesti Mountains. The paintings and engravings by long-ago cultures show scenes of wildlife and hunting, with evidence that they were living in a time of greener pastures in Chad. Some of these are as old as 8,000 years!
4. The Aorounga Impact Crater, located in the south-eastern range of the mountains, can be explored from the air and on foot. This was formed by a comet or asteroid impact some several hundred million years ago and has since been eroded by millennia of wind from the north-east. One can see the central ‘peak’ of the crater and the outer raised ridge which form a bulls-eye shape when seen from the air.
5. At Tigue Piton one can walk amongst the rust red sandstone towers and marvel at the geological and meteorological influences that would have formed them over millennia.
The Ennedi Region is known as the Sahara’s Garden of Eden! Here one finds the most fascinating and unique geological features, sculpted over time by water and wind into a spectacular plateau.
See for yourself the canyons and valleys, and hundreds of natural arches, spires, pillars and columns which rise up to 1,450 meters from the deserts of the Sahara that surround it on all sides. The water that is found in the largest canyons supports the delicate ecosystems here, as well as human life over the course of millennia, evidenced by the many examples of ancient rock art found. We stayed in Warda Fly Camp which was ideally located for our adventures.
1. The Ennedi Massif itself is a vast sandstone wall, covering some 30,000 km2 on the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert, which has been sculpted by water and wind erosion. The Massif was inscribed as a Cultural and Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2016.
2. The Lakes of Ounianga are known as the ‘Jewel of the Sahara’ and were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002. These lakes inversely form islands in a sea of sand, and comprise 18 interconnected lakes in a basin lying in the east of the Ennedi region. They are relics of a single larger lake which existed in this basin some 10,000 years ago.
The lake system is unique in that they remain fresh water (except for the lowest, central lake). Lakes in desert regions ordinarily become progressively saline due to high levels of evaporation, however these lakes remain fresh due to an extensive resupply from ancient underground aquifers coupled with thick mats of reeds covering the surfaces of the lakes, reducing evaporation. If you opt to visit the Lakes during your heli-safari, why not take a swim in Lake Bokou to refresh from the desert heat?
3. The Guelta d’Archei is one of the best-known gueltas in the Sahara. These water pockets which formed in the sandstone channels of the Sahara support desert life and the Guelta d’Archei is home to one of the last populations of Saharan crocodile, which once thrived across the Sahara.
The aquifers coupled with high rainfall results in natural water pools which sustain abundant life; flora and fauna as well as human. Desert nomads travel here to water their camels, who can sometimes be seen drinking around the water and cooling off in the pools. This is totally remote and difficult to access except for by helicopter (or camel train!), so you will be afforded a sight that few others, aside the nomadic people, have ever seen.
5. Guelta Maya is a fascinating ancient desert oasis! It is forty metres wide and set deep between canyon walls which have a rocky overhang. The guelta is fed from aquifers believed to be over 4000 years old, and due to the unique geology which limits evaporation, the Guelta Maya has never dried up and supports thriving desert wildlife from the fresh waters.
6. Aloba Arch is the second highest natural archway in the world; 120 meters tall and 75m wide, surpassed only by Shipton’s Arch in China. The massive sandstone structure was initially hollowed out by ancient streams, and polished over centuries by sand storms.
7. Niola Doa, meaning ‘the place of the girls’ has a wealth of rock art, some believed to be 8,000 years old. The magnificent larger-than-life engravings of women, together with thousands of painted images found in the mountainous Ennedi Plateau, make up one of the biggest collections of rock art in the Sahara.
8. Ancient artifacts; As you are exploring the Southern Ennedi region, you may find numerous examples of ancient artifacts, evidence of ancient human habitation. Grindstones and ancient pottery are easily found scattered on the ground here. Despite the harsh environment, humans have lived here for millennia and continue to do so today, continuing to live simple lives in the way their cultures have done for generations.
One can fly into the international airport in Chad’s capital, N’djamena and then take a shared caravan flight to meet your private helicopter at your starting point. There are direct flights to N’djamena from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (4 hours) and some from Paris (6 hours).
The Northern Hemisphere’s Spring and Autumn bring the most comfortable temperatures, where it is neither too intensely hot during the day nor too cold at night. It is possible to travel outside of these times but one must be prepared for daytime temperatures of around 40ºC between May and October, and cooler nights over the winter.
If extending your holiday to include a visit Zakouma National Park, one should avoid the wet season when it is often entirely flooded and cut off. The wet season runs from June until October.
If you would like more information on Chad or fantastic helicopter safaris all over the world, please do get in touch!
Images kindly supplied courtesy of Tropic Air Kenya and Brian Meier