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The Tibesti Mountains, Chad
21th January - 11th February, 2014
False colour images precessed with dStretch,
a freely available software developed by Jon Harman
Mid-January is not the best time to fly about in Europe, and while the direct flights from Marseille to Faya sounded brilliant, getting to Marseille is not as easy as it sounds. To make sure that we don't miss our Pointe-Afrique flight due to any mis-connections or weather delays, we all arranged to arrive to Marseille a by sunday evening (except Jack, who flew in non-stop from Sydney early monday morning), converging on the only hotel at Marseille airport.
Day 0. – Provance
Luckily there were no problems, all of us arrived on schedule, leaving the whole of monday to explore the south of Provance. With two rented cars we set out, first to a rather cold and windy Avignon.
As we continued to the Pont du Gard the weather improved, the forecast of rain, rain and some more rain failed to materialise. Apparently the threat of bad weather kept everyone away, we had the aquaduct and its environs all to ourselves in a perfect bright low sunlight, I'm sure it was a sharp contrast to the summer crowds. With no time pressure we wondered about for a good two hours, capturing the best photo spots or just enjoying the amazing view.
We finished the day with a late lunch in Nimes, then we returned to our hotel at Marseille airport to get some sleep before our 4am flight.
Day 1. – Marseille - Faya - Ain Galaka
We went to the airport at 1:30am, finding most passengers already gathered at the terminal with very sleepy looks - spending at least half a night at the airport hotel definitely seemed like a good choice. Among them we discovered several of our friends from the AARS going on another trip to the Ennedi. Check-in opened at 2am, and the flight operated by Air Mediterranée departed as announced at 4am. In the darkness we passed by the lights of Tunis to our left after an hour, then crossed the coast over Tripoli. In another hour the first light of dawn appeared, with a beautiful Earth shadow as we passed over Brak in the Fezzan, followed by Sebha with the adjacent big circular fields.
A large patch of thick cloud covered all of the Southern Fezzan, by the time it cleared the sun was up and we were flying over the dunes and isolated hills of the Serir Tibesti, already over the extreme Northern part of Chad.
It was almost four hours into the flight when the foothills of the Tibesti appeared under the wing, first a range of low hills almost swamped in sand, then the higher dissected Northern sandstone plateau with the scattered volcanic hills.
I recognised a conspicious volcanic hill in the middle of a large sandy basin as the one adjacent to the Bardai airstrip, and soon spotted the vegetation of the oasis a little beyond, clustered along the course of the Enneri Zoumeri. At the same time the black cone of the Toussidé volcano came into view, with the Trou au Natron caldera just barely discernible at its foot.
We were now right over the centre of the volcanic region of the Tibesti, first passing by the huge Tarso Voon caldera, then almost directly over the eroded remnants of the older Tarso Oyoye before starting our descent into Faya just as we passed the largest of the Tibesti calderas, Tarso Yega.
As we descended we exited the volcanic area, first flying over the Eneri Miski, abeam of the eroded sandstone cliffs and canyons of the Aguer Taï, the south-western ramparts of the Tibesti.
Emi Koussi passed by causing a fair bit of excitement in the cabin, out of sight to me on the far side of the plane as we got lower over the amazing eroded sandstone country of the Borku, skirting the Tibesti to the South. Soon it was possible to discern a number of small oases at the foot of the parallel scarps. These became more numerous as we approached Faya, with some containing larger lakes. As we descended even lower the first white white patches of the ancient Lake-Megachad deposits appeared in the vicinity of Faya among the sand-choked rock outcrops.
We made a low pass over the centre of Faya and the airport before turning downwind over the barchans and the white outcrops to make our final approach from the south.
We touched down on schedule at 8:30am after a four and a half hours from Marseille. The airport was eerily reminescent of the one at Djanet on our first visit 20 years ago, with just a small building adjacent to the apron surrounded by sand, but it appeared to be reasonably well organised.
Border formalites were amusing, with the whole planeload crammed in to a small room that could barely hold 30-40 people, but all was in good spirits, while we saw the last of the 21st cenury in the form of digital cameras and fingerprint readers (what better use of foreign aid... ?) taking a very good record of us to make sure we don't abuse the undoubtably watertight Chadian immigration rules... Once we were recorded for posterity, we collected our bags that were unceremoniously dumped in the sand beside the building, quietly wandering what calamity would have befallen us had we just walked away out of that room without getting the magical entry stamp in the passport... Our cars were waiting at the back of the building (together with a bunch of camels for other groups), we loaded our bags and drove to the S.V.S. logistics camp for a quick breakfast and final preparations.
At the camp we met our local S.V.S. team (Andrea took the same flight as we did), our guide Hajji Senoussi, a respected Tibu from the Emi Koussi region of the Tibesti (yes, with the same name as our guide on the October 2003 and November 2010 Libya trips, but fortunately at this point all similarities ended), Ichaou, driver-mechanic (originally from Niger), Adum, driver (also Tibu) and Jonathan (from the suth of Chad), our cook. We did not waste much time at camp, with a few final prepaations the cars were ready, and we started on our way, passing by the local 'high street' for some last minute supplies before exiting the town.
We set out along the fastest route towards the NW corner of the Tibesti across the Borkou desert, towards Zouar. The “road” skirts the roughest country to the south of the Tibesti by making a deep detour to the west. We soon found out that "fastest" is a very relative term in Northern Chad, as we bumped along at 15-20 kph over the eroded white diatomite bed of the former Lake-Megachad, not quite sure whether to believe Andrea as he was assuring us that this is the good road, the other is much worse (with hindsight, having taken the other road on the way back, indeed this one was incomparably better...). When we stopped for lunch a couple of hours later in a grove of dum-palms among the almost continuous row of oases as one leaves Faya towards the west, we were no more than 50 kilometres from our starting point.
For the after lunch rest our guide, Hajji Senoussi removed his chech, and watching him in profile the realisation struck - I have seen his face somewhere before. I did not have any photos for comparison there on the spot, but indeed there is a very strong resemblance to the very well known painting of a bearded man at Jabbaren on the Tassili N'Ajjer.
In the afternoon we continued along the chain of small oases along the southern edge of the Borku region. We stopped in the small village of Gourma to take water at a new well which supposedly provided much better water than that available in Faya. It was here that we had our first encounter with the traditional Tibu huts constructed entirely from palm branches, the frames built from the sturdy stems, which is then covered by mats voven from the leaves.
Later in the afternoon we stopped at another village near Ain Galaka to purchase some firewood, then we moved on to make our first desert camp a dozen or so kilometres after the village among some very inviting low barchan dunes.
Day 2. – Ain Galaka - Ehi Atroun
At sunrise we packed up our camp without much ado, and after a quick breakfast we started out on our long way North towards the western edge of the Tibesti Mountans.
Soon after we left camp the area of dum-palms and the white lakebed was left behind, and we climbed a low plateau with a flat featureless desert that offered substantially better going than the day before. Nevertheless our progress was still much slower than what we have become accustomed to in the Libyan Desert - the flat stretches were invariably intermingled with patches of rocky ground, so our average speed was never better than 30-40 kilometres an hour. We were driving along the piste leading to Zouar then on towards Libya. We passed a number of Libyan trading trcks bringing goods from Sebha (almost all supplies in Northern Chad, including most fuel and food come from Libya), some little ancient Toyota Landcrusers, some the bis six-wheelers well nown from our travels to Kufra. Despite the ongoing troubles in the Fezzan, these trucks keep coming between Sebha and Faya, though in much diminished numbers compared to the pre-revolution days (however as Hajji told us, all traffic is now stopped along the Eastern Tibesti between Kufra and Ounianga).
Around midday we reached the only "point of interest" along this stretch of the road, a well sunk in French times (sometime in the nineteen fifties) at the half-way point of the waterless piste between Zouar and Ain Galaka, the first of the Borku oases in the diection of Faya. The location is marked "Rond-point de Gaulle" on the maps, on account of it being the junction of the two pistes leading to the central and western Tibesti. In all fairness, with all the rubbish left about by the passing Libyan trucks, there was little of real interest here...
We moved a short distance from the well to a row of low barchans for our lunch stop, the only spot offering some protection from the blowing sand picked up by the fairly strong wind. In the afternoon we continued on a now mostly flat sand plain, finally offering some better going. Here progress was quick, and within two hours we saw on the horizon the big looming rock of Ehi Atroun sticking out of the sand plain.
There is a huge wind-eroded hollow in the side of the rock. Near the centre there is a deep shelter with some very crude prehistoric engravings of giraffe on the rock face along both sides of the shelter.
The more interesting engraving however is a little removed to the right of the shelter. It is a vary large anmal, about two metres in length, and pre-dates the cruder engravings some of which lie right over it. It wass very hard to discern on the spot, especially in the direct afternoon sunlight. Superficially it resembles a lion, Paul Huard who first took notice did describe it as a large feline (General Paul Huard was the military commander of the Tibesti region after WWII, and with a deep interest for both the ancient and modern peple inhabitng he region, he discovered and published many of the known rock art sites of the Tibesti.). However a tracing by Adriana Ravenna in the 1996 special issue of the Sahara Journal clearly identifies it as a large hornless cattle, which is also confirmed by a more visible smaller animal a few metres away, drawn in a very similar style.
Ehi Atroun was the target for the end of the day, but as we still had a good hour and a half left till sunset we decided to move on, reducing the distance to be made the following day. We stopped in the bed of the Enneri Maro to collect firewood for the night, then moved in among the dunes of the Gona Orka (the easternmost tongue of the Grand Erg de Bilma) to make our camp in the lee of a high dune.
Day 3. – Gona Orka camp - Zouar
The wind of the earlier day completely died off during the night, we awoke to a lovely calm sunrise, packing up camp in a rather leisurely fashion.
From Ehi Atroun the present piste no longer follows the old Faya - Zouar track marked on the IGN map, but crosses the dunes where we camped to avoid large mined areas closer to the foothills of the Tibesti. We crossed the few kilometres of sand with some apprehension as the tracks of the passing trucks have ploughed up the sand, but all our cars made it without getting stuck, and we soon spotted the green belt of the Enneri Yoo, reminding me very much of the Sossusvlei in Namibia. In fact the two are very similar features, here the runoff from the rains in the Tibesti flowing out to the plains to the west, and tapering out among the dunes after flowing through a corridor cutting diagonally accross the dunes, kept clear of sand for a stretch of 20 kilometres.
After leaving the Enneri Yoo we soon reached the area of Marmar, dotted with a number of isolated sandstone hillocks half submerged in the surroundng sand. As we were well ahead of our planned schedule, we could afford the time to check out a few - with the similar though larger rock of Ehi Atroun not far away, it was logical to expect to find some rock art. We stopped at a conspicios rock, and walking around it we soon spotted a number of engravings, first the most common camels but a little further around the rock some catte and giraffe, and Andrea spotted a single elephant. We also found traces either of the Libyan war or the Tibesti rebellion, a large scatter of half-inch calibre machine gun shells.
The adjacent rock a half kilometre away proved to be even more interesting. Here we found a large panel of well preserved engravings depicting giraffe, strange human figures, and several of the spirals and characteristic "standing" giraffe that are frequent in the western Tibesti. While it is unlikely that we would have been the first to see thiese engravings, there is no record of any survey conducted in the area, and none of these panels are mentioned in any publication.It is likely that a good systematic survey among the dozens of inselbergs would yield many yet unreported sites.
We decided to check out one last of the surroundng rocks, a huge conspicious twin-peaked hill rising solitary from the flat sand plain some seven kilometres away. This too had a few crude and rather weathered engravings of cattle and other animals, and also some remnants of more recent habitation.
Before leaving the sandy area at the Enneri Marmar we encountered several pieces of wrecked armor scattered about the dunes. We had a look at one of the tanks close-up, presuming it to be a Libyan tank from the time of the Libyan Wars in the eighties. A large shell hole on the engine casing shows where it was hit, however some other details are puzzling, the identity is not clear at all. It appears to be a Soviet-designed T-55A, but all serial numbers and inspection stamps had latin lettering so possibly it was one of those manufactured in Czechoslovakia or Poland for export. Another puzzling feature is that it clearly has a D-10TG 100mm calible main gun, which however was fitted to earlier T-54 models, not the T-55. From what information is available it appears that all Libyan T-55s were delivered direct from the Soviet Union, but it is possible that export variants had latin rather than cyrilic lettering, and may had older guns fitted rather than the one being the standard in the Red Army. Also it is possible that the Libyans themselves have interchanged parts freely between the two almost identical models. In any case, it must be a Libyan T-55A, as the Chadian side had no such tanks (unless captured ones).
By now we have reached the low sandstone foothills of the Tibesti, though the main mass of the mountain was not yet visible. We passed several shelters which would have been good candidates for rock art, but we could not afford to stop at every one. We did go to check out one location near the piste, and at the likely spot we did find a panel of engravings confirming my hunch - probably engravings would be found at all the likely spots in the area, if one has the time to do a proper survey.
For lunch we stopped at another of the numerous isolated sandstone outliers along the Eneri Zouré, a mere 27 kilometres from the Niger border, and about 20 kilometres before our target, the village of Zouarké. Here too we immediately found some cattle engravings on the vertical rock face along the riverbed just behing our shady lunch spot. There was also a small village a kilometre or so downstream, the first we encuntered since leaving the Borku region the previous morning.
After our lunch stop we quickly covered the remaining distance to Zouarké, which turned out to be a rather miserable place. The village itsef was just a few years old, it sprang up after the rebellion ended, at the mouth of the Enneri Zouarké which now is the only way into the valley of Zouar as the old road approaching from the South-east is still heavily mined and unusable. As the track in the soft sandy bed of the valley is particularly bad, the police and military post (Zouar is the first Chadian control post on the route from Libya) and much of the trading activity (including the vital fuel) moved to this new village. We expected to have to check in with the Prefecture here, however after asking about it emerged that sometime in the past months all officials have returned to Zouar, and now all traffic including ourselves must make the difficult and dusty traverse via the Eneri Zouarké, then back again the same way. We were not entirely displeased, as we were rather happy to leave behind this dilapidated place, plus secretly the idea of visiting Zouar, one of those mythical places on the map of the Sahara was quite appealing, even if we knew that there will be nothing to see there.
The route through the dry riverbed of the Zouarké was really as bad as anticipated, with huge trailer trucks coming head-on at speed enveloped in a cloud of dust. Stoping anywhere meant getting stuck, so we had to keep going even when visibility became zero...
We stopped a little beyond the half-way point of the 20 kilometre long canyon, near some rather meagre engravings of cattle, humans and some ostriches. Once out of the cars it was possible to apreciate the beauty of the valley that was mostly obscured by the dust on the track. The valley floor between the vertical sides is thickly covered with bright green Salvadora persica shrubs and the ever-present Calotropis Procera with their purple flowers.
We continued up the canyon towards Zouar, stopping again as we spotted another panel of engravings, this time giraffe on a large rock pillar jutting into the riverbed a few kilometres from the previous panel.
After 20 kilometres the Zouarké canyon widened into a broad flat bottomed valley contining for another 20 kilometres, but retaining the bordering high sandstone cliffs on all sides. As we progressed towards Zouar at the centre of the valley, through a side canyon we caught our first glimpses of the peaks of the high Tibesti 50-80 kilometres away. First we saw the distant Ehi Timi, then the nearer Pic Botoum and finally Pic Toussidé floated into view.
We reached Zouar late afternoon, and went straight to the Prefecture to check-in, but there was nobody there, clearly we had to return the next morning. After a quich discussion with Andrea and the Hajji we decided to make camp at a suitable spot some distance out of town. As we drove through, despite its status as the capital of the Tibesti region, Zouar created pretty much the same impression as all the other smaller villages we passed, except for a single brick and concrete building under construction.
Our campsite was at a lovely spot among the towering sandstone rocks bordering the Zouar valley to the North. While close to town, it was completely quiet and secluded, as we entered the little bay we stirred up several gazelle from their resting place.
Day 4. – Zouar - camp in Eneri Tao
We had a late start, as we could not expect anyone at the Prefecture before 9am. Before going in to town, we passed by a well tended garden to try to obtain some fresh vegetables, and fill our water containers. We had no luck with vegetables, but at least we had enough water to last the waterless stretch till Bardai.
Taking a second look at Zouar in the morning, taking a slightly different route as the day before, the status of the town became more evident. There were several fine houses of mud-brick (we passed the brick "factory" at the edge of the town), some even of stone, with a small but very neat mosque in the centre with thick mud walls. The old French fort is still standing, used now by the Chadian military, so I could only take a few clandestine shots from a distance.
We finished the paperwork at the Prefecture in a few minutes, and immediately drove to the edge of the town to the "shopping center" to top up our supplies and buy fuel. We did not expect much, but reality was below anything imaginabe. The stores were a row of half open currugated iron and twig huts, all selling the same very limited range of merchandise imported on the trucks from Libya. In one of the stores we were delighted to find a couple of cans of biter soda, the only non-sweet fizzy drink available in Libya, our staple sundowner of all our Uweinat trips made from Libya. We summarily bought up the entire stock, plus some canned mango juice, Raymonds favorite.
The "gas station" was just a bunch of steel drums in front of the row of shops, containing fuel of dubious quality. Prepared for the occasion, Andrea had an electric pump with a filter and an attached dispenser running from the car battery, all three cars had their tanks full by the time we returned with the haul of bitter soda.
We drove back to town past the fort to the local produce market in the dim hope that we might be able to buy some fresh vegetables and bread, but failed on both counts. Onions were the only vegetable available, and apparently bread is only produced for home consumption, there was none offered for purchase. In the end we left town with only a sackful of local dates.
Leaving Zouar we stopped at the welcoming sign that saw better days (in particular, "Bienvenue" is missing), but it did manage to somehow survive since 1995, quite a feat knowing the turbulent recent history of the town. The "gas station" and shops were now occupied by another group of Point-Afrique who arrived with the same flight as we did, and were trailing us for the past couple of days.
About 10 kilometres West of Zouar, just before the entrance of the Enneri Zouarké there is a wrecked tank and another armored vehicle. The tank was the same Soviet T-55A model as seen the previos day, while the other was a BMP-1 personnel carrier, photos of which taken in 1996 are available on the web, thus they too must date from the Libyan Wars.
At the start of the Enneri Zouarké we stopped at a large panel of engravings which we have spotted on our way in with a number of conspicious giraffe, but also showing several cattle and a few camels. Here too we saw some examples of the "standing" giraffe seen at Matmar the day before. There were several more panels along the rock face bordering the valley for stretch of several hundred metres. These panels are reasonably well known, they were published by Paul Huard in 1953.
We passed through the Enneri Zouarké canyon, and emerged again at the village of Zouarké, making a feeble attempt at finding vegetables and bread. Not surprisingly our quest was futile, and in the short time we spent there the place did little to endear itself.
We left the village on the piste leading North-eastwards towards the Fezzan. We again passed a wrecked Libyan T-55A, and we noticed the first marked minefields on both sides of the track. The known minefields are marked with a perimeter of stones painted white/red (white on the safe side, red on the danger zone side) but for added measure there is usually a mangled vehicle in the middle should the painted stones not be a sufficient deterrent - a grim reminder on how these minefields became known in the first place. The Hajji told us that the majority date from the Tibesti rebellion, not from the Libyan Wars as we expected. The Zouar - Bardai track was cleared (with funding from the EU) and adjacent ones marked, but there is little incentive to clear the mines and mark the known areas outside the currently used tracks, as most are anti-vehicle mines, posing relatively little threat to locals on foot and camels (and they know where they are anyway, having planted most of them during the rebellion). In fact locals see the threat of mines (both real and perceived) as a form of protection against infiltration of unwanted outsiders from both Libya and Niger, and in a way contribute to the current calm in the Tibesti while the rest of the surrounding Sahara is in full turmoil.
Soon after we turned North as the Bardai track left the main piste, we caught sight of Pic Toussidé and Pic Botoum on the horizon, at this point about seventy kilometres away, first very faint in the haze but looming ever closer.
We reached the small and almost completely deserted village of Sao by lunchtime. The style of the houses was very different from what we saw before, instead of the palm-stem frames the houses has walls of stone, covered ny the palm-leaf mats, the preferred construction in the mountains. The adjacent large guelta appeared to be dry, but rounding the rock there was a smaller pool full of water, an excellent opportunity for a wash.
The patch of sandy riverbed next to the guelta was dominated by a huge Acacia albida, a tropical acacia species that manages to survive in some more favorable spots in the Sahara as far north as the Tassili N'Ajjer, but is very uncommon. With its big long yellow flowers its appearance was very different from the many Acacia raddiana along the riverbed. There was also a flock of crowned sandgrouse (Pterocles coronatus, many thanks to Lajos Németh for the identification) at the guelta which we disturbed with our arrival. They circled several times, then landed some distance away, patiently waiting until we departed.
Continuing, we stopped in the bed of the Enneri Tao to collect some firewood. Pic Toussidé still seemed very far off in the haze, tough now it was only 50 kilometres away, and we were approaching the edge of the huge ancient sheld volcano of Tarso Doon, of which Toussidé is the most recent eruption phase.
After a few remaining kilometres of relatively good going on the flat plains at the foot of the Tibesti, the track started to make the ascent on the shallow gradient of the side of the volcano. First we ascended a low sandstone plateau, then we soon reached the edge of the whitis ignimbrite flows which covered the underlying sandstones, filling the valleys of the pre-eruption topography. Crossing these ignimbrite flows was very slow, as the solidified pyroclasts erode into a very uneven surface, a torture for the cars. In many places our progress was slower than walking pace.
We bumped along this dismal track all aftrenoon. We did make some progress, and imperceptibly we were gaining height, as looking behind slowly the eroded sandstone pinnacles at the foot of the Tibesti came into view far below us. Toussidé started to appear clearer and closer, but still at a considerable distance. Due to the shallow slope it was not apparent, but we still needed to gain over a kilometre in altitude to reach the lip of the Trou Natron caldera, somewhere near the horizon seemingly straight and level ahead of us.
A good hour before sunset we crossed a gully (one of the upper branches of the Enneri Tao) with a smooth sand-filled bed, the last good camping spot before the rocky upper parts of the mountain. We stopped here for the night, and with plenty of light left we started to explore the surroundings. In the low light Toussidé appeared now much closer, though we were still 30 kilometres away.
On a rocky ledge above our camp we soon found several panels of engravings, mostly depicting cattle, and a human figure with what appears to be a large metal lance. This random find was further confirmation that a thorough survey of the innumerable valleys on foot would probably yield hundreds of further rock art sites.
It was a totally calm evening with a perfect light, we just spent the last half-hour of daylight sitting on the top of the rocks and enjoying the quiet and the view.
With all the high altitude clouds, sunset put up an absolutely spectacular show, impossible to describe in words but luckily the photos can tell the story:
Day 5. – Trou au Natron
At daybreak we packed camp and continued along the dismal trail up the slopes of the volcano. While our perception was that we hardly made any progress, the photos show that we soon passed Pic Botoum , and Toussidé was also turning slowly, hiding the secondary peaks as we moved towards its Eastern side.
We made a short stop beside a shallow ravine, where we found several circular tombs built of massive blocks and filled with rubble. There were a number of flaked obsidian tools in their environment, suggesting a prehistoric date for the structures. Magdi went a bit farther and disturbed a family of baboons who were living in the adjacent deeper valley. Apparently they are quite common in the higher valleys of the Tibesti, moving from place to place following the richer vegetation. As soon as they heard us they disappeared from sight, but we caught up with them at a distance once we continued along the road. The family was out of sight in a valley beyond, but a lone sentry perched by a lone shrub showed their presence. Slightly further upstream we passed by the first Ficus teloukat, a wild fig species endemic to higher altitudes in the central Sahara (a single example is known from upper Karkur Ibrahim at Jebel Uweinat).
Pic Botoum appeared very close now, from a very different angle than the previous evening, and as we rounded a small volcanic cone, totally unexpectedly we fond ourselves at the edge of the abyss dropping 700 metres to the bottom of the Trou au Natron caldera. Due to the upward sloping ground there is no warning, the crater appears suddenly once one is no more than a hundred metres from its edge.
After a brief peek over the edge we immediately started preparing for the descent. Brenda and Raymond stayed at the campsite (marked only by a few built wind-shelters where a tent could be pitched) near the caldera edge with Hajji Senoussi and the drivers, while the rest of us prepared our packs for a night down at the caldera bottom. The trail started a few dozen metres from the campsite, making a steep zigzag down the near-vertical cliffs. Despite a precarious drop, in many places it actually appeared worse than it was, it is a well-built donkey trail used on occasion to harvest the natron at the bottom of the caldera.
Despite the steep descent, at first the perspective did not indicate any progress, only the height of the rock wall above us gave a reassuring sense that we were in fact going down. It took nearly a hour until Pic Toussidé started to disappear pelow the lip of the caldera.
After one and a half hours we reached the edge of the scree leading down to the bottom, about half-way down. The trail became easier, swinging along the side of the caldera at a low gradient in a wide arc.
Along the south-western edge of the caldera there is a large terrace, which is the sole remnant of an earlier, shallower caldera which once had a lake at its bottom (leaving a white diatomite sediment). Along this terrace we encountered the first trees, including some that were unknown to me. From afar they appeared to be decidious, covered in dry leaves, but on close look the leaves turned out to be the dried fruit, with small grean leaves underneath. From what I can tell, they are a distant relative of the acacias, but I have yet to identify the species.
The final descent started from the edge of the terrace, still a drop of 200 metres to the caldera bottom. However it was reassuring to see that we were almost level with the top of the small cinder cone. We were aiming for a group of larger trees right below us for our bivouac spot, to leave our packs before exploring the bottom of the crater.
Despite the seemingly short distance, it took almost another hour to make the last descent, and reach the grove of big acacias growing in the bed of a shallow watercourse. All the other little dark specks one could observe from the edge of the caldera were large trees in similar watercourses around the perimeter of the bottom plain.
We dropped our packs in the shade of the largest tree a little over three hours after starting from the top of the cliffs, a bit better than the anticipated three and a half hours. We could afford a little lunch-break and rest among the trees before moving down to the centre of the caldera to the hot springs a good hour away.
We started out after 2pm, with another three hours of daylight left, first passing the nearest (and oldest) of the three black volcanic hills on the caldera floor, towards the edge of the white salt flats.
Soon we reached the surreal world of the white natron flats. It was like walking on crunching snow, the only things spoiling the sensation were the buzzing flies. We walked along a well trodden donkey trail to the corner of the easternmost of the three small volcanoes on the white surface consisting of pure natron, a mixture of hydrated sodium carbonate and bicarbonate, leached out of the volcanic rocks over the millenia and left behind as the rainwater draining to the middle of the Traou au Natron caldera evaporates in the desert heat.
From afar the salt flats appear smooth, but close-up they are far from so. They show the successive phases of floodng and drying, with desiccation cracks and pressure ridges. In many places the salt crust apears deceptively firm, but underneath there is an impassable waterlogged soft ooze.
The hot springs are at the southern tip of the smallest and second youngest of the three litte secondary volcanoes at the bottom ot the Trou au Natron. There is one large pool, and several smaller ones, all with emerging effervescent water, the only sign at present of any volcanic activity. The springs are actually not very hot, the water feels cool to the touch so it must be below body temperature. We did not have a thermometer, but the best guesstimate was around 32-33 degrees centigrade, about the same temperature as the Red Sea in mid-summer.
The outflow of the largest spring was thickly overgrown with algae, and there were thousands of tentacles sticking out from amongst the pebbles in the streambed. They appeared to be some kind of worm, but I never saw anything like that. I tried to catch one, but it was not easy as the tentaces withdrew underground as soon as my fingrs approached. Finally I was faster than one of them, and much to my surprise instead of a worm I plucked out a fat maggot that ended in the thin long tail. We could not make anything of the creature on the spot, but after returning home it did not take long to find out that these "rat tailed maggots" are the larvae of a hoverfly (Eristalis sp.) which can survive in highly anoxic environments, breathing with their long tentacles.
We lingered for some time at the springs, checking out also some of the other not so conspicious places where water was oozing out at the foot of the small volcanic hill.
With a little over an hour left to sunset, we rounded the small lava hill and walked towards the small cinder cone, clearly the youngest volcanic feature in the caldera.
By now we were sufficiently rested that the idea of climbing the cone did not sound as lunatic as it would have done just a few hours earlier. Magdi very sensibly decded to stay down, while the rest of us attacked the slope head on. Initially it was easy, but the slope was deceptive as the angle gradually rose to 45 degrees. The ash and cinders making up the cone were not loose like a sand dune, but compacted hard with rolling pebbles on the surface offering no foothold and traction whatsoever. Reaching half way one realized that it will be a very hard struggle, but returning was next to impossible, what litle traction remained uphill completely disapeared on the first feeble descent attempts ... and it was an unpleasantly long slide to the bottom. The little mole-hill like volcano was only 70 metres high, but getting up the last 30 metres felt like an eternity, constantly struggling not to slide back down to the bottom. By he time we reached the top we were more exhausted than after the three hours of coming down ten times the altitude.
There is a shallow little crater on the top, and the view over the caldera was absolutely fabulous as the long shadows started to reach accross the crater floor. Of course after looking around, we found a well trodden donkey path leading up the slope in an easy zigzag on the far side...
By the time we got down, the crater floor was already fully out of the sun, and only the top of the little cone was illuminated. The shadow was creeping fast up the caldera wall so we set a fairly rapid course accross the salt flats towards the little grove of trees with our packs.
Once sorting out our sleeping places, we proceeded to the large stone designated as the sunset bar for a historic moment: possibly the very first time in human history that Gordon's Gin and Bitter Soda was ever mixed as a cocktail, but quite certainly the first time anything like that was done in the bottom of the Trou au Natron.
Day 6. – Trou au Natron - Oudingeur
At first light we packed our gear without much ado, and after a quick breakfast set out for the climb back to the lip of the crater, trying to make as much of the climb as possible in the shade.
Uphill it was noticeably slower going, it took us almost an hour and a half to reach the terrace after the first climb. There we met the first two of the larger Point Afrique group who were following us along the same route, they must have started from the top about the same time as we started our uphill trek. As we progressed, we met a few more in ones and twos, apparently they did not give much consideration to keeping together. After another hour we met the bulk of the party, only at about one-third of the way down. They carried no sleeping gear, their intent was to get back to camp by the same evening (later we heard that the last one made it up past midnight, climbing in darkness...).
By now Pic Toussidé reappeared, and we had the last two hundred metre vertical rock wall to scale, zigzagging up the well-built path. We were up on the top where Brenda and Raymond were waiting for us a little past three and a half hours after starting from the bottom.
The previous evening while we were down in the crater the other group arrived, and as there is no other camping spot along the rim it became rather crowded and noisy. As we reached the cars We immediately moved on along the track skirting the rim of the caldera, to stop at the classic viewing spots, with Pic Toussidé slowly moving in to dominate the centre of the picture.
The previous day Brenda and Raymond attempted to reach a smaller crater ("le petit trou') to the North-east of the main caldera, but Hajji Senoussi was unable to find a passable track by continuing along the main crater rim. Andrea recalled that there was another track leading to a small village off the main Bardai track which reaches very close, as we were ahead of our planned schedule we decided to make this detour. The track and the village (consisting of two houses, uninhabited at the time) we did find easily, but the rise we assumed to be the crater about a kilometre away to the West was just a series of low hills. With nothing visible in the surroundings we turned back to the cars, only realising back home when looking at google earth that the crater was about one kilometre to the north from where we left the cars. A good lesson learned that in this rugged broken terrain without checking the coordinates beforehand, even a one and a half kilometre wide caldera can hide in plain sight.
Before continuing in earnest along the Bardai track we stopped for lunch in one of the shallow watercourses carved into the soft volcanic tuffs, the only spot where the low riverbank offered some protection agains the wind which picked up considerably over the day. Here we had our first views of Ehi Timi, a prominent 3000m high eroded volcano on the Northern part of the Tarso Doon, the main centre of volcanic activity before Pic Toussidé, the youngest volcano in the Tibesti was built.
After lunch we stared to descend along the "road" on the western side of the Tarso Doon, as Ehi Timi slowly disappeared behind us. The track crossed the rugged tops of the light coloured ignimbrite flows building up the bulk of the mountain, making it an extremely slow and uncomfortable going, just like the way up on the other side. As we made our bumpy progress, to our right a row of jagged peaks amongst some infredibly rugged country emerged slowly from the haze. This was Ehi Atroun, a much eroded volcano, one of the earliest from the first phase of the Tibesti volcanism that started in the Oligocene.
After a good two hours along the track, we started to near a series of dark sandstone hills that stuck out like islands from the surrounding ignimbrite flows. We took course for a gap between two of the hills, and soon found ourselves at the edge of a deep gorge with vertical sandstone walls. It was clearly a remnant of the pre-volcanic terrain, as the white ignimbrite flows continued along the canyon. This was the Enneri Oudingueur, one of the principal watercourses of the region. We backtracked a little from the point where the track reached the valley floor, and made our camp along the vertical sandstone wall.
With another hour left till sunset we set about to explore the surroundings of the camp. Ignimbrite filled the valey to about half it's depth, with a new gorge forming along the junction of the sandstone and volcanic fil along the right side of the valley. Near camp we found a large Cocculus pendulus plant clinging to the vertical ingnimbrite cliffs, with little green and red fruit. There were a number of golden coloured banded sandstone blocks in the sandy riverbed that were clearly out of place, they must have come from a source further upstream.
On the left side of the valley the volcanic flow fored a broad flat terrace, littered with sandstone boulders that rolled from the brodering cliff. As we passed along the track on the terrace we already spotted a few engravings on the blocks. Climbing up, we found further dozens, a mix of crude cattle and camels, alone or in groups on the larger boulders - the upper Oudingueur sites.
There were a number of hut circles on the terrace close to the rock art sites, but impossible to tell whether ancient or recent. As we returned to camp at sunset, we found a panel of engravings right on the edge of the cliff, overlooking the sandy riverbed and our campsite.
Day 7. – Oudingueur - Gonoa
In the morning we started with a visit to the engravings on the terrace, now in a much better light. We saw several more that were missed in the fading light of the previus afternoon.
Rejoining the track, after a very short drive to just after a large bend downstream from our campsite we reached the main concentration of Oudingueur sites, in a small narow canyon carved into the ignimbrite flows by an ancint watercourse cuttng accross a larger bend. In the past the track passed through this narrow gap, but now it makes a more circuitous route in the main riverbed. There are numerous engravings of varying quality, mainly of cattle, carved onto the soft volcanic rock along both sides of the two hundred metre long gorge. Unfortunately some modern visitors decided that it is a good idea to add some further inscriptions... Strangely while a number of the upper Oudingueur sites we saw earlier were recorded and published in the book by Staewen and Striedter (Gonoa, Stuttgart, 1987), these more obvious sites, already noted by Gustav Nachtigal in 1869 are absent. Both localities were recoded by Paul Huard in the fifties - not hard to do as all are along the Zouar - Bardai track which followed the old camel trail.
A short distance downstream the track climbed the banks of the watercourse, and on the terrace above we passed a large, well built circular stone structure, undoubtedly an ancient tomb of the type we already saw on the way up to the Trou au Natron. There were a number of scattered engravings in the vicinity on smaler blocks, plus a smaller tomb of a much inferior construction.
Continuing along the track, we passed several mine fields marked out with brightly painted red/white rocks and soon reached the campsite of the ongoing mine clearing operation. The track diverted at ths point, with the old one leading directly to Gonoa and Bardai too dangerous until the clearing operation concludes. There were a number of new tracks, some unknown to Hajji Senoussi, we made several false turns until reaching a broad river valley at a small village. This was clearly not the Enneri Gonoa, we have taken a wrong turn, however as we were about to turn back we spotted a number of engraved cattle on the ignimbrite wall bordering the valley. As we explored, it became clear that we accidentally stumbled upon a major new rock art locality unreported in any previous lierature. At first there were the usual cattle, but soon we have found several panels with elephants, giraffe and other wild fauna. The setting, style and themes were identical to the previously seen Oudingueur engravings, and also to the ones at Gonoa.
After this serendipitious navigational error we backtracked to the point where we missed our turn in a shallow wadi, and continued on what we hoped was the correct track towards Gonoa. At one point we passed a series of low granite knolls, parts of the basement underlying the precambrian sandstones of the Northern Tibesti. It was not really evident, but over the past day and a half we descended almost 1500 metres in altitude. We finally reached a broad valley with bright green vegetation (mainly Balanites egyptiaca trees) and a couple of stone huts at the base of an ignimbrite outcrop. This was the entrance of the Enneri Gonoa, with the main concentration of sites a couple of kilomeres further upstream.
Gonoa is the most important rock art locality of the Western Tibesti. While Nachtigal camped in the valley, he failed to see the engravings (somewhat understandable, as his very life was under threat by the less than friendly inhabitants of Bardai), which were first noted by General Paul Huard in 1950. The engravings are located along both sides of the valley at several locations, both along the vertical cliffs of the eroding ignimbrite capping layer, and on blocks both on the scree slopes and at the valley edge. There is a mix of cattle and large african fauna, probably reflecting two distinct periods of earlier hunters and later cattle pastoralists, like elsewhere in the Sahara. Some of the giraffe and elephant engravings resemble those in the Wadi Malthendous at the Messak Mellet plateau in Libya, some 700 kilometres to the North-west.
The bulk of the Gonoa engravings (Area II.) are along a 300 metre stretch of low ignimbrite cliffs at the Eastern side of the valley. The most well known figure is the "man of Gonoa", a large, larger than life-size masked but otherwise naked male figure holding a club or some other object, without any clear analogies either in the Tibesti region or elsewhere in the Sahara. It is surrounded by a multitude of other engravings of giraffe, elephants, rhinoceros and numerous panels of cattle. It is curious that aside the large male figure, humans are conspiciously absent from most of the panels except for a few small and insignificant figures associated with cattle.
Area I. is a couple of hundred metres ustream from the end of Area II. on the far bank, in a similar setting along and underneath low cliffs. While there are fewer panels, there are some very fine figures, including a very large and complex panel dominated by a pair of large elephants.
Area III. is opposite Area II. on the West bank. It only has a few engravings up along the cliff face, but among them the finest panel of elephants at the locality, with decorated ears very similar to hose at In Habeter / Malthendous in the Messak.
It was approaching sunset by the time we finished with all the panels. As the vicinity of the rock art sites do not offer any good camping ground, we moved a few kilometres upstream to the junction of the Enneri Gira-Gira, with many trees and good sand spots for the tents. Jonathan and the Hajji started preparations for dinner - we were having some goat stew that night, prepared from dried strips of meat. The technique of tenderizing the stone-hard meat was very simple, only required a large hammer and a stoe. Despite our initial misgivings, the meal turned out to be good, with the meat soft and tender despite a surprisingly short cooking time.
Day 8. – Gonoa - Bardai - Enneri Zoumeri
The old mined track to Bardai passed just behind the last engravings at Area I, the new one was very close to our campsite, continuing in the Enneri Gira-Gira. The rock art sites of Gira-Gira were just a kilometre away in two clusters. They are very similar to the ones at Gonoa, of which really they are just an extension, despite being listed as a separate locality in all literature. The same scenes of elephant, giraffe and cattle appear as at all the other sites in the Western Tibesti region.
As we were a bit saturated with crude engravings of cattle from the previous day, we did not linger but continued along the track towards Bardai, only 10 kilometres away. In about half an hour we reached the Enneri Bardagé, with dense Palmeries along its bed, surrounding the town which is built in a large basin surrounded bu jagged sandstone hills on all sides. Like at other towns, we first went to the Préfecture to check-in with the military authorities, which all went quickly and in good spirits. However one may assume that this cannot be taken for granted - Andrea was very tense throughout our stop there, smokng one cigarette after another while Hajji Senoussi did the talking inside the building.
After formalities were over we went to the main square of the town to see if we could find anything useful to top up our supplies with. Most stores were closed, the few that were open had very little to offer. Fresh produce (including bread) was completely absent, there was hardly anything worth buying. Even the well where we intended to fill our water cannisters was broken.
At one store we had an interesting episode. While most Tibus dislike being photographed, and women almost universally turned away on seeing a camera, the lady at the only open store on the square boldly approached us, and asked if I would take a photo of her and Magdi with her mobile phone. Afterwards she even consented to being photographed with my own camera, a unique experience on the three week trip.
We moved to another area of the town, to the main "shopping street". A few more stores were open, but again there was no fresh produce to buy apart from a few withered onions. In one store we discovered two rather battered one litre bottles of bitter sode - the entire stock in town - a most valuable addition to our dwindling supplies.
It quickly became apparent that there is nothing much available in the town that we could use, so we went to another public well to fill our water cannisters before departing. Soon the children from the surrounding houses started converging, timidly at first but soon curiosity took over, but never in a disturbing way. Throughout the trip we experienced genuine curiosity and interest from the majority of locals, but always in a reserved way. A small minority even requested to be photographed. One can only hope that as tourism picks up it will remain like this.
Unfortunately the very interesting engravings at Bardai were inaccessible due to the threat of mines in their vicinity, so we contnued on our way eastwards up the Enneri Zoumeri (as the Enneri Bardagé is called upstream from Bardai). As we exited the town, we passed the only construction that reminded one of the modern world, a cellhone tower (even our phones worked there). The little mosque and the rest of the town probably changed very little in the past 50 years of almost continuous unrest, war and rebellion.
After Bardai we left the volcanic region of the Tibesti for a while. The Enneri Zoumeri crosses a region of palaeozoic sandstones that underlie the volcanic deposits elsewhere, in a landscape that much resembles the sandstone plateaux of the central Sahara, with eroded spires, rock towers and narrow valleys. It was a very scenic route, completely different from the landscapes we have crossed in the previous days.
We stopped for our lunch break at a point in the valley about 25 kilometres East of Bardai, next to a large panel of engravings which were known to Andrea and Hajji Senoussi since the mid-nineties, but to my knowledge have never been published anywhere. They are predominantly depicting cattle, with some later camel period engravings. The spot was undoubtedly chosen for the same reason we stopped for our lunch - the towering rock spire above casts a good shadow at midday which reaches the sandy bed of the valley, a perfect resting place.
There was another panel of engravings at the far bank, which depicted aside the usual assortment of cattle a number of engraved handprints, a rather rare theme among Saharan petroglyphs.
There was fairly dense green vegetation in the riverbed, mostly Tamarisks, bright green Salvadore persica bushes, and the omnipresent Calotropis procera with their pretty purple flowers and milky toxic sap. At one point we found a pair of young Cistanche phelypaea, a parasitic plant with very pretty yellow flowers, growing from the roots of the nearby Tamarisk.
In a side valley I spotted a largish shelter in the side of some sandstone columns about a kilometre away, which looked like a good canddate for some more rock art. With no rush to continue, I could walk up to it to check it out, and was not too surprised to see a number of red blobs of paint already visible from the foot of the slope leading up to the shelter. There were several groups of red and yellow cattle painted on the slanting ceiling, accompanied by a few human figures. The style of the cattle resembled those in the well known major shelters of Fofoda and Karnasahi in the Ouri basin of the Eastern Tibesti. This was a major new find, no paintings have ever been reported from the central part of the Tibesti.
We cntinued upstream in the Enneri Zoumeri, on ocasion stopping to check out suitable looking shelters and rock faces. At one bend of the river we did find a shelter with some cattle engravings on the outside, and some indecypherable traces of red paint (probably cattle) on the ceiling of the shelter. I'm sure a good systematic search of the sandstone country on both sides of the Enneri would yield many more new sites.
After a few more kilometres we exited the sandstne country, and reached a fairly featureless flat volcanic country with low hillocks, cut by the broad and sandy riverbed. The low dome of the Tarso Toon appeared straight ahead, in the perfect light of the low afternoon sun. We were aiming for the village of Zoumeri, where we had to check-in before continuing to a suitable campsite.
The village now called Zoumeri (after the valley, on the IGN maps it is marked Ouonofo) was the neatest settlement we have seen so far, with a noticable lack of any rubbish about. It had well built houses, some with low stone walls covered by matting held in place with a framework made of ralm-leaf stems, the traditional construction style of the central Tibesti.
As we left the villlage in the direction of Tarso Toon, we passed a spot where the river created a perfect geological section of the cake-like layers of volcanic tephra, ignimbrite and ash deposits, capped by a layer of black basalt, a perfect record of the eruption histories of the nearby volcanoes.
We continued for another five kilometres in the riverbed filled with black volcanic sand (passing a number of marked-off mine fields), to a point where a grove of trees in a bend offered a good camping spot fr the night, with a perfect view of Tarso Toon in the light of the setting sun.
Day 9. – Zoumeri - Yebbi Bou
We strted packing our camp at sunrise, with the low sun casting a very pronounced shadow over the Tarso Toon before appearing over the low hills. This day we were planning for a long all-day drive on dismal tracks around the mountain, crossing the ancient volcanic heartland of the Tibesti.
The track left the riverbed (with good going in the sandy bottom) near our campsite, and from hereon we were driving on the rocky surface of a rough dissected basalt plateau, making a wide loop around the Tarso Toon. several wrecked vehicles along the trail were a constant reminder that the mines were only cleared from this route two years ago.
As we progressed, the terrain became increasingly more uneven. We were no longer following watercourses, but were cutting accross the terrain at points of least resistance, crossing gullies and steep ridges. We were apparently following an old camel trail, as the tracks gouged out by the passing animals, possibly over hundreds of years, were still visible in many places along the track.
It is impossible to describe the quality of the "road", but this short video clip will give a good general idea of the better parts (where I could hold the camera instead of holding on...):
At one point we made a little detour to visit a small spring a few hundred metres off the road. Water was seeping from the joint between the capping basalt and the underlying older volcanic rocks, and collected in a small pool. Judging from the numerous footprints it was one of the regular watering places for the gazelle and barbary sheep which inhabit the mountains.
After a good hour of bumping along, making perhaps 10-15 kilometres in the process, we reached a riverbed where the going became better. Now we were inside what was formerly the Aozou strip, a narow belt of 150-120 kilometres south of the present day Libya - Chad border, which Libya claimed in the nineteen eighties based on a never ratified 1935 treaty between Italy and France. We passed a number of hills made up of well exposed columnar basalt - ancient volcanic vents from the first stage of the Tibesti volcanism.
Soon the track left the nice going in the valley, and climbed to another rugged volcanic plateau, with the going possibly even worse than on the previous stretch. In all fairness, this bleak black rocky landscape offered little attractiveness, especially in the harsh light of the midday sun. Again, videos provide a better impression than still photos.
After another hour of shaking along on the badlands, we finally reached the Enneri Yebigé, the large watercourse draining northwards, with the oases of Yebi Souma and Yebbi Bou further upstream. The track dodged between the sandy riverbed and the terraces, where uncleared minefields blocked the good going. Nearing Yebi Souma the track followed a side valley rather than the main watercourse. In one large bend of the valley, we stopped by a rather depleted dry tree trunk to gather some firewood. It was here that I first recognised what our axe was made of - a piece of broken truck leaf spring (the best quality steel readily available) hammered to a neat cutting edge, with the other end curled to fit on to an aluminium stalk. Some years ago I have found an identical axe at Uweinat, probably dating to the nineteen thirtes.
As we continued south the ground was gently rising. We returned to the maun valley of the Enneri Yebigé, which here broke through the caping basalt layers, and formed a deep gorge in the underlying softer rocks. There were bright green palmeries along the valley bottom, a stark contrast to the black moonscape above. The the track continued to make occasional dips into the valley at shallower parts, but mostly it contunued on the flat basalt plateau along the edge of the canyon.
At one point we stopped and walked up to the edge of the canyon to peek inside. The view opened up to receal a large basin, invisible from the track a mere hundred metres away, with a picturesque oasis filling the bottom. This was Yebi Souma, the smaller of the two principal villages along the valley. It is supported by a row of permanent gueltas in the watercourse. The old village next to the palmeries is no longer permanently innhabited (except during date harvest), the people moved up the plateau to be closer to the motor track and also to avoid the mosquitoes infesting the valley below.
We had our lunch-break here, in the shade of the cars, while Andrea and Hajji Senoussi went into the modern village to check-in at the sous-préfecture and forage for some supplies. We continued on our way once they returned, passing the village which looked very different from the ones we have seen before. Instead of the flimsy palm stem and matting huts, here there were well-built round houses with walls made of mud-consolidated rock, covered with a palm-leaf dome. The village presented a very neat, attractive appearance, clearly the inhabitants cared about their surroundings.
As we continued towards Yebbi Bou following the Enneri Yebigé, we passed shot-up or mine wrecked vehicles and makeshift defensive positions almost continuously along the track. We had to make several detours around marked mine fields at most places where the route passed a narrow gap or crossed the streambed. As this route is one of only three passable for larger vehicles towards the North, it was a very contested area both durng the Libyan wars but also during the Tibesti rebellion, with Yebbi Bou remaining the only government controlled village in the entire area.
We reached Yebbi Bou mid afternoon. This village too consists of two parts, the older village being at the bottom of the watercourse of a joining valley. Here the old part is still inhabited, with a very neat appearance among scattered acacia trees along the main watercourse under a range of low hills bordering the valey.
The modern village is about two kilometres further, high on a terrace above the main valley of the Enneri Yebigé. This was the first (and only) place along our entire journey where Andrea and the Hajji felt comfortable with us wandering about the village and taking photos while they were attending the official duties. Certainly this was the most pleasant settlement we have encountered, with neat houses, clean and well laid out streets and curious but polite children following us about. The adults of the village went abot their chores, appearing not to take notice of our presence.
Our target was to reach Yebbi Bou bi nightfall, but we still had a good two hours of sunlight left, so we moved out of the village to make camp in a more secluded spot. As we rounded the hill behind Yebbi Bou, we caught our first glimpse of the Tarso Tieroko ahead, the last of the large eroding central Tibesti volcanoes. The way out of Yebbi Bou was a novel experience - instead of the dismal track, we were now driving on a properly built road, with little concrete bridges over each of the larger water courses. It was built in the past year, when Andrea passed here the previous season it was the same bad piste like all other routes we encountered.
We found a nice camping spot in a shallow wadi with many acacia trees a short distance from the road, overlooking the plains at the foot of the Tarso Tieroko. There were a few stone circles in the vicinity, but they all appeared to be fairly recent. In fact prehistoric remains were curiously absent in the vicinity of all our camp sites. While in most of the Sahara one finds palaeolithic artifacts almost anywhere, I have not seen any on the surface in the Tibesti. Quite possibly the still active volcanoes either kept animals and people away, or have covered any remains with fresh layers of ash and pumice.
We had a special treat for this night - in Yebi Souma Andrea managed to purchase a goat, which was swiftly disassembled at the camp kitchen, half of it going into a very good stew (very much welcomed by the meat-deprived carnivores of our group), while the other half was kept for the next dinner.
Day 10. – Yebbi Souma - Bini Erde
It was a beautiful cirsp morning, with a perfect view over Tarso Tieroko from our campsite. We had an almost-adventure during the night - our tent was pitched the farthest from the cars, and sometime in the small hours I was awoken to the distinct sound of twighs breaking nearby, interrupted by snorts and stoming. Hoping to catch a glimpse of some barbary sheep, I very quietly unzipped the tent and shined my torch in the direction of the noise at the nearby tree, only to find a herd of donkeys feeding on the cut acacia branches which were placed there by their owners for this purpose. On seeng the light they bolted, leaving the rest of the night for quiet sleep.
This day was to be another full day drive along the track that will lead us out of the central volcanic plateau, passing Tarso Teroko, to the edge of the eroded sandstone country. We were hoping to reach the oasis of Bini Erde in the Enneri Miski by the evening. We started out crossing the plain at the eastern foot of Tarso tieroko in the beautiful low early morning light.
On the plain we encountered several gazelle, some close enough to the road to attempt a quick snapshot from the moving car (usually without success, the photo below is the best of many). After the plain we ascended the watershed just east ot Tarso Tieroko at 1728 metres, between the Northern and Southern parts of the Tibesti.
After the imperceptible col the track began a steady descent towards Bini Erde along a series of wide valleys filled with dark volcanic sand and boulders to the south east of Tars Tieroko. From this directon there was a good view inside the eroded remnants of the summit caldera of this ancient volcano.
By mid-morning we have reached the edge of the volcanic region, and returned to the land of sandstone spires. As we passed down a valley we saw several shelters which warranted attenton. The first were empty, but we soon found a panel of engraved cattle (among some modern graffiti) on a vertical rock face. Nearby there was a large shelter, which did contain some fairly large traces of red pigment, but even with dStretch it is impossible to make out the original subjects, other than ascertaining that these are indeed remains of paintings.
We exited the sandstone area in a narrow canyon, the walls of which were filled with modern grafitti, but no ancient ones, even though it must have been a major throughfare in ancient times as it is today. We passed some imposing eroded sandstone cliffs, and reached the level of precambrian tilted schists which form the basement of the Tibesti. These are some of the most ancient non igneous rocks of Africa, having formed when smaller continental blocks collided to form the Gondwana continent (comparative rocks exist in Namibia around the Brandberg mountain). They were covered under masses of terrestial sandstones accross most of the present-day Sahara in the Ordovican when this area was lying close to the geographical South Pole, the only large exposures are here in the Tibesti where the uplift associated with the volcanism permitted the overlying rocks to be weathered away.
The new road from Yebbi Bou made a huge difference in our progress. We were planning a whole day to reach Bini Erde, but by late morning we have reached the Enneri Miski, the broad sand-filled valley running between the eastern and western parts of the Tibesti, with the row of eroded volcanic plugs to our left, behind which we caught our first glimpse of Emi koussi, appearing to be a rather unimpressive low mound from a distance (about 80 kilometres at this point).
We reached the oasis and village of Bini Erde soon after midday. Like in all villages, we first went to the sous-préfecture, which here was the most non-descript building we have encountered so far, a mere hut of twigs and branches, with a well-drilling rig nearby. After the necessary formalities we moved on to a secluded part of the oasis near some dunes to have our lunch break.
After lunch we went to a nearby fenced-off vegetable garden sustaned by its own well with a diesel pump, the only signs of any attempt at agricultre we have encountered in the entire Tibesti. With the Tibu way of life entirely dependent on dates, goats and camels, there is no incentive to grow anything, which clearly showed in the lack of any fresh produce at the markets of either Zouar or Bardai. This garden at Bini Erde was set up as an example to be followed the year before, but it was in a very sorry state. The only things available were some tomatoes (mostly rotting on the vine), a few onions and a generous supply of pumpkins (which apparently could get by without much tending).
After filling our water cannisters at the pump-fed well, we drove to the southern part of the village to pick up a relative of the local governor we were asked to take to Tirgui, our next stop after Bini Erde. We did not know at this stage, but the quiet and polite man turned out to be a huge asset later on. We did notice however that the Hajji was greeted in the village with much enthusiasm and respect by everyone.
At Bini Erde the broad valley of the Enneri Miski is blocked by a lava flow from one of the formerly active volcanoes along the eastern crest of the Tibesti North of Emi Koussi. This blockage forced the watercourse to divert to the west accross the low plateau of hard precambrian rocks. The track south however cimbs the low basalt plateau and crosses it to the far side, where large sandstone hills and wide sandy plains offer a much better going.
We continued for another ten kilometres among the sandstone hills, then we started searching for a good camping spot as the terrain was to turn grey and rocky again ahead. We found a short wadi leading into the low hills with some trees and perfect soft sand, and ideal place to stop early, pitch tents and just wander about for the remaining hour and a half till sunset.
We still had the choice parts of the goat from Yebi Souma, Jonathan immediately set about to prepare his kitchen and make a perfect barbecue for that evening, while we gathered for the evening bar, watching the sun set over the far horizon
To be continued...
Day 11. – Bini Erde - Tirgui
In the morning we continued along the Enneri Miski towards the south. Emi Koussi appeared much closer now, but it was a very hazy day (the fist we encountered on this trip so far) so only the faint outlines were visible. We saw a number of gazelle in the vegetation along the main watercourse, usually bolting at the first sight of the cars, only one stayed still long enough to manage a quick photo.
Our first target for the day was the very interesting rock art site of Kla Uenama, which required a little detour from the main track. It is a large hollwo that does not really qualify as a shelter well above ground level in the side of a small rocky hill, dispersed among a number of similar looking ones along the foothills of the western sde of Emi Koussi. It is hidden from the direcion of the plain and quite difficult to find, yet it was already known to Paul Huard in the nineteen fifties, the only reported ste along the western edge of the Tibesti for a long time. There are a few common engravings of giraffe and cattle around the base of the shelter, but the main interest is a very strange painting of a complex zoomorph high up on the shelter wall.
This painting is one of the fery few in the Tibesti which appears to be older than the cattle pastoralist paintings. On the spot it is really hard to make out, as it is a good 2 metres above the closest accesible point. It is best photographed with a telephoto lens from the more gently sloping far side of the hollow. On first look it appears to be an animal with a strange double neck, one with a horned antelope head, and another ending in a double bulb. With our digital photographs (to my knowledge the first ever taken in this shelter) and the help of dStretch it is now possible to make a bit more sense out of this scene: It appears to be a large long necked antelope, with an almost identical smaller mirror-image animal displayed inside its belly. The secong "neck" is in fact the front leg, and what on first look are the front legs are in fact a separate figure, perhaps human.
To my knowlegde there is no ready analogy for this scene elsewhere in the Tibesti. The only one that comes to mind is the strange hippo-like creature most likely dating from the "Roundhead" period of the Tassili N'Ajjer at Sefar, with a cruder image of itself indide the outer contours.
There is another painting in the shelter, an animal appearing to be an oryx (or perhaps cattle ?) executed in simple red outline. We made a brief survey of the surounding similar hillocks, but found no more paintings or engravings in the immediate area.
As we continued south, we passed a large sandstone outlier adjacent to a large watercourse descending from the flanks of Emi Koussi. At one point we noticed a very large shelter in the side of the rock. Not pressed for time, we could approach to investigate, and found many traces of recent habitation inside. On the rear wall there was an indiscernible pattern of red painted dots, even with dStretch it is not possible to make much sense of them, possibly it appears to be an anibal figure with a red dotted infill. However we discovered a very interesting panel of engravings on the right wall at the entrance. It is a number of cattle, what makes them special is the fact that they are all executed in raised relief, something quite unique among the prehistoric cattle pastoralist engravings of the Sahara
We crossed the valley and turned towards the sandstone cliffs along the western edge of Emi Koussi, which was almost invisible by now in the haze. After crossing a sandy plain we approached the small and seemingly abandoned village of Onnour. we came here to inquire about our camels for the trek up Emi Koussi, which were supposed to meet us at Tirgui some 20 kilometres further south. As we arrived, an older man emerged from one of the huts, and soon the Hajji returned with the good news that our camels have indeed departed the previous afternoon, and should be awaiting us at the agreed rendez-vous point. With the nearby well we took on some water before continuing to our Tirgui campsite.
We reached the enormous sandstone towers of Tirgui by midday, well ahead of our planned schedule. These rocks offer the most spectacular scenery anywhere in the Tibesti foothills - the eroded remnants of the palaeozoic sandstone plateau which underlies the volcanoes everywher. It was rather hot - we have descended to an altitude only 750 metres below sea level, a good thousand metres lower than our camp of two days before. We took our lunch and a good long rest in the shade of the towers, everyone enjoying not having to move on and allowed to be lazy for a change.
Once the midday heat was over, we started to explore the surroundings, having the entire afternoon free. There were several panels of engravings very close to our lunch spot and campste, mostly cattle with a few crude giraffe and some camels.
The most spectacular of the Tirgui engravings is a huge elephant, nearly 3 metres wide, engraved on a flat panel of rock on the rear of the conspicious detached sandstone spire. There is a shelter on the other side of the rock tower with another smaller elephant and some fine giraffe nearby. We also explored the other rocky hills near the campsite, but only found some very weathered and insignificant sites, despite some very good shelters.
As sunset approached, the contours of Emi Koussi started to become more pronounced, and by dusk it appeared distinct and much closer than any time during the day. While we were away visiting the engravings the camel owners paid a visit announcing ther presence, so we prepared our camp and started to sort our supplies in preparation for the trek up the mountain.
Day 12. – Tirgui Cocoïna - Ourti
We had a picture-book sunrise as we started to pack our cam in preparation for the arriving camels. The plan was that four of us with Hajji Senoussi and Jonathan will make the ascent, while Brenda and Raymond will take the cars with Andrea and the two drivers in a swing around the mountain to the small oasis and springs of Yi Yerra, where we shall be descending in six days time, spending some time visiting the rock art sites and sandstone country of Northern Borku along the way. We split our stores and prepared our packs, then paitently waited for the camels to arrive. We were advised by Andrea that the arrival, discussions and loading might take anywhere from a couple of hours to the whole morning, this was factored in to our plans.
An hour after sunrise two men walked into camp, and the usual endless greetings ensued. After some time they were joined by another man and a youg boy, with another round of greetings. Hajji Senoussi was doing all the talking, we were asked to stay aside, even Andrea was left outside the conversation. Then one of the newcomers left, soon followed by another one, while a new arrival entered the circle. This went on for some time, with some leaving and new ones arriving. All appeared rather jolly, but after two hours of this we could sense from Andrea's body language that something was not quite right. Finally Andrea walked up to me and confided the situation - the owners of the camels were asking for more than double the pre-agreed price, which itself was more than double the previous year's (and about five times the customary daily rate for camels in the area), and did not budge to any reasoning.
It was a tough call. Very clearly this was a coordinated attempt by the villagers to take advantage of the situation, as the ascent from the western side of Emi Koussi was contrlled by the people of Tirgui, and we could not go without agreeing to their terms. While the actual amount asked, extortive as it was by local standards, would have been easily within our means, clearly any acceptance of these terms would have meant the doubling of this rate for the next time, and so on without end. We held council to discuss our options, which ranged from giving up the ascent of Emi Koussi (something we were not prepared to do) to accepting the terms. In the end we decided to call their bluff and reject the terms, and go to the well to take water which we needed to do anyway, visit the nearby rock art site of Tirgui Cocoïna, and see afterwards if the camel owners would change their position. If not, we had a back-up plan: to go to Yi Yerra and try to get camels for the ascent there. We could do this as we were a day ahead of schedule, and the combined ascent/descent from the southern direction is a day shorter. This is where the quiet relative of the Governor of Bini Erde turned out to be an invaluable asset. He quietly watched the unfolding of the situation, and when we made our decision he revealed that he was in fact from the Yi Yerra region, and he can surely find us camels there for the original price. With this information our spirits raised, and we set out to the guelta a few kilometres away to fill our empty water cannisters with the rather murky water.
Tirgui Cocoïna, the principal rock paintings site to be seen on our trip, was about one hour’s walk from where the cars could stop near the guelta, near the camel path leading to the summit of Emi Koussi (we wera planning to see it at the start of our ascent). It is a very large shelter, apparently eroded by wind and water along a joint in the sandstone layers, a perfect habitation site even to this present day, as attested by a number of Tibu utensils stored at the rear of the shelter.
The paintings are concentrated along the lower left wall of the shelter for a stretch of about 10 metres. There are scenes from practically all of the rock art periods of the Tibesti, with the oldest layer depicting giraffe and their hunters, superimposed by numerous cattle of the pastoral period, followed by people holding metal-tipped spears of the historic period, with the latest layer depicting camels and their riders (however even these may easily be over a thousand years old).
The groups of giraffe and the apparently asociated human figures are the oldest recognisable scenes in the shelter (though there are a few older indiscernible paintings under some of the giraffe). The humans are all male, depicted in a dynamic pose with long limbs and animal-like heads. A few of them are underneath the gireffe, but the majority are above, however their style also seems to suggest contemporarity. They do not appear to hunt the animals, and several are painted separate from the animals. They seem to be holding a club or axe rather than the expected bows. The few human figures shooting arrows from bows at the animals seem to be a later addition, from the cattle pastoral period.
The pastoralist paintings are in several styles, ranging from the delicate to the rather crude, with goats as well as cattle depicted. It is quite hard to discern which of the many human figures are associated with the cattle, possibly even some of the figures with metal-tipped spears could be a part of the pastoral scenes.
Some of the most curious paintings are at bottom right. They are patches of white paint, initially one only recognises a series of spear heads, but on close scrutiny it becomes apparent that these remnants were once a number of human figures with elaborate headdresses, some holding spears (and on occasion shields), some bows. There are a couple of figures on a larger scale, some of them with remaining red body decoration. It is unclear what colour was used for the bodies, possibly charcoal as they have all disappeared despite these paintings being the youngest in the shelter (other than some of the camel depictions), leaving behind only the enigmatic white traces.
We returned to the cars near the guelta fr lunch. As Jonathan prepared the meal, one of the drivers caught a spiny-tailed lizard (Uromastyx geyri) among the rocks. This creature was luckier than the one caught by Ahmed on our very first Tassili N'Ajjrer trip - instead of becoming a part of the lunch menu it was let loose among the shrubs after a serious photography session.
After lunch we went back to the few houses composing the village about half-way between the guelta and our campsite. The Hajji and the Governor's relative went to plead for one last time with the camel owners, but they showed the un-reasoning stubbornness which is often displayed by the Tibu, particularly in this region. With our mindset it is hard to understand their thinking, leaving no room for negotiation from their starting position. All they achieved was that we went elsewhere with our business, but not only us but several other parties to follow, and their village was left with nothing. This was the only unpleasant experience we had along the trip with both the land and its people.
Seeing that we are not going to get any camels here, we swiftly set about to implement our Plan B. We started on the track leading south past the rock towers of Tirgui, to make a wide arc around the huge Emi Kussi volvano to the valley of Yi Yerra, at about the five o'clock position at the South-eastern side of the mountain. Despite the straight line distance being only 45 kilometres, we needed to drive around 120 to reach the end of the road at Yi Yerra.
Initially it was good going on hard sand, but after only a few kilometres we reached an area where the track continued on the uneven surface of the exposed bedrock. We had to go at a snail's pace, sometimes walking ahead was actually faster than the speed of the vehicles. After what seemed an eternity (only half an hour) we crossed the few hundred metre stretch, and continued in the bed of another watercourse, passing a huge cathedral-like rock formation, one of the most spectacular landscapes during our trip.
The track continued like this for another ten kilometres, alternating between dismal going on exposed rock and accetable going along stretches of gravel and sand. We were roundng a tongue of lava that flowed from the summit crater of Emi Koussi during a long-ago eruption all the way to the flat plain, 45 kilometres away (the most distant-reaching lava flow of the mountain).
As we progressed, a dark shadow overtook us approaching from the North-west, and by the time it was approaching sunset it was thickly overcast, a strange sensation after the bright sunny days so far along the trip. We reached a broad valley flanked by large rocky hills and golden dunes, the beginning of the Ourti region of Borku (we were technically outside the Tibesti), appearing to be an ideal camping spot. However on getting out of the cars we felt that the clouds also brought about a strong wind which picked up the sand. There was no sheltered position, so we made camp at the foot of one of the huge trailing dunes. Fortunately as evening came the wind died, and we had a wonderful spactacle as the sun and clouds played with the fading light accross the surrounding landscape.
Day 13. – Ourti - Yi Yerra
The dark clouds did bring a few raindrops overnight, landing on the tent canvas with distinct pops. However the next day started with a beautiful crisp clear morning. The clouds and the wind of the previous afternoon were gone without trace.
From our campsite we turned East again, at frst making good progress on broad sand and gravel plains. Finally we had our first good view of Emi Kouss, clearly visible as the wind of the day before cleared out the haze. At this point we were more than 50 kilometres away from the edge of the summit caldera.
We saw numerous gazelle along the track, usually in pairs but sometimes in larger groups. They appeared less nervous than the ones we saw in the central Tibesti, but they always kept their distance so all I could achieve was photos of gazelle posteriors.
The good going soon came to the end, we again had to cross several parts of very bad rocky ground, where the cars could only move at a walking pace. This was followed by a series of valleys filled with very soft sand and the occasional dune, but t make things worse intermingled with patches of bad rocky ground. On this terrain it is impossible to get the tyre pressure right (unless stopping every other minute to deflate/inflate). Andrea decided to keep the tires hard to protect them against the stones, which naturally resulted in several cars beconing stuck at softer spots. While none were really bad, we did spend some time continuously freeing them.
As we were having fun in the sandy valleys, the weather changed almost imperceptibly, we only realized after a while that the sky was no longer blue but white. In the narrow confines of the valley we have not noticed that visibility also dropped, once reaching open ground we no longer saw Emi Koussi and even nearer hills were hazy. A strong wind brought in a cloud of dust from the East, which became thicker as the day progressed.
We were aiming for a small village about half-way along our route where we hoped to find camels, but also there was a well from which we could take good water, much better than the murky one from the Tirgui guelta. The village was occupied by a single family, and we soon received the good news that a few days ago all the camels were taken to Yi Yerra for pasturage and watering. This was a considerable spell of luck, as this meant there should be no delays caused by finding the camels and waiting for them to reach our starting point. We went to the well which was again in a valley filled with soft sand, filled our empty cannisters and continued towards Yi Yerra.
By midday the wind turned into a howling gale, and we were in the middle of a full fledged dust storm, with visibility dropping to a few kilometres. We no longer saw anything of the surrounding country, just followed the track. At lunchtime we stopped in the lee of a low conical sandstone hill which had a shelter running around its base. The lee side offered some protection from the wind and the blowing sand. On the other side we found a few engravings of cattle and ostrich (something not seen elsewhere), but did not linger too long as they were fully exposed to the stinging sand grains. At one point along the ceiling of the shelter I found what appeared to be some very faint paintings - dStretch did reveal them to be a group of cattle.
We continued in the dust storm towards the valley of Yi Yerra, passing a number of sandstone hills along the way. We finally reached a valley with a rocky bottom, and turned upstream towards the mountain presumably somewhere ahead of us, completely invisible. We startled a herd of feral donkeys along the way, but apart of these we saw no other beast or human.
We bumped along the bottom of the rocky valley for a good two hours until we met the first grazing camels, indicating that their owners cannot be far. After another couple of bends we have come upon an astonishing scene which could easily have been transplanted to prehistory thousands of years ago: the cameliers have used a shelter along the banks of the watercouse as a protection against the blowing dust, hanging their posessions from the ceiling in the same manner as can bee seen on some of the paintings. Both the relative of the Governor and Hajji Senoussi were greeted enthusiasticly, very clearly the meeting and the subsequent discussions were heading in the right direction. Hajji Senoussi soon returned with a broad smile assuring us that all is well, we will be able to depart with the camels the next morning.
We moved a kilometre downstream where a sandy patch at the foot of a vertical cliff offered shelter from the wind and a reasonably good camping spot. The sun was a pale white disc which barely penetratd the thick haze - we could just about make out the outlines of the conspicious hill adjacent to the litte Yi Yera oasis, a mere four kilometres away.
A little upstream from camp Gábor made an interesting discovery. The cliff beside camp was not made of the usual massive terrestrial sandstones, but of thin alternating layers of harder and softer siltstones dipping to the south. Few hundred metres upstream from from camp, where one garder layer reached the level of the valey floor, he came upon several large slabs with trace fossils, some of them the unmistakable Arthropycus (Harlania) from the late Ordvican or Silurian. We have encountered the same type of fossils at Jebel Uweinat in deposits just above the precambrian basement.
As we returned to camp, I took some phots of the setting sun, white and very pale in the obscuring haze. The dust proved to be such an effective filter, that it was possible to discern some spots on the disc of the sun. Looking at the enlarged photos, they turned out to be major sunspots, the first time I have managed to observe this phenomenon with a naked eye (for comparison, the same sunspots (AR1967) photographed by the NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory on the 2nd February).
Day 14 – Ascent of Emi Koussi from Yi Yerra
By morning the dust storm and the associated wind has subsded, though there was still plenty of suspended dust in the air. We drove to the end of the driveable section of the valley, past the now empty campsite of our cameliers, till the point where the valley became a narrow gorge. Our camels must have taken a different route as we did not pass them, but they appeared soon after we have unloaded our gear from the cars.
We watched with some apprehension as the loading process started, well aware of the rather bad reputation of camels for their temper (this in fact was the very first time we have made any journey in the Sahara or elsewhere with camels). However these creatures looked rather docile, and the loading process was very fast and efficient, with none of the yelling and comotion one has become accustomed to elsewhere. In 30 minutes all the camels were loeded and ready to go. It also emerged that the large grey female and her young does not belong to our party, they will just be led up to the well at Yi Yerra for watering. We had five camels, accopmanied by their two owners, plus the relative of the Bini Erde governor who continued to accompany us, Hajji Senoussi and Jonathan with his big boxes of supplies.
Brenda and Raymond were to make a three day trip with Andrea and the cars to the oasis of Gouro east of Emi Koussi, while we were to go up and down the mountain, but before starting Brenda and Andea were to accompany us till Yi Yerra, about an hour's walk from the cars. We all started out along the bottom of the narrow gorge, the camels quickly passing us on their familiar ground. The bottom of the canyon appeared like a page from a classic geology textbook, with contorted layers of ancient Palaeozoic (probably Ordovican) rocks overlain by a younger set of horizontally bedded sandstones - the remains of an ancient eroded mountain range that was covered by later deposits, before all these layers were covered by the lavas and tuffs of Emi Koussi.
After about a kilometre and a half along the canyon botom, we reached a steep path that was leading up in a zigzag along the valley side to the flat terrace some hundred metres above. Our camels were already more than half-way up the pass, and soon reached the flat plateau as we struggled up the narrow path full of pebbles rolling under our feet. As we climbed, we coud see that there was a chain of shallow pools along the bottom of the canyon.
Once we reached the terrace above the canyon the going became easy, and in a short time we covered the remaining distance to the tiny oasis, hidden in the valley below, only visible when one reaches a ridge a few hundred metres away. At Yi Yerra there is a small village of about 3-4 houses, with perhaps a dozen people living there.
The oasis is centered on a hot spring which emerges at the junction of the volcanic layers and the hard impermeable sandstone. The spring forms a little natural pool a couple of metres accross, with the rocks thickly covered with algae, but the water perfectly clear. We first filled our own jerrycans, then the unloaded camels were led to the pool for watering. They all drank 5-6 bucketfuls, emptying the contents of the good 10 litre bucket in a single gulp.
As soon as the camels were watered, they were laden again, and we were ready to set out, this time on the climb proper towards the summit of Emi Koussi. We said good-bye to Brenda and Andrea, who was very visibly relieved to see us finally on our way - the events of the past days following the failed negotation at Tirgui were rather stressful. While the camels took a more circuitous route on a shallower gradient, we took a steep narrow path that led us to the volcanic plateau high above the oasis. As we reached the top, our camels passed by on a lower level below us, a good quarter of an hour after us. The summit of Emi Koussi was supposedly right ahead about 20 kilometres away, but due to the lingering haze of the dust storm of the day before, it was invisible.
We trudged along on this fairly featureless lava plain, littered with rocks and boulders, following an evidently well trodden path meticulously cleared of rocks and pebbles. It was very easy going, with the gradient being so gentle that we hardly noticed that we were going uphill, except when looking back and seeing the top of the hill beside Yi Yerra slowly sink to be on level with us, then disappear altogether after continuing for a couple of hours.
Early afternoon we stopped for a short rest in a shallow wadi, where the camels could find a little grazing. They were quickly offloaded and wandered off merrily to munch at the few thorny shrubs while we too had a quick lunch.
As we continued in the afternoon, the constant cloudy haze turned markedly darker, and unexpectedly large drops of rain started faling, giving off sharp cracks as they hit the ground, so loud that at first we mistook it for hail. Soon the ground was speckled with dark water stains, but the phenomenon lasted less than a minute, and within another minute all the water stains evaporated without leaving a trace.
We continued in the same manner along the track all afternoon without any stopping, matching the slow but steady pace of the camels. Now I understood Andrea's comment that the time needed to go up (and come down) is not determined by our abilities but that of the camels. They were walking at about 2-2.5 kilometres an hour, not very fast but this is something they can keep up for a long time with a heavy load - our task was immensely easier carrying practically empty rucksacks. As we progressed, the haze started clearing (or perhaps we got closer) and the enormous mass of Emi Koussi started to appear ahead. We were still on the gentle rise of the flat flanks, one could appreciate that the real gain in altitude was to come when approaching the caldera rim.
About half an hour before sunset we reached a valley with several trees, and a row of stone huts on the adjacent terrace - our first campsite. We have covered 12.5 kilometres as the crow flies from the car stop (much more along the winding path), and imperceptively have gained 700 metres in altitude - our camp was at about 1600 metres.
As we pitched our tents or claimed a hut, the unladen camels merrily dsappeared among the trees to munch on the green leaves of the acacias, apparently unbothered by the long sharp thorns, while we had our evening bar in the light of the sunset.
Day 15 – Ascent of Emi Koussi
We had a lovely crisp morning, with the summit of Emi Koussi finally standing out clearly, and apparently quite close to camp. As we looked te other way, we could see that most of the surrounding country was shrouded in haze, but we were now above this layer. After a quick breafkast we packed our gear and started out with Hajji Senoussi, knowing that the camels will soon follow. We were aiming for a conspicious gap in the rim of the crater, the Modiounga col, a good 300 metres lower than the surrounding ridges (with the summit on the left).
The morning march was spent walking towards a pair of parasitic cones on the flanks of the main volcano, appearing to be small lunps from afar but slowly turning into formidable hills by themselves. Our camels caught up after an hour, and from thereon we walked together, only making a few brief stops to collect firewood at suitable places.
By midday we approached then passed the two parasitic basalt cones, ascending the col between them into a valley on their far side.
We had our midday rest a little further upstream in the shallow valley, where a few meagre shrubs offered some grazing for the camels. Relieved of their load, they immediately trotted away to munch on the prickly thorns, and by the looks they definitely enjoyed it...
After our lunch break we continued uphill, and the going became noticeably steeper. While over the past day and a half we mainly covered distance, now we started to rapidly gain altitude as the slope of the mountain steepened arund the rim of the caldera, ascending nearly 800 metres in this stage. Within a short hour the two sizable parasitic cnes were well below us, hovering near the top of the dust haze that still covered everything below, while we were climbing in crisp clear mountain air.
We were walking mainly on the surface of solidified lava flows, but noe we reached the first patched of light coloured ignimbrite flows that filled former valleys during the last major eruption stage which formed the summit caldera. The ignibbrite weathered to small pebbles which rolled under our feet and those of the camels, a much more unpleasant terrain than the solid lava. We also encountered the first truly green vegetation since Yi Yerra, several wild figs (Ficus teloukat) growing in a narrow valley.
While the gradient was not particularly difficult, we started to feel the effect of altitude - we were nearing 3000 metres which definitely showed on our breadth and our speed. For the first time the camels did not overtake us, but dropped behind. We were not altogether displeased when Hajji Senoussi led us to the edge of a deep narrow gorge that offered good protection from the now fairly strong wind, and suggested we camp here as anywhere higher we can only find exposed spots. Faced with the prospect of a very cold night (we were at 2800 metres) it sounded like a very sensible choice, even though we had over an hour left till sunset. The summit of the mountain loomed very close, we camped just under the final ascent.
Unlike the night before, our camels did not disperse but stayed close to us, munching on the green shrubs in the gorge. Our relationship with them visibly changed - we no longer received the nasty looks when we stepped inside their comfort zone. One of them watched me intently pitching our tent, then settled down comfortably beside it, keeping us company all night. They were very different and certainly more likeable than the rather unpleasant, ill tempered camels I have become acquainted with in Egypt.
Day 16 – Ascent of Emi Koussi
The night was cold, but not as extreme as we expected it to be at this altitude. We were preared for temperatures near or below zero, but Gabor measured six degrees at dawn when we got up, probably due to the insulating cloud cover.
We packed our gear and left camp quickly to make the last bit of climb till the col on the rim of the caldera, now looming very close but still 300 metres higher. The camels were to follow at a more leisurely pace, princpally for the good grazing in the caldera, as we were to return to the same camp for the night. We made our way up the last series of fairly steep slopes, past the patches of light coloured tephra, which from close appeared as if they were patches of snow on the top of the mountain.
It took us about two hours to reach the top of the col, and the view constantly blocked by the mountain for the past day suddenly opened up, revealing the huge circular plain at the bottom of the caldera about 100 metres below us. We measured the col to me at 3156 metres - the true summit of the mountain was still nearly 300 metres higher to the west, above us. were more interested in the caldera itself. While the summit did have some appeal, it would have required at least 3 hours of time up and down, and we all agreed that time is better spent in the caldera itself.
While we were taking our photos, we were interrupted by a rather unexpected event. At first I only heard the unmistakable sound of a jet aircraft, which was strange, as the Pointe Afrique flight of the week should already have arrived and departed the previous day. Then I spotted the aeroplane, at a fairly low altitude, circling the mountain. It was a Boeing C-135, the military (aerial tanker) version of the 707 airliner. Soon afterwards, with an enormous roar a pair of Mirage 2000 fighters made a very low pass over the caldera, then came around in a tight turn for a second pass. We did not know at the tme, but the French minister of defence was making a visit to Chad, the exercise was probably related to this.
After the noisy interruption we contnued to the bottom of the caldera descending along a well-built path dwn the steep cliff of the inner rim. At the bottom of the path amazingly the Governor's relative was already waiting for us. He must have by-passed us on our way up to the col, dashing straight u the steep slope while we were zigzagging along the camel path.
We left our backpacks with the Hajji who volunteered to await the arrival of the camels, while we set out with the Governor's relative towards the Era Kohor crater, visible in the distance about three kilometres away. The going was quite difficult along the caldera bottom, as it was filled with soft black volcanic sand. As we made our progress, we all of a sudden encountered a large herd of goats, heading rather purposefully in the direction we came from. Soon their owners appeared, a middle aged woman and her 10-12 year old son, who were now the only inhabitants of the caldera. Our guide engaged in a lively conversation with the woman, they appeared to know each other rather well. We found out later taht the goats were being driven to a water hole on the flanks of the mountain, well beyond our morning campsite. This trek they must do every 3-4 days to water the animals and bring water for themselves, as there is no water anywhere in the caldera.
We continued past the remnants of a couple of fairly recent cinder cones, and after tackling a gully and a gentle rise we were looking into the Era Kohor crater from the edge. The appearance is strikingly similar to the Traou au Natron, but on a much smaller scale.It is "only" 2.5 kilometres in diameter and 300 metres deep, with its entire bottom covered with a white crust of natron. However unlike Trou au Natron, there are no springs at its botom.
We spent a good hour and a half on the crater edge photographing it, and with Gabor climbing up to the ridge along its eastern side (not quite worth the effort, it was a more formidable climb than it appeared from a distance) for a view from a diffrent angle.
By the time we returned to where we left the Hajji, the camels were there, apparently already having finished their grazing and now resting before the descent. Jonathan was preparing the lunch for us, and we also found out the subject of the lively discussion between the lady and our guide earlier: it was a goat, and they were negotiating the price. Apparently the deal was struck, as we found a suitably disassembled goat neatly laid out on a half of a rock slab from which the omnipresent goat dung was considerately brushed to the other side... Our guide took the opportunity to pose with the Kalashnikov, one of the most prized posessions of the cameliers, carrying it in turns (though looking at its condition, I was quite glad that he did not fire a demonstration shot). During the break we also solved the mystery of how the mobile phones (the only prevalent modern device aside the Kalashnikovs in everyday use among the Tibus), which the men primarily used to listen to music, were kept charged.
During our rest after lunch I watched a series of wave-like Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds (formed by windshear between lighter and denser layers of air) form on the far side of Emi Koussi, with condensation at the wave crests making them stand out perfectly.
After some rest we started out on our return journey, going together with the camels this time, first ascending the winding trail up the steep cliff of the cardera rim to the Modiounga col.
We continued down the trail towards our previous campsite, past a series of spectacular basalt dykes which now were in a perfect afternoon light, unlike when we passed them in the morning. We crossed the tephra deposits, and soon passed the little valley with our camp. We still had nearly two hours left before sunset, so we pressed on to lose as much altitude as possible that day (the Hajji and the other men certainly had some different opinons about the "not so cold" night as we did with our warm sleeping bags).
On our way we passed a very large rectangular stone enclosure, clearly man made, but the Hajji did not know its age or purpose. Probably it was a pen for smaller animals (perhaps goats), I could not find any clue whether it was ancient or modern. Continuing, we were nearly level with the tops of the two parasitic cones now fairly close below us when we reached a campsite in a watercourse with a few built huts and some grazing for the camels, and a nearby guelta where we could water the camels (and take some for ourselves) the next morning.
Our camp was more than 400 metres lower than the night before, we have covered most of the steep part of the descent that afternoon. To celebrate reaching the caldera, we broke open our last remaining bottle of bitter soda (one of the two snatched up at Bardai) for the evening bar, a fitting ending to another very fine day.
Day 17 – Descent from Emi Koussi
In the morning we went with two camels to the nearby guelta to fetch water. It was fairly close to camp, in a little valley which also contained a number of brightgreen wild fig trees (Ficus teloukat). We had a number of large plastic jerrycans, but our Tibu companions still used a traditional goatskin guerba for their drinking water.
We returned to camp with the filled containers, and while packing our gear we watched as the camels received a slush of water mixed with some kind of mashed cereal down their throats as combined drink and food.
Once the camels were fed loadng was sfift and we started out on the trail leading down. This day offered little excitement, as we were re-tracing our route of two days before. We soon reached and passed the twin cones, then continued accross the increasingly flatter lava terrain towards the flat topped hill marking Yi Yerra in the distance, about 15 kilometres further.
A fairly strong wind picked up during the day, which was pleasant while we were walking (it was a hot sunny day, all the clouds of the previous days were gone), but when we stopped it was still a bit chilly. Unfortunately there was no shelter, we were on the flat lower slopes, so we took our lunch break in the lee of a couple of larger lava boulders. As we were now moving together with the camels, I could film the rather comic process of the animals sitting down in stages before being loaded for the onward journey.
In the afternoon we continued towards the flat topped hill, which loomed ever closer. We also for the first time had a good clear view of the country beyond, with the sandstone spires of the Borku region visible on the horizon.
As the sun was getting low, we stopped for the night near a cluster of larger rocks that offered some windbreak, about five kilometres short of Yi Yerra. We have covered about 15 kilometres during the day in a straight line distance, but lost 1100 metres of altitude in the process. There was a clear sense of relief and accomplishment among our team, the men posed happily with the camels knowing that the next day we will be in Yi Yerra, at only a short two hours distance.
The descent was visibly much tougher for the animals than the climb, they were visibly exhausted and just sat at the campsite without wandering off seeking grazing. One of them developed a limp in the forelegs (their shoulder is the weak spot, taking a higher than normal load during any downhill stretch), already its load was reduced during the afternoon. Now the cameliers set about with the remedy, crossing the forelegs above the neck so the animal could not move, giving the shoulders a good stretch. This seemed like a harsh treatment but it worked, in about an hour after the muscles and tendons reaxed, the animal was able to lift its legs from over the neck. It got up and joined the others without any remaning trace of the limp.
Day 18 – Descent to Yi Yerra
We had a slow start in the morning, being well ahead of schedule - we were only expected down at the car stop by Mid-afternon. After picking clean the bones of the Emi Koussi goat left over last night's stew for breakfast, we started out ahead of the camels, who would take a more circuitous route to Yi Yerra along a gentler gradient, while we took the direct path.
A walk of less than an hour and a half took us accross the flat lava plain to the edge of the Yi Yerra canyon, the little oasis appearing suddenly below. This was a different route than the way up, we reached a point straight above the village on the west bank of the gorge, with a very steep path leading down the cliffs. It was definitely not for camels, but we had no difficulty getting down to the oasis in a matter of a few minutes.
The prospect of a bath in the hot spring had been at the back of everyone's mind in the past day or two, as soon as we arrived we dropped in to the small pool, joining some village boys who were already soaking themselves in the pleasantly warm water (Gábor measured it to be 39°C). We snorted like a bunch of hippoes for over an hour until our camels arrived, to be immediately joined in the pool by the cameliers. It felt lovely to be clean again after more than two weeks - only the wind played some interesting tricks with our wet hair..
We had our lunch after the camels arrived with our supplies, while the animals munched at the fresh shoots of the small palms scattered about everywhere. Some returned to the pool for another soak, or took the opportunity to clean and dry some clothes at the series of smaller pools fed by the outflow of the main spring.
While everyone was taking an afternoon rest, I returned to the pool to stalk the numerous dragonflies buzzing around it. We have seen none prevously, but here (not surprisingly) they were everywhere. The most common were a medium sized species, the males bright red while the females a more subdued olive green pattern. They were identified by Stefan Ober (NHM Stuttgart) as Trithemis arteriosa, one of the most common Saharan species, reported from almost every oasis (where they were looked for). There were a couple of smaller damselflies, a Ischnura species (most probably Ischnura senegalensis). Every 10-15 minutes the buzz suddenly went quiet, all the smaller dragonflies landed and lay low while a very large one made a low pass over the pool, occasionally dipping into the water. I tried a couple of point-blank shots with pre-set focus, and much to my surprise a few photos came out quite well, revealing a large male Anax imperator, the largest of the dragonfly species (which does prey on smaller species), never before reported from the Tibesti or elsewhere in Chad.
We started our way back to the cars mid-afternoon, quickly covering the remaining two and a half kilometres. Andrea was waiting for us half-way, at the bottom of the gorge at the descent of the trail, rather pleased to hear that all went well. Brenda and Raymond were waiting at the cars with Adoum and Ichaou, to celebrate our successful return we broke into our cahhe of remaining bitter soda cans. We traded stories while the camels arrived, and Andrea and the Hajji settled the finances. Judging from the smiles on all the faces everyone was pleased with the arrangements.
We did not linger long, as soon as the finances were settled we loaded the cars and said good-bye to the cameliers and the governor's relative who turned out to be extremely useful (and no doubt benefited personally from the deal), and to the camels to whom by now we have quite become fond of. Certainly this tirp changed my perspective on doing a voyage with camels, which was hitherto based on not too pleasant experiences with Egyption beasts.
We drove about ten kilometres in the Yi Yerra valley, to some picturesque sandstone towers with good soft sand at their base, an ideal camping spot. We spent the remaining time till sunset wandering about camp, enjoyng the perfect view over Emi Koussi from the surrounding hilltops.
Day 19 – Enneri Yi Yerra - Kouroudi
Sunrise brought some further splendid views of Emi Koussi, but the low light also revealed something else: in the hillside opposite our camp there were a number of layers with various trace fossils, brobably from the late Ordovican or Silurian.
Leaving camp, we continued along the difficult bouldery track along the bottom of the Enneri Yi Yerra, then over even worse bedrock until reaching the open sand plains among the isolated sandstone hillocks to the South of Emi Koussi. We had a continuous splendid view of the volcano, now unobstructed by any haze.
At one point among the hills we came upon a pair of gazelle which most unusually did not show any fear. As we stopped, they just gazed us intently from a distance of about a hundred metres. They only broke into a slow trot when the cars started again, stopping frequently to look back at the curious creatures. One can only hope that they will not do the same when encountering some local hunters...
Mid morning, soon after the gazelle encounter we descended a pass filled with sand to a totally different world, a rocky plain covered with dark shingle at the foot of the escarpment bordering the sandstone country to the South-west. We now left the Tibesti, and were in the country of Borku, approaching the further series of scarps with the chain of oases along their feet.
We followed the dismal track along the bottom of the spectacular disscted escarpment for a good hour, now moving in a south-easterly direction. For some unfathomable reason the track did not follow the bottom of watercourses (where sand would have offered a better going) but constantly climbed rocky hills and ridges, hardly ever going in a straight line for more than a few hundred metres.
We stopped at a largish sandstone outlier with a conspicious arch in the middle, and a narrow water-carved corridor allowing access from one side to another. It looked like a likely location for rock art too, however on walking around it we only found three very crude small engraved cattle, nothing to get partcularly excited about.
We passed a shallow watercourse where we could collect some firewood, and looking back we had a perfect view of Emi Koussi, now at a distance of about 60 kilomeres. From this perspective it was really difficult to perceive that it was a mountain rising almost 3000 metres from the surroundin plain, and not just a small flat hill in the distance.
There was a fairly strong wind all day, which was driving the abundant sand. The flat country offered little shelter for a lunch stop, the only conspicous landmark was a towering outlier in the distance with a huge trailing dune on its leeward side. We finally found some shelter along a series of low ridges, and as we spread out to investigate the area, Gábor soon found a large area of exposed rocks on one of the hilltops, fractured into perfect squares by some unknown process as if it was an artificial paving (I have seen some similar fracturing near Tan Zumeitak in the Tassili n'Ajjer). The slabs were full of familiar trace fossils, both the shallow double-tracked Cruziana and the ribbed Arthropycus, both typical of the Silurian but occuring in late Ordovican to Devonian strata.
We had our lunch in a small shelter that offered some protection against the wind. It looked like a perfect spot for prehistoric inhabitants too, with n similar windbreak for a considerable distance on all sides. We did find a few pottery shards, broken grinding stones and some mollusc fragments in the sand of the shelter floor suggesting human presence in late prehistory, but curiously all traces of earlier human habitation were absent both from the shelter and from the surounding area. I have become accustomed to finding Palaeolithic tools practically everywhere in the Sahara, but they apear to be absent (or at least very scarce) in the entire Tibesti - Borku region. I cannot readily think of any explanation why.
We continued towards the huge rock tower with the big trailing dune, standing strangely alone with no other protrusions from the plain withn a radius of five kilometres. Emi Koussi was still conspicious on the horizon, now at a distance of 80 kilometres. Following the track we passed several other outliers, some displaying some severe fracturing of the sandstone rock, with entire hills broken into thin parallel slabs of rock, some slabs displaced along the faults by several metres. This fracturing is evident practically everywhere in the Borku region, and it is unclear what caused it in this relatively stable central continental position.
As we passed a low rock outcrop a few kilometres before reaching the oasis of Kouroudi, I spotted a series of crude engraved cattle near the bottom. As we stopped to investigate, we saw at some distance another rock with a hole through it, which turned out to be a spacious shelter on the other side. The ceiling contained a number of crude paintings of cattle, very similar to the engraved ones nearby.
Crossing a low ridge we reached the edge of Kouroudi, the northernmost of the Borku oases along the first scarp. It was a ver pretty sight, with numerous palm groves intermingled with golden barchan dunes, and small groups of palm-leaf huts scattered along the edge of the scarp.
We went to the main spring of the oasis to fetch water. It was a classic oasis spring fed by artesian water, perched on the top of a low mound which grows slowly as the salts and lime in the evaporating water cement the surrounding sand, until the water pressure can no longer raise the water level any higher.
We continued to cross the oasis, which had several paches of treacherous soft sand, causing some fun with the cars (our tyres had to be pumped hard as most of the going was on sharp rocks), now laden with the extra weight of the full water cannisters.
We made camp in a lovely spot among a group of low hills surrounded by sand dunes and ripples close to the low cliffs at the northern edge of the oasis. We had over an hour left to wander about, take photos and seek out any rock art sites that may be in the area.
Immediately beside camp we already fond several crude engravings of cattle and human figures. They were not particularly exciting, but it was evident that one finds some engravings on almost every rock outcrop. There must be hundreds if not thousands of unpublished sites in the area, nobody ever did any systematic survey here.
The most important panel of engravings in the oasis was just a few hundred metres from camp (not entirey by coincidence...). It was a panel showing a number of cattle on a very large scale, as indicated by Gábor (called "M'sieu deux metres" by our drivers). It was the first time we encountered such engravings, very characteristic of the Borku region
There were further engravings of giraffe and cattle in a narrow dark crevasse that penetrated deep inside the rock to the left of the main panel, including a rather curious "horned" human figure holding a spear and a heart-shaped shield.
As we rounded the rock to the right, moving back to camp, we found another narrow crevasse which contained a number of cattle, some again on the very large scale. The narowwness of the crevasse made the largest almost impossible to photograph in its entirety even with a very wide angle lens. While all these engravings were known to Andrea since a long time, to my knowledge they do not appear in any publication.
With the shadows getting longer and creating wonderfil patterns on the sand ripples, we slowly converged on the campsite to catch the last rays of the setting sun at the evening bar.
Day 20 – Kouroudi - Camp near Yarda
In the mornng we started at the panel of large cattle while the cars were being loaded, giving everyone an opportunity to see them, and hoping for some better photographs in the morning light. That was not to be the case, many of the panels were either fully on the sun or partially lit.
Starting towards the South-east We crossed the most densely inhabited part oasis of Kourodi, passing a row of concal date silos constructed from stones and mud at the edge of the inhabited area. With the availability of plastic sacks that can keep rodents out they are no longer in use, but they were the reguar food stores just a few decades ago.
As we left Kouroudi we could stll catch some glimpses of Emi Koussi on the horizon, some 100 kilometres away. We continued along a very bad track constantly winding between the sandstone knolls and the dunes, with actual covered distance at least twice that of a straight line. We followed the edge of the scarp at some distance, in a continuous belt of sparse vegetation, occasionally interrupted by large isolated sandstone towers.
It was slow bumping along on the track which constantly switched between hard rock and soft sand, and never staying straight for more than a dozen metres. We had our last view of Emi Koussi as it slowly faded into the haze, still barely perceptible from over 110 kilometres. There was not much to see, we only stopped at a low knoll with some fresh looking engravings, to find a much larger panel of older weathered animals under the more recent ones visible from afar.
Our next stop was the fairly large village of Anei, about half-way between Kouroudi and Orori. While the Hajji was asking for directions to some nearby rock-art sites, I could make a couple of point-blank clandestine shots from the car window.
Our quest for directions was unsuccessful. Andrea and the Hajji knew about a shelter with paintings from many years ago but they saw it in the pre-GPS days, and among the innumerable similar looking hills it would have been an impossible quest without a guide. The villagers knew nothing about it, so we continued towards a large panel of engravings that the Hajji did know.
The engravings were along the side of a sizeable sandstone hill about 10 kilometres south of Anei village (and about half way to the next village, Orori). There were at least six major panels (some quite high on the rock) and a number of lesser ones. The themes were predominantly cattle and camels, including a large duble panel showing cattle with exquisitely decorated bodies. The site was very impressive, the finest we have seen in Borku. While it is certainly a known site, I could find no trace of it in any publicaton.
We continued along the edge of the scarp to the village of Orori, some 10 kilometres away (in a straight line distance). A number of rock art sites were reported here already by the 1930 Dalloni mission and later vistors, the Hajji stayed at the village to inquire about their location while we sought a sheltered spot to have our lunch and rest. Among the numerous sandstone knolls adjacent to the vilage we found a long rock wall that offered both shade and some protection from the fairly strong wind.
As luck had it, the cars stopped right in front of a large panel with some very impressive cattle with decorated bodies, similar to the ones we have seen at the previous site. Investigaing the rocks further, we found another panel of similar (but undecorated) large panel of the shaded rock wall a little beyond our lunch spot. I could not find any reference to this site either in any publication.
The Hajji returned, again with no results, the villagers were not even aware of the engravings at our rest stop. However here we saw the first (and only) signs of some budding touris trade - the women of the village soon followed bringing a few handcraft items to sell, mainly small pot-like utensils with handle and lid woven from palm leaves, identical to the ancient ones we found at the abandoned Tibu dwellng at Jebel Uweinat.
Beyond Orori the hitherto dismal track turned for worse, snaking between the sandstone knolls and the sand dunes, frequently becoming lost as the strong wind obliterated the tracks in the sand. For added fun, we started encounterng "sebkhas" between the dunes - waterlogged salt flats that need to be treated with more respect than the softest sand. Getting stuck in a bad waterlogged spot can mean a day's digging in soft mud... Fortunately the ones we passed were all dry, we had no trouble crossing them. The cuntry was now pretty much constantly inhabited, with clusters of a coule of houses every couple of kilometres. The first mudbrick dwellings also appeared, signs of some more permanent settlements, unlike the round huts which can be disassembled and moved to another location in a matter of hours.
A few kilometres before reaching Yarda the track passed through a narrow defile, the walls of which were covered with innumerable camel period engravings (including a few horse riders with lances). In a remarkable fashion the engravings followed a narrow and slippery rock ledge all the way to the top of the rock face - we tried but were unable to make it past the first steeper stretch. A part of these particular series of panels was illustrated by Paul Huard in one of his articles.
Yarda was not a particularly exciting place, we only lingered there while we did the unavoidable check-in to the sous-préfecture, then continued to be well out of the village by the time we need to stop for the evening. On the southern '"suburbs" of the village we passed a group of very picturesque date silos. Also some rock art sites are reported to be in the area, similar in style to the cattle we already saw at Orori, but the Hajji did not know their exact location and we were quite saturated with engraved cattle, so we moved on.
We continied for another dozen kilometres among the wind-eroded low sandstone ridges towards the south west, before moving off the track a few hundred metres to make our final desert camp. It was a lovely spot with golden sand filling all the spaces between the rocks. We have covered a dismal 75 kilometres in a day if connecting our stops in a straight line, but the actual driven distance must have been closer to 200 - nevertheless a very slow and difficult going considering that it was an almost full day of driving with short interruptions.
With an hour left to sunset, we all spread out to explore the area and make use of the best light. I went for a conspicious shelter in the side of one of the larger rocks a few hundred metres from camp. There were no paintings or figurative engravings, but on the shelter floor there were numerous cupules, and a pair of pecked spiral forms, a motif seen elsewhere in the Tibesti-Borku region. As already noted elsewhere, there were no traces of any palaeolithic inhabitabitants, surface archaeologcal remains around camp were limited to a very few undecorated potsherds.
At a short distance there was another smaller shelter, which showed little sign of former human presence except for a few polished areas on the shelter floor. Close scrutiny however did reveal a very faint painting on the ceiling (in natural light impossible to make out), which turned out to be a very strange animal.
While I was investigating the shelters, the rest of our party went to a natural arch some distance further, standing out conspiciously among the long shadows created by the setting sun.
Day 21 – Drive back to Faya
We were just 60 kilometres as the crow flies to Faya, but we could expect a similar full-day drive as the previous day, hoping to arrive to Faya by mid-afternoon. We packed camp, Gábor performed the customary ritual of burning his trousers which were shredded to bits on the knees and the rear, and we made our group photo before setting out on our way.
We drove for about ten kilometres among the sandstone outcrops, until suddenly we reached the edge of the second Borku escarpment. The drop was about 50 metres, and the ramp of a large rounded dune provided an easy descent. Far below we spotted a lone man walking his two camels along the bottom of the scarp, seemingly oblivious of us watching from above. It was a magical timeless moment.
We continued along the bottom of the scarp towards the south-east, continuously detouring around dunes, salt flats and rocky ground. Soon we encountered other obstacles that we did not see since we left the Yebbi Bou area - large minefields marked off with the usual perimeter of little white/red pebbles. We passed a number of villages, where the majority of the houses were permanent mud-brick rather than the flimsy palm leaf huts.
Soon after passing a village, we encountered a wrecked libyan BMP-1 armored personnel carrier. It took a hit to the engine compartment, but otherwise it was fairly intact, with live rocket-propelled grenades littering its inside and the ground around it.
We bumped along the edge of the scarp all morning, managing about 10-15 kilometres an hour in a straight line distance. Around midday we finally reached the area where the bottom of the scarp was covered with the white diatomite deposit of the ancient Lake Megachad, signalling that Faya was getting close. In another hour we reached the Faya-Gouro track about 25 kilometres to the North-east of Faya.
We stopped for lunch at a conspicious large acacia tree in the middle of a shallow wadi. There was a strong wind which picked up the sand, so we did not linger long. There was not much to see at this spot aside a few lizards (Acanthodactylus scutellatus, familiar from Wadi Hamra in the Gilf Kebir) and plenty of littered rifle cartridges.
After lunch a short half an hour's drive along the comparatively good piste brought us to the edge of the low third Borku scarp (the one we followed westwrards on our outbound journey), with the oasis of Faya spread out below.
On entering town we went straight to the market, as Andrea needed some supplies for his next group arriving with the same flight we were to leave with. The market was in the centre of the town, and in all fairness was a rather miserable place. Despite all the land and water available, almost nothing is produced locally (the nomadic Tibu refuse to farm), almost everything available is trucked in from Libya or the South. After weeks in the clean and empty desert it was a rather sad experience.
For the night we moved to a "Tourist Camp" near the airport, with the promise of a shower after the three weeks in the desert. It was supposedly the most upscale establishment in town, with a row of fairly neat palm-leaf cabins to sleep in, but the combined "shower" cum toiled somehow lacked its appeal. The hose watering the garden proved to be a far better alternative... Spirits were only lifted when Andrea re-appered at sunset with a sackful of ice cold beer.
Day 22. – Flight Faya - Marseille
In all fairness, the "Tourist Camp" provided a fairly decent dinner and breakfast, but sleeping was a challenge with the millions of mosquitoes about. We were certainly not sorry to leave the place in the morning for the airport.
We got to the airport a good hour before the plane was due, quickly completed the check-in and passport formalities, and traded stories with our friends who spent the past three weeks in the Ennedi. The plane arrived on time creating a small sandstorm with the reversers, and all seemed well save for a small glitch. I noticed that on parking the plane kept its right engine running while the arriving passengers disembarked. There appeared to be a bit of head scratching around the aircraft, then the stairs were pulled away and the other engine was started. It did not take long to figure out that the auxilarry power unit failed to join the festivities, and without that (lacking a ground air starter) it would have been impossible to re-start the engines. The crew did the only good choice, kept the left engine running so the hold doors could be opened on the right side, and the stairs too were moved to the right side. I have only once seen a jet aircraft be fueled with running engines before, at the fair airport of Trujillo of Peru, under similar circumstances.
Once fueling was completed, the captain came to the terminal to explain the circumstances and asking us to be careful around the running engine, then we started boardng with a token manual security check on the apron. However airport security was taken quite seriously, I could spot several heavily armed members of a French military unit discretely securing the airprt perimeter and guarding the apron area, something I did not notice in the excitement of our arrival three weeks ago.
Despite the technical glitch which delayed the offloading of the arriving bags and fueling, we managed to start rolling only 30 minutes past schedule. We took off in a North-earterly direction flying over the oasis of Faya, then made a sharp left turn towards the Tibesti mountains and utimately Marseille. Again I had a window seat on the right side, so could see the view missed on the inbound flight. Our course was the same, first we flew over the now famliar eroded country of Borku, with the huge monolith with the trailing sand dune we passed after lunch three days earlier clearly visible.
As we reached cruising altitude, Emi Koussi slowly floated into view under the wing. We were flying quite off-set to the mountain, about 30-35 kilometres from the caldera edge, but it was possible to make out all details clearly, including our route up the southern flanks and accross the caldera to Era Kohor. As we passed the mountain, the small recent parasitc cones came into view, with long dark lava flows, the most recent volcanic activity on Emi Koussi.
The view of the central Tibesti was better on the other side. Now it was only possible to see Tarso Tieroko, and the very edge of the Tarso Toon caldera, almost straight beneath us.
Soon we passed the oasis of Aozou, the only meaningful village in the entire nothern part of the Tibesti beyond Bardai. Looking down on this country, it looked surreal that people were actually willing to fight several wars to control this remote outpost, literally in the mddle of nowhere.
Beyond Aozou we reached the edge of the featureless Serir Tibesti and crossed over into Libya. We slightly adjusted our course to the right, following a more easterly track over Libya than the way here, towards Misurata rather than Sebha and Tripoli. We flew over a yellow void until the dark patch of the Wau Namus volcano came into view in the distance, a good 100 kilometres away. We soon passed the abandoned airport of Wau Kebir, a strategic base during the Chad-Libya Wars.
For the next almost half an hour we were flying past the edge of the Haruj al Aswad, an immense volcanic field made up entirely of black basalt flows ranging from the late Pliocene to possibly the early Holocene.
We continued past the oases of Al Fuqaha (Fogaha) and Waddan (base of the 1942 Sonderkommando Dora), and reached the edge of the Gulf of Sirte where a sandstorm was blowing huge plumes of dust out over the mediterranean. We finally crossed the coast of Libya over Misurata, settling down for a two hour flight over the sea to Marseille.
On landing in Marseille there was beautiful weather, we had a perfect view of the city as we made our final approach.
I am currently planning another expedition to Northern Chad for the winter of 2015, with an itinerary to the North-eastern Tibesti (the region of Aozi and the rock art sites of Korossom, Karnasahi, Fofoda). This will involve a 12 day camel supported trek to the Aozi and the Ouri depression, using cars to/from the drop-off and pick-up point near Aozi. A detailed itinerary is now available. Please visit the News page for any updates (or "like" the FJ Expeditions FaceBook page).
As the Tibesti is not inclded in the regular bibliography of books and articles on the Libyan Desert, and I have received a number of requests for suggested reading, I have compiled a short bibliography on the exploration, geography, geology, rock art and ethnopraphy of the Tibesti. Note that the list is by no means exhaustive, though any titles & articles not listed will be hard to find, there was practically nothing published on the Tibesti in the past 35 years except for the titles below.
Gustav NACHTIGAL, Sahara und Sudan
Volume I, Berlin, 1879
Gustav Nachtigal was the first European to ever venture into the Tibesti mountains in the winter of 1870. It was almost an accidental event, as he had spare time while waiting in the Fezzan for his arrangements for a major voyage south to the Sultanates of Kanem and Bornou. His accont of the Tibesti ranks among the greatest pieces of African travel literature. While the original volumes (the other two appeared in 1881 and 1889) are very scarce, facsimile editions are available, and a complete english translation of all volumes was published in the nineteen seventies. Abridged translations are available in several languages.
Nachtigal traveled from Murzuq to the Tummo well, then continued via Sao and Trou au Natron to Bardai. On the way he noted the rock engravings of the Oudingueur canyon, however even though he camped in the Enneri Gonoa for several days he did not see those engravings. After numerous threats to his life he escaped Bardai barely with his life, robbed of all possessions, but richer with the story to tell.
The Geographical Journal
Jean TILHO, The Exploration of Tibesti, Erdi, Borkou, and Ennedi in 1912-1917
Part I: Vol. LVI, No. 2 (August, 1920), pp. 81-99
Part II: Vol. LVI, No. 3 (September, 1920), pp. 161-183
Part III: Vol. LVI, No. 4 (October, 1920), pp. 241-263
Colonel Tilho led the French expedition to clear the northern parts of what was considered to be French territory from Senoussi influence. During the five year campaign he not only led a military operation, but undertook a substantial task of exploration and map-making on behalf on the French Institute. Folowing his occupation of the Borku oases in 1913, he explored the Tibesti Mountains in the following year, but was forced to withdraw after the 1916 Touareg revolt (the French were only able to re-occupy the Tibesti in 1930) His lecture at the Royal Geographical Society on 19 January 1920 provided the first detailed view of the region to the outside world since Nachtigal's visit 50 years earlier
Wilfred THESIGER, A Camel Journey to the Tibesti, Vol. XCIV, No. 6 (December, 1939), pp. 433-446
While serving as Assistant District Commissioner in Kutum (Sudan), Thesiger used his three month leave in the autumn of 1938 to make a camel journey to the Tibesti in one of his earliest major desert voyages. On this trip he succeeded to become the first European to ascend the summt of Emi Koussi, but was unable to venture further North due to his restricted time available.
A. T. GROVE, Geomorphology of the Tibesti Region with Special Reference to Western Tibesti, Vol. CXXVI, No. 1 (March, 1960), pp. 18-31
An account of the scientific results of the 1957 Cambridge Tibesti Expedition, focusing on the volcanoes of the Trou Natron - Pic Tousside area. A popular account of the same expedition appeared in Geographical Manazine (The popular journal of the RGS) Vol 31 (1958) pp. 12-31.
Dieter JÄKEL, The work of the Field Station at Bardai in the Tibesti Mountains, Vol. CXLIII, No. 1 (March, 1973), pp. 61-72
A paper describing the work of the Bardai Research Station from its establishment in 1964 to 1973 (a summary of the more detailed German publications in Berliner Geographische Abhandlungen).
M. DALLONI, Mission au Tibesti (1930-1931)
Volume I, Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France, 61, Paris 1934
Volume II, Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France, 62, Paris 1935
Marius-Gustave Dalloni (1880-1959) was a French geologist, who led a multidisciplinary expedition to the Tibesti Mountains from October 1930 to May 1931. The massive two-volume reports, in part authored by expedition specialists, remain to this day the definitive scientific work on the Tibesti region. Unfortunately it is a very scarce (and expensive) title.
Ardito DESIO, Il Tibesti Nord-Orientale
Reale Societa Geografica Italiana, Roma, E.F. XXI (1942)
The account of the explorations made in 1940 around the Jebel Eghei and and Northern regions of the Tibesti (in what then was Italian territory, present day Libya) by the famed Italian geographer and explorer, Ardito Desio. This account is noteworthy for being the only publication available on the very remote northern areas of the Tibesti lying to the west of the Dohone and south of the Serir Tibesti, where no French explorers have ventured to (and nobody else in recent memory). While the original edition is very scarce, a new edition was published in 2006 which is generally available.
Pierre M. VINCENT, Les Volcans Tertiares et Quaternaires du Tibesti Occidental et Central
Mémoires du Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minieres, 23, Paris 1963
The published doctoral thesis of Vincent, a French volcanologist, this volume is the most detailed work available on the geology of the western and central parts of the Tibesti. Vincent covered much of the central Tibesti on foot, amassing a wealth of geological data that remains unmatched to this day.
South Central Libya and Northern Chad - a Guidebook to the Geology and Prehistory
Petroleum Exploration Society of Libya, 1966
In 1963 the Petroleum Exploration Society of Libya organised a conference and field trip led by James J. Williams and Eberhard Klitzsch to study the geology of the southern regions of Libya and the Tibesti mountains, in cooperation with the German Bardai research station. This book is the best (and only) detailed description of the Tibesti in English language.
Paul BECK and Paul HUARD, TIBESTI carrefour de la prehistorie saharienne
Arthaud, Paris, 1969
General Paul Huard became the military commander of Chad after General Leclerc left following the successful 1942 liberation of the Fezzan. An unusual trait for a soldier, he became deeply interested in the history and prehistory of the land under his command. In the nineteen fifties he discovered a number of rock art sites, including Gonoa (in 1950), the principal site of the central Tibesti. This book, co-authored with the botanist Pierre Beck, is the only available general work on the Tibesti describing the land, its people and the prehistoric remains.
General Huard also wrote numerous articles on his individual discoveries, and after his retirement a number of analytical works (together with his wife, Leone Allard-Huard) on the prehistory and rock art of the Sahara, with special emphasis on possible relationships between the Sahara and the Nile valley.
Berliner Geographische Abhandlungen
The series of the Geographical Institute of the Freien Universität, Berlin, publishing the results of the geomorphological fieldwork conducted at the Forschungsstation Bardai between its 1964 establishment and its closure in 1974.These articles and monographs are very technical in nature and describe small areas in very great detail. The list below is by no means complete:
Heft 5. (1967), Arberitsberichte aus der Forschungsstation Bardai/Tibesti. I. Feldarbeiten 1964/65
A collection of paprs describing the 1964-65 fieldwork.
Heft 8. (1969), Arberitsberichte aus der Forschungsstation Bardai/Tibesti. II. Feldarbeiten 1965/66
A collection of paprs describing the 1965-66 fieldwork.
Heft 9. (1970), Gert JANSSEN, Morphologische Unterschungen im nördlichen Tarso Voon (Zentrales Tibesti). Arbeit aus der Forschungsstation Bardai/Tibesti.
A detailed morphological study of the region to the north of Tarso Von in the central Tibesti.
Heft 10. (1971), Dieter JÄKEL, Erosion und Akkumulation in Enneri Bardagué-Arayé des Tibesti-Gebirges (zentrale Sahara) wärend des Pleistozäns und Holozäns.
A study of the erosional and accululation history f the Enneri Bardagué, the main watercourse of the central Tibesti.
Heft 12. (1971), K. Peter OBENAUF, Die Enneris Gonoa, Toudoufou, Oudingueur und Nemagayesko im nordwestlichen Tibesti.
A very detailed study of the morphologies of a number of princpal watercourses in the North-western Tibesti. Unfortunately while these valles are also principal rock art sites, no mention is made( of them or any others possibly seen during the surveys.
Heft 14. (1972), Peter STOCK, Photogeologische und tektonische Unterschungen am Nordrand des Tibesti-Gebirges, Zentral-Sahara, Tchad. Arbeit aus der Forschungsstation Bardai/Tibesti.
A study of the geology of the Northern Tibesti, based on aerial photographs.
Heft 16. (1973), Arberitsberichte aus der Forschungsstation Bardai/Tibesti. III. Feldarbeiten 1966/67
A collection of paprs describing the 1966-67 fieldwork.
Heft 24. (1976), Arberitsberichte aus der Forschungsstation Bardai/Tibesti. IV. Feldarbeiten 1967/68
A collection of paprs describing the 1967-68 fieldwork.
Heft 27. (1977), Gabriel BALDUR, Zum ökologischen Wandel im Neolithikum der östlichen Zentralsahara. Arbeit der Forschungsstation Bardai/Tibesti.
A description of prehistoric archaeological finds, mainly on the Serir Tibesti to the North of the Tibesti, with little maerial on the Tbesti mountains themselves.
Cristoph STAEWEN and Karl Heinz STRIEDTER, Gonoa
Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 1987
Dr. Staewen worked as a medical doctor in Bardai from 1970 to 1973 at the Bardai research station, and took a keen interest in the people and prehistory of the region. He systematically traced all the engravings at Gonoa and Gira-Gira, plus a numre of others (not exhaustive) at the adjacent sites of Oudingueur and Bardai. This material was organised for publication with the help of Dr. Striedter, head of rock art research at the Frobenius Institut, Frankfurt.
This publication is the only systematic and complete catalogue of rock art sites, albeit limited to a small geographical region, in the entire northern Chad region.
Arte Rupestre nel Ciad
Sahara special issue, 1996
A special issue of the Sahara journal, being a catalogue and bibliography of known (at the time) rock art sites in the Borku - Ennedi - Tibesti region. Individual sites are described by different authors, and the depth of detail varies. The work is not a complete catalogue of all panels to be found at a site, but with a few exceptions just a general descriprion of the localities with a few illustrations. Nevertheless, it is still the best available compilation of rock art in the northern Chad region.
Many of the authors collaborating on the volume have produced more detailed articles on individual sites in the Sahara journal, or in Les Cahiers de l'AARS.