Africa overland trip: from the desert to the rainforest. Part 1/4

Previous to our Africa overland trip

There are expeditions that arise from the deepest traveler’s instinct and thirst of adventure. We have always been attracted by the idea of making an expedition in Africa that would concentrate a good part of the African essence, in a short time. And this route, that took us from the Ennedi plateau in the Chadian Sahara to the Congo basin jungles in 31 days, was the culmination of a travelling dream and a project that began a few years before.

Overlanding Africa tours


Although this time, this overland in Africa was not a prospective trip, since we knew all the places on the route, it is a fact that we included some sections that were new to us. Which, again as usual in our African overland trips, led us to situations of true improvisation and adventure, even more so.

This African expedition was also for us the reward for several years of intense and hard work, since for the first time we had managed to hang the “complete” sign several months before the start of the trip. Quite an achievement for a small agency built from zero and something that we could have never imagined, not even in our best expectations.

Kumakonda

What to expect from an Africa overland trip like this?

This Africa overland trip through Central Africa has taken us in 31 days from N’Djamena to Yaounde, going through some areas of Chad, Cameroon and Central African Republic.

A route of about 5,000 kilometers in which we visited the Ennedi massif, with its impressive rock formations and canyons, the Zakouma National Park, one of the best and most remote wildlife sanctuaries in Africa and Dzanga Sangha, where we went in search of lowland gorillas and forest elephants in the jungle guided by Baaka pygmies.

Africa overland trip

Transition of African landscapes and ecosystems

In this expedition in Central Africa, we have contemplated many of the ecosystems of the African continent and a very wide variety of landscapes.  Desert, arid areas, Sahel, savannah, savannah forest, flooded swamp areas and lush jungles.

And yes, walking the African map on the ground is not easy or suitable for everyone. No one can miss the fact that a trip like this one, which runs from the Sahara to the African jungles through some of the least visited and least tourist-friendly countries in the world, was not going to be a comfortable walk or a leisurely holiday. 

Africa overland trip
Road to Zakouma National Park

Nothing is easy when you travel overland in Central Africa

Every kilometre you travel in a large part of these African countries you have to sweat it out, every control you have to fight and the borders you have to suffer. Sometimes we travel on a perfect asphalt road and other times we swallow dust and become exhausted on hellish tracks.

Every afternoon we have to look for a suitable or half-worthy place to sleep, there is nothing scheduled, we arrive where the journey takes us. Every camp has to be set up at the end of the day and picked up in the morning and sometimes we are tired, the water has to be found, as well as the food. And yes, sometimes the “road” gives us abundance in the form of grilled fish and cold beer and other days we only find hard bread and sardine cans with cheap hot wine.

Dust, tiredness, corruption, stress, they have been fellow travelers and that cannot be denied. This is the price you pay for arriving in a single 30-day trip, to three of the most remote and spectacular places on the African continent.

And our friends and family can’t stop asking, and it seems that they never get to understand, is this African overland trip really worth the effort? The answer without a doubt is yes, and more than that. The feeling of freedom, the fact that every day is different and you don’t know how it will end, the starry nights, the camping in extraordinary places, wild natural areas, tribal people with ancestral customs, the welcome and curiosity of the people, the trip itself turns out to be one of the best experiences.

Kumakonda

Transition of peoples and cultures from the desert to the jungle

The inhabitants, peoples and cultures of the areas through which this African expedition has travelled have been equally extensive and fascinating.

From the dreaded Tubus of the Chadian desert, unruly shepherds of strong if not violent character, to the Baaka pygmies, forest dwellers, traditionally hunter-gatherers, subjected and ridiculed almost always by the Bantu peoples of Central Africa and expelled from their lands by the deforestation of the Congo Basin forests.

Archei Guelta
Goran herders washing a camel baby (Toubou group living in the Ennedi region) in the Guelta de Archei
Baaka pygmies
Baaka pygmies in CAR

In the savannahs of central and southern Chad, meeting hundreds of nomads and millions of head of cattle was one of the most radical experiences of our travels so far on the African continent.

Sahel nomads
Arabs nomad camps in Southern Chad

But in order to bring an expedition in Africa with passengers like this to a successful conclusion, it must be prepared well in advance.

Planning a challenging Africa overland trip to Central Africa

For this challenging African expedition and to make all the necessary improvements to the truck, we had our very good friend and colleague Oscar Lopez back in Kumakonda. He is a real exceptional mechanic (electricity, carpentry, etc.) and a person with a really unique capacity for resolution and improvisation.

Kumakonda

The Kumakonda team for this expedition in Central Africa in its beguinning part in Chad would be formed by me (Alonso) as guide – driver, responsible for the expedition, Oscar as mechanic and second driver, Aarum as local guide and Gilbert as the cook. In our two trips with Gibert he has acquired the affection and respect of all the travellers we have had. He is a great chef and a very friendly person

African overland expeditions

Arrival in N’Djamena, capital of Chad

Oscar and I arrived in mid-January 2020 in N’Djamena, 18 days before the start of the expedition

The last trip we made by truck in the north of Chad revealed all the necessary improvements that our truck needed.

Work and improvements on our overland truck

Some of the most urgent was to change the type of tyres and rims to be able to drive safely in the desert sand. It was also necessary to attach extra tanks for diesel, open front windows for better vision of travelers, extra interior lockers and a few other improvements, plus a complete mechanical review with its corresponding adjustment.

Oscar and I have brought a lot of spare parts and materials to Chad from Madrid, but it is always necessary to buy or go to a local workshop at some point. And anyone who knows Africa well enough knows that this is a real odyssey, often desperate and frustrating.

Two weeks of hard work, especially for Oscar. As the days went by, we made progress in our work and began to prepare the logistics of the trip, something complex when it comes to making an expedition through remote areas of three African countries with a group of between 10 and 16 passengers plus crew.

We had to clean and count the tents, camping material, chairs, mattresses, etc., and stock up on non-perishable food for the trip.

Three days before the start of the trip, in the absence of the last purchases of fresh products and groceries, we were ready to receive our first passengers.

Kabalaye Catholic Mission

 The Catholic Mission of Kabalaye is a veritable oasis within the capital of Chad. Strategically located in the center of N’Djamena, very close to the central market and right next to a lively bar area, the Catholic Mission of Kabalaye serves as our headquarters and base of operations for all our overland trips in Chad.

It is a very basic but clean and safe place where we and almost all our passengers feel very comfortable. Especially with the good care of Sisters Albertine and Teresa, Congolese by birth, who always have a smile for everyone who stays in Kabalaye.

The beer crisis in Chad

Yes, everything was in turmoil in the capital of Chad these days. Not because of the economic crisis that has plagued the country for a few years now, not because of the rise in food prices or the failure of the state to pay salaries, no.

There have been several strikes in Chad’s major cities in recent weeks. All of them due to the state’s tax increase on beer and its consequent final price rise. An increase of about 30%. The beer distributors have closed, the bars have closed and in the streets of N’Djamena you can hear a “there is not a single beer left in the whole city”.

Oscar and I manage to find beer every night. Of course at a high price and often hot. But can one end a hard day’s work without a drink of golden blood? That’s not possible, at least for us. So that search led us to different and varied places in N’Djamena those two weeks. Some of them very curious, like the one where we made the presentation of the trip with all the passengers.

The expedition begins in Central Africa. Part I, trip to Chad

We’re ready! All the passengers who will be part of the complete expedition are already in N’Djamena. The travel permits and passport formalities are ready too.

The initial group consists of 7 Spaniards, 2 Australians, 1 American and 1 Dutch.

On the 11th of the trip, after visiting Ennedi, we will be joined by the rest of the group (7 more Spaniards) in our journey through the south of Chad, Cameroon and Central African Republic.

But there is a role that resists us. The authorization to fly drones. The moment of departure is approaching and the happy paper resists in some office of N’Djamena to be sealed…

Isaac from Viajes Chavetas and Chema have brought 3 drones accompanied by an impressive recording team to Chad, with the idea of filming Ennedi and Zakouma from the air.

Drons Chad videoEither way, we’ll blow up those drones, we’re clear on that. But in Africa almost everything comes, even if it takes time. And so it was, a few hours before we started the trip we had the authorization to film and use the drones. Great!

Travelling to Ennedi Massif

Our first day of travel in Chad has taken us to a beautiful spot in the Guera region where we will set up our first camp.

We immediately aroused the curiosity of the younger inhabitants of the next village. In a short time, several dozen children were observing in detail everything that was happening in our camp. But if something left these kids absolutely fascinated, it was the flight of one of Chema and Isaac’s drones, capable of reaching “supersonic” speeds.

Drone Chad

The curiosity was reciprocal and many of us were attracted by the sound of drums coming from the village. There was a big celebration, and we approached it not too successfully, as there are occasions in Africa when ceremonies are intimate and visits are often uncomfortable.

Chad festival
Local festival in Guera, Chad

The distance between Ennedi and N’Djamena is about 1,400 km, a route that is usually covered in 3 days, 4 days by truck. The first part to Abeche is a good 900 km paved road. Then comes an endless track through an arid landscape that sometimes allows you to move quickly and sometimes slowly with great care.

Africa overland trip
Travelling to Ennedi

Chad trips

As usual in our Africa overland trips, the places where we set up our camps and the places where we stop to eat are totally improvised.

A “good luck” day

The third day of the trip, at the gates of Abeche, it had not begun well. As soon as we started in the morning, a tiny twig (later in the trip, we would be forced to literally walk over the trees without breaking anything), cut a cable from the truck’s air circuit. Something very simple to repair but that already indicated to us, that it would not be our lucky day…or maybe it would.

After filling up our water tanks and doing some shopping in Abeche, we took the track that leads to Kalait – Fada and Ounianga. Not an hour had passed when, after falling into a huge sinkhole, we realised that we had broken one of the front master crossbows of the truck.

Broken truck master spring

The failure was very serious and if it was not repaired, the front axle would come off.

A similar spring had to be found in the next town, located about 50 kilometers away. Welding it was not a good option.

Óscar used his best efforts to hold the broken crossbow with straps, as a bandage, in order to reach the next village. Very slowly we managed to reach the village.

The face of uncertainty of some passengers was a poem, but these things happen in expeditions and you always have to count on some day of margin in this type of trips.

What seemed to be a day of very bad luck turned into a day of fortune:

After much searching and asking we got a new identical crossbow.
Although it took us a whole day to find and repair the crossbow, we finally made it
We were lucky to break the crossbow at that point in the trip. At Ennedi or south of Zakouma it would have been disastrous.
The repair was successful and the rest of the trip we didn’t have any mechanical problems again except for 2 flat tires.

Ennedi massif, the desired dream of many travelers

It all comes together in the end. And there in the distance were the first rock formations of the Ennedi Massif. One of the three highlights of the trip along with the Zakouma National Park and the Dzanga Sangha Reserve.

The first night we spent in Ennedi Massif was really memorable. As it was windy, we decided to strategically place the truck inside the “five arches” as protection from the wind. Gilbert prepared us a dish of local cuisine based on okra, we made a big fire, we gave a good account of the wine Baron of Madrid and even Oscar started to make games with fireballs. The atmosphere was absolutely magical during the night and dawn.

For three full days we explored the wonders hidden in the Ennedi massif. Canyons, permanent water gueltas, oasis, pinnacles, huge arches, cave paintings and fairytale landscapes. All this, a beautiful masterpiece of nature, caused by the erosion of the wind and the sand.

Aloba Ennedi
Aloba arch in Ennedi

The Guelta of Archei

There are places that no matter how many times you visit them, they never stop surprising you, the Guelta de Archei is one of them.

The panoramic view of the guelta from the “tribune” that offers one of its vertical rocky walls, is one of the most impressive visions of the entire African continent. Watching the camelids entering the canyon towards the dark waters of the guelta, together with the sounds emitted by the dromedaries, is a travel experience that will remain for a long time in the traveller’s memory.

Archei Ennedi

Archei guelta

As soon as the canyon is finished, the water flows underground under the river bed. A bed of fine white sand that served us well as a improvised camp the night before. 

Overland tours in Africa
Camp in Archei Guelta

Archei guelta Ennedi

Exploring Ennedi massif

Perhaps the most famous place in Ennedi and Chad is the Guelta de Archei, but the Ennedi massif offers a large number of equally impressive and lesser known places.

Bachikele Guelta

After presenting our travel permits at the local prefecture and lowering our tire pressure, we entered the Bachikele Guelta , driving for several kilometers through the fine sand of the dry river bed, dodging palm and acacia trees and trying not to get stuck. As we pass, we see monkeys climbing up to the top of the rocks. The Bachikele Guelta is another canyon with permanent waters where the semi-nomadic Goran shepherds take their camelids to drink in the dry season and also the inhabitants of the surrounding villages come to get water and to water their herds of goats and donkeys. Once again we see the mistrust of cameras among the “Toubou”.

Bachikele
Bachikele guelta

The uncomfortable harmattan

From our second day in Ennedi, an uncomfortable harmatan appeared and would not leave us until we reached Zakouma National Park. The harmatan is a strong and dusty wind very unpleasant that can even hinder the closest vision. This is a common wind in the dry season in West and Central Africa. This led us for almost a week to eat inside the truck and to set up our camps in as sheltered places as possible.

African overland trip
Lunch inside the truch because harmattan wind
African overland trip
Harmattan days.

Ennedi massif, World Heritage by UNESCO

We continue with our Africa overland trip through Ennedi. 

We marvel at every new place we stop. The elephant’s Arch, the Ouimina peaks, the strange formations of Ubaike, the eye of Tokou or the triple bow. 

Ennedi massif from the top of the truck, a brutal experience

Although at first most passengers were reluctant to ride on top of the truck, Oscar gained the trust of the group as the hours passed at Ennedi and many wanted to experience one of the best sensations of the trip. As we transported the mattresses on the roof of the truck, Oscar devised a perfect and comfortable sofa where 3 passengers could enjoy an unbeatable panoramic view. Oscar also designed a safety belt system with the truck’s straps. 

One of the scenes of the trip was undoubtedly to see our mechanic travelling around Ennedi on top of the truck, lying between mattresses, in a swimsuit and with an open umbrella to protect him from the sun…

Travel to Chad

Towards Zakouma National Park

After travelling for three days through the Ennedi plateau, we had to retrace our steps towards Abeche and Mongo to continue our Africa overland trip, this time towards the south of Chad, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, where two of the best National Parks in Central Africa were waiting for us: Zakouma and Dzanga Sangha.

 

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