Tibesti, african last frontier
The Tibesti massif is an isolated volcanic cataclysm, made up of mountains of rough, bare rock, endless stony plains, rivers of lava, sandstone cliffs rising precipitously from the ground, unlikely rock formations, sandbanks, lush oases turned into veritable wonders of nature, and winding roads that make it impossible to travel at more than 5 kilometres per hour. Tibesti, the most remote and inaccessible part of the Sahara and one of the most isolated regions on the planet. Known as the roof of the Sahara with its volcanoes over 3,000 metres high and its overwhelming volcanic calderas such as the Trou de Natron, the volcanic labyrinth of the Tibesti offers a brutal travel experience.
The landscape of chaos
Totally desolate and impressive lunar landscapes, inhabited by the feared Tubus (mountain people), the toughest of the tough. All this accompanied by a real gold rush "atmosphere" that makes this region a real last frontier.
Scattered throughout Tibesti are innumerable sites of engravings and cave paintings, which, with their clear images, tell us about the severe climate change that the region has undergone.
Travel to Tibesti
More than 1,200 kilometres from the capital N'Djamena, in the isolated northwest of Chad and bordering Libya and Niger lies the spectacular Tibesti, a remote 380-kilometre-long volcanic mountain range, which is the least visited part of the Sahara and of course the least known.
Very difficult to access and subject to travel restrictions, Tibesti was a forbidden region for long periods of time due to war and conflict and off-limits to all travellers.
Today, it can be visited with due caution and with an open mind to change plans. We do not know how long this can continue, so we encourage the reader who is interested in visiting this remote part of Africa to join one of the last real expeditions left on our planet.
Mountains of Tibesti, the roof of the Sahara
The Tibesti region is home to the highest peaks in the Sahara, including Emi Koussi (3,445m), Pico Toussidé (3,313m), Tarso Voon (3,100m) and Tarso Toon (2,625m). Once you ascend to the Trou de Natron from Zoua, the average altitude of the Tibesti route is around 1,300 - 1,500m.
Our trip to Tibesti, expedition 2022
Leaving N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, the tarmac disappears in the first few hours of the journey. A journey of 4,000 kilometres on sand, gravel or rocky tracks lies ahead. After leaving Masaguet and Massakory, towns that are well connected by tarmac from the capital, the route takes us to Mao, capital of the Sultanate of Kanem-Bornou.
Mao has a medieval and historical atmosphere like very few other cities in Chad. Its impressive market is superbly stocked with produce from Libya, Ndjamena (Cameroon), Niger and Lake Chad.
In this region of Kanem, especially on the route from Mao to Libya, it is possible to find the iconic images of old Mercedes trucks loaded to the unimaginable with goods from Libya and dozens of passengers on them.
We tried to meet the Sultan of Kanem - Bornou but unfortunately he was not in town.
On future trips we will try again to meet in person the current Sultan of Kanem-Bornou, a pre-colonial African empire that flourished in the territories of Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Libya and Cameroon. Its existence over a millennium also makes it one of the longest-lived African civilisations and therefore a point of interest on our trips to Tibesti.
Along the border with Niger
From Mao onwards, the road to Tibesti becomes difficult and inhospitable and winds its way towards the border with Niger. We meet very few vehicles in this remote part of Chad, only a few trucks carrying passengers and goods from Libya.
The harshness of these lands is shown to us in all its severity in these first days of the journey. We stop several times in front of trucks that have broken down on the road. They have been stuck in the middle of nowhere for several days, surviving on just enough food and water. They don't know when they will be able to get out of there and have no way of communicating with the owners of the truck, who are in Zouar, more than 700 kilometres away. Beside the truck, sheltering from a strong harmattan, women, babies and old people entrust their fate to Allah and wait indefinitely for someone to get them out.
The long desert journey
On the remote desert route between Mao and Zouar, some 1,000 kilometres, there is virtually nothing. There are only a couple of large villages, crossroads, which are used to buy supplies, refill water and, in the case of Soultou, the main town on the route, to refuel the vehicles with Libyan fuel. On this long transit from the Sahel to the endless desert plains we enjoy some magical sunsets and a few encounters with friendly Daza shepherds.
Soultou, border town
Arriving in Soltou was like arriving on another planet. That day the harmattan was terrible and made it difficult to see and to take a single step out of the car. Even so, the couple of hours' stop in this town no more than 10 km from Niger was tremendously interesting.
The atmosphere created by the dust mist, the nomads, the abandoned vehicles from Libya and the houses scattered here and there, offered spectral images.
As is usual on all our Chadian trips, every two or three days we had to refuel, buy fresh food if we had any, water, and buy some Asian luxury such as a moderately fresh coke. In addition, being a town of strategic importance, we had to report to the local authorities and present our travel permits.
We continued our journey across endless sandy plains dotted with dunes to the Enneri Erkoub, seeking protection from the winds by some trees. The protection and camouflage offered by the numerous trees and dunes of the Enneri Erkoub had served as military posts in the various wars in Chad. As we could see, there were also very recent remains of the fighting that took place in 2021 between rebels and the army.
The Enneris is the name given to the dry riverbeds in Tibesti. In Arabic and in the rest of Chad these dry riverbeds are called Wadis or Ouadis. In them we always find wells where we can get clean water, many of them a simple hole in the ground.
After several days of long travelling we arrived at Ehi Atroun, which indicated that we were not far from the Tibesti Mountains. Many of us were already thinking about the first highlight of the trip: the Trou de Natron.
Ehi Atroun is a huge stone monolith situated on a vast desert plain. This monolith, whose walls contain various sites of rock engravings, has served as a beacon and landmark in the desert since time immemorial. Some say they have a certain resemblance to Australia's Uluru.
After several days of monotonous landscapes, broken only by a few wadis, a few villages and the Ehi Atroun, we reach a spectacular chain of dunes: the mythical Erg Bilma sand sea from Niger. The wide track that connects Faya with Zouarke and Libya on this stretch runs through beautiful and stylised golden dunes.
Zouar's canyon (Enneri Zouar)
The Enneri Zouar is in my opinion the most picturesque, beautiful and perhaps also the most important river valley of all that we know of the Tibesti massif. After 5 long days of travelling through the lonely roads of the Sahel and endless desert plains, arriving at the Zouar canyon with its lush vegetation and incredible rock formations was absolutely marvellous. We were entering the Tibesti massif.
It would take several days to explore this enchanting Zouar valley but the lack of any information about it and the uncertainty of what was to follow on such a demanding expedition as this Tibesti expedition meant that we only spent an afternoon and a morning in the Zouar canyon.
Zouar and Zouarke
After stocking up again on water, diesel and fresh food in Zouar and Zouarke, we set off towards the depths of the volcanic labyrinth of the Tibesti massif. The sensation of arriving in the town of Zouar, with its large market full of produce, restaurants, bars and even its cyber café, was like that of someone arriving in a city for the first time after living in the countryside. Some of the passengers also took blankets for the cold nights in Tibesti.
Both Zouar and Zouarke have a large part of their businesses dedicated to buying and selling gold and to supplying all the logistical needs of the miners. Zouarke is also an impressive transport hub, undoubtedly one of the main trade axes of the entire Sahara. From Zouarke the route is divided in two, the first very complicated one leading to Bardai through the Trou de Natron and the other main one to Libya and Bardai, also suitable for trucks.
Route from Libya to Chad: truck drivers
One of the busiest trade routes in the Sahara connects Sabha in Libya with Mao, Mossouro and/or N'Djamena in Chad via the Tibesti. Dozens of trucks supply Libyan products (sugar, tea, fuel, packaged foods, machinery, etc.) to northern and central Chad, a landlocked country with few resources (the south is supplied from Douala, Cameroon). Even today, with all the problems the country is going through, Libya remains the economic benchmark for the entire region. The remote town of Zouarke is also surprisingly well-stocked with produce, fresh food, and even has electricity and Wi-Fi, which is unheard of in this part of the world. Many truckers stop in Zouarke to refuel and continue across the sands to the south of the country.
A route that will take about 20 days, if all goes well and no problems arise.
Each truck driver has two assistants who are in charge of cooking, making tea, solving small mechanical problems and lowering and raising the tyre pressure, the main activity when driving in the desert. The drivers rest in the shade of the truck while the assistant cooks a small stew of okra and dried tomato under a hot sun.
The unwritten laws in this part of the world say that the drivers will normally be of Sudanese origin and the truck owners of Tubu origin.
Track to the Trou de Natron
After the last checkpoint the route climbs up to the Trou de Natron along a rocky path through dry riverbeds, volcanic ravines and rocky plains.
First from the front and then on our left the Tousside peak with its 3,313 metres is the second highest peak in the Sahara. At its foot is the hole of the Trou de Natron. On the way up another great peak appeared on our right, the Botoum peak, also impressive.
It took us many hours to cover the few tens of kilometres that separate Zouarke from the rim of the Trou de Natron crater, in fact, we arrived at a small refuge-camp located near the caldera well into the night. As you can see in the pictures, this stretch of track is brutally hard and difficult. *Three first images courtesy of our fellow traveller and photographer Javier Herranz Casellas, you can see his previous work in Chad and in many other destinations by clicking here.
Trou au Natron volcano caldera
At the foot of the Toussidé Peak (3,313 m), the second highest volcano in Tibesti, one of the most spectacular places in Tibesti and Chad is the caldera of the Trou de Natron volcano.
If you look at one of our drone photographs, you will see an impressive 800-metre drop from the wide plateau.
The Trou de Natron caldera is 8 kilometres wide and 700 metres deep. The white stain (photographs) at the bottom of the crater is natron (sodium carbonate), dissolved from the volcanic materials by water evaporating from intermittent rain.
The Teda herders who inhabit these remote parts of Tibesti grind natron and mix it with the camels' food, supposedly to strengthen them.
Inside the crater of Trou au Natron there are also three spectacular dark cinder cones emerging from the white background. One of them, the most spectacular (image 2), is a perfect truncated cone 100 metres high. In the vicinity of these cones we find hot springs that indicate that there are still active volcanic remnants in the depths.
No one knows when or what the origin of the Trou au Natron was, whether a giant eruption created it, a subsidence or both. Deposits high on the slopes suggest that it once had a lake perhaps 500 metres deep, evidence of the dramatic changes the Sahara has undergone.
Descent into the interior of the Trou de Natron caldera
The descent and ascent of the Trou de Natron is not suitable for everyone. Of the 12 of us travellers, only 5 of us managed to complete the entire hike down and up, but not without difficulty.
Early in the morning, after breakfast, we left our camp at an altitude of 2,230 metres. Contrary to what we thought, the night was not particularly cold.
It took us about three hours to descend into the caldera via a small path that runs along the colossal volcanic cliff. This path has been made by the local shepherds who come with their donkeys to extract the natron. It is a steep path that covers a 785-metre zigzagging slope.
The descent is not very difficult as it is done early in the morning, when the heat and the sun is not yet too strong. Once down, the sand and natron make it difficult to move and the heat begins to be unrelenting, so it is advisable to dose your strength and take some rest.
After a short visit and the long climb back up, we started our return journey under a blazing sun, which was exhausting. Perhaps a good idea would be to spend the night below and enjoy the hot springs of the Trou de Natron.
Due to the illness of one of our fellow travellers, the climb took a few hours longer than planned, and we arrived back at the camp late in the afternoon. We did, however, enjoy a wonderful dinner of grilled goat and mashed potatoes prepared by one of our passengers.
The Trou de Natron to Bardai route
Once again we continued our journey with our vehicles through an unusual and truly spectacular landscape. As was to become a constant in Tibesti, the track, so to speak, was a real hell that constantly tested the endurance of the vehicles, drivers and passengers. Some travellers decided to stretch their legs and continue walking, as they were going at the same speed.
The Oudingueur Gorge
The road to Bardai, the heart of the Tibesti, descends into the winding Oudingueur gorge. The track makes its way into the gorge with difficulty.
The Enneri Oudingueur is one of the main groundwater courses in this part of Tibesti. Waters that have carved a narrow gorge between sandstone walls and volcanic rock fields. In the Oudingueur gorge, as well as in the Zouar canyon, the Gonoa valley and the Bardai valley, to give just a few examples, there are many rock art sites, a real paradise for any art lover. We decided to stop at the Gonoa site, the most important of all Tibesti.
Tibesti mined areas
More than 30 years have passed and some specific parts of Tibesti are still dotted with red and white painted stones (red mined area, white indicates safe area) indicating the presence of landmines laid in the various wars and conflicts in the area. There are several sections on this route from the Trou de Natron to Bardai where these mined area markings are found along the roadside.
Gonoa site, rock art in Tibesti
More than 700 engravings from different periods make up the Gonoa site. Of all these engravings, it is the famous "Gonoa Man" that has aroused the most curiosity. This engraving depicts a "masked hunter" almost two metres tall. The hypothesis is that the "hunter period" at Gonoa begins around 5000 BC.
The themes depicted on the rock walls of Gonoa are wild animals such as elephants, giraffes and rhinoceroses and domestic animals. There are also human figures. In Tibesti there are countless sites with engravings. Any stop along the route where there are rocks shows a number of examples of rock art.
Bardai, capital of Tibesti
Inhabited since ancient times and later a military base, the prosperous town of Bardai is situated in a spectacular setting at an altitude of 1,000 metres, next to immense palm groves and dramatic rock formations. This imposing river valley is the only one with a more or less substantial cultivation of date palms and a significant permanent population, along with Zouar, Yebbi Souma and Yebbi Bou. In fact, in Bardai it is possible to find the odd housing estate and even a few multi-storey buildings, presumably for high-ranking officials and big businessmen.
Bardai's well-stocked shops and stalls are filled with goods from nearby Libya, which is much more accessible than the Chadian capital. Bardai is a pleasant place to stroll around and get in touch with the people of Tibesti. It is also a good place to drink some beer, which, although it may seem incredible, is available here. But they do cost about 5 euros a bottle.
Contrary to what one might imagine, the inhabitants of Bardai are extremely friendly and always greet us and invite us to take pictures, which is unusual in northern Chad.
The surroundings of Bardai invite you to wander around for several days, with beautiful rock formations, canyons and palm groves everywhere you look. Being a historically complicated and strategic area in the past wars and therefore possibly mined, we prefer not to go too far from the city to set up our camp.
After leaving Bardai we enter the Enneri Zumri valley. Beautiful landscapes dotted with traditional Teda villages and oases of radiant green. The track this time runs through imposing sandstone gorges where we stop to walk and take pictures. Again, as would be the constant during the trip, the harmattan made it difficult to see and to walk. The harmattan was stronger and longer lasting than usual and in the same weeks it would reach Europe, covering it with dust.
Del Enneri Zoumri a Yebbi Souma. Los temidos Teda
After passing the Zoumri gorge we reached the village of Yebbi Souma. Again the landscape became harsh, desolate and brutal. The traditional Teda constructions in this part of Tibesti consist of circular stone houses and roofs made of branches. There are also some exceptional examples of rocks with a multitude of basaltic cylinders.
Unlike Bardai, only a few hours' drive away, the atmosphere with the local population began to be different. Especially with their area chiefs. After some negotiations and a few disagreements in the village of Zoumri, we continued our journey to Yebbi Souma, located next to a spectacular cliff.
From Zoumri onwards, the Chadian state has little to say. In a geography as remote and rugged as this one, it is impossible to have control of the territory if its inhabitants turn against it. Unlike in other parts of the Sahel and the Sahara, the conflict here has nothing to do with religious fundamentalism; in fact, terrorists are very poorly tolerated in this region and in Chad as a whole. This is an exclusive problem of a people who feel independent and want to dispose of their natural resources.
Tubus, rebels and gold mines
The inhabitants of Tibesti are known as Tubus (Tibesti people). Today, the word Tubu or Toubou (in French) is used to categorise most of the inhabitants of northern Chad (Ennedi, Bourkou and Tibesti). Specifically, the inhabitants of Tibesti are mainly of Teda ethnicity. Their societies are based on patrilineal clans, which share the oases, pastures and wells.
The Tubus are an ethnic group living mainly in northern Chad, but also in southern Libya, northeastern Niger and western Sudan. Although traditionally pastoralists and nomads, many in Tibesti are now involved in the gold business.
The hard life of pastoralists and nomads, the scarcity of pasture and water mean that many Tibestians have exchanged their herds of camels for 4x4 pick-up trucks, satellite phones and all the equipment needed to extract gold from the artisanal mines.
As a direct consequence of the extreme geographical harshness in which they live, the Tubus are individualistic, indefatigable people with a fierce and indomitable character.
Tibesti " Auto-defence " militias
This indomitable character of the Teda of Tibesti has led them in recent years, after gold was found in the region, to create so-called auto-defence groups, which, according to some of their members, consider themselves neither Chadian nor Libyan. These militias control access to the mines and strategic enclaves of Tibesti and have been causing the Chadian central government a lot of headaches for years.
We encountered these militias on several occasions, some more sympathetic than others, but always a source of uncertainty and nervousness among us, so we decided to change the itinerary of our original trip to avoid all the checkpoints in the gold mines of Minsk.
What is happening in Tibesti?
When you travel through these complicated lands and begin to learn about the reasons for the origins of these groups of "rebels", perhaps you can empathise with them.
Since 2012, the gold rush in the region has attracted traders, thousands of miners from central and southern Chad and other neighbouring countries, Chadian soldiers and army deserters, Chadian and Sudanese rebels, all looking to cash in on the quick windfall profits offered by gold mining.
The pollution caused by artisanal mercury mining, the lack of infrastructure throughout Tibesti and a Chadian state that is unable to guarantee minimum services to its inhabitants, have led the self-defence militias to count on the full local support of the Teda population.
Control and management of resources, Africa's eternal problem
In recent times, from time to time in the gold-mining areas of Tibesti, friction between the Chadian state, the gold miners and the local population of the Teda ethnic group has been increasing.
The massive influx of outsiders attracted by gold - we came across a number of pick-up trucks loaded with miners - the increasing militarisation of the region and the deep mistrust of the Teda population towards the central authorities have contributed to the recent conflicts in Tibesti.
Yebbi Bou and the change of plans
As one approached the Miski region, a mining area par excellence, through Yebbi Souma and Yebbi Bou, these tensions were particularly evident at the self-defence militia checkpoints. Especially in Yebbi Souma, where, after visiting the spectacular Enneri that runs alongside the small town, we came across a large militia post.
Continuous negotiations slowed our progress that day, so we had to set up camp in a desolate area, open to the winds and at an altitude of almost 2,000 metres. Once again we faced a difficult night. No shelter from the winds meant that the cooks would find it very difficult to do their work, that everything would be blown away, including tents, and that the night would be long as hell. Did we say this was a great adventure? This is Tibesti!
The village of Yebbi Bou, with its many traditional-style houses, is situated on a steep cliff. In the depths of the valley is a lush palm grove and a small stream.
The ancient villages of Yebbi Bou and Yebbi Souma were located in the interior of the valley, but now their inhabitants have preferred to settle on the upper part of the impressive geological fault.
After introducing ourselves to the local authorities and discussing the situation on the route to Miski and the Emi Koussi (south), we decided to radically change our initial plan and proceed to Gouro (east).
Eastern Tibesti, into the unknown
This change of plans meant that none of us, including the local team, had travelled the new route and we would have to figure out the route for ourselves as we went along.
As soon as we left Yebbi Bou and its small airstrip (used as a local airport) with an old demolished aeroplane, the road, so to speak, became indescribably difficult. Once again we had to negotiate some rocky mountain passes at an altitude of over 2,000 metres around the Tarso Guezendi volcano, more suited to goats than 4x4s. But it was certainly worth the effort. The spectacle was grandiose.
The new route offered some of the most overwhelming volcanic scenery seen so far and a continuous challenge for the drivers who had to demonstrate their best driving skills at every metre driven.
The breathtaking panoramic views followed one bend after another until late in the afternoon we descended along the rocky track to a large plateau known as Brague. With the last moments of daylight we decided to spend the night next to a small watercourse located at an altitude of 1,800 metres, the only possible protection against the wind that we saw in the surroundings.
This change of plan had worked out well for us, the whole group was tired but very excited about the new and impressive route. Little did we know that an even more impressive day awaited us the following day.
Tassili Kezen, the dream landscapes of Tibesti
The Brague plateau is the transition between the volcanic landscapes of the steepest mountains of Tibesti with the most beautiful fantasy scenes of cliffs, sand and sandstone rock.
We still did not know early in the day what an incredible surprise we were about to behold.
The track became a little more passable and began to descend through a plain of black volcanic rock until it reached a cliff that showed us what lay ahead: the Tassili Kezen, the most moving landscapes of the Chadian Sahara. A sea of sand and dunes dotted with the most impressive rock formations. To our right, the dust of the harmattan that gave us a respite earlier in the day, we could see the silhouette of Emi Koussi, the roof of the Sahara with its 3,415 metres.
A large sandstone ridge cut through two spectacular dunes, linking two huge mounds of dark rock. This ridge offered the most spectacular of all possible balconies from which to view the immense Tassili Kezen.
Throughout the day we drove through the fascinating Tassili Kezen, stopping at every turn to take photographs and randomly entering impressive canyons that looked like the eastern foothills of the Emi Koussi. The colour of the sand turned from golden to white, ending in red dunes at the end of the Tassili.
Ouadi Drosso and the leaving of Tibesti
We continued our journey slowly descending from the Tassili Kezen plateau towards Gouro, first through the Ouadi Magan and then through the Ouadi Dross. Once again some villages appeared on our way and with them the possibilities of refilling the limited water we had left in some wells.
Not far from Bini Erda we took a break at the Muioyanga well, where we met a group of gold prospectors and with whom I was able to share an interesting conversation about the gold business in Tibesti.
Gouro, Chad's most beautiful village
The arrival at Gouro was again spectacular. From the military checkpoint we could see the beautiful town situated under impressive dunes and cliffs and in the middle of an immense palm grove. After spending the night, we would have the opportunity to explore the town in depth.
The population of Gouro, strategically located on the Ounianga - Kufra (Libya) - Tibesti and Faya routes, has been suffering from depopulation in recent times. Unstoppable desertification and the search for a better future in Libya or Ndjamena mean that many of their houses are buried in the sand.
With just enough fuel to reach Ounianga Kebir, we started our journey again.
The village of Ounianga Kebir with its impressive lake surrounded by dunes and palm trees was the return to an area well known to me and the local team. The only thing left to do was to return to Ndjamena, a long journey of several days but equally interesting. Before heading back, we enjoyed a wonderful swim in a wonderful natural spa.
The caravan route and the route of the wells
The caravan route offers the chance to visit the largest concentration of rockets, bazookas, tanks, jeeps and trucks, all remnants of the war with Gaddafi's Libya. And if luck is on our side, as it was, there is a good chance of meeting some of the salt caravans that come and go from Wadi Dum. After our encounter with the Azahawa nomads, we continue our journey along the route of the wells to meet Arab nomads and Daza nomads whom we also meet at some of the numerous wells along the route.
The great elephant herd of Lake Chad
At the end of the trip we approached the Lake Chad basin in search of the large herd of elephants. This time we were unlucky and could only see a group of about 10 or 15 elephants at a long distance. In those days the elephants had destroyed some villages and the local population had attacked one of the most aggressive elephants, hunting it with the authorisation of the Chadian government. With these events the large herd of elephants had split in two and were nervous and elusive.
The Lake Chad region is a grazing area for different nomadic groups of Arabs, Peuls, Kanembeu, etc. After spending the night in a large semi-nomadic Fulanis Weila camp, we return to NDjamena where a good hotel with a swimming pool and a good rest awaits us.
Trips to Tibesti
If you want to travel to Tibesti or anywhere in Chad, please contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Wathsapp on +34 635 419 035. You can also check out our next expedition to Tibesti next year by clicking on the following link