WHERE I SHOULD GO IF I WOULD LIKE TO VISIT THE SAHARA DESERT?
The Sahara desert is an immense region of the planet, with a total surface area similar to that of the United States of America and under the administration of about 12 countries. Due to the size, to the difficult environment and to the political situation, you may be wondering what is the best place to go for an expedition in the Sahara desert, to enjoy its typical landscapes, its history and the way of life of local population, but still staying safe. The short answer is Chad, as long as you go with a trusted tour company as we will see later.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN TOURIST ATTRACTIONS IN CHAD?
Chad is located in the heart of North Africa, far from all the seas and largely occupied by the Sahara Desert and the Sahel. Little known among the community of travelers and tourists, Chad offers wonderful opportunities to visit some of the most beautiful regions of Sahara desert, a true paradise for geologists and archaeologists, where tourists can also learn more about the daily life of Tubu people who learned to live in perfect harmony with such harsh environment. The Sahel, the geo-climatic zone that separates the Sahara desert from the savannah, offers excellent opportunities for a better contact with different tribes of Chadian people, as well as to spot the typical local fauna. Instead, the southernmost regions of Chad offer to visitors the possibility to experience extensive safaris among most of the typical African wildlife, or to attend to colorful festivals of nomadic shepherds. But let's see in more details what are the main tourist attractions in Chad and the reasons to go there:
- Ennedi plateau. The Ennedi is a region that occupies the north-eastern quadrant of Chad and houses the mountain massif of its same name, rich in beautiful landscapes which are rather unique in the Sahara desert. Oddly shaped sandstone formations, natural stone arches, rock pinnacles, sand dunes, canyons, oases with lakes surrounded by palm trees: this is the Sahara desert at its best, and is called also "the garden of Sahara" because the rainfall slightly above the average, makes it a living desert. In fact here visitors will find beautiful acacia trees and other xerophyte plants, as well as nomadic and semi-nomadic shepherds with their goats, sheep and heard of dromedaries. Instead, the rock paintings and the petroglyph thousands of years old, illustrates that in distant times, this region of Sahara was even more full of life.
- Tibesti mountains. The Tibesti occupies the north-western areas of Chad and is a real myth among desert lovers, as it hosts the highest mountains of Sahara. Here the landscape is predominantly rocky and very harsh, but shows a supreme beauty. At an altitude of 3445 meters, Emi Koussi is an ancient volcano very interesting for the geology, with massive deposits of natron (a white salt) on the bottom of a large caldera, while further downhill, visitors can still appreciate sandstone formations and chains of sand dunes looking like the typical postcard of a desert.
- Borkou region. The Borkou region in northern Chad is very little known and is particularly interesting for its history and archaeology, as it's rich in rock paintings and petroglyphs, but also for its beautiful landscape, with lot of oddly shaped sandstone formations and sand dunes.
- The Sahel.
The Sahel is a geo-climatic zone a couple of hundreds kilometers wide, which separates the savannah from the desert and which represents a slow transition between the two environments in terms of geology, landscape, vegetation and wildlife. Although there are airports in the Sahara Desert that would allow visitors to arrive by plane, these are usually used only by a few private (and very expensive) flights, so most trips to Chad will begin and end in the capital N'Djamena, quite far away from Ennedi, from Tibesti and from any other Saharan region. However, the trip by car crossing all the Sahel, should not be seen as a simple "transfer", but as an interesting opportunity to learn more about the Chadian life, to see remote rural villages and to enjoy landscapes among endless plains and dry river beds. Generally, going and return trips between N'Djamena and the Sahara desert are done along different routes, giving the opportunity to explore an even more wider area.
- Zakouma Park. The wetter areas of south-eastern Chad are the home to one of the most extensive protected areas in Africa, where visitors can observe the typical wildlife of the savannah, such as lions, wildebeests, buffalo, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes and elephants, as well as a very rich bird life.
- Wodaabe festival. Wodaabe festivals are generally held in the Sahel after the rainy season (usually in October) and are particularly interesting if you wish to travel to Chad to learn more about ethnic minorities, culture and traditions. During the Wodaabe ceremonies, men decorate their face and body in an extreme way, before dancing in the hope to impress a girl.
HOW TO GET TO CHAD?
At the date of this travelogue, the only airport in Chad getting scheduled flights, is N'Djamena International Airport. Airfrance offers some direct flights per week between Paris Charles de Gaulle and N'Djamena, also in connection with other Airfrance flights from Europe, from the USA and from other parts of the world. Alternatively, visitors to Chad can get to N'Djamena via Addis Ababa by Ethiopian, or from some other major hubs in North Africa, with their related airlines, like Cairo or Casablanca. Generally, the tour package to Sahara desert includes also the flight from your home country to Chad, so you will not have to worry about that. Arriving in Chad from a neighboring country by crossing the border by car, is not an option currently recommended to tourists.
HOW TO GET TO SAHARA DESERT?
The major tourist attractions of Chad and the Sahara desert, are located very far from the capital N'Djamena and, although there are airports in the most remote regions, these are usually served only by very expensive private flights. Therefore, the only real way to get to Sahara desert for most tourists, will be by a long drive from N'Djamena across the Sahel (a journey that anyway, as we said, it should not only be seen as just a "transfer", but as an opportunity to see more). However, you should know that any trip outside N'Djamena must be authorized by the local Police office, not to mention that the distances involved and the hardness of the environment, require a complex logistic. Chad is therefore not suitable for individual travel, but it is essential to go only with an accredited and qualified tour operator, which can guarantee redundant equipment and vehicles (for safety reasons it is necessary to go with at least 2 cars, even if there is only one person in the group), in addition to the complex paperwork, which is essential as well for the success of the expedition.
The only tour operator who can organize trips to Chad in complete safety and complying with all the local laws, is Spazi d'Avventura, an operator with decades of experience, offering many itineraries for group departures, but also full support for individual trips in terms of dates, itinerary, number of travelers and main "theme" of the tour, based on own interests. So if you are looking for a tour operator in the Sahara desert, Spazi d'Avventura is the way to go.
IS IT SAFE TO GO TO CHAD?
Due to the geographical position and due to the news that you may occasionally hear on the TV on that parts of the world, you may wonder if it's really safe to go to Chad and what are the real conditions of the safety in Chad for travelers. As already mentioned, individual tourism in Chad is not recommended due to the harsh environment, to the isolation and to the paperwork required. There is therefore no particular risk going to Chad (or, better, no higher risks compared to other adventurous travel in any part of the world) since you will have to go with an accredited operator, who will well know how to make sure that the expedition in the Sahara desert will be real a success, in total safety.
WHAT IS THE BEST TIME TO GO TO SAHARA DESERT?
The best season to visit Chad is from mid-autumn to early spring, when the (already low) rainfall is virtually reduced to zero and when temperatures are not extreme. The months of November and February are particularly perfect for trips to Sahara desert, as the nights are not too cold, while the daytime temperature allows visitors to stay outdoors and take long walks without suffering from too much heat. The months of December and January, very popular because they match the holiday season in most countries, are also excellent for traveling to Chad, just keep in mind that the nights in the Sahara desert can be cool (or sometimes cold), but using a good sleeping bag the problem does not exist. Starting from April, the daytime temperatures rise a lot, making the hikes less comfortable, while the increase in rainfall in some regions could cause the flooding of river beds (even in the Sahara), making some tracks impassable. Dust and sand storms are not particularly frequent events, but they can always happen (and the positive traveler will see them as an interesting new experience). Those who would like to visit the Tibesti, since they will get to high altitudes, should not under-evaluate night temperatures, which can go down several degrees below freezing point throughout autumn, winter and spring.
MORE CHAD AND SAHARA DESERT TRAVEL TIPS
- What are the entry requirements in Chad? Except for a few countries, most visitors to Chad will need a visa to be obtained before arrival. An international yellow fever certificate is required as well. Please check for full conditions and details with the foreign affairs office of your home country.
- Overnight in the Sahara desert Outside the capital N'Djamena there are no accommodation facilities, so overnights will be only in tents (easy to mount), provided by the tour operator together with a mattress. You need to bring a good sleeping bag with minimum comfort temperature between freezing point and -5/-10 degrees Celsius. Those who are going to higher altitudes on Tibesti, will need a much warmer sleeping bag.
- Food on the expedition to Sahara desert During the trip to Chad, meals are prepared by the local staff and by a chef, who follows the group throughout the tour. Part of the "raw materials" are sent by the tour operator (Spazi d'Avventura) from Italy, while others are purchased on site in the markets whenever possible. The meals are composed to ensure the right intake of calories and minerals, while thanks to the "Italian school", they will be particularly tasty and well prepared.
- How to wash in the Sahara desert? For obvious reasons, visitors are required to save water as much as possible. On daily basis, a bowl of around two liters of water is supplied to each one, in order to have a kind of shower (such water may be put into a bottle, so will be easier to pour it on the body). Occasionally, it is possible to take a complete bath in freshwater oases, since there is no danger of bilharziosis or other parasitic diseases. It is advisable to bring a sufficient amount of wet wipes, to be always disposed properly once used.
- Where to throw the waste? You should not leave anything in the desert, therefore, handkerchiefs, toilet paper, wet wipes, wraps of snacks, plastic bottles and so on, must be disposed properly. I recommend to bring small bags (for example food bags) that can be filled with waste and stored somewhere, before disposing them in a town.
- How to dress in the Sahara desert? Given the inability to wash clothes during travel (except for some rare occasion at the oasis), it is essential to use highly breathable clothes. Personally I prefer a very light wool or synthetic rather than cotton, because the latter tents to dry very slowly once wet and let the sweat to evaporate less efficiently. Because of the strong sun, it is good to use long clothes, not leaving the skin exposed for as much as possible (it may seem strange, but you will suffer less heat if you are totally covered). A good hat is very important, either for the sun, either and for the cool evenings, while a sweater or a pile can be always useful, together with a windbreaker, especially uphill in winter. To protect yourself from dust, you can use a scarf, while the shoes must be robust, comfortable and suitable for rough terrain (a pair of sandals will be instead useful during long transfers on the car). For trips to the high altitudes of Tibesti, visitors will need more technical clothing, to be evaluated more carefully.
- Is a tour in the Sahara suitable for everyone? Thanks to the excellent organization by Spazi d'Avventura operator, traveling to Chad is particularly comfortable and relaxing. But we must consider that it is still a real expedition in close contact with nature, far from hotels and in the middle of nowhere, therefore, the tour is suitable only to those with a flexible mind, who can live for days without primary things like running water, electricity, toilet or soft bed. If you have any doubts, but overcome it, you will discover that sleeping in a tent in the middle of nowhere, amidst breathtaking scenery, is something exceptional.
- Power plugs in Chad The power outlets in Chad are like the French ones and therefore with two round pins. Generally the electricity is only available in N'Djamena on the first and last day of the expedition.
- How to recharge the batteries in Chad? To recharge the batteries of the electronic devices that you take on the expedition, you may use the cigarette lighter of the car. You may wish to bring either a small inverter or a good cigarette lighter adapter with USB output, depending on the devices you intend to use. In any case, do not forget to bring several spare battery, already charged at home, since the cigarette lighter socket will be shared with all the people in the group and can only be used with the cars running.
- Will my smartphone work in the Sahara desert? First of all you need to know if your mobile phone operator has roaming agreements with the operators in Chad and be aware that the costs for making and receiving calls (not to mention Internet) can be very high. The mobile phone coverage in Chad is constantly increasing and is available even in some areas of the Ennedi not far from villages. However, if you need guaranteed communications throughout the expedition, the only way to go is with a satellite phone (accredited tour operators always carry one, but they can be usually used only to handle emergencies, not for personal calls).
- Malaria in Chad Mosquitoes capable of transmitting malaria are present in Chad, sometimes in large number, from central Sahel all the way to the south (including N'Djamena, of course) and this disease is a real problem for local people. In the Sahara desert, however, including Ennedi and other regions, mosquitoes are present only occasionally and they do not carry malaria. The opportunity or not to make anti-malarial prophylaxis depends on the season of travel (during the dry season there are fewer mosquitoes also in the south and in N'Djamena) and from the itinerary. For a classic tour to Ennedi or in the Tibesti, since they are usually done in the dry season, visitors may consider just to protect themselves during the short transit between N'Djamena and the central Sahel, using long clothes and lot of mosquito repellents containing a minimum of 25% of DEET, spraying it even during the day and immediately after disembarking from the plane. Taking care with suitable clothes and repellents is probably the best way to prevent malaria, since the anti-malarial prophylaxis, does not guarantee a 100% protection and does not cover from the other diseases still transmitted by mosquitoes. For other itineraries outside the Sahara and for the wet season, it's instead best to evaluate the situation carefully with the operator of the trip.
- Taking pictures in Chad To avoid problems with photography in Chad, it is necessary to follow some rules strictly. In Chad it is forbidden to photograph military buildings, police stations, checkpoints along the roads or anywhere else, administrative buildings, schools, barracks and people in uniform. When you want to photograph someone, you must always ask for permission, perhaps by saying hello and introducing yourself first. Do not aim and shoot, or you will cause a reaction (do not hope to take pictures while hidden somewhere, because they will certainly see you). In populated areas (villages, markets) it is good to avoid taking pictures, even if specific subjects are not framed, as it is impossible to know if some sensitive item falls casually in the frame. In any case, photographers must always be polite, courteous and use respect, as photographing is not a right just because you are there.
- Currency in Chad The official currency of Chad is the CFA Franc, used in various countries of West and Central Africa. When you will change (which can be done in N'Djamena at the hotel) it is advisable to ask for small notes, so it will be easier to spend them among street markets. Do not change a huge amount of money, since the cost of life in Chad is much lower compared to western countries.
- Official language in Chad The official languages of Chad are French and Arabic, but dozens of tribal languages are spoken by the various ethnic groups. English is understood and spoken very seldom.