Chad? What's out there? Endless brutal desert, camels and wild nomadic people right? Only crazy travellers go there. So I went. And then there is Zakouma; a most unexpected and spectacular wildlife bonanza!
The safari season at Zakouma in Chad is between December and end April; the dry conditions and low water levels in the floodplains and rivers are like magnets for multitudes of game and birds. However, every so often a unique opportunity arises, one too good to turn down.
I was invited by African Parks to spend 7 weeks at Zakouma in the middle of the wet season during October and November. Conditions in the reserve at this time are daunting as all of the roads are submerged and getting around is almost impossible. The Salamat River and tributaries are navigable by boat or canoe, and only some of the floodplain systems are accessible by canoe and muddy amphibious walks. Zakouma, outside the safari calendar, is a secretive and mysterious place that very few explorer guides access. No-one could answer a multitude of questions … What of the road conditions? How much water is there? Where do the animals move? What new birds are there? How viable is it to run safaris at this time of year? And perhaps the most intriguing of all: what is like to spend some good old quality time on the ground during the secret season?
The mould-breaking chance to explore all of this is certainly not lost on me, and it has been a huge privilege. I believe it is fundamentally important to understand the heartbeat and culture of a reserve; its moods, its seasons, it rhythms, its challenges. To discover the area and its wildlife from vantage points not normally possible. To spend time with people on the ground and understand their lives and livelihoods. Perhaps only then, as a safari guide, may it possible to say that you know a place.
My mission at Zakouma was twofold.
Firstly, to explore the possibility of a wet season safari product and its limitations. To scout for suitable fly-camp locations that are accessible by boat or canoe, and what the walking conditions are like. For certain, the roads here in the wet are unnavigable as most of the terrain is a sea of swamp and mud. To figure out how to track the great Zakouma elephant herd of 300 on foot for example. Game viewing is challenging but we located elephant, Central African savannah buffalo, lion, Defassa waterbuck, Buffon's kob and herds of Kordofan giraffe. Birdlife is as spectacular as ever with amongst others black crowned crane, northern carmine bee-eaters, stone partridge and Egyptian plover on the list. Also on the radar is to work out the possibility of multi-day canoe expeditions down the hippo-less waters Salamat River, which is absolutely stunning. For me, Zakouma under the most optimal conditions, is considered as a safari beyond the frontier. But the wet season is even further from the edge. Logistically doable, but certainly challenging due to the waterlogged ground, re-supply limitations, the possibility of rain, and the guarantee of industrial amounts of mosquitos. It's an intrepid explorer’s dream, so count me in!
Secondly, I am designing and leading a guide training course on behalf of the Tinga Camp, Camp Nomade and the community guides. There is no guiding qualification structure in Chad so my mission is to create one. It's another privilege to be asked by African Parks at Zakouma, and it’s never been formally done before. There is a group of guys, almost all from Islamic communities on board, and only two speak any English. Another boundary to navigate. So, relying on my good friend, excellent lead Camp Nomade guide Steve Gao as a translator and advisor. What have I discovered so far? That the warmth, humility, passion and enthusiasm of these people makes them all super-qualified. Guiding standards in the industry is a huge topic, but I believe you just can’t top good old fashioned human being-ness as a foundation. To think that this country was once considered as the “dark heart of Africa.”
I am leading two privately guided dry-season safaris to Zakouma in April 2021 and limited space is available. If a trip beyond the frontier sounds appealing, please feel free to make contact for more information.
It’s all a bit wild for that.
Our expedition is/was to create a little more awareness about this, to create a blip on the extreme tourism radar at least. The more interest in visiting Ennedi (under the right circumstances that is ... my opinion is that its to premature to consider self-drive safaris) the more probability there may be of any community buy-in.
As an explorer-guide-conservationist, my dream is to share opportunities of support for reputable conservation initiatives. I may not be a scientist or politician, but I have an understanding of what it takes to develop protected areas. If you wish to consider an exploratory safari to Ennedi, or discover more about the African Parks work, let’s make contact.
The scenery, sense of place and specialised wildlife on offer is staggering. You’ll be hooked.
But his legacy does not end there.
For over two successive summer seasons he returned north, returning each time to the Ugab with a small family unit in tow. An elephant patriarch. These elephants are still resident in the region and have formed the nucleus of three distinct breeding herds, making the Ugab/Huab Rivers perhaps the most viable desert elephant habitats in the world. Voortrekker continues as the Godfather, a true legend of the Ugab. His ancestral knowledge has been passed down to a new generation of desert dwellers. What a legacy!
For me, all of this addresses one of the most crucial fallacies of elephant conservation, trophy hunting, and the notion of sustainable consumption: that older bulls have no value to an elephant community and can be hunted under the banner of ecological benefit.
This is a fundamental calamity.
If Voortrekker’s right of way is conserved, then so too will a vast landscape of conservation, employment, education, financial viability , hope and possibility.
ELEGEND. He is actually showing us the way if we take a moment to realise it.
And is precisely why Voortrekker’s story needs to be told to a wider audience. I invite you to share widely. Elephant, generally, are considered as a keystone of an ecological circuit, but THIS elephant could be considered as a keystone of elephant consciousness.