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.