Those in the know mention Zakouma with reverence, hushed awe and longing. The national park in Chad has long commanded near legendary status throughout Africa for its abundant wildlife and true wilderness.
Recently, it became even more renowned when six black rhinos were flown 3,000 miles from South Africa to land on a purpose-built runway of compacted gravel in the middle of the park – the first to be seen in Chad since their species was wiped out by poachers half a century ago.
Their arrival makes Zakouma the closest “Big Five” destination to Europe, the rhinos joining lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo as residents of the park. All the rhinos will be dehorned next week to deter poachers, and electronically tagged. If they survive and thrive, another 14 will follow at a later date.
What a difference 50 years make. Established by the Chad government in 1963, Zakouma used to be where French colonials came for trophy hunting, rivalling even Kenya for its bounty. Then civil and military unrest rocked the country. Chad doesn’t have the easiest of neighbours: Libya, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Sudan; and at different times there has been fighting on almost every side. Even today, the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to many parts of Chad (see Travel Essentials panel) and declares some areas completely off limits. However, it is possible to visit as a tourist using one of the specialist guides who operate in Zakouma and know the park well.
From the Eighties onwards, Chad’s instability brought in poachers – and there was nothing amateur about their work. Zakouma’s elephant population declined sharply, plunging from 20,000 in the Seventies to just a few thousand in 2002. Over the next eight years, a further 90 per cent were killed, leaving only 450. Rhinos disappeared entirely, and revenue from horn and ivory sales was used to fund armed conflict in the region.
Then, in 2010, the Chad government turned to African Parks, a private, non-profit organisation based in Johannesburg with a reputation for rigorous park management and military-style training for its rangers.
They were already taking care of some of the most neglected parks on the continent, such as Majete in Malawi and Garamba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and with some success. It was now the turn of Zakouma, a place I’d had in my own sights for more than 10 years.
I flew via Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, to N’Djamena, Chad’s sleepy low-rise capital on the banks of the meandering Chari river, so full of hippos they can be spotted on the approach. We were to spend 24 hours here, getting to know the other safari guests (eight of us in total) who had come from London, Miami, Hong Kong and Seattle. We made our introductions, used the last few hours of Wi-Fi and lounged about the hotel bar where a dozen or so American soldiers were singing “Happy Birthday” to one of their group and a washed-up cabaret singer was crooning tunes by Edith Piaf.
Early next morning we headed back to the airport to board the domestic flight, run by Mission Aviation Fellowship. Heading east to Zakouma, our plane banked between rocky inselbergs, buzzed the camp and touched down lightly. Met by the staff, including the aptly named driver Bonaventure, we boarded the safari vehicles and the adventure began.
The landscape of Zakouma is a mix of scrubby bush, gallery forest, grassland and marshes. On our first 4x4 outing, an Abyssinian roller darted between the branches of an acacia tree, there was a flash of a little green bee-eater, and we spotted pronking Lelwel hartebeest, shaggy waterbuck and a herd of Roan antelope with their warrior markings and sabre-like horns. Eagles and harriers circled above. Baboons squabbled over the blossoms of a sausage tree. A pair of bull elephants moved out of a copse, seemingly undisturbed by the vehicle.
I dismissed any preconceptions that the park might be depleted or the animal behaviour skittish.
We set up camp in front of the wetland area of Rigueik Pan. I have been on many safaris, but the abundance of bird life here was something I had never witnessed before. While elsewhere you might see a few pairs of cranes, here the flocks are so huge they appear as layers of greys and whites from the far left of your vision to the far right. The air was filled with croaking, chirruping, the clacking of bills, urgent quacking and low trills.
The concentration was astonishing, the bands of bird life so dense I could hardly distinguish the outlines of individuals. My focus wasn’t helped by the heat, with temperatures in the region of 45C, nor by the dust in the air. For Zakouma is affected by the Harmattan, the north-easterly trade wind referred to in The English Patient as a “sea of darkness”, a “red wind” which, when it mixes with rain, can be “mistaken for blood”.
This extreme weather, combined with Zakouma’s geography, helps explain the density and diversity of the wildlife. To the north is parched desert; to the south thick rainforest – neither a haven for a wide range of species – meaning the animals are contained here. For five months of the year, Zakouma is drenched and pretty intolerable, meaning it is only open to visitors in the dry season (mid-November to the end of May) when the area turns from waterlogged to lush and green.
Amid the profusion of game, perhaps the most uplifting sighting is of elephants, the symbol of Zakouma’s remarkable turnaround. But the scene is also heartbreaking. All the bulls I saw had small stubby tusks because the big tuskers were shot first, wiping out their breeding line. Nearly all the animals, numbering about 500, huddle together, a reflection of anxiety as they seek safety in numbers.
The good news is that the herd is beginning to fragment, evidence that they are relaxing. Joyfully, there are now calves among the herd, signalling the end of the trauma of heavy poaching that stopped the elephants breeding. Numbers are now on the rise; when I spoke to members of an anti-poaching unit, they told me they had counted 127 babies a day earlier.
African Parks have been here only eight years, but they have pulled off something significant: securing the park, reducing poaching to almost zero and allowing animal populations to recover. Every night I heard lions through the netting of my tent, and we sighted them on most days. Apex predators are a bellwether for a healthy ecosystem and the prides were in great condition, muscular and silken, well fed on herds of pale-toned Kordofan giraffe, stocky bushbuck, finer Bohor reedbuck and speedy tiang.
Central African savanna buffalo, reduced to about 200 animals in the Eighties, number more than 10,000 today. A herd of this subspecies on the move resembles a patchwork of tans, beiges and russets, and the dust they kick up is often seen before the animals themselves as they move heavy-footed across the horizon. After dark on night drives, there were multiple sightings of genet, civet, serval and African wildcat too.
Now, with black rhino in residence, the pressure to protect the park will increase, but Leon Lamprecht, Zakouma’s park manager, feels confident. “With our people, our training and our communication, we are fully capable of looking after Zakouma,” he said. “We must hold the fort until the market [for horn and ivory] dries up.” In the past 18 months, he pointed out, there hasn’t been a single, successful incident of elephant-poaching in Zakouma. Recognising the organisation’s commitment and success, the Chad government has recently given African Parks responsibility for further tracts of land around Zakouma.
In February, they handed over Ennedi, a Unesco World Heritage Site valued for its sandstone formations and rock art. In time, that will open up the north of the country to tourists.
Chad may not be an obvious safari destination, but it deserves to be – and I feel sure it will be soon. In Zakouma there are already two camps for international guests, the most comfortable being Camp Nomade and the more basic Tinga.
Guiding standards are among the highest in Africa, with the continent’s best practitioners flying in with their guests. I travelled with Johannesburg-based Richard Anderson, who is allotted Camp Nomade for one week per year. “I want to open up new frontiers like this,” he told me. “There’s so much more freedom, so much independence compared to traditional safari locations. It’s a high-cost trip but guests love getting away from the cookie-cutter model.”
During his week in residence, Anderson arranged two nights even deeper in the bush, fly-camping by the Salamat River. This was where my most treasured memories of Chad were made. A near-full moon rose up, throwing a fragmented reflection on the river. I flashed my head torch across the surface of the water to see dozens of pairs of red eyes; in case I was in any doubt, there was a loud belch from a crocodile.
Next morning, around sunrise, we left camp to walk along the sandy river bed between the last remaining desiccating pools. We spied red-flanked duikers and northern carmine bee-eaters, then stared down deep, forbidding tunnels excavated by crocodiles. We heard the pitter-patter of tiny wings as a bloom of quelea pulsated in the air, barrelling towards us. Beyond them were herds of buck and buffalo. Time slowed down that morning: hearing the shush-shush of my footsteps, inhaling the looming heat and picturing my remoteness, it felt like my life was lengthening – and that is surely the greatest of gifts.
The Foreign Office (gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/chad) advises against all travel to some parts of Chad and all but essential travel to the destinations on this itinerary: the capital N’Djamena and Zakouma National Park. However, tour operators working with African Parks (african-parks.org) can arrange permits. Be aware that standard travel insurance may not cover visits to such regions.
✱ Anderson Expeditions (0027 83 632 2893; andersonexpeditions.com) offers a seven-night safari based at Camp Nomade and its fly-camp, from £10,000 (about Dh48,000) per person. The price includes meals and drinks in the park, a night in N’Djamena on arrival, charter flights to and from Zakouma, and a specialist guide.
✱ The next departure dates are February 12-19 2019.
✱ Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.com) flies from Dubai to N’Djamena via Addis Ababa from about Dh3,300 return.