Chad, Tchad or Tjad. A name to conjure with. I knew it was a poor country, torn by civil war, somewhere in the Sahara Desert. But where was it situated precisely? What was its past? And what did its present and future hold?
A map answered the first question easily enough. South of Libya, west of Sudan, north of the Central African Republic and east of Niger and Cameroon. In other words, if you were to plonk your finger down in the middle of the Sahara Desert, that’s where you’d put it. The rest was much more difficult to answer as a 30 year civil war had devastated this already desperately poor country of some six and a quarter million people, which consists of two thirds desert and one third savannah. A World Bank Survey pointed out that the country was landlocked, had no railway lines and a mere 370 kilometres of tarred roads – difficult to comprehend in the 21st Century.
The capital of Chad, N’djaména (pronounced Jem – en – na), formerly known as Fort Lamy and named after an early French military administrator, was a messy collection of dusty, low buildings interspersed with the mud walled homes of the local Arab and black people. The north of the country consisted of Muslim tribes while the south primarily comprised an array of Bantu tribes, some Christian and others pagan animists.
From what I could tell, in times gone by, Chad’s biggest export had been black slaves captured or bought by Arabs and exported to Arab countries, primarily Sudan and Saudi Arabia. There was also reliable evidence to suggest that this practice continued unabated through the 1930s and, even today, you could find those who insisted it still carried on, albeit in a much diminished form.
The comparatively recent elections had not healed the rifts of the civil war and, as we were to become all too personally and painfully aware, inter-tribal violence, vendettas and feuds were an ever present feature of the lawlessness, destructive poverty and violence which wracked current day Chad.
After leaving N’djamena, a two and a half hour charter flight took us to the dirt strip next to the mud stone fortress of Fada, capital of the Ennedi region and the most north-easterly "town" in Chad, (250 kilometres from Sudan and 350 from Libya). After a further two hour drive, we arrived at our camp for the next ten days – four green, Cabelas igloo tents, pitched one behind the other, in a narrow eight metre wide, 75 metre long, blind canyon, with high, vertical walls and a little hand dug well at the end which we shared with a bunch of nomads who used it to water their goats and donkeys. Not ideal because of the noise, dung, flies and risk of theft which the nomads and their beast inevitably provided but the compromise gave us shelter from the severe heat and, most importantly, from the fierce and dangerous desert winds and sand storms.
Around us stretched the huge triangular hunting concession, the base measuring about 400 kilometres and the sides roughly 300 kilometres each, in total, equal to about 7,5 million hectares. This massive area embraced Sahara Desert and the ever interestingly shaped, reddish tan and black sandstone rock massifs of the Ennedi Mountains, many of them emerging vertically from the flat desert floor and rising for hundreds of metres. They were shaped like forts, cathedrals, ocean liners, rows of ragged teeth, sculpted towers and huge figures of people, faces and animals. The contrast between rock and hectares of endless sand, interspersed with the occasional rusting wreck of a Libyan tank, truck or armoured car (in the past they had tried unsuccessfully on three occasions to annex Chad), was awesome and you would have to be particularly insensitive not to feel the timeless tranquility, peace, stillness and terrible beauty of the intractable and merciless terrain.
I stood on the wadi floor craning my neck upward at the sheer walls of the rock massif. I could not believe we were planning to climb this huge sandstone block but everyone in the hunting team was nonchalantly shrugging into rucksacks, loading water bottles and removing my camera bag and rifle from my anxious clutches.
Alain Lefol, ex master ski and climbing instructor in the French military, clambered unerringly up the side of rock wall, his feet seemingly glued to the rock like the aoudad or Barbary sheep that was our prey. With a slip here, a stumble there and much help from Egray Djeme, our local Goran guide and Gaille Atim, our tracker from Gos-Beida to the south, I eventually made it to the top of the lava covered mountain. Plates and pipes of brittle, metallic, black lava covered almost every surface and, periodically, formed jagged outcrops. The only exception was the sandy floor of a narrow, deep, vertically walled wadi, sparsely strewn with pale green, tough, wiry grasses and Kam Kam thorns that divided the mountain top into two roughly equal halves.
I moved up next to Alain as he lay prone across a rocky outcrop on the skyline. He turned and, in his inimitable French accent, said "You see ze mouflon in ze cave at ze end of ze valley?" Eventually, with much coaching, exactly 680 metres away according to my Leica Geovid distance measuring binoculars, in the shade of a shallow cave carved by centuries of wind-blown sand in the base of a rock tower, I saw an aoudad ram lying down and resting, his legs neatly bunched beneath him and covered by his flowing golden beard and chest hair.
He had chosen his spot perfectly. From his post he commanded a view of the entire length of the steep sided ravine which separated us. A steady breeze from behind would bring the unwelcome scent of any intruder from the rear and the steep, shear sides of the rocky tower that was his resting place, eliminated any surprise attack from above or below.
Barbary sheep take their name from the Barbary Coast of North Africa where they were first discovered by white explorers. Barbary, in turn, takes its name from Berbers, the Arab tribe which inhabited much of this region. They are also called aoudad from the Tunisian name, udad and they are the only indigenous sheep in Africa although, if the truth be known, they are two chromosomes short of being a goat, whereas Nubian ibex, the only indigenous goat in Africa, is one chromosome short of being a sheep.
Rowland Ward says that "Barbary sheep do not necessarily need a large and high mountain chain for their habitat, but are just as content in isolated rocky areas, living in small troops of an adult ram and ewes with numerous lambs. Their uniform sandy-brown colouring makes them almost invisible against the rocks and cliffs, among which they confidently leap. The adult ram has a long fringe of hair down the throat which envelopes the forequarters and hangs below the knees. The tail is very long and thickly haired. The horns curve in a semi-circle up, out, back and down, in youth there are shallow grooves and ridges, but as the animal grows older they wear down until almost smooth." Minimum entry level into The Book is 26 inches for the longest horn.
"E look big" said Alain. "We will ave to take a closer look." On the wadi floor again, the Ehou mountain, which we now needed to climb if we wanted to approach the aoudad under cover, looked formidable. It even gave Alain pause for thought as he carefully examined the vertical rock wall to our front through his 10×40 Leicas. "I sink I see a way" he eventually said. "Maybe one or two difficult pitch where we need ze rope, but I sink we can make it." And we did but, even though Alain belayed us up these pitches, they stretched my limited rock climbing experiences to the limit.
Reaching the lava level up top for the second time was a huge relief and
I waited behind a screen of rock until Alain motioned me forward. "Look, e sleep," he grinned. Sure enough, 362 metres to the front, the big ram dozed, his head resting against the cave wall to his right. "E as big bases but no curl. It look like ze tips may be broken" he continued. In the dim light of the cave, with the background interior colour matching the amber beige of the horns, it was difficult to tell. We would need to stalk closer.
At 292 metres we ran out of cover. The ram was still oblivious to our presence as I slid Alain’s backpack over the sharp pointed lava rocks to provide a rest. I half knelt, half crouched behind the sheltering rocks – neither completely comfortable nor completely steady.
As I looked through the powerful 2.5-10×56 Zeiss Diavari Z scope on top of my custom made .300 Win. Mag., the ram woke and turned his head to the side. Suddenly there was a curl to the horn. "Alain" I said, "look at those horns now. They’re not so bad."
"Hmmm" he replied. "I no see ze curl until now. E will go 24, 25 inch. Zat is our average size. Do you want im?" All kinds of thoughts whirred through my mind. It had been a wonderful climb and stalk. Our set up was probably as good as it was going to get. To take the shot on offer seemed the right and natural thing to do. A good representative ram was all I wanted anyway. I was also reluctant to look a gift horse in the mouth.
As I settled into the shot, the crosshairs bobbed up and down, on and off the ram’s left shoulder. I could not seem to find a comfortable position for my 1,88 metre frame amongst the jagged rocks. I breathed in, exhaled, mentally climbed inside the scope, concentrated and tried to still the crosshairs as best as my uncomfortable stance would allow. I squeezed the trigger. As the recoil snatched the ram from the sight pattern, I was suddenly not sure of the shot.
"Shoot again! Shoot again!" Alain whispered urgently to my right. The ram was now on his feet some 20 paces to the left of his original position and the same distance further away. After the second shot rang out I was in time to see the big ram reverse course and disappear behind the rock pillar housing his cave. He moved slowly. His hindquarters appeared unnaturally hunched and there was just a hint of a stumble.
"Ja, ja" I heard Egray mutter behind me. "Reload. Stay down. Watch!" Alain instructed unnecessarily. I was going nowhere. For ten minutes we watched – on red alert. The ram did not re-appear.
As we neared the cave, a white splash of freshly shattered rock testified to my miss. It had been a poor shot – high and to the left. The second one, however, was right on the money and, not 20 paces away the rear end of a very sick ram protruded around a rock buttress. The end came quickly after that and the ram rolled over and down a steep slope for some 25 metres before coming to rest on a rock strewn ledge.
I had a second Barbary sheep licence so, as day three dawned, we drove down a monster, one kilometre long, sand dune heading for Wadi Archeï, far to the east of our camp. We crossed the tree-lined wadi, south of the oasis of the same name and headed down the broad Dozel-bir-Coeïre valley, heading for some mountains to the east that Alain had never visited but wanted to explore.
At the foot of the 900 metre high Arcoucoëli Mountain, we came across a prosperous old nomad, Toko-Chime, surrounded by his sons, daughters, grandchildren and substantial herds of goats, donkeys and camels. Yes, there were mushi bo ( big sheep) in the mountains and in the Chili Mountains behind them. Yes, he would show us how to get there. Unfortunately, the old man was not quite equal to the first rock pitch we came to and we had to leave him behind, nursing grazes to his ankle, shin and pride while the five of us, Alain, myself, Mahomet Maïdo (our new Goran guide), Omar Kore, our water bearer and Gaille Atim, continued on up the sheer sides of the rock massif.
We enjoyed a wonderful day in the mountains but without success and, as the shadows lengthened, we reluctantly climbed down to the dunes below determined to return the next day with sleeping bags and some food so we could be on the high plateau as dawn broke. It was not to be.
As we trundled back to camp at a steady 60 kilometres per hour – down on the firm sand of the wadi floor (about a hundred metres or so from our higher tracks of the morning against the sides of the mountains as we looked for spoor) because, in the evening, the wadi floor cools quicker than the higher areas and the sand becomes firmer – I looked to my right and noticed four nomads in their traditional, long, flowing robes emerge from the scrub growing at the foot of the mountain walls enclosing the valley and run towards us. I saw a bright, round, red light and, in the split second before the cracking thump of the bullet met my ears, thought "Oh, nomads camping around a fire in the wadi being friendly and waving at us."
As the first shot was rapidly followed by a string of AK-47 rounds, you didn’t need to be a nuclear physicist to know what was happening. We were in the midst of an ambush that had, fortunately, gone wrong. Someone had tipped off a small band of rebels come bandits. Someone had told them that we would return on our tracks that evening – which we usually did – and they had set up an ambush on them.
We accelerated as best we could, while crouching as low in the cab as possible. In retrospect, a number of other factors contributed to our escape. Firstly, it was dusk and we were driving without lights. Secondly, we were moving at right angles to the rebels at a brisk pace and did not make the fatal mistake of turning away from them and thereby presenting an easier target.
It was considered inadvisable to drive to Fada that night to report the attack as the town was ringed by army personnel who tended to shoot first and ask questions later. And so, early the next morning, we drove in to do the necessary. For some reason, the military personnel concentrated their attention on our new nomadic Goran tribesman guide, Mahomet. Under pressure, he admitted that the old nomad, Toko-Chime, had told him that four rebels had visited him three days previously. They had one camel between the four of them and two were sick or wounded. Nevertheless, according to Mahomet, they left soon after arriving. When asked why he had not shared this information with us, Mahomet could only stare blankly in response. The attack on us had taken place ten to 15 minutes after leaving the nomad camp of the old man. Draw your own conclusions.
Certainly, the response of the authorities in Fada that these were random "coupeurs de route" or bandits, did not convince Alain or myself. And this was confirmed when soon after, Captain Mahomad Gadar, of the elite Chadian Nomad Guard who accompanied us throughout the safari, advised us that the rebels had attacked a small village 18 kilmetres to the south east of our camp and killed all 78 of the Zakawa inhabitants – men, women and children – and we needed to leave immediately.
So, as things turned out, if I had not taken my first day sheep, I might not have got one. As it was, my hunting partner, GT, despite hunting from dawn until dusk for eight straight days, went home empty handed. Not because there were no sheep. There were plenty. But a Barbary sheep, like Chad, is not easy. This is a hunt for a tough, crafty animal, with six excellent senses, in an environment that stacks the odds, one on top of the other, all in favour of the hunted. Both the sheep and the rebels take full advantage of the circumstances in which they live and both will, in all likelihood, remain alive, well and in good numbers for many years to come.