An inconvenient truth – Travel Africa Magazine

Most guests to Zakouma National Park in Chad rave about it, saying it’s nicely well worth the effort of getting there. So, when Nicky Dunnington-Jefferson set her thoughts to going, she knew she wanted skilled recommendation. Travelling as Covid-19 struck, her intrepid story reminds us of the worth of tour operator — as vital as ever now as we begin to plan our travels as soon as once more. All photos by Nicky Dunnington-Jefferson.

‘Got a whale of a tale to tell ya, lads,
A whale of a tale or two…’

So sang Kirk Douglas within the 1954 movie 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

I too have tales: a hyena on the finish of my camp mattress in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, and, in Mana once more, 4 large buffalo hoovering up seed pods and inhaling my ear spherical my flimsy tent within the early hours. But nothing ready me for what occurred earlier this 12 months in Chad. And you must know: I don’t possess a smartphone; only a very previous cellular with no web entry.

They say it’s who you realize. I say it’s moderately what and who they know — and I urge everybody to assume very fastidiously about which operator they select to organise their travels.

For my journey to Zakouma National Park, I shopped round earlier than selecting Zambezi Safari & Travel Company after establishing that the MD, John Berry, and his proper-hand girl, Amanda DeSimone, had each visited. I met up with Amanda and was impressed.

I at all times entrust Trailfinders to take care of my flight bookings. Flights to the Republic of Chad aren’t easy. In truth, little about Chad is straightforward. For a begin, it’s French-speaking (this large land-locked nation was a part of French Equatorial Africa till independence in 1960) and there are multifarious entry necessities. Amanda’s expertise was invaluable.

When I left the UK on 14 March, Covid-19 had barely raised its head at airports and the one time I had my temperature taken was in N’Djamena, simply earlier than getting into the Arrivals Hall. I used to be required to fill in types after which proceed to the Immigration desk, behind which an unwelcoming lady surveyed my passport disapprovingly. She confirmed it to another person — my visa was very a lot so as — after which she demanded fingerprints from 5 digits. This process was spectacularly unsuccessful. My fingers had been sweating a lot with nerves and the warmth that imprinting didn’t work. Eventually, she settled for a left thumb print and I used to be launched to gather my baggage.

I used to be met by two representatives from the native tour firm and pushed to my lodge, Chez Wou, my very own dangerous alternative and never really useful. Significantly, I elected to have dinner throughout the street at La Tchadienne.

The subsequent day I set off by street for Zakouma (most vacationers take a constitution flight, however there have been none accessible), with driver Hussein and cook dinner Jonny. Neither spoke English. We headed alongside a tarred however potholed street and it was highly regarded (37°C–41°C), dusty, windy and desperately poor.

Arab nomads with camels, donkeys, horses and goats had made their dwelling right here within the Guera area of the Sahel, and Jonny informed me that when it rained, they might transfer elsewhere. Rubbish was blown towards fences, and automobiles lengthy deserted lay wrecked and rusting. Solitary mosques indicated a Muslim presence — Muslims account for over 50 per cent of the inhabitants; the rest are Catholics and Protestants. I used to be stunned to come back throughout girls promoting pretty pottery and baskets.

Camping in Chad
Camping in Chad

Somewhere after Bitkine we pulled off the dusty street to camp for the evening. I awoke surrounded by lowing cattle and a herd boy. We headed to Mongo to get a defective tyre repaired. This will not be a jolly place, and no-one favored the look of my digital camera. One chap, slicing potatoes, was about so as to add onions to the combination however the cooking oil regarded extra appropriate for a automobile than a cooking pot.

Pottery in ChadI liked the assemblage of small kettles sitting within the grime exterior some outlets in Abou-Deia, the place we turned south-east in direction of Zakouma. Kettles are common for carrying water and for a fast hand wash.

Finally, round 4pm, we reached the nationwide park and Tinga Camp. I used to be scorching, dusty and considerably weary. The managers, Claire and Max, got here out to greet me with the phrases: “Have you heard the news?” No, I hadn’t. The airport was closing due to Covid-19. The final Ethiopian Airlines flight was leaving that night; the final Air France flight the next evening.

Landscape in ChadThere was no various: I requested my lads to take me straight again to N’Djamena. I rang John Berry on his emergency quantity. Calm and reassuring, he mentioned “Leave it with me.” Amanda, by means of Trailfinders, acquired me a seat on the Air France flight.

We drove by means of the evening, with just a few hours’ relaxation, on to the Air France workplace. The flight was cancelled. I used to be stranded.

Events moved shortly. Amanda steered I’m going to the French Embassy — Britain has no diplomatic workplace in Chad — and I did, returning to Chez Wou. A younger man provided me using his laptop computer as I had no entry to emails.

Christian, from African Parks (who handle Zakouma National Park, in partnership with the Chadian authorities), hammered on my door the subsequent morning. I need to go along with him to Air France and the French Embassy — once more. Also within the automobile was Margot, a Dutch instructor who, alongside together with her colleague, Albert, had been instructing English to African Parks’ workers in Zakouma. And alongside the way in which I met Iris and Willem, additionally from Holland, camp managers at Camp Nomade in Zakouma. We had been all in the identical boat, because it had been, making an attempt to fly again to Europe.

I moved to La Tchadienne to be with the remainder of the Dutch group. Amanda was on the phone to me day-after-day from Devon, preserving my spirits up, contacting my household and doing every thing doable to get me dwelling. I regarded ahead to her calls as I waited by the pool.

Lizards in ChadI photographed frequent agama (lizards), the males with their brilliant orange heads and lengthy, orange-tipped tails. I learn the African Parks Annual Report from cowl to cowl, in French. I knew about lockdown from the tv. I now knew the pool menu backwards. The meals was cheap, in contrast to at Chez Wou. Beef brochette, with beef from the Sahel, was a favorite. Breakfast was good; a buffet-fashion served within the large eating room.

The days handed. On the night of 25 March, I went right down to the bar and Margot informed me to fetch my passport instantly because the French Embassy wanted to talk to me. When I returned she handed me a cell phone and a gentleman knowledgeable me, in excellent English, that the French navy had been sending a ‘airplane to fly French nationals and others out of Chad and I, together with the Dutch contingent, was on the flight. We had been going dwelling.

Chad base campI used to be first to go away the lodge the subsequent morning, in a ramshackle automobile piloted by a one-armed driver. All pre-flight procedures had been carried out on the French navy base at BA Kossei. We progressed from tent to sweltering tent, navy personnel in every performing completely different features, rising right into a ‘holding pen’ — an enormous space with picket benches and a few cowl below thatch. Food parcels and water had been issued. I felt like a refugee.

Minibuses took us to an enormous white ‘plane with ‘Republique Francaise’ emblazoned on the physique. The cabin crew had been all feminine, attired in bottle inexperienced jumpsuits with numerous zips and badges. They had been very environment friendly. We landed at Charles de Gaulle to be greeted by French police bearing formidable weaponry.

I spent the evening in the identical lodge as my new Dutch associates and the subsequent day I flew dwelling — Air France honouring my reserving reservation on the cancelled flight — arriving solely a day later than initially deliberate.

My story is a paean to skilled and skilled tour operators; those that go the additional mile for his or her friends. At the highest for me now’s Zambezi, and Amanda and John, who lived by means of this ordeal with me.

I can not emphasise extra strongly that once you journey, make sure that your tour operator is on the prime of their sport, capable of cowl all eventualities and with a large community of contacts in place. You by no means know what’s across the subsequent thorn bush…or borne on the air. But when issues go fallacious, it is advisable to know they’ll be prepared and capable of cope.

I’ll definitely be utilizing Zambezi to plan my return journey to Chad. After all, I nonetheless must see what the fuss is all about in Zakouma!


Read Mark Stratton’s article on his go to to Zakouma in Travel Africa issue 88

For extra on Zakouma, go to the African Parks website.

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