Libya Expedition, November 1996


by Jens and Sabine Stöermer


The service station attendant in the Libyan Al Katrun greets us with a friendly smile. Unfortunately, he cannot sell us diesel at this time, perhaps again in some days. So is the will of Allah. However, this alone can not dissuade us yet from our intention from being among the first in 20 years to travel into the legendary Tibesti mountains in the northern regions of Chad.

Our tanks are still almost full because we had filled up all our cans some 150 km before Al Katrun. A smart decision, as we now find out. Sadok, our Guide, comes back with bad pieces of news from the place: approximately 100 native cross-country vehicles, for the most part blue Land Cruiser Pick-ups which were struck us on a property in the place border, are confiscated private vehicles. The police chief himself got arrested. The Libyan authorities are apparently trying to prevent smuggling of state-subsidized goods to Chad. The border is closed, also for tourists. Then, however, after some negotiating a possibility arises, and we set off to cross the Sarir Tibesti, a seemingly endlessly plain of pebbles. We will be accompanied by Sidi, a Tubu from Niger, with whom Sadok did the same route in the spring of 1996.

At 80 km/h we cross the Tropic of Cancer. Unfortunately, we don't have time for the obligatory celebration (this is some sort of tradition, similar to the equator-baptism that skippers do, because if you've crossed this line into the southern part of the Sahara, you are taken up into the group of serious Sahara travelers), and already shortly after we reach the border which was drawn here in 1994 by the UN with the ruler.

The first signs of the Tibesti soon emerge with bizarre cliff formations visible in the horizon. Wind and sand have been active here as landscape architects for millennia. In the lee of the mountain range, we set up our first night's lodging in Chad.

The next morning we do an excursion in a side valley to view some stone engravings. While driving along the dirt track, Sadok suddenly instructs us on the radio to wait, and immediately it becomes ticklish when we discover the reason: behind a cliff sits a beige Land Cruiser Pickup, surrounded by approximately 15 dark looking figures wearing military clothing and bearing AK-47's.

We fear these are Tubu rebels because Niger is not far and the rebels are known to frequent this area for attacks and robberies. Anyhow, their Kalashnikovs leave no doubt to the fact that they are serious about it when they beckon us over and command us to stop. An escape attempt would be completely senseless by our heavily laden vehicles. Sadok and Sidi drive slowly towards them, while we wait behind at some distance. A short time later comes the 'all-clear' signal. It turns out the armed group are the Border Patrol. Has anyone perhaps some beer or cigarettes for them as a gift?

We further follow the runway by a beautiful Canyon. Picturesquely distributed there are the wrecks of some more Libyan tanks and trucks that were destroyed by the French air force with the eviction of Colonel Ghaddafi's troops from North Chad in 1987. Only 2.5 years ago Libya had cleared the annexed Aouzou Strip. Back remained big amounts of military scrap and first of all tank mines and anti-personnel mines which cause deaths to this day. Here we must remain strictly in the existing tracks.

"Zouar, Porte de Tibesti, vous souhaite bienvenue" promises the large sign on the border. While Sadok takes care of all of the formalities, we wait in the shade of some palm trees. Our group appears to be a welcomed change for the staff of the local border garrison. Buddy, our Doberman, fascinates them but none of them dare to pet him.

We succeed in finding two barrels of diesel fuel on the black market. The border closing of Libya remains not without effects on the price, which amounts to approximately 1.60 DM per liter.

We are at the fuel depot for some time, since 400 liters of fuel are distributed to the vehicles using only a siphon tube, jerry can and a funnel that separates the water from the diesel fuel. Our helpers manage to spill and waste large amounts of the expensive fuel into the sand.

We leave Zouar, the southernmost point of our journey, then we change our course and head on to the Pic Tousside (Tousside Mountain), 3315 meters high. With difficulty, our vehicles climb over steps, razor-sharp stone and big boulders or rumble through holes filled with dust and trace grooves. Over and over again, insidious stones bite after our Landie, fortunately without arranging damage. The upgraded suspension and the massive underbody protection pay for themselves over and over again.

Shortly before sunset the altimeter shows 2200 meters above sea level, and we reach the border of the Trou du Natron (Sodium Basin). This is the highlight of this trip for me. Approximately two million years ago, this gigantic crater six kilometers in diameter appeared here from a explosion of a volcano. 800 meters deep, the cliff faces drop all round almost vertically. The crater's bottom is covered with salt and there is a new small volcano cone rising from the floor.

Only a few Europeans have visited this extremely inaccessible place, and fewer still have undertaken the difficult descent. Obviously, we cannot miss the opportunity to descend into the crater the next morning. For now, Buddy waits for his entry in the Guinness book of the records as the first dog in the Trou du Natron.

It is afternoon until we can head northeast in our faithful disco which brings us on a little bit better track where already the next sight awaits.

The Enneri Gonoa is known as one of the world's largest collections petroglyphs from the hunter's epoch. Several hundred representations of wild animals appeared here approximately 8000 years ago. The most famous petroglyph in the collection is the "man of Gonoa", a life-size depiction of a hunter with a club over his shoulder. Today, however, we have walked too much already, as that we would know how to appreciate this cliff gallery still correspondingly.

Our way leads us farther after Bardai, which is known as the "capital of the Tibesti". Here in 1974 insurgents kidnapped a French woman and the German doctor Dr. Staewen who took care of the medical needs of the natives. The wife of the doctor was shot, he himself got free against a ransom. Today his former house serves as accommodations for French forces sweeping the minefields in the area. In the inner court of the house we fill up the drinking water jerry cans and repair three tires damaged by the murderous road conditions of the last few days. Our Michelin X 4x4 tires seem to be fine, as are Klaus' BFG All-Terrain.

Later on at the local marketplace, we pour the thin content of two diesel barrels into our vehicles' tanks while under the interested gaze of the local population. A humming engine noise appears from above. It is a Transall, a propeller-driven European military transport, which whizzes about us only fifty meters above us before it lands on a nearby runway. Once per week the supply plane comes from the capital of N'Djamena, 1500 km away, loaded with supplies for the Frenchmen.

I again add up how much fuel is still in our three tanks and calculate the average consumption of the last days to be able to estimate our total range. The others in our convoy share the same concern because we did not acquire enough diesel fuel at Bardai. When we drive out of Bardai, there will be 1000 km of desolation before us without any possibility to get fuel or supplies. If that were not enough, large sections of the road out of Bardai are littered with mines. The remnants of wrecked Land Cruisers on the side of the road demonstrate the clear consequences an driving off the track.

We follow a sandy Wadi northward, cross some mountains and reach again the Sarir Tibesti and with it also the particularly dangerous border area which we plan to leave behind as quickly as possible. Rudi calls on the radio, "Can you wait one moment for me?" Rudi has selected an unfavorable moment for this request. We just crossed the connecting runway between two Libyan border guards and the subsoil is too soft here for us to risk stopping the vehicles. We ask Rudi why he wants to stop, but there is no response on the radio. To prevent stopping, I keep the vehicle moving by driving in figure eight. I try to find Rudi's tracks, but cannot find them. Should Rudi be taken up here by the Libyan armed forces, at least one day would cost us, all the same whether with or without "special approval". From a stony hill, we stop and search the surroundings with the pair of binoculars. Sand and stones, otherwise nothing. After a small eternity, at last we have radio communication again, and we pass our coordinates on to him. Rudi had stopped to mark a GPS waypoint and then lost our tracks. Without radio this situation could have become extremely dangerous.

When our group is complete again, we drink a toast with Willi's last Ouzo to our successful Tibesti trip. But we don't drink too much because before lies several hundred kilometers of desolation before we reach Waw en Namus.

Journey info Tibesti: Tibesti is an extremely dangerous place and the information given here cannot guarantee a safe journey in the Tibesti.

Country: the Tibesti in North Chad is one of the most inaccessible areas on Earth. The area is surrounded by sandy and gravel deserts. The mountains of the Sahara can reach up to 3415 meters high. The region is desolate enough that only 4000 Tubu live there, and this is a region that is 100,000 square kilometers between Niger in the west, Libya in the north and the Sudan in the east.

Mines: wide parts of the Tibesti were mined, either by Libya or Chad. Nobody knows exactly where the minefields are located and to what extent they reach. Only now and then stone males and with "MI" show marked stones at the risk. Therefore, fundamentally the sign up of a place-informed guide is necessary. In minefields one must keep strictly to existing, fresh vehicle tracks. This applies equally for when one is on foot. Where many animal tracks exist, there is generally no danger. The fact that one should not take tank grenades and ammunition lying on the ground as souvenirs should go without saying.

Vehicle preparation: for a journey such as this, you will require at least two vehicles with full Sahara equipment and GPS, and a minimum range of 1000 km over difficult ground. Therefore, at least 200 liters of diesel should be aboard, correspondingly more for a petrol-driven vehicle. The chassis and the tires will be extremely loaded from the weight of supplies and fuel, as well as from brutal road conditions. A properly prepared vehicle avoids unnecessary annoyance in the field. Spare parts for Land Rovers and Toyotas are almost impossible to procure in Chad, so bring the necessary spares with you.

Care on the way: in the Tibesti there is practically no technical or medical infrastructure. Food should be brought from home, because even basic food can be bought only in Zouar or Bardai. These two places are also the only two possible places to acquire fuel. The supply situation gets worse if Libya keeps the borders shut. In contrast, potable water can be found relatively often in fountains and watering places. Nevertheless, you should take at least 40 liters water per person.

Maps: general maps of the area include Michelin 953 North Africa and West Africa, 1:4 Mio.; Geo Projects Libya 1:3,5 Mio.; Institute Geographique National, Tchad, 1:1,5 Mio.; ONC J4, 1:1 Mio., Russian ordnance survey maps NF 33r Zouar and NF 33b EGG Melagi, in each case 1:500.000; TPC J4A, 1:500.000, and Russian 1:200.000er from Chad.

Visas: contact the Embassy of the Republic of Chad, Basteistr. 80, D-53173 Bonn, Tel. *49 (0)228/356026 or the Embassy in your country

Organizer: our trip in November 1996 was led by Sadok Kechicheb of SARO-Expedition. Any trip as dangerous as a tour of the Tibesti must be undertaken under the supervision of an experienced tour operator. A key consideration in your choice of a tour operator is whether that operator has already visited the destination.


Here are some miscellaneous photos from the expedition: