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Africa Geographic Travel

Head 900km north-east of Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, and you’ll discover the wondrous Ennedi Plateau.  Rich red sandstone formations tower more than 100 metres above the Saharan sand. However, given that there are no roads in the area and certainly no infrastructure on the ground, less than a few hundred tourists experience this remarkable landscape a year.

Australian photographers Kym and Tonya Illman recently spent some time in Ennedi, keen to photograph an ancient pool of water called the Guelta d’Archei. The Guelta is a magnet for hundreds of desert travellers looking to rest their camels and goats and replenish water supplies.

Despite the fact that this watering hole measures less than 200 metres in length, and there is no other water for kilometres, it is home to half a dozen rare dwarf Nile crocodiles. Photographically, it is a goldmine of opportunities and with so few making the long trek each year, the images the Illmans captured were certainly rare and no doubt worthy of inclusion in any future revised edition of their book, Africa on Safari.

Here are 12 photos (along with Kym’s explanations) that we feel capture the region perfectly:

1. Ennedi Camp

Travelling to the plateau on our own was never an option.  Three government departments needed to sign off on our visit and given that there are absolutely no facilities or roads in the region, we enlisted a local tour company, SVS. They sorted out the permits, allowing us to fly into the region and land just 15 minutes from the Guelta. During our two-night stay, three four-wheel-drive vehicles ferried us, the camp gear and Rocco Rava’s team of five people around the plateau. The food and bedding were fine, but do bring your own sleeping bag (we missed that bit).

I climbed up a rock formation for this picture to gain an elevated position.


2. Toubou nomad 

This Toubou nomad was heading out of the Guelta, having just spent 30 minutes refilling his goat-skin water bag and resting his camel.


3. Huge walls

It’s hard to imagine just how grand the Guelta d’Archei really is until you see an image like this and realise that those small specks on the ground in the distance are eight-foot-tall camels enjoying a drink at this ancient waterhole.


4. Legs

I’d long wanted a shot like this featuring hundreds of camel legs.  The Guelta d’Archei was ideal as individual caravans of up to 200 camels arrive regularly at this waterhole. We only had two nights in the area and were most fortunate to get this shot just 90 minutes before departing for Zakouma on our third day.


5. Camels amongst the rocks 

We chartered a C182, four-seat Cessna aircraft from MAF to fly us into (and out of) Ennedi. On the way in and out, we circled numerous times over the Guelta, shooting with a 70-200mm lens from the open passenger side window to get unique aerial shots like this one of a camel caravan relaxing alongside the cool water.


6. Shooting down the Guelta 

This shot, taken from our plane under the control of pilot Phil Henderson, looks directly down the Guelta d’Archei. As you can see, the nomad herders have separated their camels, worth around US$1,500 each, to avoid mixing livestock. It’s hard to believe that the scene here would have been any different many hundreds of years ago. The area is timeless except for one 20-metre section of graffiti on one of the rock walls.


7. Kym and Tonya with a Toubou nomad 

It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to photograph this colourful Toubou nomad without the assistance of Rocco, our guide. Rocco speaks the local dialect and liaised with the herders who were initially not open to such photography.


8. Guelta reflection 

Walking through the Geulta d’Archei’s soft sand, peppered with camel droppings, you feel like you are in an enormous, open-air cathedral. The walls rise vertically to around 100m, with the gap between the sides as little as 20m in some parts. This water is stagnant and almost black in colour with the droppings of thousands of camels.


9. Towering rock formations

Rocks like these abound on the Ennedi Plateau.  You may have seen this one that was climbed on the North Face video. It is a beacon to rock climbers worldwide, although I was more than happy to view it from the safety of the ground.


10. Guelta from the air 

The water level in the Guelta was a little low on the days we were in the area. From this aerial shot, you can see the water on the right is very shallow and can easily be walked across. At wetter times, this water could be knee-deep.


11. Rock formations

The rock formations in the Ennedi Plateau are vast and varied. The best time to visit is from December to February when the maximum daytime temperature is 30ºC, compared to May/June when the mercury can reach 40ºC.


12. Camels en route

On our final morning, we were thrilled to see two large caravans of camels saunter past our camp en route to the Guelta.  Each group comprised around 100 camels and was tended to by just one or two young boys, who were probably in their early teens. Once again, our guide, Rocco smoothed over the initial “no photographs” response.


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Africa Geographic Travel
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