Ennedi Massif: Africa’s remote geological wonder

In 2016, Ennedi – roughly the size of Switzerland – was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. Shortly afterwards, it was classified as a Natural and Cultural Reserve and taken under the protection of the renowned non-profit conservation organization African Parks. And earlier this year, a long-term archaeological study began that would not only map all the rock art sites, but also investigate the surrounding ground for ancient ceramics, plant pollen and animal bones. “When an Italian archaeologist recently came for a brief visit, he found, within half an hour, a 7,000-year-old piece of pottery,” said my Italian guide, Andrea Bonomo, who works for the company Spazi d’Avventura, which has been running trips to Chad for 30 years. “Imagine what they will find with more time.”

Later, Bonomo explained how in 2001, a seven-million-year-old fossilized skull, nicknamed Toumaï, was discovered west of Ennedi. The remains were far older than Ethiopia’s famous skeleton, “Lucy”, leading some people to believe that Chad could be the origin of humanity, and not Ethiopia’s Rift Valley. According to Dr Baba Mallaye, a team member involved in the discovery, not only has Toumaï’s age been scientifically validated by radio chronological analysis, but the team also found many other fossilized remains of Toumaï’s cousins ​​in the same area, proving that this was not an isolated case.

To reach Ennedi, Bonomo and I drove through the savannah with desert roses, yellow grasses and acacia trees gleaming gold. We passed nomadic Wodaabe and Oulad-Rachid people on the move. Women and children rode up on camels, seated inside colorful chariots decorated with vivid fabrics, carved calabashes and rows of bronze bowls. Men walked alongside, leather amulets strapped across their chests like small suitcases to protect them from evil. Then the tarmac road stopped, the land was empty of trees and entering Ennedi was like stepping through a portal into a place between worlds.

Ennedi’s rock art reveals the changes that have happened over millennia to this land. Like the whole of the Sahara, the area was once green and glittered with lakes. Many people once lived here, but now few do. As I wandered among the red monoliths, I saw images of elephants, rhinos, giraffes and ostriches – all common wild animals in Ennedi until recently. After the area became drier more than 6,000 years ago, these animals either moved south or died out. Yet, Ennedi remains known as the Eden of the Sahara because it receives more rain than the rest of the desert, creating wadis like green ribbons and permanent water sources fed by crystal-clear springs. Tropical plants bloom and the relics of its survival more temperate times, like its desert crocodiles.

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