Saudi Aramco World: May/June 2014 - page 15

May/June 2014
13
Bounding up to Baba (in
Chad, first names are cus-
tomary) is the other man,
Stefan Kröpelin, a veteran
geoarcheologist from the
University of Köln, Germany,
who has plied the eastern
Sahara for four decades and
carried out research in Ouni-
anga since 1999.
Baba’s
ordre de mission
is to work with Kröpelin to
update
UNESCO
with a scien-
tific review of the lakes, and
perhaps delight it with some
new discoveries. Baba is eager
to show me “the unheard-of
geology of the desert. We have
everything there—natural
beauty and mystery—but it
also is our wealth. Chadians
love our deserts like others
love their forests.”
After repairing a roof-rack
to carry our luggage along
with a sheep for dinner, we
climb into a Land Cruiser
and take off on a dirt track,
used barely once a month,
that extends all the way to
our destination: Ounianga
Kebir (“Big Ounianga”).
Kröpelin jokingly refers to
it as “Highway One.” Our
driver, Abdulrahim, senses
whenever the ground gives
way to soft sand, and he
downshifts, outside the old
tire tracks. Constantly.
The desert colors change
every time I turn my head.
Here, a lone tree miraculous-
ly survives. There, a “trap-
ping stone” used by our dis-
tant ancestors to funnel ani-
mals toward their deaths and
give our species life. We’re close to where the Iron Age started.
We’re also close to where
we
started: In a desert not too far
away in 2001 and 2002, fossils, including a partial skull, were
found that were named Toumai, which means “hope of life” in
the Goran language of this region. Dating back seven million
years, Toumai is to date the oldest known hominid, the closest
we have come to the point of divergence that led to chimpan-
zees and humans. It was Baba who gave Toumai his scientific
name:
Sahelanthropus tchadensis.
An hour before sunset, we stop for the night close to the
slip-face of a massive, arch-shaped barchan dune, which will
protect us from the wind in the night. Bright orange sand
reaches up 100 meters (320'), and a single dune could contain
some 200,000 tons of pure quartzite. Like hundreds of thou-
sands of similar dunes throughout the Sahara, it was formed
from the sands of the Mediterranean Sea, and, as if they were
a flock of birds, they have been migrating south with the
har-
mattan
trade winds some eight meters (25½') a year for the
past few thousands of years. So far, this dune has advanced
some 2400 kilometers (1500 miles).
That night, sitting on a carpet under the starry sky, we eat
mutton. The multilingual conversation includes Chadian Ara-
bic—almost universally spoken throughout the country—Goran,
the language of the north, French, English and German.
Baba, a physicist by training, is a polymath scientist, having
headed the National Center for the Support of Science, which
oversees all of Chad’s research, for 17 years. In 2012 he became
the director-general of the Petroleum Institute. By descent, he is
from the royal line of the Kanem-Burnu, who in the 11th cen-
tury brought Islam to Central Africa.
Baba has been coming to the Lakes of Ounianga since he was
a child. His village was in Kanem, the closest region south of
them. Those who went north were called
Toubou
,
the broth-
ers from the south,” and those who stayed were
Kanembu,
“the
brothers of the people of the mountains,” he says.
As the evening deepens, Mahmoud Younous, director-general
of the Chad Office of Tourism, toys with the star-rating system of
hotels by calling our duneside bivouac “
le hotel de milles étoiles”
“the hotel of a thousand stars.” He is, in fact, understating by mil-
lions. Night in the Sahara is an elemental experience.
On the road early the next morning, we pass sandstone table
rocks or
massif
s. Other formations are needle-, pyramid- or
Sphinx-shaped
yardang
s, aerodynamically sculpted by the har-
mattan over millions of years.
Then we come across camels, grazing on grasses and herbs in
a desert that should
be devoid of vegeta-
tion. The car tops a
rise, and even though
I knew it was coming,
the vista steals my
breath. In the depres-
sion below the escarp-
ments at the edges of
Ounianga Kebir is a
mirage come to life:
Lush green foliage
and cerulean lakes.
Squinting through the
Sunset rakes dunes and massifs around palm-ringed Lake Boukou, one of Ounianga’s 18 lakes,
geological relics of a once-verdant savannah and remnants of the region’s once-vast “paleolakes.”
Geoarcheologist and
veteran of four decades
of eastern Sahara
research, Stefan
Kröpelin is studying
year-by-year lake-bot-
tom sediment from
Ounianga to model
exactly how and when
the savannah dried into
today’s Sahara.
ABOVE: GEORGE STEINMETZ
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