The most beautiful country in the world that you're not supposed to visit

Chris Leadbeater
The Ennedi Plateau is like Utah, but with more crocodiles - This content is subject to copyright.

There are niche travel destinations, there are far-out travel destinations, and there are travel destinations which are so beyond the obvious that you have to seek them on a map to check if they really exist. Chad is one of those places, an African country which sits a long way down on the list of African countries you are ever likely to wish to visit. And yet – for the truly intrepid, there is much to enjoy in a place where the beaten path is just an ethereal concept. Today (August 11) is its Independence Day – which is, perhaps, a good enough reason to unveil 13 facts about an outpost on the periphery of perception…

1. Visiting is not for the faint-hearted…

Let’s start at the start, and make this clear. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not really like the idea of you going to Chad. Its security map of the country is entirely coloured in red (“advise against all travel”) and yellow (“advise against all but essential travel”). “Before considering any travel, take professional security advice,” the warning runs. “You should follow your employer’s security advice and make sure the correct Chadian authorities are aware of your journey, you have in place the right permits if required, and you hold comprehensive travel insurance.” In other words, it isn’t a picnic.

The world's 15 most dangerous countries (according to the Foreign Office)

2. …but going there is not impossible

If you are prepared for dirt, desert and a country of very few roads, then you can go to Chad. Undiscovered Destinations (0191 296 2674; undiscovered-destinations.com) sells a 17-day “Chad: Soul of the Sahara” group jaunt which dissects the country in considerable detail (from £4,985 per person, including flights. Next departure on October 18). Natural World Safaris (01273 691 642; naturalworldsafaris.com) offers a “Wildlife and Wilderness in Zakouma” trip which, as its name suggests, focuses on wildlife (from £10,970 per person, not including flights). Responsible Travel (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com) serves up a wide range of breaks in the country. If you have the willpower then Chad is possible.

3. Its neighbours are a little notorious

A list of Chad’s neighbours is enough put the FCO’s worries about Chad into context. They are Libya (to the north), Sudan (to the east), the Central African Republic (to the south), Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria (to the west). Sudan has come a little into the fold as a travel destination in the last year or two, thanks mainly to its astonishing array of ancient pyramids – but otherwise, these are not countries that attract very many holidaymakers.

4. It can be divided into three distinct zones

Chad is the world’s 21st biggest country (496,000 square miles), so there’s a fair bit of it. Enough for it to be split into a trio of geographical areas. The Sahara Desert, which spreads across the north of the country, needs little introduction as an expanse of dust and dramatic desolation. The Sudanian Savanna, which dominates the south, requires more explanation – it’s a broad belt of tropical grassland which spans the whole continent, from Nigeria’s Atlantic coast in the west to the Ethiopian Highlands in the east. The semi-arid Sahel belt provides the meat to this sandwich, ebbing across Chad’s central torso. The capital N’Djamena sits roughly at the point where the Sahel and the Savanna meet.

The Sahara Desert spreads across the north of the country Credit: GETTY

5. It used to be French, in a laissez-faire way

The independence which today’s Independence Day celebrates came about in 1960, when Chad shrugged off colonial France. In truth, this was not the sort of colonisation which needed much shrugging off. France had “run” the “country” since 1900, but had invested little time, effort or money into it beyond using it for the production of cheap cotton. With the flowering of party political consciousness in the area after the Second World War, Chad slipped into nationhood at the end of the Fifties without much noise or commotion.

6. It has a shape-shifting lake

That’s the basics done. But why would you actually want to go there? One reason is Lake Chad, the vast body of water which is not always vast. Confusing? Perhaps. Pinned to the west edge of the country – it spills over the borders into Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria, making it a multinational proposition – it has been known to shrink and grow according to weather conditions. In the 25 years between 1963 and 1998, it is believed to have lost as much as 95 per cent of its surface area, although it has expanded again in the last two decades. Its soul is provided by the River Chari, which begins in the highlands of the Central African Republic, and flows north-west across Chad, before pouring into the lake.

Lake Chad. The giant monoliths are surrounded by water when levels rise Credit: GETTY

7. It has very high places…

Head to the far north of Chad, and you find a place where the Sahara Desert reaches for the heavens. This is the Tibesti Mountains – which sprawl across the border into Libya, but save their song-and-dance moment for Chad in the form of Emi Koussi, a shield volcano that rears to 11,302ft (3,445m). These numbers make it the Sahara’s rooftop. Responsible Travel sells a 22-day “Peaks of the Tibesti” tour which charts the range with affection, calling it “the Sahara’s final frontier”. From £5,975 per person, without flights.

The Tibesti Mountains from space Credit: GETTY

8. …and some semi-high places

Away in the east of the country, towards the border with Sudan, the Ennedi Plateau is another Chadian geological wonder. An expanse of hard sandstone assailed on all sides by the Sahara, it rises to 4,760ft (1,450m), its landscape sculpted into rugged spires, pillars and columns of rock that are not wholly dissimilar to the monoliths more famously found far across the Atlantic in Utah. Unlike Utah, it is also home to the desert crocodile.

9. It has big beasts in small numbers

Chad is rarely promoted as a safari destination, and with good reason. Its main wildlife enclave, Zakouma National Park (zakouma.com), in the south, was all but devoured by its civil war (1978-1987). The conflict had a particularly destructive effect on the park’s once thriving elephant population – and poaching has continued to play a part in the decline in the pachyderm head-count. Nonetheless, matters are improving. The park has been the subject of a restoration programme – funded by the European Union – since 1989. Elephants and lions are now visible for those prepared to seek them with patience.

Zakouma National Park Credit: GETTY

10. It plays host to one of Africa’s most evocative festivals

Although it is more closely associated with Niger, Gerewol is an annual courtship ritual which also lends its mythology to (some of) the young people of Chad – such as the nomadic Mbororo. Its music and magic tend to take place in September, once the rainy season has ended – although, unusually, it is the men of the tribe who dress up and daub their faces in make-up to impress a potential partner. Responsible Travel runs an eight-day tour that peeks at this spectacle in the Durbali region. From £2,149 (without flights).

A similar courtship ritual in neighbouring Niger Credit: GETTY

11. It’s landlocked – but you can go to the beach

Chad does not flirt with the ocean. It is not even close to the ocean. The nearest seaport, Douala in Cameroon, is some 660 miles to the south-west. But if you feel like a stroll on the sand, you can have it in the capital N’Djamena, which has a long beach on the Chari.

At a glance | The world's 45 landlocked countries

12. You can meet your ancestor in the capital

N’Djamena, inevitably, is home to the Chad National Museum. This, in turn, is home to a skull of a sahelanthropus, a distant precursor to humanity that lived in the region seven million years ago. It is nicknamed “Toumai” (“Hope of Life” in the local Daza language).

13. You probably won’t get phone reception

One prime example of Chad’s lack of development is its mobile phone coverage. While much of Africa has embraced this new connectivity as a cheap form of communication, Chad has lingered behind. In 2014, the World Economic Forum’s Network Readiness Index (NRI) – which ranks the developmental levels of countries’ information technology systems – placed Chad at 148 out of 148 nations, just below Burundi, Burma and Guinea.

An Mbororo woman with scarification Credit: GETTY
More fascinating facts about obscure countries

13 curious things you never knew about Ivory Coast, home to the world's biggest church

25 fascinating things you didn't know about Azerbaijan

18 facts about Venezuela, the country with six Miss World winners and an everlasting lightning storm

16 amazing facts about Vanuatu, the country that worships Prince Philip and invented bungee jumping

10 fascinating facts about Malawi, the African nation with a Scottish city

25 amazing facts about Kyrgyzstan