Flying in the Greater Zakouma Ecosystem

© African Parks

By Bruce McDonald 

Zakouma changes you forever, like nowhere on earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast and mystical country of extremes?  How can you explain the fascination of this vast reserve? where the oldest roads are elephant paths or nomadic migration routes… dating back to biblical times.

Zakouma is mystic, it can be wild, a sweltering inferno in the dry season, or a vast wetland with torrential rains in the wet season, a wildlife paradise, an escapists Utopia. It is what you will, and withstands all interpretations. 

In Zakouma you have space…there is a profound sense of space and sky. Visiting Zakouma is an experience that alters the course of your life. If ever I have ever seen magic, it has been in Zakouma. A true wilderness treasure.

Aerial view of Zakouma during the wet season

© African Parks

Flying in Zakouma in the wet season has been an incredible and almost surreal experience for me. A kaleidoscope of colors to the horizon and beyond. Massive herds of buffalo on the open plains, stretching for as far as the eye can see against a backdrop of brilliant hues of green, surrounded by huge flocks of cattle egrets as they move through the Zakouma wetlands. 

It is hard to imagine that in a few months’ time as the rain season comes to an end, that the landscape will change significantly as it dries-out, becoming a parched and desert-like, dust-bowl, a complete contrast to what we see now.

One of my highlights was seeing a herd of almost 400 elephants together from the air, spectacular to see these gentle giants once again thriving in Zakouma after years of persecution.

Considered to be one of the last strongholds of plains game in the Sudano-Sahelian zone, Zakouma’s vast, untamed and diverse wilderness of almost 3000 square km certainly does not disappoint.

To see large herds of free-roaming Roan antelope (Rare in South Africa where I am based) was a sight to behold, herds of Kordofan giraffe, Lelwel’s hartebeest, Tiang, Kob and Red-fronted gazelle make this park uniquely different to any other park that I have had the privilege to fly in.

Having had the opportunity to fly most of the park, having being based at Siniaka Minia to the west of the reserve for much of my time spent in Zakouma, I got to see the many different faces of the Greater Zakouma Ecosystem. From the air, the scenery changes all the time, from the Siniaka Minia Wildlife Reserve, set against an impressive massif backdrop where the Siniaka and Tourda rivers snake through this important sand-forested eco-system, to beautiful granite inselbergs to the south west of the park near Ibir and then the game-rich paradise of Zakouma, an important sanctuary for west and central African wildlife.

The birdlife from the air at this time of year is spectacular, as an avid birder, I managed to tick-off some rare and sought after species to add to my bucket-list. 

Huge flocks of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters nesting along the banks of the Salamat River, taking to flight as you fly over, crimson shades of red against the sunlight. Large groups of Northern Crowned cranes, and Abyssinian Ground hornbills patrolling the plains with their vibrant blue and red heads. These were all a first for me.

 During the wet season, Zakouma is a wildlife paradise.

© African Parks

The challenges of flying in Zakouma in the wet season.

Flying in Zakouma is challenging at this time of the year. The Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) lives up to its name in Chad. Thunderstorms develop on an almost daily basis, sometimes severe producing heavy and torrential rainfall.  These equatorial storms can develop suddenly without much warning and careful planning is required before flying. Often an alternate airfield is required to divert due to weather and it’s not uncommon to land off base.

Another challenge is landing on wet, muddy or water-logged airfields. This was common flying during July. Fortunately, the main airfields such as Zakouma and Samer remain usable and are well maintained. If flying into any of the other smaller, remote airfields, it’s important to get reliable information on the surface conditions of the airfield at the time. Landing is sometimes possible, but taking-off in wet and muddy conditions could be hazardous and dangerous.

Thanks to African Parks for allowing me the opportunity to fly in this amazing Reserve and also thanks to all the Zakouma/Siniaka staff for their African hospitality and friendliness.