Most of all, Kröpelin is a gifted storyteller. "I was just in the shower, when…" he begins, and before long he is in the middle of a gripping story. Shortly before his departure, he says, he received a call on his satellite phone from a French colleague. The Frenchman and his camel expedition were lost in the canyons of the Erdi-Ma, a barren region in northeastern Chad into which hardly any humans had ever set foot. To help the lost Frenchman, Kröpelin used old GPS notes to direct him to one of the rare watering holes. "He must be out there somewhere," says Kröpelin, pointing to the rocky landscape north of the Ounianga lakes. "I hope he makes it."
"The desert attracts a special sort of person," says Kröpelin, as he seamlessly launches into his next story. This one is about a pedantic botanist, whose Jeep overturned while he was maneuvering his way around the cracked surface of a dry lakebed. But the botanist did not crawl out of the vehicle until he had painstakingly documented the accident in his field book. And then he talks about the time Sudanese soldiers pursued him through the desert for days, until they caught up with him and demanded some of his diesel fuel.
He launches into a discussion of politics. The rumors about Islamist terrorists, the horrific stories from Darfur and now the war in Mali -- all of this, he says, doesn't make working in the region any easier. But the dangers are exaggerated, says Kröpelin, noting that walking through some neighborhoods of New York in the evening is riskier than spending a week in the desert. Nevertheless, fear has driven away some of his fellow geologists. The French, once so numerous, aren't coming anymore, he says. It's also become difficult to find doctoral students in Germany willing to put up with the hardships of working in the Sahara.
But this time the 21st century has found its way into Kröpelin's realm. Before departing from Marseille, the desert explorer excitedly took a picture of the departure board at the airport. He could hardly believe his eyes: The board listed a 3 a.m. departure for a charter flight bound for Faya-Largeau.
Point-Afrique, an adventure travel company, had managed to make use of an old French military airport in the small oasis city in northern Chad for tourism purposes. Now it offers charter flights in the winter season, taking travelers on board a Boeing 737 to one of the most remote spots on the planet. "Unbelievable," says Kröpelin. Making the round trip from his home to his research site within a week is something he has never experienced throughout his entire academic career, he says.
From Faya, it's only a one-day trip in an off-road vehicle to the Ounianga lakes. The journey passes through a wasteland that stretches to the horizon, with one of the giant sickle dunes occasionally blocking the way. Slowly and inexorably, the dunes move across the plain in a southwesterly direction, traveling about one kilometer a century.
Dust-covered tire tracks are the only evidence of a road here, along the main artery between Libya and Chad, as well as the truck tires, scattered at regular intervals, that former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had his troops leave behind during his expedition into Chad. Like Hansel and Gretel in the forest, Gadhafi wanted to mark the route for the trip home.