Until recently, hopelessly overloaded trucks crawled along this path too, bringing goods from Libya to Chad and Sudan. But trade has come to a standstill since Gadhafi was overthrown, and now weeks go by without a single vehicle passing through the region.
Kröpelin's expedition, traveling in three off-road vehicles, also doesn't encounter a single person along the way. A few runaway camels turn up shortly before their destination, where scattered acacia trees indicate that there must be water deep underground there. Then, quite suddenly, the spectacular view of the Ounianga basin appears.
On his first visit to this idyllic green spot in one of the driest places on earth, Kröpelin was so fascinated that he has since fought to place this natural treasure under protection. He achieved his goal last year, when UNESCO declared the lakes a World Heritage site. Kröpelin proudly pulls out a UNESCO map. While there are many sites in Europe, there is only one dot in the vast open spaces of Chad: Ounianga.
But Kröpelin is too restless and enterprising to be satisfied. He has already set his sights on his next goal: to convince UNESCO to add the Ennedi Plateau, more than 200 kilometers farther to the south, to its list. For Kröpelin, the plateau's uniqueness is beyond question. "Monument Valley is nothing by comparison," he says. The region is also culturally significant, he adds. "You won't find stone-age cliff drawings like the ones in the Ennedi anywhere else in the world."
Dreams of a Green Sahara
Kröpelin is fascinated by the relationships among the histories of the climate, the earth and mankind. He is interested in how people responded to change in the Sahara. Here in the inhospitable dryness of the desert, blades and arrowheads made of quartzite or ring-shaped traces of settlements are evidence that Homo sapiens were once omnipresent in the Sahara.
"A Stone-Age burial mound," Kröpelin says, pointing to one of the piles of stones rising from the plain. "What's so fascinating about it is that everything is preserved in just the way it was left thousands of years ago."
During an expedition into the no-man's land east of the Ounianga lakes, Kröpelin even believes he found traces of an ancient Egyptian caravan. He discovered a stone statue of a man, visible from far away on a high plateau, similar to the statues uses on mountains today as guideposts for hikers. Kröpelin suspects that what he had found was a landmark for desert travelers from the days of the pharaohs.
There is evidence that the expeditions from ancient Egypt extended to at least the current Egyptian-Libyan border, says the geologist. A few years ago, hieroglyphics were found there, at Uwaynat Mountain. Kröpelin thinks it is conceivable that traders stopped there to replenish their water supplies before continuing their travels toward Ounianga.
To reinforce his theory, he points to the eroded cliffs that shape the landscape along the shores of the Ounianga lakes. Over the millennia, the constant wind has carved them into step pyramids.
Kröpelin believes that the similarity between this shape and that of structures along the Nile is more than coincidental. He theorizes that gradual desertification drove the Egyptian people out of their original habitat, which is now the Sahara Desert. He points out that silhouettes of the tombs of the pharaohs, visible from a great distance, are characteristic of precisely the region that was once home to the Egyptians.