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Karen Hauptfleisch and the mountains of the Sahara

Karen Hauptfleisch and the mountains of the Sahara

Mar 2015

Sunrise on Africa’s Peaks - Karen Hauptfleisch summits the highest peaks in the remote Saharan countries of Chad and Libya

In a nutshell: A six-week long expedition into the Sahara to climb the highest peaks in Chad (Emi Koussi) and Libya (Bikku Bitti); part of a lifelong ambition to summit the highest peak in each of the 54 African countries.

Team: Eamon Fullen (UK), aka ‘Ginge’, the first person to climb the highest peaks in Africa; Misha Somerville (UK), a professional photographer and film maker; and seven local Toubou tribesmen.

Adventurer: Karen Hauptfleisch, age 50.

Residence: Pretoria.

Birthplace: Senekal, Free State.

Previous big adventures: Climbing and cleaning on the highest mountain in 31 African countries.

Other achievements: Founding the environmental non-profit organisation SOAPkidz (Sunrise On Africa’s Peaks kidz), which has introduced over 17 000 disadvantaged children to nature.

Duration of expedition: 6 weeks (with 3 days to summit Emi Koussi and 5 days to summit Bikku Bitti).

Completion date: December 2014.


Seeing things what most people - particularly women - will never have the privilege to experience. The Toubou tribe do not allow women to mix with the men, and although I was allowed some interaction I wasn’t allowed to eat with them.
Witnessing the locals praying in the desert with the sun setting behind them.
Waking up in the middle of the desert and watching the sunrise. The constant wind across the desert left a lasting impression and the millions of stars in the night sky made this a truly amazing place.


My family sponsored part of my trip, and they give me all the support I could ever wish for. My thanks also to Stuart Martin who kept everyone informed of my whereabouts and managed, through extremely difficult circumstances, to get money transferred to Chad. 
The Kempinski Hotel in Chad gave us two free nights’ accommodation.

To find out more 

Inspiration: Climbing these peaks was part of a lifetime ambition to climb all 54 of Africa’s highest peaks - Sunrise on Africa’s Peaks (SOAP). Various coincidences brought Ginge, Misha and me together, presenting a once in a lifetime opportunity to plan a trip into an area of the African continent which very few people have ever seen.


To climb the highest peaks in Chad (Emi Koussi) and Libya (Bikku Bitti) and to see the sunrise from the summit of each.
To raise awareness about pollution on many of our mountains.


The two mountains we visited are some of the most inaccessible mountains in Africa. Bikku Bitti has only been summitted once (by Ginge - after three attempts), so ours was the second expedition to summit Libya’s highest peak. I was the first woman to climb the mountain. I am aware of commercial expeditions to Emi Koussi but according to our guides, I was the first African woman to summit – and as a result they nicknamed me Madame Africa.


We started planning in March 2014. There is very little infrastructure in Chad and communication is extremely difficult. Tourism is almost nonexistent and getting the necessary permits to travel to the north was really tricky.


These desolate and unforgiving desert regions meant that even a small oversight or mishap carried a real risk. Dangers included the history of civil unrest and war in the region, several mine fields encountered on our way to the mountains, and scorpions and snakes.

The extreme remoteness meant that any medical emergency beyond our general first aid knowledge would have resulted in a 2-week-long evacuation, and the risk of mechanical breakdown could have left us stranded with limited rations of water and food.

The highest mountain in Libya, Bikku Bitti, is in one of the most remote, least accessible and least known part of the Sahara desert - during the Viking Lander projects, NASA identified the region as that which that most closely resembles the conditions on Mars. The area is unfit for human habitation and there are periods of 20 to 30 years with no rainfall.  There is no permanent human habitation, no roads or tracks, just a great open void. 

Wars and conflicts have also played their part in keeping people away.  Although Libya has recently started opening up, the southern part of the country is still off limits, as is the Tibesti in northern Chad, creating one of the biggest areas in Africa that foreigners are officially not allowed to visit.


I carried a satellite phone. We used two vehicles - a primary and a backup – which were robust enough to cope with the extreme terrain. We carried basic spares and repair items, and had a mechanically skilled driver. Because of the vast distances, we carried 600 litres of water with us, as well as extra food rations for at least two weeks.

If something went wrong, however, it would have taken up to 2 weeks for help from N’djamena to reach us.  Because we were in a vast ocean of rocks and sand, finding us could be compared to finding a rowing boat in the Atlantic.


I personally funded the whole expedition by taking out a second bond to the value of R380 000 on my house.  The sensitive situation in south Libya meant that I was not able to advertise the trip, so was unable to find sponsors or self-funded people to join the trip and share the costs.


Videos and photos - Misha Somerville is making a documentary on the expedition. I reported back after the Emi Koussi summit to the Chadian Minister of Tourism at the South African Embassy in Chad.

Necessary technical skills

Being able to survive in the desert and understand the dangers associated with snakes, scorpions, mine fields, unexploded ordnance and the lack of water was paramount to the success of the trip. The local Toubou people knew the area and navigated us through the desert.

Scariest moments

Security police at the airport in Chad detained me after they noticed that I was using a satellite phone – which is illegal in Chad.  Eventually, the head of security, who could not speak a word of English, dropped me off at my hotel.  While driving there, he swerved left and right while showing me pictures of himself with VIPs on his camera.  I thought it would be really tragic dying in a car accident in Chad even before the dangerous bit of the adventure started!

Mahadi, one of my porters, has a heart condition but was very stubborn and insisted on going to the top of Emi Koussi with me. I was petrified that he would have a heart attack.

Breaking down 150km from the nearest water and worrying that our driver, who went back to get vehicle parts, might have an accident or get lost and never make it back.

Lowest point

A huge personality clash within the team after climbing Emi Koussi in Chad, which nearly resulted in the trip to Libya being cancelled. I begged and begged, and eventually persuade the team to climb Bikku Bitti but it cost me another R60 000. 

Funniest moment

After some serious vehicle trouble, we were stuck waiting for our backup vehicle to return with the required parts.  We were all sitting in the shade when Mahadi jumped up, assembled a gold detector and just walked off in the sunset, detector in his hand!

Most unexpected experience

Driving 26 km along the Dohone Spur of the Tibesti Mountains in Southern Libya on the way to Bikku Bitti. The spur was like something out of the Avatar movie: absolutely breathtaking. No picture can ever capture the beauty of it.

Biggest lesson

I learnt what Ubuntu is really about: I will always cherish is the way the locals looked after me and came to enjoy meeting the locals just as much as I enjoy the mountains. One incident stands out. I was in Ethiopia, travelling on the top of a beer truck, when a lady took my hand, looked me in the eyes and said something.  When I asked the guy next to me what she said he replied “she said we are all one”.  Then an elderly lady who was lying with her back to me squeezed my hand.  It was the most profound moment in my life.  When the truck stopped, I was invited to her home - at 22:00 – and she cooked a chicken for me.

What would you have done differently

Contact the South African embassy in the countries before my visit. 
Carried huge wads of cash. Despite what I was told by a bank in South Africa, my credit cards were not accepted in Chad.

Best piece of gear

My Columbia clothing. 

Most amazing people you met on the trip

Mahadi, my porter/guide and the other Toubou people I met were gentle souls with a great sense of humour. They really knew the area and the environment well, so I always felt safe even when they were leading us into ‘the unknown’.

What did you eat

I’m vegetarian so normally take my own mixture of soya and couscous, which only requires a cup of boiled water to prepare.  The staple diet in Chad, however, is goat and very sweet pasta.  The porters were quite shocked when I wanted salt on my pasta and I wouldn’t eat goat meat. 

What was the worst thing that bit you

I was not bitten by anything major – but I got into serious trouble when I objected to a scorpion being killed. Apparently, in Chad, more people die from scorpion stings than malaria.  With SOAPkidz, we teach the children and volunteers not to kill snakes/spiders/bats etc. But then we are close to medical help and our lives are not threatened.

What’s next

Probably the four Southern African islands (Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius and the Comoros).

Tips for other adventurers

Follow your heart – even if your adventure does not make sense to anyone else. If you want to live your dream, you have to learn to let go of your own ego. I had to learn to contain my emotions and frustrations. People do things differently.  Some people are very competitive and want to do everything on their own.

Adventurer 2015