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Five Arch Rock

The Isolated Ennedi Geological Formations Are Rarely visited But Never Forgotten


In some of the most desolate areas on earth there are astonishing natural features and geological wonders. The Ennedi geological features in the African country of Chad are a prime example. These are a series of extraordinary natural formations that were shaped by the elements over millennia. Because of their remoteness, however, they have rarely been explored or visited. The Ennedi rock formations were granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2016. 

Home to Unique Species

The geological formations are located on the Ennedi Plateau in the Sahara Desert, which is 5000 feet (1524 meters) above sea level, and as large as Switzerland. The spectacular formations are a result of unique geological processes that took place over millions of years.

The plateau and its formations came into being in the Paleozoic era, also known as the ‘era of ancient life’ which lasted from 550 to 250 million years ago. At this time the ocean covered much of what is now land and covered all of the modern Sahara Desert. Over time the waters receded to reveal remarkable sandstone formations, shaped by the tides and the waters of the dried-up ocean. Since then these formations have been sculpted by the winds of the desert.

The majestic sandstone pillars (Stanley, D/ CC BY 2.0)

The majestic sandstone pillars (Stanley, D/ CC BY 2.0)

The plateau has a unique ecosystem in that it still has freshwater, especially in gueltas (desert ponds). This has allowed many unique species that went extinct elsewhere, such as the endangered West African crocodile and Sudan cheetah, to survive in the Sahara. The Ennedi Plateau is a relic of a by-gone world, when the Sahara was green and supported many different species of fauna and flora, before the onset of cataclysmic climate change. The area was once a vital part of the trade route that crossed the Sahara, and is still regularly visited by caravans of camels.

A Paradise for Rock Climbers and Adventurers

Among the features of the Ennedi plateau are towers, pillars, bridges as well as arches and the reason it is likened to a rock labyrinth is because of the multitude of gorges and deep valleys. Many of the formations are bizarre and unearthly. Some of the rocks and geological features are thin and narrow like spires while others are pillars with large rocks caps which resemble gigantic mushrooms. There are also examples of spherical rocks perched on narrow fingers of stone, and a vast numbers of sandstone pillars.

The great Aloba arch which is nearly 350 feet (106 meters) high, is the world’s largest natural arch, although it is only one of the numerous astounding rock arches on the plateau, many of which have been climbed by visiting rock climbers in recent years.

The Aloba Arch (Stanley, D/ CC BY 2.0)

The Aloba Arch (Stanley, D/ CC BY 2.0)

Another remarkable structure on the Ennedi plateau is the circular Gweni-Fada feature which is 8.6 miles (14 km) wide, but not the result of geological processes. It is a crater that was the result of a gigantic meteor impact eons ago.

Ennedi Plateau’s Ancient Rock Art

The geological formations are famous not only for their weird and wonderful shapes, but also as the location of many examples of ancient rock art - an estimated 8000 examples. They were created up to 8000 years ago and are images made by a pastoralist people who once thrived in this area before climate change turned it into a desert.

Prehistoric rock art in Manda Guéli Cave, Ennedi Mountains (Stanley, D / CC BY 2.0)

Prehistoric rock art in Manda Guéli Cave, Ennedi Mountains (Stanley, D / CC BY 2.0)

Images of elephant, giraffe, and other wild animals adorn the rocks while other paintings vividly depict the lives of prehistoric people - scenes of warriors, cattle herders, hunting, and dancing women. The rock art at Ennedi gives us a glimpse into the Sahara when it once had a lush climate.

Getting To the Remote Ennedi Rock Formations

The formations are in the north of Chad and are quite remote. The tourist industry in the country is underdeveloped due to poverty, conflict, and banditry. There are, however, organized tours of the Plateau which allow visitors to see the outstanding geological formation, fauna and flora, and the prehistoric rock carvings. These guided tour of the Ennedi Plateau collect visitors at the Chadian capital airport.

Top image: Five Arch Rock                                            Source: (Stanley, D / CC BY 2.0)

By Ed Whelan


Keding, B., Lenssen-Erz, T., & Pastoors, A. (2007). Pictures and pots from pastoralists. Investigations into the prehistory of the Ennedi highlands in NE Chad., 18, 23

Available at:

Millham, R. A., & Koren, I. (2005, December). The Geologic Structure of the Tebesti and Ennedi; Not Just Plateaus, Mountains, and Inland Seas. In AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts

Available at:

UNESCO (2016) Ennedi Massif (Chad) No 1475 - UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Available at: file:///C:/Users/board/Downloads/1475-ICOMOS-2091-en%20(1).pdf

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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