Tue 22nd Nov – Planet Baobab, Gweta
Wed 23rd Nov – Kubu Island, Sowa Pan
Thu 24th & Fri 25th Nov – Jack’s Camp, Ntwetwe Pan
Maun – Planet Baobab: 212km
Planet Baobab – Kubu Island: 111km
Kubu Island – Jack’s Camp: 100km
Jack’s Camp – Planet Baobab: 46km
Total km driven since leaving Nairobi: 9,950km
Of which Kian has driven (12%): 1,186km
FROM DELTA TO DESERT… THE MAKGADIGADI SALT PANS!
There are parts of the Makgadigadi salt pans where you cannot see anything beyond the crust stretching out from your feet. In the cool of dawn, the curve of the earth means one can only see around 5 or 6 km of the completely flat landscape around you (it’s slightly further for taller people) with no far-away landmarks breaking the horizon, but in the heat of the day, the pan simply disappears into a mirage anyway. It’s a barren, inhospitable part of the earth, scorching hot on summer days and dropping to around freezing on winter evenings. There is no living creature to be found in the middle of the pans during the dry season, but every now and then one comes across the mummified, crusted remains of some poor creature that ventured too far in the wet and got stranded.
It’s an awe-inspiring place!
The Makgadigadi also happens to be where, in 1998, I cut my teeth as a guide… a pink-faced biological sciences graduate who thought he knew everything ready to take on the world. I’d not been back here for 23 years, half of my lifetime, but the area, its people and wildlife made such an indelible impression on me that, from the moment we started planning this safari, I knew I would want to bring Kian back here.
Vehicle repair over-runs meant that we ended up leaving Maun late so we drove with the sun behind us, towards Gweta. The directions were simple… ‘keep going until you see an enormous pink aardvark, then turn right’. They proved remarkably accurate and we were soon settling into our hut at the rather quirky and very cool Planet Baobab and the Kalahari Surf Club. We hadn’t really seen any salt pans yet – the biggest lay way to the south – although we had encountered lots of elephants and even a young male lion on the main tarmac road to get here.
I remembered learning that this whole area had once been the bed of a massive 200,000 sq km inland lake, almost 100m deep in places. Then, some 4 million years ago, a series of tectonic shifts created faultlines, cutting off the lake from its main source of water (these now fan out into the Okavango delta and eventually drain into the Kalahari sands) and, over the eons, the lake evaporated leaving over 40,000 sq km of salt pans as the final remnants. This is an area about the size of Switzerland made up of 3 main pans – Nxai, Sowa and Ntwetwe – that still fill with shallow water in the rainy season, which attracts a lot of wildlife, but then the pans pretty much completely dry up in the long dry season, leaving a nothing but a salty crust on the ground.
When I worked in the Makgadigadi, one memory that always stood out was a guides’ reconnaissance trip we did down to Kubu Island on Sowa pan. I remembered it as a rocky promontory, covered in baobab trees and looking out over miles of emptiness and that I’d slept up on the rocks under a blanket of stars. It was there on the map although, slightly worryingly the road across the pans that leads there had a big red exclamation mark and the words ‘serious mud when wet’… we’d already experienced the rainy season getting started, but this was an adventure I didn’t want to miss out on, so we set off for Kubu as our first destination!
The mopane woodland gave way to terminalia bush, then grassland as small pans started to appear, with island stands of palm trees between them. The small pans started to join and we were soon out on the open, crusty grey flats of the main Ntwetwe Pan, leaving the grassy shores behind. There were damp patches on the pan surface and we could see where other cars had struggled and sunk into the mud in places but, apart from a couple of slightly slippery spots where we pulled some interesting ‘Makgadigadi drift’ moves, we were fine. The mud that we kicked up coated the underside of the car (mental note to self – get that washed off) and we could taste the salt on the dust in the air.
It wasn’t salt pan all the way. We clambered back up through grassland islands and even through some woodland, before finally approaching Kubu from the rear, with Sowa pan disappearing into the distance beyond. It was bigger than I remembered but just as amazing. We spent an hour clambering over boulders and admiring the baobabs and other trees before lighting our campfire and setting up our camp beds. Our plan was to sleep out under the stars – we’d managed to time our trip to coincide with the new moon for optimal star viewing – and we initially laid our beds out on the rocks but soon found that the rains had brought out lots of insects, so we moved out onto the pans where the wind kept them away. We drifted in and out of sleep throughout the night, waking to look up and soak in the sky above. It was phenomenal… the milky way stretched from horizon to horizon and different constellations stood out against the sky – Orion’s Belt, Canis Major, the Southern Cross and a myriad of others.
We woke with the dawn and it was immediately as if someone had switched on some bright spotlights and turned up the thermostat. After exploring the island a little more, the little shade that had been cast by rocks and trees retreated so we packed up the car and were on our way, back across the pans towards my old stomping ground at Jack’s Camp. As we got closer, things started to become more familiar. I’d planned our route to pass Chapman’s Baobab, which at almost 40m in circumference was the biggest baobab I’d ever seen, but was sad to see that it had died, in 2016 and we later learned that it was now reduced to a large decaying pile.
We arrived at the camp and I barely recognized it. My old boss, Ralph Bousfield, had recently undertaken a major refurbishment and had installed the largest guest tents I have ever seen. Standing around 10 metres tall and completely lined with a dark, orange fabric on the inside of the canvas that looked like thick Victorian wallpaper, our room reminded me of a chapel, except it had a plunge pool in the deck outside. The mess area was made up of 4 cavernous spaces in a row – one housed Ralph’s amazing collection of stone tools, animal skulls, specimens, books and other Africana. There was also a dining room with a single long table that can seat 30 or more people, a bar complete with a pool table and finally, a tent dedicated to afternoon high tea, with kilms and cushions all over the floor and a strict no-shoe policy. We were told that some 8km of the ‘wallpaper material’ had been used in the construction of the camp and, if nothing else, one had to be impressed by the scale.
Back in the house, things were more familiar – I recognised our old guides’ mess tent, now a senior staff common room, the staff area, stores and found the general location of the little dome tent I’d called home for a year, although bigger tents now stood in its place.
The area around camp was as I’d remembered – palm tree islands dotted a mosaic of pans and grassland – and the recent rains had brought in the first of the hundred thousand or so Burchell’s Zebras and Brindled Wildebeest that migrate into the area each summer. This was always a big contrast to the dry season where all water sources dried up so only totally desert-adapted animal species could remain in the area, but this had now also changed as boreholes and solar pumps now feed a small network of permanent waterholes, so there’s now resident wildlife visible throughout the year. I have very mixed feelings about this as I feel it’s detracted from the harshness and brutality of the environment, which had kind of been the whole point of visiting the area.
Having said that, we had a fantastic time at Jack’s and our guide, KG, was a font of knowledge. We spent a morning walking with meerkats, following them from their burrow, watching them dig out insects and frogs and they even clambered up on us to use us as a lookout post. We spent an amazing afternoon with a party of San Bushmen, including a rather infamous fellow named ‘Cobra’, who had been at the camp when I worked there. He had already looked ancient to me back then but had now developed even more creases and furrows in his leathery skin. They talked amongst themselves in their wonderful language, complete with clicks and creative gesticulation, before translating for us stories of the bush and their way of life. They plucked leaves from trees, dug up bulbs and excavated a scorpion hole, which was passed around like a toy and played games amongst themselves. It was a special encounter with a fascinating group of people whose seemingly carefree way of life probably won’t last many more decades before it fades into memory.
We only spent 3 nights at the Makgadigadi pans but it felt like a week or more. It was a great trip down memory lane for me and returning here reinforced the feeling that it’s one of the most special places I’ve lived and worked. I was so delighted to be able to share the experience with Kian, especially as he enthusiastically appreciated what a unique and amazing time we’d had. I will definitely be back here, but don’t plan on waiting another two and a half decades this time round.