Whenever I used to hear someone talk about Botswana there were two things that would immediately spring to mind. The first was the vivacious character of Mma Ramotswe, from Alexander McCall-Smith’s ‘Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’. The second being the image of African elephants wading through the luscious green flood plains of the Okavango Delta. So when we arrived at the Makgadikgadi Pans on the north eastern tip of the Kalahari Desert, I was confronted with a landscape so harsh and barren that my preconceptions of rich flood plains and curvaceous African characters were thrown out of the window.
It’s rare to find such areas of utter wilderness. The more I travel to Africa the more I am in awe of this beautiful continent. Before the formation of the Okavango Delta, the Makgadikgadi Pans was one of Africa’s super lakes. Standing here now, it is hard to imagine that once upon a time this dry desert-used to be water from the Okavango River. As our guide leads us out by quad bike on to this expanse of cracked salty earth, it becomes clear why you need an expert guide to explore the Pans.
Once the horizon is gone it is impossible to navigate yourself around this featureless landscape. Even surrounded by the other four people in our group, I feel an unbelievable feeling of solitude. Here it is refreshing to feel so removed from everything with which you are familiar. It is perhaps one of the most alien places that I have ever visited.
Bushman walking at San Camp
We were amazed how many tourists had tried to self-drive around the Pans. But even those with the greatest sense of direction would struggle to find their way in this bright, white desert. Rescue parties are often sent out to find these over adventurous travellers who are lost on the pans. The key ingredient in any search party would always be a member of the San tribe (once referred to as Bushmen). Their incredible skills in tracking and their amazing ability to understand the Kalahari Desert help a successful rescue mission. We were lucky enough to go on a walking safari with three men from the San tribe. I’ve been 5ft 9 inches since I was 11 years old and at that time I remember I used to tower over my peers. Now, walking out across the pans with our three San guides I couldn’t help but feeling like that 11 year old giant again. They are a short and beautiful tribe that have lived for centuries off this dry and barren land. Metres from the camp we stop walking and our three guides lent down over the white ground. They discuss the indents of an animal footprint in their mother tongue. You can’t help your jaw dropping in awe as you listen to them speak. Combining letters with a combination of over 24 different clicks. Though not for our lack of trying, we soon realised that with an untrained ear it is impossible to pronounce many of the names and words in their language.
We’d stumbled upon the footprint of an illusive aardvark. Victoria and I explained that that is the name of the company for which we work. Our three San guides begin to grin from ear to ear as they told us that this is a Bushman’s favourite meat. We were shown a variety of different survival techniques from shooting a bow and arrow, to sourcing drinkable fluid from the roots of a plant. Also learning how to make a fire by rubbing two sticks together. You can’t help but compare it with your own everyday life
Chores that seem difficult to juggle become easy with food stored in supermarkets, water available on tap and a box of matches at your disposal to help you light your winter fire or your summer BBQ.
This is only a snippet of why the Pans made such an impact on me during my Botswana adventure. The fact that at certain times of the year this ecosystem is home to Africa’s second largest migration of zebra. The fact that here lives one of Africa’s oldest trees, the Chapman’s Baobab. The fact that here you can spend time observing a rush of habituated meerkats. All these aspects are extras to a fascinating ecosystem. How to conclude? Hmm, it seems like Africa wins again. Just when you think she couldn’t shock and surprise you anymore. She takes your breath away with her unpredictable landscapes and her phenomenal wildlife. I’m not the most competitive of characters but no one likes to lose. Yet in this instance I look forward to my next defeat. For an insight into a true adventure of living in the Kalahari read – ‘Cry of the Kalahari’ by Mark and Delia Owens
If you’ve got questions, or you think there’s something more about Kalahari safaris that we should have included, please ask in the comments section below, or pop us an email. We’ll be sure to reply and may amend the article to include our answer.
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