By Phyllis Dawson
Botswana - Part 15
Makgadikgadi Pans

August 1

We went to see the meerkats again in the morning; we just hadn’t had enough of the little guys the day before. Jocasta drove us to a different location this time, where there was another group that had been habituated to humans. 
It was colder this morning; cloudy and a bit windy, and the meerkats were slow to come out. We waited quietly by the warren.  We could hear jackals yipping in the distance, and an ant-eating chat flew overhead. After a while a meerkat furtively peeked his head up out of the den a couple of times, and then went back in again.


     Finally the meerkats came out; there were just four of them. They were a little more wary than the ones we saw the day before, secretive somehow, perhaps because it was a smaller group. And they were cold. They stood stooped over, shivering, huddling against the chilly air with their little arms crossed in front of them. Their displeasure with the weather was evident. 
After a while they warmed up a bit and went foraging. Like those we had seen the day before, there was at least one standing up gazing around for danger at all times. They moved around scratching and digging for food, but stopped from time to time to huddle together for warmth. Two of them spent a while grooming each other affectionately.  It took a while before it warmed up enough that they would stand tall without hunching their shoulders. 

     Heading back toward the lodge we saw the springboks again, walking across a little salt pan. It was a bit frustrating that we couldn’t get closer to these beautiful antelope for a better look. Out on the plain wildebeests were scattered across the landscape, with quite a few zebras among them. A bit further on we saw even more wildebeest; a large herd of them seemed to be moving in our direction. Apparently they were migrating through the area - this was the most we had seen anywhere.   

     The herd moved across the open landscape, heading toward a large waterhole to our right. They came in a long line, walking purposefully, a hundred strong. As they got closer they quickened their pace; many of them broke into a gallop on the final approach to the waterhole. They plunged in and began drinking. A few of them lay down and rolled in the water, and others just stood there relaxing. As some drank their fill and moved on, others streamed in to take their place. Many of the wildebeests seemed invigorated after drinking; some of them started to run back and forth, bucking comically and generally just showing off.

     Then it was the zebras’ turn. A herd of them moved across the plain toward us in a single file row. There were not nearly as many of them as the wildebeests, but it was still the most zebras we had seen in one place. They started to stream into the water hole, joining the wildebeests. Rows of striped necks stretched down to drink, like mirror images of each other. Some of the wildebeests got quite silly, racing around in circles, bucking and spooking. On the whole the zebras were more dignified, though a few of them did kick up their heels.   

     Some of the wildebeests got a little crazy. They ran around like idiots, back and forth, racing around in circles, bucking and spooking. Occasionally one would fall into a high stepping slow-motion trot, like a horse doing a piaffe.  The zebras seemed a little disgusted with them; on the whole the zebras put on a show of being more dignified.

     Looking all around us, we could see wildebeest and zebras scattered all the way to the palm-studded horizon. Most of them gradually made their way to the waterhole. The zebras for the most part hung back and let the wildebeest drink first, checking for predators. Then when the coast was clear and all seemed safe, they would come forward. But when something spooked them, they were off like a shot!  I thought of that medical saying, encouraging one to look for the most likely diagnosis first: When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. Not applicable in Africa.

     A bit further on, we stopped to watch a pair of southern African ground squirrels by the road. They were brown with beige side stripes and belly, and fluffy grey tails. They would sit up on their haunches, eating seeds and flowers that they held in their tiny hands, looking quite intent. We watched them going about their business.

African ground squirrels

     Glancing over to the other side of the road, there was a yellow mongoose sitting up peering at us. She had a half-grown baby with her. She stood up on her hind legs to look around, a lot like the meerkats (to which she is related), but far more beautiful. About the same size as the squirrels, the mongoose was refined and elegant, with a petite face and a pert expression. She had a yellowish-brown coat with silvery highlights and chestnut-brown eyes. She stretched and yawned, showing us she had some impressively sharp little teeth. The baby mongoose curled up in a tight ball against the cold, trying to sleep.

Yellow mongoose

     After a while the young mongoose woke up, and the mother greeted him with some face rubbing and kissing. They were joined by another adult, presumably the father, and there were more kisses all around. The family apparently lived in harmony with the ground squirrels.


     More wildebeest dashed across the road in front of us, galloping in a single file row. We got another glimpse of the springboks in the distance, and asked Jocasta to stop so we could watch a small group of zebras as they rolled in the sand. Jocasta often seemed surprised that we wanted to spend so much time watching animals we had already seen before, or small things like squirrels, mongoose and terrapins. She may have been more used to guests who just checked things off their lists and then were in a hurry to get back to the lodge.

     We were back to camp by 11:00, though we would have preferred to stay out longer. We took showers, had lunch and relaxed. I found a springbok horn in the bushes not far from the dining hall - it would be a great souvenir if I could manage to smuggle it home. 
Taking a narrow trail from the main lodge, Jineen discovered a nice little thatched gazebo under a twisted tree. It was a pleasant place to relax and read. Pied crows looked down on us from the tree, occasionally squawking and flying about.


     We were starting to feel restless; having a siesta from eleven o'clock until four was not really our style. We were enjoying our time at Camp Kalahari; it was well worth coming to see the meerkats and the aardvark, to walk with the San people and see the Makgadikgadi Pan. But on the whole we preferred the mobile camping safari schedule to that of the lodge. After being in the bush with Gee and experiencing the wildlife up close and personal, here it seemed less natural and wild.

     Midafternoon, Natalie came and told me there was an elephant just outside her cabin. I hurried down the trail with her to see it. Sure enough, a large bull elephant was about fifty feet from the cabin - so much for the perimeter fence!
He was shaking a palm tree to make the nuts drop down. He would get up against the tree on his tippy toes, reach up with his trunk as far as it would go, then grasp the trunk and give it a good shake. A rain of palm nuts would come down with a noise like a great wind, and he would eagerly scarf them up before repeating the process. No wonder the tops got broken off the palm trees to turn them into telephone poles.


     Around four o'clock that afternoon we set out for a quad bike trip. Jocasta told us to dress warm, and to bring the scarves that had been provided in the cabins; we had each been given a long thick cloth called a kiaoi (pronounced coy). She also suggested that we should bring any medicines we might need, just in case of emergency, like if our quad bike broke down. This seemed vaguely alarming; surely we wouldn’t be stranded out on the pan all night?

     We drove in the vehicle out across the plain, passing ostriches, zebras and springboks on the way. When we got near the pan we found a long line of four-wheelers waiting for us, fourteen of them. We each chose one and strapped our cameras and gear on to it. Everyone from camp was going so there were not quite enough quad bikes, so Jineen and Natalie shared one. 


         Jocasta showed us how to wrap the kiaois around our heads, covering our mouths, noses and hair, leaving just our eyes showing. It seemed very Arabic!  I felt a little ridiculous, but Tara managed to look quite stylish in hers.
     After a short briefing, we drove out to the pan, staying in a single file line to protect the environment.  The quad bikes were fun and easy to drive. Clouds of dust rose from the four-wheelers ahead of us; it was quickly evident that the kiaois were very useful to keep the dust out of our faces.

Tara, styling in her kiaoi.

     We headed out across the Makgadikgadi Pan.  Up until now we had just seen some of the smaller salt flats around its edges, but the Makgadikgadi was vast.  There was nothing but white powdery soda dirt as far as you could see; it looked like the surface of the moon. The flat crusty salt pan, scattered with a few small rocks, stretched to the horizon in all directions. The sun was lowering in the sky, sending gods rays down through the patchy clouds. It was like an alien world, and it had a strange and eerie beauty.

Makgadikgadi Pan

     We stopped and parked the quad bikes in a long row. Walking around a bit, we took some photos and enjoyed the unique strangeness of the setting. The guides took group photos. Some people were doing the jumping challenge; we noticed that the photographer lay flat on the ground in order to shoot upwards – that low angle must be how you get that ‘floating’ effect. Next time I would know!

     Our group leader was a charismatic man from camp with a deep resonating voice that sounded like the actor James Earl Jones (I’ll call him JEJ for short). He had us all play a game: he placed a backpack out on the pan about 100 yards away; the challenge was to try to walk a straight line to it - while blindfolded. He said whoever gets the closest wins the backpack; then he covered our eyes with a blindfold, one by one. It was way harder than you might think!  We watched, laughing, as each walker veered off in different directions, many going in almost a complete circle. JEJ kept up a commentary; “Oh look, he went all the way to Zimbabwe.” Or, “She ended up in Victoria Falls.”
Tara prepared methodically, measuring her paces and practicing hard while the others were going, determined to walk in a straight line - nonetheless she went in a big curving arc. Most people took slow careful steps and still went every which way, so my theory was that if I walked purposefully and fast I would stay straighter. Didn’t work; I think I ended up in Namibia. By the time everyone was done, we were strewn out across the pan in a wide semi-circle. It was very enlightening.

     The sun was nearing the horizon. JEJ told us to go out and find a private spot all by ourselves and watch the sunset alone, and enjoy the silence. It was amazingly peaceful. The white crusty ground turned to a dark blueish grey, and the sky turned to fire as the sun dropped below the clouds. I picked up a few rocks to take home.


     It was dark by the time we mounted up on the quad bikes. We drove off across the pan as the last of the sunset colors faded from the sky, staying in line using the headlights. Before long we came to a fire; we stopped and parked the bikes in a row again. A large campfire was blazing, with a circle of folding chairs around it. A bar had been set up nearby; we got some drinks and sat around the fire. A bathroom tent had been put up a little ways across the pan, marked by burning torches, and we could see a Landcruiser parked nearby with a trailer attached to it.  
Presently JEJ told us it was time to go, and asked us to each carry our chair back to the trailer. We followed Jocasta through the darkness. Presently we came not to the trailer, but to a marvelous dinner table, all set up just like in camp. We were to have dinner on the pan. We put the chairs around the table, and sat down to a delicious meal. It was a bit cold, so the staff came around and put hot coals under each chair; the warmth wafted up from below. Natalie said, “This puts bushbabies to shame!”  But we did have to watch where we put our feet. Having dinner out on the pan was fabulous. The only way it could have been better was if the stars had been out; we felt a bit cheated by the cloudy sky.

     With dinner over it was time to be heading back. But JEJ told us that before we went back to the lodge there was something special we needed to see. He explained that the best-preserved petrified remains of a hippo ever found were nearby, and having come this far we mustn’t miss visiting the fossil bed. Again we followed Jocasta through the night, guided by faint moonlight. We passed the quad bikes parked in a single file row; they reminded me of a line of wildebeests.
As we looked for the fossil bed, we could make out a row of dim shapes ahead in the dark. Suddenly we realized it was a long line of beds. Fossil beds my foot; these were beds for us to sleep in! We were being invited to spend the night out on the pan. No wonder Jocasta had said to bring any meds we might need. Some people were a little annoyed by the deceptive setup, but I actually enjoyed the surprise factor. Jineen, Natalie and I decided to stay, but Paula and Tara were worried about being cold and opted to go back.
The beds were set in groups of two or three, just like the cabins, with about 100 meters between each grouping. They had metal bed frames and a rug-like mat beside them. Each bed had a sheet, a heavy wool blanket and a thick comforter, and they were enveloped in a heavy canvas zip-up cover like a giant sleeping bag. Inside was a very fat warm bushbaby. We needn’t have worried about being cold; the beds were very warm and cozy.


Bedtime on the Makgadikgadi Pan

     We visited the bar; Natalie and I got some Amarula, the liqueur made from the fruit of marula trees, and Jineen chose wine. We took the drinks back to our beds and sipped them as we sat and looked out across the pan. A half-moon hung in the sky, barely visible through the clouds, and the salt pan sort of shimmered in the ambient light. We could see a glowing cloud to the south and another fainter one in the east, but we could not imagine what caused them. UFOs?  Magic?  (We later learned that the brighter cloud glowed from the reflected light of a diamond mine about 100 kilometers to the south, and the fainter one to the east was from a salt mine over 150 kilometers away.)
The night was totally silent. Sleeping out there was sort of otherworldly, but not at all scary. It took me a long time to get to sleep and I woke up often, but Natalie conked out like a light. I woke up in the wee hours and needed to answer nature’s call. It was a long way through the dark to the bathroom, but they had told us it was fine to just walk out on the pan for ‘number one.’ We had each been given a flashlight, and been instructed to turn it on and hang it on the bed if we got up in the night, so we could be sure to find our way back. Remembering our attempts to walk in a straight line while blindfolded earlier, I was careful not to go too far through the dark or lose sight of the beds.
The moon went down later; it was still cloudy, but a couple of stars peeked through. Sleeping out on the pan was a unique experience, and one I will remember for a long time.  I really regretted that the sky was cloudy though; sleeping under the Milky Way and the incredible African stars would have been unbelievable.

August 2
In the morning we looked out across the pan, the row of beds looking a bit forlorn in the morning light. We had coffee and tea at the campfire, and then drove the quad bikes back to the vehicle. We returned to Camp Kalahari for breakfast, and then showered and packed, preparing for the first of our four flights home.


     I was sad that our trip had come to an end. As we loaded our bags into the vehicle I muttered something along the lines of “Oh well, I guess it’s time to get back to the real world.”  JEJ looked at me solemnly and said in a serious tone, “This IS the real world.” He is right.  I like thinking of it that way. Africa, nature, the wilderness; all this is the real world, at least the real world as it used to be, and as it should be.

~ The End ~













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