Safari Journal – Makgadikgadi Pans

Marco at Makgadikgadi PansDear Reader

Having just returned from our most recent Safari, I feel compelled to share with you what has been one of my most memorable and touching discoveries in this corner of the African continent. Located deep in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, in an area once considered to be one of the greatest super lakes Africa has known, and believed by some to be the cradle of humankind, now lies one of the most sticking landscapes that draws one’s mind deep into its imagination and summons images of a bygone era. The Makgadikgadi Pans.   The word Kalahari, from the Tswana word “kgala” meaning “The Great Thirst”, is enough to paint a picture in one’s mind of the harsh yet strikingly beautiful landscape that is considered to be one of the most species diverse deserts on earth. Covering 40 000km2 in the north central region of the country of Botswana, it is here you will find a world that has been unaffected by the modern influence of mankind and be transported into a time of brave European adventurers and great African chiefs.

On our arrival, with skies filled with storm clouds, one couldn’t help but notice how sparsely vegetated the land was and wonder what life could possibly exist out there. This was very soon to be proved otherwise. It was onto our open Land Rover for the journey to camp, and at the end of a dusty track, set on an ever-so-slightly raised knoll, and surrounded by a small island of acacias and wild date palms, lay a few scattered tents that portrayed a scene of early adventurers setting up camp along a journey of discovery. One can’t help but imagine David Livingstone himself exiting a tent with journal in hand. This is Jack’ Camp.   We had arrived in the area towards the end of the migration, which unknown to many, is the second largest migration of Zebra on the continent. This allowed for us to have the opportunity to view vast open plains littered with herd upon herd of zebra, continuously on the move looking for green pastures and keeping a nervous eye out on the horizon for the ever lurking predators. Our evening ended with a stop on the edge of the salt pans themselves, and we were encouraged to walk out alone and allow the silence to overcome us. It is a mesmerizing and thought provoking experience, where the silence draws one’s mind into itself, and one quickly appreciates how few places there are on earth that can offer such precious silence.

Our following morning was to introduce us to another of the infamous Kalahari characters. Hidden at night in their intricate burrows, and out first thing in the morning to soak up the early sunshine, we were to meet some of Africa’s most endearing creatures. The Meerkat. The morning was slightly overcast with a chilly wind, which the meerkats did not seem to approve of. However, when the need to feed surpassed the need to be warm, they were out and about inspecting the land around them for unwanted predators. Being not much bigger than a foot off the ground, getting a higher perspective of things is certainly a welcome advantage for the meerkats, and before long, while we were all seated nearby to the burrow, the first bold meerkat scampered up a leg and hopped onto a spectators head to survey the land. One can’t help but feel a part of the environment when treated like an old tree stump. What followed however was certainly a highlight. It was feeding time and the group headed out to forage. Before long all around your feet you have tiny burrowing machines, anxiously digging to find a hidden meal. There was a scorpion or beetle larvae being dug out every minute. It was a feeding frenzy. It is in these moments that you soon realize that this environment is alive with activity.   After a relaxed afternoon reflecting on the morning’s activities, we found ourselves en route to one of the points that has been used by almost all chiefs, missionaries, adventurers and great white hunters passing through this area. Chapman’s Baobab. In a land with very little variation in altitude, anything over a few meters in size is bound to get your attention. So it was this giant in nature that stands out from miles away as a towering beacon of life that drew to its shade the likes of James Chapman, David Livingstone and Khama the Great, but to mention few. Standing at the base of this monolith, with its six distinctive stems reaching to the sky like a giant hand, you cannot help but stand in wonder of what significant points in our own history took place under its very branches, and what this living ancient had witnessed in its life. It was here that our guide, Super, with map on ground, introduced us to the formation and history of the Makgadikgadi Pans, telling the story of millennia, and capturing all our imaginations.

The following morning, after an early breakfast, we were to see the Makgadikgadi Pans through the eyes of its earliest inhabitants. Pushed deep into the most remote and inhospitable lands by the encroaching African and European expansion, it is hard to believe that one of our planets earliest cultures still remains intact. Before we knew it, we were out in the middle of nowhere, huddled around a small pile of twigs, a handful of dried grass and a small pile of zebra droppings. Out came the sticks and the rubbing began, all very controlled, precise and divided between all gathered. In no time the first slither of smoke appeared, onto which the crushed zebra droppings were added, and like magic the first small embers appeared. Add the grass, some air and we had fire.

And so came the end of our journey at the Makgadikgadi Pans. One can’t help but leave with lasting impressions of this seemingly inhospitable yet remarkably beautiful landscape, and a new found respect for those who have survived its endless challenges. It is to date one of the most authentic experiences I have experienced in Southern Africa, and so my desire to share it. This is a must for any Southern Africa Safari.

Yours sincerely,

Marco Tonoli

Four Elements Safari Company

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