Monday, July 12, 2010

African Odyssee- The Pans of Botswana

Mystical Khubu Island. The former king used to sit at the top of this granite spire, looking out over the Makgadikgadi Pans.

The Makgadikgadi Pans

View of Khubu Island

It may come as some surprise, but the winter in the desert wastes of Botswana is not a hot time. Dry, yes, barren, certainly, but not hot. Last night it was freezing cold on the Makgadikgadi pans, and the chilly wind tore through my glacier jacket as if it had come off the highlands of Greenland. We camped on the edge of the Pan, the Hog (My Toyota Truck) parked on the former grassy banks of this inland sea so that we could roll it down onto the flat salt plain in the morning to start it.

These and the Nxai Pans used to be an inland lake a hundred feet deep, but climate change and tectonic plate movement drained the pans thousands of years ago. Now they are a vast inland sea of salt and odd prickly grasses, that is about as empty as places can ever be, except where water still gathers. Water attracts animals of all types, and at night the sounds of lilting jackals mix with lion grunts, hyeana laughter and all sorts of screams and chortles, carrying across the pans for miles.

The Photojournalist in the Pans

Driving is treacherous and not recommended except on marked tracks. Without rain parts of the pans carry the prints of cars for decades after they zoomed past. The salt hides a primordial ooze beneath it's crust that can be deep enough in places to swallow a truck whole.

Climate change is writ large here, and although this particular type of climate change is from our far distant past and not linked to human causes, it is a dry and withering example of what parts of our planet could look like when our climate changes. Trees are only found on the former banks of the lake, undulating in the distance and levitating off the ground with the mirage as the cool still air of the day mixes with the hot reflected sunlight.

People lived here, and still do. Outside of the protected areas of the pans, which is most places, there are cattle and sheep farms, and more and more trees are going the way of the ax. Botswana is richer than most countries in Africa, and its obvious that barbed wire has become very useful to the people here. Nevertheless its possible to blast out on a track into the these vast wastes and get as lost as your are willing to be. Lost is realtive term here, where tracks lead kind of everywhere, and a simple compass is enough to make sure that you head in the right direction.

The last night in the pans we visited Khubu Island, a granite outcrop that has been home to Boababs, succulent trees, and groups of people throughout the pre-history of southern Africa. It has gained almost mythic proportations, with "have you been to Khubu Island?" the litmus test for a well travelled adventurer in Africa. It fell into a sorry and trashed state over the last decade, as uncontrolled tourism saw people dumping their rubbish here, but now it's possible for people to visit through the help of the local people, who benefit from travellers who stay at their modest and clean camp on the island, which depsite it's name is actually more of an isthmus out into the pans.

It is a fitting place to end our trip, sitting at the King's seat, high on a granite spire, watching the sun sink over the barren whiteness of the pans.

Clarity, self-awareness, personal growth, these are things many people seek when they travel, and in this place, surrounded by nothing, they all seem more attainable, -and the view is amazing.

Our last desert campsite in the Pans.

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