Makgadigadi Salt Pans | Botswana

You slowly become aware of a stillness, a complete silence, an emptiness. A calmness that competes with, yet adds to, the bluest of skies, as wide as you’ve ever seen. It, sort of, sneaks up on you and becomes more pervasive.

An all-embracing silence that hurts the ears just a little bit. A welcome breeze stirs up a puff of swirling dust. The dry grass sways a little, the only movement except for the shimmering heat dancing across the open sands near the horizon. And you stare into the completely flat and empty distance, trying to figure out which way to drive from this point.

Between us and the horizon is an immense, open, flat area stretching for miles. A complete lack of any landmarks, trees or vegetation. Islands of dry, yellowed grass are scattered about interspersed with flat sand stretching to the horizon. The sky is an intense blue colour with no clouds to be seen. Turning 360 degrees reveals two things: the tracks of the vehicle from the direction we’ve just come; and an array of randomly crisscrossing tracks heading into the distance ahead of us.

There are no roads. No tracks. No roadsigns for that matter. All you have to guide you, in a dubious direction that looks completely wrong, is the tiny Garmin attached to the windshield. Forget about cellphone reception or 4G. Civilisation is 30 miles to the rear… The last vehicle we saw was a battered Toyota Hilux pickup (what else) with ten or twelve locals crammed on board that shared our dirt road for a while until we peeled off into the salt pans. And that was hours ago… The sense of isolation is very prevalent. We are totally alone…

And I love it! This is EXACTLY what I was hoping it would be like.

The day is starting to get away from us and we reluctantly get back aboard our 4×4 to resume our journey. We need to get to camp before sunset. And we have no idea how long that could take…

The Groblersbrug Border Post Experience

How did we get here? Our journey started that morning on the other side of the border in Johannesburg. A four/five-hour drive brought us to Tomburke where we spent the night in our roof tent at the ‘Big Fig Inn’. A pleasant experience for a number of reasons, chiefly that we were the only vehicle in the campsite that night. The campsite was also just a couple of kilometres from the border, so the next morning would bring quick adventure! While the camp was surrounded by bare, sandy earth as far as you could see, inside the camp, there was the thickest, lushest, greenest grass I have ever had the pleasure of sinking my toes into.

We crossed the Limpopo River at the Groblersbrug border post. A somewhat chaotic melange of twin-trailered heavy trucks, a smattering of cars and pickups, and some foot traffic. Obliged to join the queue at the old building we presented our passports – through a barred window – to a completely unhurried official who entered our details into an ageing computer. He then stamped our booklets with a practised flourish before waving us on to repeat the process a couple of windows down. On the ‘other side’ of the border in Botswana. The whole process was unexpectedly swift and disciplined. Noticeable for the fact that we were the only ‘lighter-skinned’ individuals who were given a quick sidewards glance by the local population and summarily dismissed as another couple of tourists.

Wedged among the long row of large juggernauts we inched across the steel-trussed bridge spanning the rather dry Limpopo River and into a new frontier for us: Botswana! And ground to a halt just 100 metres into the country… At a foot-and-mouth dip, both for our shoes, and the wheels of the car. They take their livestock very seriously, not having many other options with regards to farming in a very dry, sparse landscape. This would be the first of numerous checkpoints – specifically for the cattle disease – throughout Botswana. As we set off for our first waypoint in Palapye to fuel the car and get supplies we were struck by the lack of traffic and the number of cattle, goats and donkeys grazing distractedly by the roadside.

Fresh Supplies

Not having prepared nor researched to a great degree we were pleasantly surprised on reaching Palapye that there was a full-service Caltex garage and also a ‘strip mall’ with large supermarket. So much for ideas of ‘darkest Africa’. Another surprise was that the local currency, the Pula, was slightly stronger than the South African Rand, and diesel is cheaper as well. We were also pleasantly taken aback by the quality of fresh produce on offer at the store, along with stocking up on St. Louis, the local beer. The rest of the shopping mall was sadly half empty of shops indicating either newly developed group of buildings or a lack of interest by local commerce.

Now armed with a topped off fuel tank and a freshly provisioned fridge we set off again towards the town of Orapa. We were in high spirits having easily despatched with our first transactions and felt that our regional knowledge had increased rapidly. However, we were still driving along without a clue as to the scale of the country, where we were exactly headed and how long it would take to get there – although the GPS did its best to update our progress.

The tarmac ended near a small village called Mmatshumo, a collection of perhaps one hundred houses scattered amongst some trees. The first, and only, evidence that we were travelling in the right direction was a rusty, worn-out sign indicating Makgadigadi Adventure Camp was 52 kilometres from this point. I had chosen to spend the night at this camp ahead of the better-known Kubu Island Mainly because of ‘relative’ lack of information on the area – short of one or two conflicting reviews on Google maps. This ‘second-class’ rating intrigued, and arguably – these things are completely subjective of course – promised a primitive experience and less pretentiousness. We had no idea what to expect and were really open to anything, intrepid adventurers that we (thought we) were!

You want remote?

At this point, I have to say that part of the excitement was the fact we were travelling alone. Just the two of us in an older Hilux 4×4 armed with a tent and a cooler. If we broke down or got stuck… things would get interesting. This was the end of November, heading towards the rain season. The tourist season was off/mid peak so there weren’t many vehicles about. We were passed by only two vehicles along the track heading from Mmatshumo into the salt pans proper.

From the village, the dirt road track heads north between the ‘Sua’ and ‘Nwetwe’ salt pans. Dense bush and trees line each side and the area is generally flat, so you don’t really know where you are. It is a dirt road with sections of soft sand, some mud ruts and lighter coloured ‘beachy’ sand. We saw one of the old trucks coming the other way – so this part is passable however the thought of having 4×4 if needed did give us some assurance as we lost connection to the modern world.

At a certain point after two dozen kilometres the vegetation opened up and we were suddenly presented with an endless open expanse as far as you could see. The Garmin indicated we needed to go in this direction – but there was no track. Just some vehicle tyre marks in the sand. We pressed on, encountering nothing but sand ahead of us, and wispy grass buffeted by a breeze. Intersecting vehicle tracks cut through the open plains headed in all directions. There was dry, cracked muddy sand with soft, sticky, muddy dirt and soil underneath. The plains stretched on, the route indicated veering away and then back to the trails left by previous explorers. At a certain point, with the sun far past the yardarm, I was of the opinion that we were quite lost.

A gate

We still had 27 kilometres to go and were seriously doubting the Garmin and our sense of direction when there appeared a tree and a small dwelling beneath it. A fence ran along spanning from left to right as far as we could see, and a gate loomed up to block our progress leaving us baffled. A man came into view and swung the gates open as if from nowhere. He must have heard or seen us coming – there’s not much else going on here. We asked him to confirm our direction of travel and he gave a relaxed smile and pointed us to follow a track (he must have heard this many times before). He asked for a couple of cans of coke, which we gave him, and wondered what someone must do for a living so far out into the bush.

Awestruck by the immense scale we charged off again, trying to make as swift progress as possible, feeling very small indeed. The crusty surface blocked our path once again, which was a layer of dry dirt with soft mud ten centimetres below it. The tyres dug up clumps of the stuff flinging it around, under and behind the car. I had visions of getting bogged down, stuck, unable to extricate ourselves and nobody around to help us out of our predicament. We would have to bivouac until winter or our water ran out, living off the land and hunting for survival. Although there was nothing to hunt, no animals to be seen, just a call from an invisible bird echoing in the distance.

A random sign

A random sign materialises out of the shimmer. It is the intersection of tracks leading to Kubu Island and The Adventure Camp. It strikes us that not a great many people will ever see this and it may be the most remote roadsign we have come across, but it serves to affirm that we are indeed not totally lost. Have trust in the Garmin would you? Pools of water formed intimidating barriers, causing repeated debate on whether we could traverse them or would have to go around. Progress was both frustratingly intermittent and slow as we chased the sun, and simultaneously fantastic in its feeling of remoteness.

A trail becomes more apparent as the muddy, flat surfaces thinned out thankfully and we are within ten miles of our destination. Out of the blue, a herd of cattle is grazing next to the track, munching on dry grass and we postulate that these could belong to the man at the gate… It also indicates a settlement must be nearby.

Makgadigadi Adventure Camp

Our suspicions are confirmed as the brush and trees become thicker and the route winds along in a random fashion before we suddenly find ourselves at another cattle gate and a number of tents and rudimentary structures surrounded by some basic fencing. Once again we need to confirm that this is in fact the Makgadigadi Adventure camp, signage is not a priority around these parts…

We are not expected. Some cattle are shooed out of the camp as we attempt to validate that we have in fact booked a night at the camp. The reception and bar are closed. There are no other guests. The pool is empty. It does not appear as if they are in fact doing business at this time, however, we manage to smooth things out.

One of the safari tents is made up with bed linen and towels are provided by the friendly staff. Thank you to booking.com for their lack of clarity! The showers are heated by solar panels, which do an okay job, but the water is unexpectedly salty. Mind you, unexpected? Where do you think we are?

The Milky Way

We have been living in Europe for the past two decades. Nothing particularly unusal in that statement except for the fact that finding somewhere truly remote is rather challenging. Somewhere off the beaten path without any light pollution. Somewhere like deepest Africa. The wild frontier of exploration, unchartered territories, adventure to be found at each moment of the day.

Okay, admittedly a little carried away, but I was struck at the brightness of the starlight and the intense Milky Way. We were alone in the campsite once again, with no other tourists and also no lighting in camp whatsoever. It was spectacular and not something you experience often, reminiscent of younger times in the South African bush. And the silence was deafening…!

The ‘road’ to Gweta

The morning sun is early. By 6.30 we are up and ready to attack the day – after a cup of tea of course. We are surprised by both the time of day and our reaction to it – mentally governed by daily routines during our day-to-day lives. The stillness is prevalent again, which amplifies the call of birds, and a stray donkey. Africa is wakening, cattle grazing nearby, a sleepy rooster, birds chirping excitedly, there is an energy in the air.

Admittedly the view is perhaps not as thrilling as the relatively nearby Kubu Island camp which has Baobabs – you can’t compete with that! But there is a stillness here, an unrushed relaxed calm that is quite intoxicating. We put the drone up for an aerial view that is endless even from 150 metres up. And yes – we are alone in the camp, which adds to the quiet mood.

But we have to get back on the road again. We need to head north and then west towards our final destination which is the town of Maun (unbeknownst to us the epicentre of the tourism industry in Botswana – gateway to Moremi and Chobe game reserves and the Okavango). I input our destination into the Garmin (for which we have a newfound respect) and we bid the locals goodbye following a rudimentary track as the sun begins to get still warmer already. It will turn into quite a hot day in more ways than one!

The track we are following devolves into the same separate vehicle tracks crossing and intersecting each other randomly as we try to make sense of it all once again. We had assumed that after yesterday’s trails we would now follow a reasonably civilised track to the main road which was about 60 kilometres away. We had seen the pans, experienced the vast open emptiness and now expected to head to the paved road leading to Maun. Easy right?

Well, nobody had informed the GPS which was cheerily following a route directly across the Makgadigadi pans towards Gweta. And when I say direct, I mean direct! The dry dirt became a maze of muddy trails leading in a myriad of directions, not all of which heading to where we wanted to go. Clods of mud were flung everywhere, drumming underneath the car with our tyres digging in about four inches before gaining muddy purchase. The engine laboured to keep us moving. Our eyes glanced back and forth to the Garmin, to the confusing tracks and at the amount of water and mud surrounding us.

All around there were clumps of dry grass ‘islands’, perhaps two feet higher than we were on the ‘lake bed’. Looking ahead of us were yet more mud and tracks disappearing into standing water. Clearly, others had done the same thing before us. The sense of aloneness became more and more apparent when we stopped to take a break. And spotted a lone horseman on a small pony shimmering in the heat, headed in the opposite direction, miles from anywhere.

Neverending

And still the pans went on and on. Mud, water, fading tracks. The heat, the intensely blue sky, an increasingly hot sun beating down indifferently. GPS says go straight, but there’s only water… Okay, go right for 500 metres… Go round… Back up… Try this…

And again another section of muddy, salty flats would need to be traversed, stretching into the distance before a relatively dry patch of grassland would give us some fleeting grip. We were aware that we had no mobile connection and seemed disorientated and lost, seemingly driving in circles. But in Garmin we trust and we and carried on – not that we had much choice really…

40 miles later…πŸ˜…πŸ‘ŒπŸ˜Ž Made it across the Makgadigadi Pans

Eventually, the miles of driving through the deceptively crusty mud gave us some form of confidence that we were doing okay. The car seemed to cope and the depth of the water appeared consistent enough. Still, we were over 30 kilometres from the tarmac, all alone and travelling a dubious route. So it was with a sense of relief and accomplishment that we reached the other side of the pan and onto a dirt track which seemed semi-permanent. There was a noise coming from the front left tyre which turned out to be a dislodged inner fender and was an easy fix. But the engine light had come on…

The ‘Check Engine’ Light

With two dozen kilometres to go and an engine light illuminated on the dashboard we once again had a confab on how to progress. Our situation was simple: we didn’t have mobile connection, the sun was beating down, we were following a confusing route, we were alone in the middle of nowhere (can’t say that often, can you?) but the engine was still running…. So let’s continue shall we?

Those last miles were covered at a very slow pace, not sure if, or when, the car would quit on us. We nursed it, and ourselves, down a small twin-track marvelling at the sparsity of the countryside and lack of population. We passed a couple of ‘kraals’ housing some cattle, a stray herd of horses and some primitive-looking mud huts. Nobody was to be seen anywhere – possibly cleverly having a siesta while those dumb tourists plied the route in the midday sun!

Two hours later, and now pretty far behind schedule, we did make it to the main road connecting Nata to Maun. A mobile phone connection was established with the rental agency to report on the vehicle fault and their advice on how to move forward. The lengthy phone call revealed no further solution besides resuming the long haul into Maun. A garage would be organised to have a look at the car. By chance, a local mechanic was parked at the roadside at the layby, whom we approached for a second opinion. He happily had a look, confirming that the fault was ‘unknown’. Little did we know we would meet again.

However, the engine was running and we had reported to the owner (always a good thing with a rental vehicle). So we targeted Maun and, leaving a trail of muddy clumps on the road behind, set off again on our journey in the blazing sun. Not far into this portion of the journey, another adventure awaited us at the roadside. But that is a story for another time…

Can I recommend the Makgadigadi salt pans? Absolutely! Our only regret is not being able to stay for long enough – now we have to go back!

The vast size is very humbling, as is the feeling of remoteness, the isolation, the silence. It is as remote from anywhere I have ever felt. You definitely need a 4×4 to traverse it and faith in your navigation. It is the flattest area I have ever seen (and we have lived in Holland). No vegetation (apart from dry, yellow grass), no wildlife (apart from cattle and horses), no connection (mobile or otherwise). It makes you feel small and insignificant yet quite alive. There’s an energy that you can’t quite put your finger on…

Go on, go ‘lose’ yourself…

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