A patch of short, dry grass sways a little, the only movement except for the shimmering heat dancing across the open sands. 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 lies an immense, open, flat area stretching for miles. There is a complete lack of any landmarks, trees or vegetation. Patches of dry, yellowed grass are scattered about, flat sand stretches to the skyline.
The sky is an intense blue colour with no clouds to be seen. Turning 360 degrees reveals two things. One is our own vehicle tracks behind us, and the other is an array of randomly crisscrossing tracks heading into the distance ahead of us.
There are no roads. No tracks. Or 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 hours ago. A battered Toyota Hilux pickup (what else) with ten or twelve locals crammed on board shared our dirt road for a while until we peeled off into the salt pans. 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 the 4×4 to resume our solo journey. We need to get to camp before sunset. And we have no idea how long that could take…
The Groblersbrug Border Post Experience
You may be wondering how we got here. Our journey started that same morning on the other side of the border – in South Africa – which seems extremely far away from this point on the salt pans.
The previous day a five-hour drive from Johannesburg brought us to the small village of Tomburke, where we spent the night in our roof tent at the ‘Big Fig Inn’ campsite.
This was a pleasant experience for a number of reasons, but mainly because we were the only vehicle at the campsite that night. Big Fig Inn is also just a couple of kilometres from the border post, so the next morning would bring some quick adventure!
While the campsite 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. This amounted to a somewhat chaotic melange of twin-trailered heavy trucks, a smattering of cars, pickups, and some foot traffic.
We were obliged to join the queue at the old building and present 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.
The whole process was unexpectedly swift and disciplined, taking less than forty minutes. Also notable 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 in amongst 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 then 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.
. This would be the first of numerous checkpoints – specifically for cattle disease – throughout Botswana. They take their livestock very seriously here. I suppose they don’t have many other options with regard to farming in a very dry, sparse landscape.
We set off for our first waypoint in Palapye, to fuel the car and get supplies, and were struck by the lack of traffic and a large number of cattle, goats and donkeys grazing undisturbed near, beside and on the road.
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 a 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 the local St. Louis beer.
The other half of the shopping mall was empty, indicating either a 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 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, which is a collection of perhaps one hundred houses scattered amongst some trees.
It was there that we found the first, and only, evidence that we were travelling in the right direction through a rusty, worn-out sign indicating Makgadigadi Adventure Camp was a further 52 kilometres from this point.
Why not Kubu?
I had chosen to spend the night at this camp instead of the better-known Kubu Island mainly because of the ‘relative’ lack of information about the ‘adventure Camp’ – short of one or two conflicting reviews on Google maps.
This ‘second-class’ rating intrigued and arguably promised (these things being completely subjective of course) 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!
Do you want remote? I’ll give you 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 box. If we broke down or got stuck… things would get interesting.
It was low/mid-season at the end of November, heading towards the rainy season, so there weren’t many other vehicles about. We were passed by only two vehicles along the muddy track heading from Mmatshumo into the salt pans proper – a beat-up old Hilux with a dozen souls onboard and a battered old ten-ton truck heading south.
From the village, the dirt road track heads north between the ‘Sua’ and ‘Nwetwe’ salt pans. Dense bushes and trees line each side of the road 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.
The old truck coming the other way proved this particular section is passable, however, the thought of having 4×4 if needed did give us some assurance as we lost our tenuous connection to the modern world.
ONTO THE SALT PAN!
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 that we needed to leave the dirt road – but there was no track to follow. 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 heading in all directions.
There was dry, cracked muddy sand with soft, sticky, muddy dirt and soil beneath. The plains stretched on, the route 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 in the middle of nowhere
We still had 27 kilometres to go and were seriously doubting the Garmin and our sense of direction when a tree appeared in the distance with 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 around 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 soft drink as payment, which we gave him, and as we left him standing there with his gate we 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; hurried along by the clock, feeling very small indeed. The crusty surface blocked our path once again, which was a layer of dry dirt with soft mud just below it. The tyres dug up clumps of the sticky, muddy stuff flinging it under, around and behind the car.
Should we BIVOUAC?
I had visions of getting bogged down and stuck, unable to extricate ourselves, and having nobody around to help us out of our predicament.
I foresaw us having to bivouac until winter, or our water ran out – whichever came first. Living off the land and hunting for survival. The trouble is there is nothing to hunt, no animals to be seen, just a call from an invisible bird echoing in the distance.
A very remote 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 completely lost.
In Garmin we trust
Pools of water formed intimidating barriers, causing repeated debates on whether we could traverse them or would have to go around. Progress was frustratingly intermittent and slow as we chased the sun, but also 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. A herd of cattle is suddenly 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 a track forms which winds along in a random fashion before we suddenly find ourselves at another cattle gate.
There are 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 were unexpected guests
Some cattle are shooed out of the camp while we attempt to validate that we have in fact booked a night at the camp.
The reception and bar are closed. The pool is empty. There are no other guests. It does not appear as if they are in fact doing business at this time. Luckily, we manage to smooth things out.
One of the safari tents is prepared and bed linen and towels are provided by the friendly staff. 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 northern Europe for the past two decades. Nothing particularly unusual 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, I admittedly got a little carried away there, but I was struck by the brightness of the starlight and the intense Milky Way. We were alone in the campsite, with no other tourists and also no electricity and lighting in the camp whatsoever.
It was spectacular and not something you experience often. It brought back some memories of younger times in the South African bush. And the silence was deafening…!
Africa rises early
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 positive 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 awakening. Cattle graze nearby, a sleepy rooster, and birds chirping excitedly. There is an almost tangible energy in the air.
Admittedly the view is perhaps not as thrilling as the relatively nearby Kubu Island camp which has Baobabs that you can’t really compete with. 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.
Heading North towards Gweta
But 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, and gateway to Moremi, Chobe and the Okavango).
I input our destination into the Garmin (for which we have newfound respect) and we bid the locals goodbye to follow 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 (and trials), we would now follow a reasonably civilised track to the main road which was about 60 kilometres away. After all, we had now seen the pans, experienced the vast open emptiness and expected to head to the paved road leading to Maun. Easy right?
Garmin goes direct
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 headed 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 disappeared into standing water. Clearly, others had done the same thing.
The sense of isolation 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.
And still the pans went on and on. Mud, water, fading tracks. The heat, the intense blue sky, the increasingly hot sun beating down indifferently. GPS says to go straight, but there’s only water… Okay, go right for 500 metres… Go around… Back up again… Try this way…
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 we were disorientated and lost, seemingly driving in circles. But in Garmin we trust and we carried on – not that we had much choice really…
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.
It was therefore with a sense of relief and accomplishment that we reached the other side of the pan and onto a dirt track that seemed semi-permanent!
However, 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 a mobile connection, the sun was beating down, we were following a confusing route, and 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!
Made it back to civilisation
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 the vehicle’s 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 there 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.
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…
Is it worth going?
Can I recommend the Makgadigadi salt pans? With a resounding thumbs up I urge you to go. Get there now.
The vast size is very humbling, as is the feeling of remoteness, isolation, the silence. It is as remote as I have ever felt.
You definitely need a 4×4 to traverse it and faith in your navigation. It is also the flattest area I have ever seen (and we have lived in Holland).
There’s no vegetation (apart from dry, yellow grass), no wildlife (apart from cattle and horses), and 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…
Our only regret is not being able to stay for long enough. Which means we have to go back!
Go on, get lost in Africa…