If you think about it, it doesn’t make sense. I mean, a salt pan has literally nothing on it, and it is as flat as any part of the planet you have ever seen, even flatter than that. And there is nothing here at all, all the way to the horizon. And let’s not forget that it is hot, unbelievably hot with the sun bearing down and the dust hanging in the air, with hardly a breath of wind, so you have no place to hide. So, just what is exactly so breathtaking?

Is it Remote Enough?

Firstly, it is in the middle of nowhere, even for Botswana. And it takes a bit of creative GPS trickery to get there. Our journey started that morning in Nxai Pan at the South Gate Camp, which was an incredible experience among the elephants -maybe even more so than Elephant Sands. This meant a forty-kilometre drive through the hot sand to get to the Nxai Pan National Park Gate, and then another eighty kilometres on the A3 dodging the occasional pothole. At the old, and semi-deserted Shell petrol station, we are obliged to fuel up -rule #1 out here) – which luckily had diesel from one of the pumps.

Then you head south. That’s it. No particular direction, or road to follow.

Gweta is a collection of rural homes, with traditional mud huts and some rudimentary goat fences. There’s no structure in the form of straight roads, and the Garmin takes us in random directions trying to find a road that goes in the right direction.

We crisscross through the little dirt roads as the houses become sparser and the locals eye us out with chagrin. They have probably witnessed this many times before, stray tourists with one eye on the map and trying to avoid a donkey or a cow.

Dozens of tracks

Eventually, the town ends, but the confusion doesn’t. There are dozens of sandy tracks leading in all directions and we struggle to find one that stays on course. The Garmin wants to send us the long way around via Nata and south of Makgadigadi to enter from Mmatshumo. That’s an absurd idea and also 500 km of driving. Vic and I know there is a track here because we drove this way coming out of the salt pans (yes it was a couple of years ago, but the memory is still fresh in our minds).

We stick with the Sygic app on the phone. It doesn’t need a 4G connection like Google Maps, but uncompromisingly gives us a straight bearing (as the crow flies) to Kubu Island. Trying to match up our current position (the arrow on the screen) to the track (on the screen) is proving tricky. The track always seems to walk away from the arrow, and we backtrack and head off on a different bearing to try and catch the correct one amongst the myriad of sandy routes.

This intertwining ‘spaghetti’ of trails is pretty confusing for the first thirty or forty kilometres, also because the thick bush and thorn trees don’t allow much of an overview of where we’re going. And with the sun overhead, it doesn’t help our bearings and direction in the form of shadow.

So, it is with jubilation and satisfaction that we finally see the salt pans opening up ahead. The trees and bush gradually fade away and eventually even the grass dries up. There is nothing ahead of us but open, sandy plains. A shimmering heat haze hangs on the horizon and a couple of wheel tracks head into nowhere.

Welcome to the Makgadigadi Salt Pans!

By the way, it is still 46°C! There is nothing to see in all directions, but thankfully the Garmin on the windshield has settled down and accepted that we are committed to this route. The remaining distance is only about 60 kilometres, but the mileage ticks off slowly, and the heat doesn’t help. The ground is thankfully dry and firm under the vehicles, so progress is not difficult (what goes through our minds is trying to imagine this in the rainy season?).

Open pans alternate between slightly higher grass-covered areas (beige-brown grass that doesn’t inspire finding any form of life). Some sand patches on the pans are very soft and dust plumes up metres high, to hang there for minutes. A sigh of wind moves it aside just enough to follow the vehicle ahead.

Some patches of sand are a little more damp and the wheel tracks sink in an inch or two. We maintain a consistent momentum, just following a general bearing across the salt pan before exiting onto ‘dry land’ on a small track leading through the grass. Only to emerge onto another salt pan. It is surreal and utterly absorbing.

completely flat

A deep blue sky accompanies us from above, the sun still doing its best to burn through our excitement. We are getting ever further from ‘civilisation’ with only the tenuous line on the GPS to guide us. If the Garmin packs up, I think we’ll never find our way out. I am split by wanting to extend the moment and also reach the camp. How much time do we have? Will the dusty track hold up? Are there challenges ahead?

You could drive in any direction from here and you will find the same thing – dry, hot, dusty sand in a perfectly flat land.

And then you look around and find nothing – in all directions. Just a hazy horizon. At least the route is smooth, the smoothest drive we have had in the past three weeks! Nothing comes close to the Makgadigadi, not even the pothole-riddled tarmac, and this is leagues ahead of the washboards of Chobe, and let’s not even mention the Kalahari experience!

A great hanging dust cloud announces our arrival at the game fence (foot-and-mouth I think) near Makgadigadi Adventure Camp. We stayed here four years ago and are surprised that they are on a big upgrade and renovation drive. There’s a lot of work going on, and they are still doing business! Let’s file this one away for a later date, please.

Kubu Island

Kubu Island (Lekhubu Island) gate looms up, in the middle of nowhere. It stands out like a beacon in the surroundings. The people there are very friendly, and it seems to be a community-run initiative, maybe similar to Khwai. All the better!

Our campsite is on the ‘island’, which is more of a rocky peninsula if you’re pedantic. Campsite five doesn’t have a view, but a smattering of welcome shade under the trees.

Mother Nature welcomes us with a thunderstorm of note. Hot winds carry a heavy dust storm through the camp, followed by almighty lightning and thunder, and those thick, pelting raindrops. The thunder rattles the windows as the storm passes directly over us as we cower in the cars for shelter, and not just from the rain! Thirty minutes later all is calm again and the sun comes out with the damp heat from the earth rising up once again.

The solitude is fantastic at night, with amazing views of the night sky. There is hardly anyone else here, just two other trucks parked one hundred metres away, hidden in the trees and bushes. You would never know they were there. It is also dead quiet. No wildlife that we could hear, not even birds. It is quite a magical moment sitting around the campfire.

There is nothing here, just like numerous other camps in Botswana we have bivouacked in. No running water, or water at all. No power and no facilities except for a central long-drop toilet in the middle of the camps. This is like a portaloo, but much smaller, and no chemicals, just a hole in the ground. It is so small that you can’t close the door when you’re sitting in there – but you have a killer view!

The Sunrise and the magic

The next morning brings the real magic when we walk out over the low hills and catch the sunrise from amongst the baobabs. The rocky outcrops can’t be more than thirty metres in height, but this is enough to get a view over the pans. Views that stretch to the horizon, with nothing at all, like a sea of sand, absolutely flat. We sit and watch the sun come over the horizon for over an hour, seeing it rise into the sky for another scorcher of a day.

The silence is deafening, and there is no wind at all. The colour of the sky turns from red to orange, and a pinkish haze as the sun rises over the horizon. An unseen, but felt, energy emanates from the rocky outcrop, and the centuries-old baobabs, with surreal views of the immense, open landscape of the salt pans.

It is a magnetic, silent salutation to the new day. And to Mother Nature’s beauty. We feel very small, fortunate and privileged as we sit on the rocks and gaze out over the pans.

We also feel very remote and solitary. The contrast between the wide and flat space to one side and the rocky outcrops of the baobab-covered island is as beautiful as it is clean in its execution. There’s no hand of man here, and how (I ponder) can ‘nothing’ be so enthralling and captivating?

It’s a magical, breathtaking place, somewhere that has to be felt as well as seen. The challenge to get here just gives it even more charm and mystery. Getting lost in the featureless desert, battling the heat and the dust.

We’ve heard many times that Kubu Island is a magical place. Is it as magical as they say? Oh, I can answer that with a resounding yes!

Next, is our final stop on our amazing adventure through Botswana – Khama Rhino Sanctuary