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Solo On The Kalahari Part 2

Posted in Events on March 1, 2010 Comment (0)
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The searing austral winter heat is pressing against the windshield, whipping through my open window like a glassblower's furnace. My legs, now a crimson tone, are reeling from the previous seven days of exposure to the intense sun and 100-plus-degree temperatures. I could reach down, hit the A/C and slide the power windows to the "up" position. But no, I'm following the tracks of one of my childhood heroes and the explorers of centuries past: Marlin Perkins, Henry Stanley, and Dr. Livingstone, and have vowed not to cave in to modern conveniences, save the Hummer H3 I'm driving. I've ventured into the deserts of Southern Africa and am midstream on a morphing 3,000-kilometer, south-to-north trek through one of the most foreboding regions of the continent, the Kalahari Desert.

We'd completed a 1,200-kilometer crossing of the Khutse and Central Kalahari Game Reserves, and were heading towards the Boteti River, the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans, and the aqueous reaches of the Okavango Delta. My riding partner Allen Andrews' disposition had improved since his run-in with a spewing jerrycan, and if we made it to the croc-infested waters of the Zambezi River and the Kazengula ferry, our solo trek through Botswana would be complete and the Kalahari's northern reaches in Zambia would beckon.

Stretching north-south from South Africa to northern Zambia, and east-west from Zimbabwe to Namibia, the Kalahari (derived from the Tswana word Kgala, or the great thirst) spans almost a million square kilometers. Though not wholly a desert by technical terms, its arid climes can be some of the harshest on the planet. The thermometer had spiked past the century mark before noon each day, and there was no relief on the horizon-only the blistering Kalahari sun.

The fuel gauge was dipping into the vapor zone as we reached the village of Rakops. The village is no more than a few dozen mud rondevals and a dirt main street, but it possesses all the necessities for an African road trip: two garage-sized markets and a fuel pump. With full tanks and a few sundries into our ARB fridge, we went in search of the decade-dry Boteti River. Rumors were drifting through the bush that floodwaters from the Angolan highlands were pushing south, and that the historically dry web of channels, including the Boteti, may have water.

Locating a faint track from the tar road, we headed east to its terminus at an abandoned camp. A game trail led us a few hundred meters through thick bush to the steep banks of the Boteti. Void of water, we shoehorned the H3 down through a maze of acacia, and were greeted by a very surprised herdsman and a few dozen cattle. It appeared that he'd been living with his cattle for months, maybe years, pumping (and drinking) water from a hand-dug well and sleeping under a tree. The language barrier was broken with a smile, a bottle of clean water, and a small piece of quickly melting chocolate. Bewildered, he attempted to put it in his pocket for later. We assured him he should eat the chocolate immediately.

From treetop perches, black-breasted snake eagles kept a curious eye on us as we followed the riverbed upstream in search of the oncoming flow. Reaching the boundary of the Makgadikgadi Game Reserve, and unsuccessful in our quest in the Boteti, we climbed the east embankment into Makgadikgadi and would continue our search in a few days.

Makgadikgadi, Baobabs, and the Okavango
Herds of Burchell's zebra and wildebeest greeted us within 200 meters of the park gate. We'd transitioned from agricultural Botswana to the realm of the wild. Outside the gate, indigenous people hunt for subsistence and commerce, and the remaining wildlife competes with cattle for limited resources. But within the reserve's four-meter-high game fence, the bush appears in a constant state of motion. Springbok and gemsbok peer from camouflaged veils of mopani, and vervet monkeys played their mischief whilst keeping a vigilant eye out for predators.

The Makgadikgadi lies on the footprint of ancient Lake Ngami. Most of our maps showed the region as a large blue form, and based on its endorheic disposition, this most assuredly meant a lake surrounded by savanna. Wrong! The blue shading only indicated where a lake would be if Noah were preparing his ark for departure. And rather than one massive dry lakebed, or pan, Makgadikgadi is a compilation of dozens of small pans, broken by islands of yellow prickly salt grass and acacia and scrub. It was just before sunset when we arrived at Nxai Pan. Matusi, a young park ranger pointed us to our camp on the map, laid down the park rules, and urged us to get out to the South Water Hole to view the wildlife.

As the sun dissolved into a fiery orb in the western sky, we blasted across the ancient lake bottom towards the Baines Baobabs. Perched on an island, this mini forest of baobabs gained notoriety by the late eighteen-century painter Thomas Baines, who set their macabre forms to canvas. Pulling the H3 to the edge of the saltpan, we deployed the ARB tent, quickly scrounged some grass to start our nightly fire, and, after picking the bones out, dined on gourmet cuisine of canned chicken curry. A cool breeze softened the relentless heat of the day, and we'd share camp this night with a few black-backed jackals beneath the ghostly moon shadow of these prehistoric giants.

Unlike myself, Allen is not the kind of guy who can wear the same pair of underwear for a week (the trick is to "go commando," or turn them inside out on day four, then burn or wash them on day seven). It was time for another shower, and rather than surrendering to the tar road to Planet Baobab, a funky retreat to the east, we attempted to locate a thin dotted line on our map, the traditional Maun-to-Gweta route. Although we eventually found the long-abandoned track, it had been closed by the government and the better part of the day was lost in the effort. But cold beers, a hot meal of game stew, and a double-bunk rondeval awaited. So we ate our pride, endured a few dozen kilometers of pavement, and an hour later were tossing back some cold ones with a dozen overlanders (groups that trek through Africa in 2 1/2-ton surplus military trucks), a few solo travelers like us, and a dozen indigenous dancers.

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Okavango, The Jewel of Africa
We'd been in-country for 13 days, set up our transient camp each night, and spun almost 2,000 kilometers on the odometer. The following morning would find us in Maun (Ma-oon), gateway to the Okavango Delta: The Jewel of Africa. One of the world's largest inland water systems, the Okavango receives an annual 18 billion cubic meters of annual floodwater from the Angola Highlands. It is a world of rivulets, palm-lined channels, and forested islands, and home to thousands of species of African flora and fauna. It's not a place to pass up, and the best way to see it is with a crocs-eye view over the gunwale of a mokoro-a traditional dugout canoe. We'd booked a few days at Oddball's Camp. Located in the delta's geographical center, Oddball's was the perfect launching point (and somewhat affordable) for a two-night mokoro trek into the delta. We left the H3 the with our friends at Wilderness Safaris, headed across the tarmac, and piled our gear into an old Cessna 206.

Somewhere in the Makgadikgadi Pan we came across this abandoned and half-buried truck. Though the surface of the pan seemed parched and firm, moisture welled up from the depths and the truck's tires were mired in thick gooey mud.

Herds of elephant, giraffe, and hippo scattered in all directions as we strafed the marshy swamps and lagoons to the west of the legal park boundaries. The plan was to fly into Oddball's for a night in their luxury tent camp (and another sorely-needed shower), and in the morning load up a mokoro for a few nights in wildlife central. We weren't disappointed. As the wheels of the plane rattled to a stop on the remote dirt airstrip, we piled out and were greeted by our guide, Information. (He insisted that Information was his real name-yeah, right-so we nicknamed him "411"). In a few minutes, we were sipping gin and tonics with Germans, Italians, and a couple of Pomes (British) in an open-air lodge on the edge of the Boro River. Pure luxury after 2,000 kilometers of dirt tracking.

The mokoro is traditionally crafted from a single straight tree, such as the kigelia africana, but due to environmental concerns and the incredible amount of junk that tourists think they need, mokoros for hire are predominantly fiberglass. As we pushed off, 411 said, "Relax now. Stay in the middle, and we won't kiss any crocs today." We drifted silently through thick reeds, willow grass, and water lilies, as elephants lumbered along the opposite bank, shaking coco palms with their massive ivory tusks in an effort to dislodge the succulent fruit above. Beneath us, through several meters of translucent "Okavango Champagne" (Okavango water has a tannin appearance due to the abundance of organic material-maybe elephant dung), Okavango bream, a staple for delta dwellers, darted beyond the shadow of our mokoro and into the safety of the reeds. Having grown up on the delta, 411's knowledge of flora and fauna was astounding. We learned what plants you can eat, which ones to use as toilet paper, eye drops or for diarrhea, and which ones will kill you.

People rave about African sunrises and sunsets for a reason. They're spectacular. But the reason is the millions of tons of soot, ash, and smoke released from perpetual wildfires that sweep the land.

If you've seen it on Animal Planet, it probably lives in the Okavango. At night, it is either hunting, or being hunted. Pitching our tents on a small island, we spent the next two nights huddled next to the campfire, listening to a symphony of delta frogs, crickets, and cicadas. The harmony was occasionally broken by the roar of a nearby lion pride, an elephant crossing the swamp under a new moon, and the spine-chilling screams of a baboon becoming the "food" part of the food chain. Days were spent on the water, dodging hippos and crocs, and bush walking with all forms of Okavango fauna. On the return trip, we passed over a three-to-four-long meter crocodile, its meal of a half-eaten warthog laying near the bank. 411 didn't see the croc and nosed over to the decaying carcass. Pulling back into the channel, he stuck his pole right on the croc's back. The entire mokoro rocked as 411 jumped and the massive reptile darted away in a cloud of silt.

Moremi, Chobe, and The Linyanti Marsh Due to perennial flooding in much of the delta, there isn't a direct route from Maun to the Kazengula Ferry crossing near Kasane, and the tar road is a 280km detour to the east. This was cause for celebration because we were on the dirt track again, and grief. (Allen and I were back to sharing the ARB tent each night. I'd snore, and he'd kick me in the head.)

The author's self-portrait.

There are two types of African Botswana: that which is outside the four-meter-high game fence, and that which is inside. The outside is void of indigenous species, and all you see are cattle and agriculture. Inside, however, elephants and giraffe walk across your path, leopards nap lazily from limbs of sausage trees waiting for an unsuspecting baboon, and if you stray into into the bush on foot, you might find yourself somewhere in the middle of the food chain. The next four days in Moremi and Chobe Game Reserves would be just that: elephants, giraffe, kudu, eland, vervet monkeys, and baboons. It was like driving through Wild Country Safari, but with no fences, caution signs, or traffic.

North of Maun, the track came to an abrupt end at the edge of the Khwai River. The track continued on the other side and the villagers in Mababe, population of about 200, said the government was working on a bridge-but hadn't done anything in several years.

The Hippopotamus amphibius, or "water horse" according to the Greeks, is thought to have evolved from whales and porpoises 55-million years ago. Highly territorial, they are known to bite a mokoro in half (traditional dugout canoe), and are one of the most revered mammals in Africa.

The plan: head upriver until we found a spot shallow enough to cross that wasn't congested with elephants, hippos or crocs, and enter the Moremi Game Reserve at the North Gate. After navigating a web of tracks from other lost souls, we found a hub-deep crossing with a sandy bottom, located a suitable winch anchor in case we got stuck, scanned the banks for crocs, and forged across.

Camps in Moremi are named after the log bridges they are near, and we'd talked the park ranger into letting us move our reservation to Third Bridge Camp on the remote finger of the delta. Moremi is one massive floodplain, and in the Dry, most of the water has receded enough to pass safely. Ninety kilometers and a dozen water crossings later, we wandered into camp. It was almost dark and we made a quick attempt at scrounging some firewood. Returning from the bush, the ranger came by and informed us to stay near camp: "A leopard made a kill where you just were last night."

We were on the final push to the border town of Kasane. But the road less traveled drew us still north to the waters of the Linyanti Marsh, and beyond lay the neck of Namibia's long-disputed Caprivi Strip. Allen and I had traveled in Africa before, but three weeks in the bush was about his limit (something about underwear and showers), and his new bride awaited at home. Our T4A GPS map was invaluable in navigating the seldom-traveled two-tracks along the Linyanti. Wildebeest and Kudu watched cautiously as we zigzagged our way east through thick mopani, acacia, and sausage trees. African fish eagles and bataleurs, great aerial predators of the Africa skies, held lofty perches above, waiting for unsuspecting prey. Camp this night would again be shared with packs of pachyderms and hyenas.

Angolan floodwaters cover much of the Moremi Game Reserve during the Wet, but in the Dry, most water crossings can be done in a good 4x4. With rear electric-locker, 4:1 transfer case, and Yokohama tires, our H3 made short work of the hub-deep swamps.

Knowing that Zambian fuel was threefold the cost in Botswana ($12USD vs. $4USD), we topped the tank and jerrycans to the brim and headed for the Kazengula Ferry. It had been 18 days since we entered the Kalahari. Lion, elephant, and hyenas had roamed our campsites, we'd run for our lives from a massive brush fire in the Central Kalahari, pitched our tents on an island in the Jewel of Africa, stood in awe beneath thousand-year-old Baobabs, and spun twenty-six hundred kilometers on the H3's odometer. I'd be dropping Allen at the airport the next day and be on my own for the next month. I slipped our well-worn Botswana map in the glove box, pulled out Zambia, and unfolded the next chapter of the Hummer Africa Expedition.

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