Part 2: En Route To The Jewel Of Africa
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.