Monday, November 28, 2011

MAKGADIGADI PANS - SCORCHED AFRICA

The blast of hot air hits me as I step off the plane onto the runway at Maun Airport. It is November and the African sun makes no compromise. Instinctively I pick up the pace and head for the Airport Buildings, but once inside, there is little relief. The air is thin on oxygen and breathing is a laborious affair. Eventually I make it through customs along with my bags and ironically, simply through another door, I am back where I started out, on the burning runway. This time though, in a smaller plane heading East towards the Makgadigadi Pans.

Below, the earth looks scorched and barren. Viewed from the air the skeletal trees show no signs of life and an air of desolation accompanies the relentless sun. Fifty minutes later the Cessna 206 drops from the sky down to a seemingly deserted airstrip while the wind plays havoc with the landing. The air is now even thinner and hotter as we bump our way towards the camp.

Stepping into the Mess Tent at Jack’s Camp one can be forgiven for imagining yourself in a weird kind of time warp that takes you back 100 years or so. It is simply charming, but the heat jades the view and all I can think of is a shower – briskly cold and refreshing – weird pictures start forming in my mind of beer advertisements where the condensation on the glass drips alluringly.


Things are casual at Jack’s Camp and after a brief introduction accompanied by a cold iced tea and cool towel we head off towards our tent. The walk seems interminable with the sun doing its very best to blister any exposed skin. Bags are deftly unpacked and the shower that follows in quick succession is not as cold as I would like. The bed beckons and I desperately try to get some shuteye before the evening’s entertainment.

Finally around 4pm the air starts cooling down and we make our way back towards the mess tent. More iced tea – Arnold Palmer they call the half lemonade and half iced tea mix – goes down smoothly and Super, our 6ft 6in guide, gives us a lowdown on the evening’s activities.

For the first time on Safari we are not heading out in the Game Drive Vehicle but we are taken to a spot on the edge of the Pans and we are faced with a line of Quad Bikes. The introduction is brief and each of us has our heads wrapped in a Kikoi to protect us from the fine sands of the Makgadigadi Pans. Then it is onto the Bikes and away we go. Wind whipping through my hair I find this experience to be a lot more exciting than I had imagined. The endlessness of the pans stretch out before us. The peaceful feeling of the wildnerness settles in as we gaze upon kilometre after kilometre of nothingness.

Finally we stop, literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s time for the obligatory G & T that is synonomous with all true African Safaris. I know I cannot leave this wilderness without trying to capture just a little something of the desolation and infinity. As I roll around on the floor of the pan trying to get the best viewpoint of a bewitching sunset Super calls out – Elephant!!

Bizarrely, there in the distance, all on its own, an elephant is making its way across the pan. Great speculation ensues about why a young bull elephant of around 8 years old would be wandering out on his own, in the Pan. Elephants are normally a gregarious bunch and the young bulls, once evicted from the breeding herd, will join up with other young bulls and under the guidance of an older male be taught the ways of the world. Back to our young elephant, he is making good time across the Pan and we set off after him to see what he is up to.

Super informs us that this is a very rare sighting. In his 21 years at Jack’s camp this is only his third sighting of an elephant on the Pan, as it would appear that they move by night. Eerily, this boy, on his own, looks as though he is pursuing something and we can only surmise that he has been left behind and is now hotfooting it behind the herd that must have moved through the area earlier.

Then it is back to camp under cover of darkness for more G & T’s and some nosh before retiring to bed in our decadently ornate tent.
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