Makgadikgadi - Monday 24th September 2018 - Day 7
We are woken at 6 am - hot water is brought by a lady saying “Knock Knock” as she approaches, and I sit on a big daybed covered with a blanket drinking tea and watch the monkeys running up the trees next to our deck, and tiny squirrels watching us from behind branches, and after a hot shower - indoors! - its still cool! - we are at breakfast by 6.45 am. One of the women who I marked as an ‘irritation’ last night is a tall, angular blonde South African journalist, who looks like Princess Anne, and not only dominates the conversation of her colleagues with her strident, loud, opinions, but also the entire dining room, and I’m happy to hear they leave this morning.
We can’t wait to get started on our first game drive; Steffi and Georg sit behind us, our companions for today. I hope they are ‘bush trained’ and not noisy, but they seem friendly and pleasant, and they are excited to be here, and anxious to get going. Last night, Steff loaned us US$10 to give to the San People, as their tent is close to the Lodge and ours is the last one, so that’s a good sign. They have open faces, and ready smiles. It’s very cold and I wear my puffy coat with the fur hood, and happily, there are blankets in the open sided Land Rover. It’s a very long drive to the Nxai Pan (pro ‘Ny-Pan’) - its only 120 kms but it takes 3.5 hours, over bone crushing, rutted ‘roads’ of dust, and then on to a sea of sand, where we swerve and jolt and the wind whips constantly at our face and eyes, the air - everything! - is dry as a bone, and I feel my skin is shriveling like a raisin. Despite sunglasses for protection, my eyes are sore and gritty and weep, its cramped in the second row, there is no space for our legs and our knees get bruised bashing into the seats in front, its hard to sit upright and we hold on tightly, it would be so easy to fall out. It is impossible to converse over the noise of the wind, it’s like being on a boat in a sea of dust.
The combination of domestic and wildlife is a problem, for we are not officially in a game park, and people live here with their animals. The government has built - and continues to build electric fences to keep them separate; the plan is for one side of river for wildlife and the other side for domestic animals; donkeys, goats and cattle, but it doesn’t seem to be working. We watch a wart hog run across the road and straight into the fence, he extracts himself, and keeps on running, and the fence is in major disrepair.
Despite the discomfort, there is so much to see en route: There are magnificent huge eland, an adult weighs up to 800 kg and yet can jump 2.5 m. There are elephant, giraffes, warthogs, steenbok, and a beautiful ostrich family with 12 babies - twelve babies! -the father takes one look at us, shoos his chicks away, then takes a fierce run at us. There are groups of wildebeest, Secretary Birds, helicopter birds, Kites and Kori Bustards (Botswana’s National Bird). KB sways to a halt and points on both lion prints and elephant prints. There are many Mopani trees but they are not native, they come from the Delta, brought here by elephant droppings - a helpful way of seeding the environment in Africa.
The German couple are charmed with the way KB stops and sets up a picnic table on the front of the Land Rover for tea and coffee and snacks, their first experience of a picnic in the African bush. We start to get to know each other, they are curious and respectful of where they are, and we learn that they too, have one son, Chris, aged 21, whose ambition is to open a surf school in Australia! They’re celebrating 25 years of marriage; Steff is a gynaecologist and Georg is in HR. We make use of the ‘facilities’ behind a bush after KB ensures there are no lions lurking, and continue our journey to the white salt Nxai Pan, and when we arrive shaken and sore, its totally worth the 3.5 hour drive.
Its a vast flat pan, and we are the only human beings there. At the water hole, in which there is not much water, ten elephants - ten! - are bathing, sucking up water. Others give themselves dust baths. Some of them stand comically cross legged to take the weight off their feet, others take a break by resting their heavy trunks on their feet. These are all males, not a females or baby in sight. The males have made the long journey to find water, but the females have had to stay where there is at least some water and vegetation so they can feed the babies, who anyway, are too small to make the arduous trip. Like mothers everywhere, they stick with their kids, and make many sacrifices. KB parks a respectful distance away, and we watch, enthralled, clicking away with our phones and cameras. A short distance away, under a small bush giving limited shade in this baking pan, there are five young lions about 9 months old, lying panting, tangled in each other’s limbs. We sit, breathless, for half an hour and watch as three adult lions stalk a zebra in a military manoeuvre, as two take flank positions, and one creeps on its haunches from the rear but a bigger herd of elephants arrive, trumpets in the air, craving water, and disrupt the plan, and the zebra takes off, unharmed. Springbok spring, elephants bathe, lions doze. It’s a movie, how many animals and birds can you get into one frame?
KB works his magic again, and we lunch under a Baobab tree, a feast of cold meat, salad, pasta, fresh bread, beer and gin and tonic. Steffi is not a fan of gin and tonic, she says, and I tell her it is essential to ward off mosquitoes, and she laughs, we are getting on well. We head back to the waterhole for a last look at the abundance of wildlife, and sit in silence, watching. The salt pans, the heat and the sun are relentless, even though this Land Rover has a roof, and despite long sleeves and long pants, my face and lower arm are exposed to the sun shining through the vehicle and are bright red, even with sunscreen. My skin has no pigment, I have vitiligo, and the malaria pills we are taking, Doxylin 100, have a side effect that exacerbates sunburn, so I shall have to be careful.
We start the long journey home, and as we exit the national park, we see a man we saw yesterday, sitting in the shade of the gates, with his push bike. Yes, his push bike. I cannot imagine how one would ever consider doing this journey on a push bike. What about the heat? The danger? The wild animals? The distances? I shake my head in disbelief and say “I bet this guy is German!” but Steff shakes her head in a definite no. I call out and ask him where he’s from. “Germany!” Steff shrieks, she cannot believe it. I tell him “You are a ‘Crazy German’, and he laughs, good naturedly, and add “I know a few Crazy Germans!” And so the ‘Crazy German’ label sticks to Steff and Georg for the rest of our time together. This man is riding his bike from Windhoek in Namibia ?????? Check this. to Victoria Falls, and he’s been riding three weeks already. OMG!
On our return 3.5 hour trip, we see lots of oryx (the national emblem of Namibia) and gemsbok and many, many birds: African darters, buffalo weavers who create a huge community nest which hangs from the boughs of trees in such a way that snakes cannot access it, a rare and beautiful spotted owl, Hammer Kop (Hammer Head) birds, francolin and bee eaters. It’s incredible as most of the trees appear to be dead, they’re broken by elephants, and look lifeless and brown, yet they are still alive, and will turn green again with the first shower of rain. Its a long journey with a hot, parching wind clawing at our skin, especially our faces. I have wrapped a khaki cotton scarf around my hair, for the sun is relentless and the dust permeates everything. The Land Rover bounces and sways and swerves, we need to hold on tight, yet unbelievably once, I fall asleep, but Gerald grabs my arm to stop me falling out. It’s a relief to get back to camp.
Matilda steers us straight to the bar with the sand floor and the crocodile coffee table. “Double or single gin?” she asks. I say single. She looks at me and says “I think you need a double!” - so I do. At my urging, Steff agrees to try a gin and tonic, and finds it surprisingly refreshing. My Mother would be proud, we are converting another Good Woman to Gin. We sit quietly, in awe of our day, and watch the sun is sinking over the Betoti River. The journalists have gone, and its peaceful. Gerald and I prefer to be alone when we travel, but we like the Crazy Germans, and we’ve shared a magical day.
A guide escorts us the long walk to our tent, and after a shower, we are escorted back, and sit in the boma around the fireplace. I talk to TT, the African manager of this place - Meno a Kwena (tooth of the crocodile) - and Justin, who is 22 years old, English born but Botswana raised, assistant manager. TT speaks quietly and intently, he is a very experienced man who has been a game ranger for 24 years and is married to Matilda. There are five young men on safari here, I imagine about twenty years old and wonder how they can afford to come here. Justin says that one of them is the son of the owner, who is hosting his four mates, how good is that? They are polite, pleasant young men, one of whom is doing his masters on why the Tsessebe has disappeared from this part of Botswana, and despite many theories he has tested, so far, nothing explains their absence. He holds a glass dome inside of which are three huge scorpions he is studying. He introduces us to Roxanne, a young woman from Australia who is an entomologist, and we are all amazed when a she shines a lamp shines, and the scorpions bodies light up like Xmas trees.
The meal is plentiful and delicious: vegetable soup, the tenderest Botswana Beef with crisp potato wedges, green beans, pumpkin and gravy, and a dessert of butterscotch pudding and sauce. The conversation is lively and entertaining, the wine flows, people share their animal experiences of the day. Steff turns to me, her face glowing in the firelight - maybe with the unaccustomed gin? - and says “You are so friendly! You talk to EVERYBODY! You are the friendliest person I have ever met! You ask questions of everybody! Ja??? This is so niiiiiice!” She clasps my hands, emotional, and I look into her eyes, and think “This is a good soul. And this is another moment. Another magical African Moment.” We hug each other and say goodnight, the guide is ready to take us to our tent. Tomorrow will be a big day.T