Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Lurking under the crust... experiences on the Makgadikgadi pans

The track to Kubu Island
A recent blog post by Laws & Hookey, the team from "Where the fook is (laws &) hooke" prompted my memories and experiences on the Makgadikgadi pan and Nxai pans in Botswana.

The Makgadikgadi Pans are situated roughly halfway between Maun and Nata and is a tempting diversion between the two towns...
Makgadikgadi Pans 2005
My first experience of the pans were in 1993 but the real story started in 1994 when I attempted to hitchhike from Pretoria to Maun in Botswana. My experience of hitchhiking was limited to cities and not cross border trips! My backpack was filled with unnecessary equipment and even included a BBQ grid! My travel partner and I were not compatible and hardly a word was spoken between the two of us but the security of a traveling partner outweighed the disadvantage of compatibility!
Friends dropped us off on the highway heading North near Pretoria. Our route to Botswana was flexible and purely depended on the lifts we were offered. Eventually an elderly couple, towing a caravan, picked us up... we were on our way North!
Hitchhiking in 1994
Our next lift was on the back of a farmers 'bakkie'. Sitting on the back of the open bakkie was always preferred as it meant that we did not have to talk to the driver! Time dragged slowly as we seemed to only attract short lifts and the hours spent waiting on the side of the road dragged. We had no mobile phone or iPod to distract us. Just the dry winter weather, passing traffic and our random conversation. We each had a camera but were reluctant to take photographs as film cost money and the development cost more than we could afford! Only six photos remain!

Arriving at the Grobersbrug / Martin's Drift border, we cleared immigration and walked across to the Botswana immigration and customs office. With barely a glance, our passports were stamped and we were officially in Botswana. Our backpacks felt lighter as our mood increased with the excitement.

Google Streetview: Groblersbrug
Very little traffic was transiting the border and our options of getting a lift were limited. Truck drivers constantly crossed the border heading North, their cargo destined for countries North. A Zambian driver befriended us as we patiently waited for a lift. He was heading North and would be able to take us as passengers in the front cabin... The large cabin of his truck had two seats and a sleeping platform behind the drivers seat. Once again we were heading North as the driver double clutched the big engine and rolled out of the border post...this time at a far slower pace than a car. The truck only averaged 60km/h - we had to work this out manually whilst watching the kilometer sign boards approach whilst comparing the time of day as the speedometer on the dash was not working! Conversation flowed freely as the driver spoke of his 20+ years as a trans-country driver and the experiences on the road. In return for the lift, he wanted us to send him a postcard.
Google Street View - The road to Nata
The winter sun was setting as 6pm approached and our driver informed us that it was mandatory that he stop for the night. Our overnight stop was a truck lay-by which had a cafe and toilet facilities. Two large plates of rice and goat stew were pushed towards us as we were told to sit down on white plastic chairs. A mix of languages hummed in the cafe as drivers communicated and shared stories. Hot stew filled our bellies and relaxed our tense bodies.

Slowly the truck drivers faded back to their cabins and ended their days with loud prayers which seemed to echo between the walls of the truck trailers. Our plan was to sleep under the truck but once our driver realized that this was our plan, he nervously explained that scorpions and snakes would be attracted to us. Better to climb on top of the truck and sleep there. Climbing up, we were away from the venomous creatures that lurked in the night, but fear of rolling off a 4m truck kept us glued to our sleeping mats. Sleep did not come easy as the winter weather chilled our bones. Around 5am, the diesel truck engines started rumbling and black diesel fumes filled the air. It was time to get rolling again as the night driver curfew drew to an end...

Nata, a small town on the edge of the Makgadikgadi pans, was still 600km away - 10+ hours of driving.

We had reached our first destination: Nata Lodge. The campsite was frantic. Large 4x4s filled, with families, were scattered around the site. Our spirits soured as we imagined these 4x4s giving us a lift to our next destination: Maun.

Our view in the morning was a barren campsite. The South African 4x4s had all left as the school holidays were ending! Not one vehicle remained in the campsite. The campsite was silent and our plans of reaching Maun evaporated. Time to re-plan...

Unfortunately in November 2008, the Nata Lodge (as I knew it) burnt down and had to be totally rebuilt. Alan Calenborne posted a few photographs on the Overland.co.za forum:
Photo by Alan Calenborne: Nata Lodge fire damage 2008

Onto the pans...

The Botswana Department of wildlife and National parks describe the pans as follows:
Makgadikgadi, the name of which implies a vast open lifeless land, is not without its folklore. There are stories of people setting out from Gweta to explore the land that lay between them and the Boteti River to seek a favourable environment in which to settle. They entered these great thirstlands at the driest time of year, drawn by what they perceived as large lakes of sparkling water on the horizon. Suffering badly from thirst, the lakes kept drawing them hurriedly on in their attempts to reach the life-giving water that always remained just ahead of them. Gradually, one by one, they fell and died. This is a sobering thought, but quite understandable when personally witnessing these mirages.
My hitchhiking trip had wonderful memories but the lack of independent travel was frustrating. I vowed to return to Botswana, the pans and Maun with my own vehicle!

1999: On route to Kubu Island
Roll on 1999... I had my independence in the form of a 1968 Land Rover Series II. The internet was young and my attempts at creating a website were limited however I captured the overland journey in a blog and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom of independent travel.


The Makgadikgadi and Nxai pans are visually stunning. I have experience the pans bone dry and flooded with a foot of water as far as the horizon.

Lurking inches below the dry crust is a mud pan that loves catching the unsuspecting 4wd vehicle. Plenty of stories are archived on the internet detailing hours of digging to recover a stuck vehicle. It happened to me and took 24 hours to recover...

Recently it happened to Laws & Hookey, the team from "Where the fook are (laws&)hooke?". It took them 72 hours to recover!
Photo by: Laws & Hookey - The Bogging
All ended well, but it certainly took time...



Explore the pans but be sure to follow the tracks in front and don't be tempted to deviate. You could be there a long time!