Botswana’s be­yond beck­ons

Sleep­ing out un­der the stars in the coun­try’s re­mote Mak­gadik­gadi Pans takes get­ting away from it all to a whole new level of iso­la­tion and quiet travel2013

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - TIM BUTCHER

FOR THE meerkat, a sniff of the Kala­hari sand marked the spot where trea­sure lay buried. Obliv­i­ous to the four hu­man ob­servers close by, the an­i­mal seemed to swal­low-dive into the ground, front claws blurry as he dug down quickly, back heav­ing, shift­ing twice his own body weight, sand fly­ing, pep­per­ing our grin­ning faces.

At one point, the gig­gling from our two chil­dren was loud enough for the an­i­mal to halt his work and peer at them, quite crossly, be­fore re­turn­ing to his hole.

Fi­nally, with a high- pitched whoop of tri­umph, he re-emerged, his claws bulging with food. Ris­ing on his hind legs in the sig­na­ture meerkat pose, he ex­changed squeaks – be­tween mouth­fuls of juicy larva – with the rest of his group, who were dig­ging ea­gerly nearby.

Eight-year-old Kit and Tess, 6, scur­ried be­tween them, de­bat­ing which one was the cutest but at least man­ag­ing to re­sist the urge to stroke them.

We were crouched on the edge of Botswana’s Mak­gadik­gadi Pans where guides from Un­charted Africa have spent a decade ha­bit­u­at­ing meerkat groups to the point where th­ese nor­mally shy mem­bers of the mon­goose fam­ily are so re­laxed they use the top of visi­tors’ heads as watch­tow­ers.

Each meerkat group has its own hu­man men­tor, to lo­cate them for visi­tors and su­per­vise the en­counter. Our guide pointed out “the sen­tinel” – the only meerkat in the eight-strong group not dig­ging or eat­ing – stand­ing ram­rod straight on a small mound of sand, front paws be­hind his back to warm his tummy on the weak­en­ing sun. His shiny black eyes swept the end­less hori­zon in search of preda­tors.

“For the first cou­ple of months, they just ran away from me,” our guide ex­plained, “but I still had to come ev­ery day, twice a day to be­gin with. Af­ter some months, they stopped run­ning so far away, then one day they stopped al­to­gether and al­lowed me to come closer.”

Our en­counter was part of an un­for­get­table overnight ex­cur­sion from Planet Baobab, Un­charted Africa’s quirky lodge and camp­site where we broke our road trip from Joburg to the Oka­vango Delta.

Un­charted Africa has a port­fo­lio of lux­ury ac­com­mo­da­tion on the pans, in­clud­ing the fa­mous Jack’s Camp. We had pitched our tents at their more en­try-level op­er­a­tion, Planet Baobab, where over­lan­ders and bud­get-con­scious trav­ellers can choose be­tween tra­di­tion­ally styled thatched huts or tents, both only a few steps from the largest swim­ming pool in the Kala­hari desert and sur­rounded by one of Botswana’s finest Juras­sic baob­abs.

We had set out for our overnight ad­ven­ture in a tra­di­tional sa­fari ve­hi­cle, driven by guide Taubaka, hav­ing told the chil­dren only that we would be spend­ing the night “some­where a lit­tle dif­fer­ent’.

Af­ter 90 min­utes of trundling through Botswanan bush – which was heav­ily grazed by cat­tle, goats and don­keys – we could tell Tess and Kit’s morale had be­gun to dip.

So when Taubaka sud­denly drew to a halt at a re­mote cat­tle sta­tion, handed us kikoys to tie around our heads and of­fered us quad bikes to com­plete our jour­ney, ex­cite­ment lev­els flipped sky­wards. With one child and one adult to each bike, we told the chil­dren to be on the look­out for meerkats.

Af­ter the ex­quis­ite 40 min­utes with the meerkats, we re­wrapped our heads, jumped back on the bikes and blasted our way into ter­ri­tory that was un­known for all of us. Driv­ing be­hind Taubaka’s jeep, we left the stan­dard scrub of Bot- swana be­hind and ven­tured into the bizarre moon­scape of a salt pan.

Fol­low­ing the in­struc­tions to stick to the ve­hi­cle’s crusty tracks, thereby lim­it­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact, I un­der­stood in­stantly what it is to “lose your hori­zons”.

Push­ing up the throt­tle, we roared across Ntwetwe pan, the larger of the two salt­pans that make up the Mak­gadik­gadi. Ev­ery so of­ten I picked up the tin­kling sound of gig­gles of ex­hil­a­ra­tion from Tess, hud­dled be­hind me.

Be­fore us, the dip­ping sun ap­peared the only ref­er­ence point un­til my eyes – by now grow­ing ac­cus­tomed to the set­ting – picked up a dis­tant glow, blurred by heat­waves in the epic empti­ness ahead. I blinked a few times as we raced to­wards it, my eyes fi­nally con­vinc­ing my brain that it was in­deed a fire, with chairs around it. A clas­sic sa­fari scene in the most un-sa­far­i­like set­ting – no bush, no wa­ter­hole, no thatch, no can­vas tent.

When we fi­nally dis­mounted, en­tirely ex­hil­a­rated but quite relieved to be free of the vi­bra­tions and noise, the sheer si­lence over­whelmed us. We could see for miles and yet there was noth­ing to see, ex­cept the pale, eerie, glit­ter­ing moon­scape.

As we helped Taubaka and his col­league to light the fire and un­load our bags, we urged the chil­dren to have a good run around as the sup­per would be much later.

“Where should we run to?” Kit asked.

“You can go as far as you like, in any di­rec­tion you like. There is ab­so­lutely noth­ing out there!” Taubaka laughed.

Look­ing puz­zled, the chil­dren had no idea what to do with the free­dom and space of what was once the world’s largest lake.

Later, when we’d all en­joyed a warm “flan­nel bath” at a can­vas basin and changed into warm sleep­ing clothes, we gath­ered around the fire. Taubaka was grilling meat by torch light, check­ing on beer bread that was bak­ing in a poitjie dish in the coals and jug­gling foil-wrapped pota­toes be­tween the glow­ing em­bers. Above our heads, we at­tempted to iden­tify the main con­stel­la­tions in the huge night sky.

Fi­nally, fed and tired from the fresh air and the most ex­cit­ing day, we chose a ran­dom spot and un­rolled the beds, com­fort­able mat­tresses with cot­ton sheets, and snug woollen blan­kets.

Kit said through a yawn: “You re­ally meant it, Dad, that we’d be ‘sleep­ing some­where dif­fer­ent’.”

OVERNIGHT AD­VEN­TURE: Af­ter a long walk through the bush, we got on to quad bikes and blasted our way into ter­ri­tory that was un­known to all of us.

MEERKAT MA­NOEU­VRES: Kit, 8, Jane and Tess, 6, are en­ter­tained by a meerkat.

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