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
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.