Happy days at the Makgadikgadi Pans

Currently: Jamming to Britney’s Sometimes on the truck on another long drive day

We arrived at Gweta Lodge after a long nine hour drive to set up our campsite. At this point in the trip, camping has become routine. Luckily my body has adjusted to sleeping in a tent every night and I look forward to cozying up in my sleeping bag every night.

Meet Cornwell, a Bostwanan from Francistown

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s go back a few hundred kilometers to our one hour stopover in Francistown. Sophie and I were on a mission to find some stamps and a post office to mail our postcards.

Having no luck in finding a money exchange, we went into the grocery store and asked someone if they could direct us to one. That’s when we met Cornwell. He quickly realized we had no idea where anything was and dropped everything for 15 minutes to walk us around town.

Along the way, we got to know him a little bit. We asked him what his favorite food was. He spoke of a delicious sounding maize porridge mixed with homegrown pumpkin and some sort of tender meat whose pronunciation I butchered.

Cornwell also shared how Batswanan have given up their traditional meals for the “American cuisine” of fried chicken and burgers. When I pressed him as to why, he ventured that most people want to live a more Western lifestyle.

The interaction was a short blip in this long trip, but it was worth mentioning. The Batswanan are very friendly people. I also think we got lucky in whom we asked for help. Either way, it was a conversation I want to remember.

A really big tree that’s just a little bit different

Back in Gweta, we loaded into another open safari jeep for the next adventure. Ten from our group set off to explore the incredible salt pan and its surrounding wonders.

The tour included visits to two of the largest baobab trees.

Baobabs are massive. Like redwood massive. Over 1,200 years old, the Greenes baobab was made famous by two brothers who camped here during the late 1880s. They inscribed their names into the tree along with many other historic travelers.

The other famous baobab in Botswana is Chapmans baobab. This tree is over 2,600 years old. In January 2016, a heat wave of 47 degrees Celsius proved too much for the tree. It split in three and came crashing down. Despite its fall, parts of the tree manage to live on.

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The tree is known as an old post office. Locals used to stuff letters into a large area between the tree’s trunks for other travelers to find and read.

Baobabs are so different from any other tree. If they were in a high school full of other trees, they’d be the tall weirdos that all the other trees gossiped about.

They don’t really act like other trees either. Not to mention their imperial and eery presence, they also heal themselves. Hence why many of the names carved in the 1800s are hardly legible.

Baobabs hold all of their water in their trunk. Their roots remain superficial and radiate out along the very crust of the topsoil, not plunging deep into the earth like most trees I know.

The inside of the bark is a spongey material that the Bushmen used to roll up and use as a rope. This unique quality makes the tree incredibly light in the dry winter months, but very heavy during the rainy summer months. Even stranger, when you touch the bark, it’s texture and composition feels more like stone than bark.

Magic trees, they are.

Meerkats don’t just sell insurance

After a short bush walk, we found some meerkats. We were lucky enough to find a mom, dad, and four little pups running around.

These little guys have some of the best eyesight in the bush as a way of protection against eagles and snakes. The entire time we were there, the dad was on the lookout for any danger up in the sky and down in the grass. All the while, his little ones were watching, learning, and practicing along side him.

Despite the fact that they breed three times a year with a litter of 4-6 baby kats, their numbers are dwindling. Lesh pointed to the rock python as the meerkats’ main predator in this particular region.

A local regularly interacts with the meerkats so they aren’t afraid of people. He’s been around this family since the litter was born, so we walked right up to their burrow. My radar went up; outdoor etiquette dictates that humans should never interfere with wildlife. There didn’t seem to be any negative impacts, but you never know.

A look into an apocalyptic future

Finally, we reached the main event: the Makgadikgadi Pans. Salt flats are a unique geographic feature that formed millions of years ago when a lake dried up.

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Everything dies here. In the heart of the pan, there’s nothing around. Not one thing. Imagine being on the moon or in a post-apocalyptic world. This’ll give you a taste for it.

From where we stood, it would have taken a 70km drive to get to the other side. While we didn’t have a lot of time before sunset, we managed to get in a fair number of classic photos and eat a quick “lunch.”

You get land! You get land! Everyone gets land!

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The last of our tour consisted of a bumpy drive to a final baobab tree as the sun was setting. There, Lesh told us a little about his past. Thirty-three years old, he owns the tour company along with his partner Jake. His claim to fame is being in a famous movie (well… at least in the UK) The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, a light-hearted comedy staring a Bastwanan woman solving murder mysteries.

Lesh also shared an interesting fact about property ownership. Much like Oprah gives out cars, the Botswana government awards all its citizens a piece of land free of charge. All Bastwanans have to do is apply and wait anywhere from a few days to a few years, depending on availability of the land. Land in a city can take a generation, since there’s a high demand and short supply.

Lesh, for example, owns two pieces of property, one for his business and one for his home.

Naturally people tried to take advantage of the situation. Foreigners were marrying Batswanan women only to divorce them six months later after they had their land title.

Don’t get any bright ideas though. The government caught on and has since added an addendum that if you divorce the Batswanan, you lose your rights to the land.

Giving out land was a government initiative to bring about more prosperity to the country by encouraging animal husbandry. Throughout our tour that day we saw many cattle posts. These are similar to vacation homes where Botswanans move to in the summer and live off the land. We saw more cattle, horses, donkeys than African wildlife.

The rest of our time at Gweta Lodge was peaceful. A few of us bonded while playing around with long exposure photos of the Milky Way. More opportunities are ahead in Namibia for some excellent star gazing.

Happy days, as Lesh would say. Keep these adventures coming!

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