Dry, but rich in water. Empty, but full of life. Super-sized in every sense, from endless skies to enormous trees. Welcome to the extraordinary salt pans of northern Botswana...
I was caught in a trap. It was my own fault; Kgamxoo Tixao, a traditional healer with the Ju’/hoansi Bushmen, had challenged me to reach into the snare he’d built and remove the amber-like ball of tree sap. I’d taken the bait – or tried to. The snare had closed lightning-fast around my wrist.
I was lucky: I was able to untangle the string and free myself; I even chewed the gum-ball, which was nutty, like breakfast cereal. But if I’d been one of the desert birds that live on Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans – maybe a kori bustard or a guinea fowl – I’d have been caught by the neck, likely strangled as I struggled to get free and would have ended up in a cooking pot.
In a place as dry and inhospitable as the Makgadikgadi Pans, skills such as Kgamxoo’s are essential. “If you don’t have the knowledge, you’ll die very fast,” he told me. “If you have the knowledge, you’ll survive.”
The Makgadikgadi Pans is a vast system of salt pans in the northern Kalahari, the remains of a giant ‘superlake’ that once covered the region. The entire Makgadikgadi ecosystem is said to be the size of Portugal. When the rains come, the pans fill with water and 700,000 flamingos come to feed on shrimps; the larvae of which have lain dormant in wet clay beneath the salt crust. Zebra and wildebeest move in, the second biggest ‘great migration’ in Africa.
But in the dry season, the dusty pans form an austere lunar landscape, surrounded by the golden grasslands of the Kalahari. It looks and feels hot and tough (Makgadikgadi means ‘dry, dry’) but the Bushmen know how to live here – and they’re far from alone.
For starters, I was joining them – briefly at least. I was spending several days in the region to learn from the Ju’/hoansi, and to discover what actually lies within all this seeming emptiness. My guide, Bacos Bapabi, and I set off from Maun airport – gateway to Botswana’s north – and headed east.
First we turned off to explore the hot, dry Nxai Pan, next door to Makgadikgadi. Vultures and eagles perched in trees, huddled against the cold desert morning, as our 4WD rumbled over the sandy road into the national park. Zebra kicked up dust clouds; a pair of kori bustards, one of the world’s heaviest flying birds, stalked across the scrub.
Bacos spotted lion prints in the sand as we made our way to a waterhole surrounded by springbok, impala, kudu, ostrich and jackal. The birds and animals drink at the artificially filled pool because it’s there but, Bacos explained, without it they’d cope just fine: “These are desert species. If there’s water, they drink, but if not, they just get water from what they eat. Many birds and animals can live their entire lives without drinking. They have ways to retain water, to keep cool, not to sweat, and they know where to find water in roots, barks, tubers or grubs, insects and other creatures.”
I stayed overnight at a camp near Gweta, a small town that started off as a camp used by nomadic Bushmen. Traditional thatched roundhouses, built from termite mounds and elephant dung, are gradually giving way to square cement buildings.
Walking around town in the morning, I met Nganga Makosha, headman of one of the wards, who’s responsible for keeping order, from settling money disputes to disciplining unruly children. “It feels like I have a very big family,” he laughed.
After lunch at nearby Chenego Cattle Post, Bacos and I drove through the backcountry towards Lekhubu (Kubu Island), a granite outcrop on the shores of the massive Sua Pan. The landscape was incredibly dry. The grass had been bleached white by the sun. Donkeys sheltered under trees. Dust devils whipped across the plains and, on the horizon, a whirlwind created a dust cloud with a thin towering plume reaching up into the sky.
Then, as we reached the first pan, a brilliant-white strip appeared ahead. We crossed as a family of horses also made their way over the crusty ground. On the horizon, a line of ostrich sauntered, their big black bodies like low dark clouds.
Lekhubu came into view in the late afternoon, a rock outcrop that would’ve been an island when this area was covered by the lake. “The island is a national monument and one of the most important cultural sites in the Makgadikgadi Pans,” explained Baleti Gobuamung, an expert from the National Museum of Botswana, as we walked across. “Nomadic hunter-gatherers, the early peoples, lived in this area and used this place to camp and to hunt, like the Bushmen, with bow and arrows or to trap animals.” Stone tools and pottery fragments have been found in the area.
Baleti showed me an area surrounded by a stone wall that was used for young men’s initiation ceremonies and circumcision. We then found a cave, high up at the island’s northern tip. “A dancer or healer would have come here to leave offerings when contacting the ancestors,” Baleti told me. “Local people have come here for many years to appease their ancestors before hunting or to ask for power or good fortune. People still come to make prayers. They feel connected to people from the past.”
As daylight dimmed, Venus and a bright, thin sliver of moon appeared. There was stillness and calm across Lekhubu as the sky, far from the light of any town or village, filled with bright stars. Bacos and I made a fire and laid out on the ground under thick blankets. I felt like a Bushman or an ancient hunter-gatherer, sleeping out in the open. But it took a while to fall asleep – I was too happy looking up at the shining Southern Cross, the silvery grey cloud of the Milky Way and the shooting stars burning trails across the sky.
After watching the sun rise over the pans and shine pink on Lekhubu’s rock formations and baobab trees, we made our way back to Camp Kalahari on the edge of Ntwetwe Pan. That afternoon, we went out exploring the desert with guide Bart Vanderpitte. An ostrich ambled along the banks of the pan. “That’s a female, a really big one,” said Bart. “A lot of resident animals here are big. You see lions, jackals, hyenas – and they’re some of the biggest in Africa. My theory is it’s so harsh, so extreme here, that only the biggest and strongest survive.”
At the edge of the pan, we swapped the 4WD for quadbikes. “We’re about to go on the biggest expanse of nothingness in the world,” Bart announced as we rode onto the pan. There was a great feeling of freedom, racing across the bleak landscape as the sun set, so far onto the pan we could barely see the edges.
We drove through the darkness. Eventually Bart stopped and instructed us to walk out alone and lie down on the pan to look at the stars. “This is one of the only places on earth where you can hear nothing,” he said. “Just the sound of your body, your breathing, your heart.”
And the sounds of elephants, which we heard in camp during the night; the morning light revealed fresh lion prints in the sand too. Indeed, there are many other creatures to beware of around the pans, from cheetahs and hyenas to spiders and scorpions. But, as I discovered when I joined them for a walk, the Bushmen are not afraid. “We have no worry,” explained Xushe Xwii, a 20-year-old Ju’/hoansi girl who strode beside me. “The hunters know how to act when they come across dangerous animals.”
Thirteen members of the tribe, dressed in antelope skins, headbands and colourful bead necklaces, joined the walk. There were young and old, male and female; the men carried the essential kit: a spear, a bow, arrows and poisoned tips, two sticks to make fire. The families originally come from Xaxa, a village in the western Kalahari, around 600km away, but the nomadic Bushmen have been passing through this way for decades and know the terrain well. There was a lot of laughter as we journeyed, interspersed with the tribe’s language, which features lots of complicated, hard-to-replicate tongue clicks.
Whether a hunter or a forager, all of them have expertly trained eyes. They know the prints of jackals, lions, guinea fowl, kudu, everything, and they know how old each print is. One woman lead me to the hole of a venomous baboon spider; another showed me herbs and plants used for medicine. These skills – knowing what to look for and where – are passed from generation to generation. “Children learn very quickly what’s good and what’s dangerous,” explained Xushe. “We don’t teach them. They see and they learn.”
We stopped for lunch under the shade of acacia trees, where Kgamxoo demonstrated how to set a simple but effective snare and how to make fire. He took two sticks, one with a rounded tip that entered a hole in the other, then vigorously spun the sticks until they smoked. “The one that goes in is the male. The one with the hole is the female,” Xushe said. “Together, they make a baby.” She pointed to the spark that flew into a small pile of dry grass and zebra-dung dust. Kgamxoo nurtured the spark, blowing until the straw was alight. “Fire plays an important role here,” he added. “You keep a fire going all night to keep animals away.”
Afterwards, they passed around a pipe filled with strong local tobacco and we talked about some of the issues facing the Bushmen. Traditionally Bushmen were nomadic hunter-gatherers, travelling freely. “There’s a lot of difference between our modern living and the past,” Kgamxoo complained. “There was no governing or regulation, especially in hunting. Now, laws stop hunting.”
“It’s sad for us,” Xushe continued. “It was better to hunt in the old days, but we’ve learnt to accept it.”
I’d read about cases where Bushmen have been forced off land. There have been other big changes, too. All children in Botswana, including the Bushmen, are now legally obliged to go to school; many Bushmen wear Western clothes. As well as telling me about the land, the younger Ju’/hoansi also talked to me about Lady Gaga and whether Wayne Rooney will move to Chelsea. Some of the tribe believe traditional Bushmen will disappear within 50 years. “It might be the last generation,” said Kgamxoo.
We walked on. Xwii Soria, one of the older Bushmen, dug a tuber out of the ground, scraped shavings from it with his spear and squeezed them in his fist, funnelling the water into his mouth. With water hard to come by, this is a life-saving trick.
Xushe sang softly beside me as we made our way back across the plains in the cooling afternoon. I asked her what she thought about the Bushmen’s future.
“I want to keep my traditions and practices. But for the younger generation, I don’t think so,” she concluded, then sang again, all the way back to camp.
Life does have a knack of adapting and surviving in the Kalahari, though, as demonstrated by the pans’ other inhabitants. “People think there’s nothing living in the desert but there’s so much life here,” said Dabe Sebitola, guide and descendent of the Nharo Bushmen with whom I went exploring for several days. “The Kalahari’s so rich. There’s so much to see out here if you know where to look."
On the ash-grey pans and surrounding grasslands, we spotted ostrich and wildebeest. Jackals watched us from the dune ridges. Mongooses dashed through the long grass. Ground squirrels peeped out from holes. Elephants ambled slowly across the plains.
Dabe and I set off early one morning for Chapman’s Baobab, reputedly the biggest tree in Africa, and marked by the cross of Livingstone, who passed by. Afterwards, we spent time with the Makgadikgadi Pans’ second most famous residents. The desert was still cold when the first meerkat poked her head out of a hole to gauge the temperature; she was soon followed by others, each standing on their hind legs to warm their bellies in the morning sun.
The animals didn’t mind our presence, approaching to within inches of my legs as I sat on the ground. They’re not tame, but habituated to people; a camp guide spends time with them each day and follows them to see where they stop for the night.
I watched as the meerkats moved across the plains, foraging for food, their little tails sticking up out of the long grass. They dug around, occasionally wolfing down a tasty scorpion or sharing a juicy grub with their noisy young. “Meerkats are the desert specialists,” Dabe explained. “They eat things like frogs, grubs and scorpions, and get plenty of water from them. In the Kalahari, there’s water everywhere if you know where to look. That’s why the Bushmen have incredible eyesight.”
Dabe also took me onto the pans to look for ancient stone tools. Within minutes we found some black basalt pieces that had been shaped and sharpened. Dabe estimated that these tools were last in human hands some 50,000-200,000 years ago. “When this was still a big lake, the Bushmen lived around here. They used these tools to hunt animals. Whoever made this,” he paused, holding up an arrowhead with a serrated edge, “was very intelligent and skilful.”
As we walked back along the grassy edges of the pan, a herd of wildebeest appeared over a ridge. They noticed us, halted for a moment, then bound across the plains. It was quite a sight, the long line of animals kicking up dust as they galloped towards the horizon. “Beautiful,” said Dabe, smiling. “You never know what you’ll see in the Kalahari.”