Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Into The Wild Kalahari

My father has travelled to Botswana, the country that has by the far the longest boundary with ours, several times a year for the last twenty years. Each time he comes back with stories about lions and wild animals. This year, my sister and I went with him to see whether the Kalahari Wilderness is such a big deal.

Our road to Botswana is neither easy nor trouble free. The Landrover has a defective clutch. By Saturday, the Landrover has still not received any attention (after sitting in the shop since Tuesday). Saturday is the day we are scheduled to leave, and the first day of my annual leave. Work finally starts up at the dealership on Saturday morning. An attempt to drive to Kuruman on Saturday evening has to be aborted 36km outside Bloemfontein. Bookings have to be cancelled and rescheduled. By Monday morale is plumbing the depths and my annual leave is fast trickling down the holiday drain.

At last the Landrover is declared ‘repaired’, (it’s midday Monday, and R9000 in mechanic’s fees later). We head off down the long road that takes us into the sunset.

The road will take us west to Kuruman, through the border at McCarthy’s rest, up to Tsabong, and then into the pans of Mabuasehube. But just outside Kuruman, a final omen: after being on the road for over 400km, a fire in the engine burns what seems like our last hopes of getting into the wild. A blast from a compact red extinguisher we have on board quickly extinguishes it. What now? Anyone else, going anywhere else would have given up and gone home long ago. Not us.

It turns out that the fibre glass above the turbo caught alight. After a little tentative analysis we decide that we may be able to continue at 90km/h or less (without activating the turbo). True enough. But it is on the road sukkeling with the vehicle that I realize to what extent the buy in is on this trip. It’s HUGE. Even I am dismissive of OUR VEHICLE CATCHING FIRE, saying: ‘90km/h turns out to be just above the conventional maximum speed one would be travelling on dirt roads anyway.’

There is something mythical about travelling in a fully rigged Landrover over an increasingly desolate landscape; there’s something about it that whips up the Wanderlust. And even with its defects, it is still a smooth sail; it is still an incredible vehicle. My father says: ‘80% of all Landrovers are still on the road. The other 20% have reached their destinations.’

The Landrover is the classic outdoor vehicle. Ours is not unusual: it has a wooden platform for daytime game viewing, photography or sleeping safely out in the open. The raised platform on the roof also has a convenient flap down tent and is otherwise an entirely self-reliant unit for several days; it has a large 80 liter diesel fuel tank with a specially designed 60 liter spare tank, a space engineered refrigerator (using very low voltage), a tap under the spare wheel connected to a large drum of water, and plenty of resources designed into its sturdy infrastructure.

At Hotazel the clutch plate begins to slip again. R9000 has already been spent in Bloemfontein to repair this problem. Under the Hotazel sign, about 100km from Kuruman, my father says: “We have to make a decision now. We can turn back, or go on and possibly breakdown in the middle of nowhere.” Interestingly, no one offers a response.

The tar road gives up. Soon after cellphone signals are permanently gone. We just keep going through splashes of rain.
Road signs become scarce, we pass virtually no traffic. The surface becomes less gravelly and widens, and the landscape transforms into an almost featureless series of low bush covered dunes.

We notice Botswana’s border facilities are better than ours, and also, there is a tar road on the Botswana side.

Dogmatism seems to pay off in the Kalahari. At the small dustbowl settlement of Tshabong, 30km from the border, we find a mechanic. Rusty diagnoses the problem within seconds (the clutch being set too high), has an assistant make a few adjustments, and charges us nothing. A test drive confirms that the problem has been repaired (and for the rest of the trip, the clutch did not slip again, not a single time). Not long after that inbound electricity from South Africa was restored to Tshabong, and the garage was able to turn on the pumps and fill up our diesel tanks.

Tshabong is the last human settlement. We are now heading towards a system of pans at Mabuasehube (which means ‘red earth’). The ruts in the road grow so deep we are able to drive, even follow curves in the road, without touching the steering wheel. En route we pass two entirely burnt out 4x4’s. They catch alight, my father explains, because the exhaust gets extremely hot and long blades of grass break off and begin to wedge in the undercarriage. The sand in many places here is red, and I wonder, recalling the movie Blood Diamond – and since the land is so entirely devoid of human beings – how much Bushmen blood was spilled here.

The animals, herds of them, including some of Africa’s largest elephant populations, survive here because animals understand the trickery of erratic rainfall in the Kalahari Thirstland. They smell and migrate across the fenceless landscapes towards the rain. The only humans who learnt this superhuman skill disappeared when the giant diamond mining companies moved in, and animals have had the run of the place – most of it – ever since.

Botswana, along with Australia and Namibia, are in the top three most sparsely populated countries in the world. Less than two million people in a country half the size of South Africa, means vasts areas are entirely without humans, and human contrivances like roads, fences, telephones or power lines. . Man, who pretends to be the master of the universe, is almost entirely absent throughout Botswana. As such, the sterile conditions that man procures are also absent. Instead, landscapes are revealed that are comparatively untouched by the hand of man. Life flourishes, even in these extreme and sandy circumstances. Our first night is a chorus of barking gecko's and the demonic screetch of a barn owl whose shelter we have annexed for the night.

The setting for our first night is Lesholoago Pan – a name meaning ‘Death’. We’re greeted when we arrive by a chorus of barking geckoes and the demonic screech of a barn owl whose shelter we have annexed for the night. We’re told to keep our eyes peeled for lions, and if we see them, we’re all expected to walk calmly to the Landrover, get in, and sit tight. The joke is that whoever is dumb enough to walk ought to be guzzled by a lion.

‘Death Pan’ ironically is the site of my father and his sidekick’s worst ever encounter with a young group of lions, who terrorized them for hours, during the course of which my father’s friend made several promises which he continues to honor to this day (including going to church every consecutive Sunday and religiously paying his taxes). Gautengers, used to crime and rolling blackouts, ought to be particularly comfortable sitting in the dark and looking over their shoulders all night in Botswana.

The pans have a subtle, hypnotic beauty. They formed during the latter part of the Quaternary Age, as a result of massive climate change. They may well be waiting for us in the distant future (if we live to survive that long).

At Mabuasahube Pan, the only pinkish Pan in Botswana (and rumored to be the top of a kimberlite pipe) we make friends with an entire community of ground squirrels, a jackal (we call him Jacque Kallis , who also visits us in the day), and a very dedicated hornbill, who ferries the occasional nut to squawking chicks holed up in a nearby dead tree trunk. My father calls it the ‘Kalahari chicken’; and the hornbill is an oddity. For such a cheeky looking bird it makes an incredibly soft and modest clucking noise.

The game we encounter in the sub elliptical depressions of the pans appear to be in excellent nick. Gemsbok, with the markings of tropical khaki fish, gleam in the sun. They are uniquely endowed with a collection of capillaries in their snouts, enabling their brains to endure slightly cooler conditions and giving them the resilience to withstand hellish external conditions. We find a small herd of Springbuck with plenty of little bokkies, and then a male sprints off effortlessly, bok springing as he goes, and is soon a distant speck. I am awed by this simple display of raw and effortless speed energy.

On the eve of an incredibly fierce storm, with lightning so continuous it seems as if we are sitting under an very erratic fluorescent light, we encounter the deadliest scorpion in Southern Africa. It is capable, we find out later, of spitting its venom into its victims eyes. Centipedes here are a foot long.

Our last night is spent at Mpaathutlwa Pan, which means ‘Giraffe’s stomach’. The pan is silver from plenty of rain. We see Blesbok, and a murder of crows. Many moths – who seem immune to our torchlights – converge on open cans of lemonade and Hunter’s Dry. We eat a delicious stew enjoying the firelight and the shadowy presence of another jackal.

We encounter many creatures besides, communal spiders, acrobatic birds, termite eating mice, the world’s largest flying bird but no lions. In the wilderness of Botswana, campers naturally run the risk of close encounters with the big five. We do not see any lions, but hear from rangers that they are around. We are half relieved, half disappointed about the lions and deeply imbued with the freedom and tranquility of a desert filled with so much nature.

Botswana is the place to listen to your loneliness. A great space to probe one’s inner space. It is the perfect venue for those seeking a true ‘wilderness experience’. As I write this, Rusty is sitting somewhere in Tsabong drinking from a bottle of whiskey we gave him on our way out, while a firing squad is en route to a certain Landrover dealership in Bloemfontein.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

An excellent blog. Nick describes so well. I was lucky enough to live on the pans he describes for several years in the early eighties and they are beautiful and fascinating. Nick captures the spirit of the area in a few paragraphs.