Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kalahari Survivor

Playing this game ain't for the faint hearted.

“I smell rubber burning.” We’re just arriving in Kuruman when Candice, my sister, screws up her nose. Thin curtains of smoke curl up through the dashboard like a diluted Death Eater. The car jerks to a stop on the side of the road and while Candice contemplates running in the opposite direction, Casey Senior, my father, quickly lifts the hot hood; hand sized flames dance over the Turbo’s incinerated carbon fibre cover. There’s a short puff of white smoke from a fire extinguisher, and then languishing fumes and black smoke. For the amount of smoke and flames, we’re surprised that there is no collateral damage to the Landrover’s engine. But then the Landrover is the best, the toughest 4x4xfar.

We spend the next morning visiting at least four different mechanics and metalworkers in Kuruman, and none are able to provide us with a remedy. We decide to push on to Mabuasehube nonetheless.

The trick is to drive at a speed low enough not to activate the turbo. This means keeping the revs down. But we’re well aware that somewhere beyond Hotazel, the going gets a lot tougher as tar roads give way to swathes of sand. And it is as we drive by the Hotazel turnoff, that the clutch begins to slip. Everyone knows Botswana is not for the faint hearted. It’s a dry country with few home comforts. It belongs essentially to the wild animals, and even they know, weakness, or sickness, isn’t tolerated for long. So if you suffer from ASS (Anakin Skywalker Syndrome) – “I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough irritating and it gets everywhere.” – if that’s you then Botswana is most definitely not for you.

So with a clutch that slips at high revs, and a turbo threatening to start a fire under the hood at any moment, we push on past the Manganese mine settlement that is Hotazel, and into the gathering storm clouds at the apex of the white smear of our road. The cement colored roads sometimes bleed red; they take us through ancient river beds and across the border at McCarthy’s Rest. We get out of the vehicle and we see it is covered in a mustard colored dust. It is a mixture of powdery red and white sand. The heat is stifling. I am aware that not far from here we were still driving through pleasantly wet and cool rain. Here it feels like another country.

The sky is almost completely blue, and the sun mercilessly hot. Cicadas chisel in the background as we hand over our passports. Then there is a 21km stretch of road to Tsabong – the last human settlement before Mabuasehube. It is here that my father looks up and old acquaintance, a fellow called Rusty, who is an expert on Landrovers. He’s famous for this quip: “Landrovers are for old men.” He says this because Landrovers have very soft suspensions, it’s a comfortable vehicle, good value, and iconic. But make no mistake; the technology is dated and after being in service for some years – as one would expect – Landy’s start to become like old men. They develop all sorts of niggly problems, though nothing major. Rusty looks at the engine. Within seconds he diagnoses the problem: the clutch is set too high, and minutes later his assistants have made the necessary adjustments. The clutch does not slip again during the course of the trip.

Rusty also confirms that the Landrover will be fine in the more extreme conditions at Mabuasahube. Turbo or not, he reassures us that we are not mad to continue into the wild. The road from Tsabong is exhausting. There is 60km of fairly decent dirt road to start off with, and then 50km long ribbons of sandy triplicated highway. Tyre pressures may need to be lowered where the sand is very mushy. A skillful driver in early morning or more or less damp conditions might do the drive in an hour and a half as we did. But it’s easy to imagine spending a large portion grinding away at loose sand. The late afternoon is the worst time to drive long distances on sand as it’s then that it gets hot and loose. The 110km to Mabuasahube gate requires high levels of concentration, particularly where the tracks of trucks are wider than the Landy’s tracks, forcing the wheels out of the deep ruts on one side, then the other side. Going from a side rut to the higher middle ruts feels a lot like a water-skiing and trying to mount a speedboats’ arching froth trail. You feel like the vehicle angles and swerves as the sands change from somewhat compact to very soft cushions. It will take the amateur some time to master this maneuver. Unfortunately, the best way to do it is quickly and confidently, which means mistakes can happen. A roll on the soft sand ought to shake up everyone inside, but probably won’t damage your vehicle as much as one might expect.

The conditions here going through these long grueling sandy ruts are a tough ask even for the best 4x4’s. We see two burnt out 4x4wrecks not that far apart that have been dragged off the road. Small fragments of melted engine lie like small black stones in the sand. One has white paint on it: ‘Berties Landy’. In Botswana people have driven over crusty pan surfaces and then watched their vehicles drown within minutes in black mud underneath. In one case a man attached a cable to a boulder to winch himself out of thick mud, and the boulder dislodged and landed on his vehicle. Yes, this can be an unforgiving country; it requires the same alertness and concentration, the same consciousness the animals have of what is happening around them. People must also maintain a high standard of attentiveness rather than complacency in order to stay out of trouble.

The air is unusually wet and filled with dancing butterflies. This proves to be a hugely mitigating factor. Rain has turned the winding heaps of mushy, powdery sand into a half decent substrate. We’re able to fly along at a brisk 70km/h without straining the engine unduly. What’s incredible is that the ruts are so deep, my father is able to take his hands off the steering wheel for hundreds of metres while chatting to us (with a wry smirk), while our vehicle navigates itself through curves and what not.
Driving here feels less like driving and more like the indistinctive, softer steering of a boat softly undulating through choppy sea. It’s actually a lot of fun. It’s the perfect playground for a Landy.

The sun has gone down when we reach the impressive gate complex at Mabuasahube. The gates are closed but not locked. I get out and open them, and we drive in. Although we booked in advance, one is expected to sign in. But no one is about. We decide to sign in when we’re on our way out again. In Botswana, they are far more lenient to this sort of behavior than on the South African side of the Transfrontier Park. I open a boom gate and another gate, and then we are in the park. We soon find Gemsbok and Springbok drifting across the moony landscape of a pan at dusk. We reach Lesholoago Pan (17km from the gate) sometime after 7pm. The facilities have been specially designed by an expert from England to integrate the visitor as much as possible into the environment. Whilst the campsites are basic, they are nevertheless put together very nicely. We find we prefer the open air latrines and showers to the stifling enclosed latrines.

The name of the pan, it turns out, means “Death” (Mabuasahube means ‘Red Sand”), and my father says we must make sure there aren’t lions in these open ‘6’ shaped structures. He tells us to have a look at the bite marks on the toilet seat. “A lion did that,” he explains, bringing the reality of camping in Botswana back into focus. It is while we are eating delicious wors off the braai and chewing the meat off our chops, that my father casually informs us that this site is also the venue for his most frightening encounter with lions during his 20 years traveling through Botswana.

What happened was a group of half a dozen or so young male lions approached their camp sometime after midnight, and begun to run amuck. My father who was sleeping on the roof of the vehicle, felt the vehicle rock violently as one lion chewed (and tore off) the mudguard, while another presumably was standing on his hind legs, wondering whether supper was within reach. A far worse fate was in store for my father’s friend, Tico, who had been sleeping in a tent on the ground. With a uselessly thin layer of material separating him from the lions, his heart started beating in overdrive. He could hear roaring, a chaotic ripping (a mattress was torn in two) and the clattering of dishes. At once stage a lion lay right beside him, against the tent. Frozen, armed with a bottle of wine, he was too terrified to move. This went on for three hours. He said the next morning that his heart hurt because it had beaten so fast for so long.

When you travel to Botswana, these stories get told again and again, and you don’t get tired of hearing them. While someone is talking you will look into the darkness, shine your torch, and see if you find a few pairs of yellow eyes staring back at you. “Lions,” my father says, “have eyes that dip only slightly as they advance towards you. Jackals and hyenas bob up and down.” There’s almost a military aspect to all this information, in the sense of knowing how to survive the approach of a potential opponent. In Botswana we are definitely not the masters of the universe. The lions are.

Our second campsite is at Mabuasahube Pan, a beautiful site that has been earmarked for the development of a lodge. It is rumored to have diamond deposits as the pan is situated on a Kimberlite pipe; hence it’s unusual pinkish color. We decide not to camp in the area designated to us, as there are people right next door, so we drive up the dune to the next camp site. Here we meet a host of charming creatures, from a large group of ground squirrels, to the ‘flying bananas’ as we call them – a pair of hornbills busily looking after three young chicks in a nearby nest.

Our first night at Mabuasahube Pan is awesome: the sky turns to fire, and all three of us run around like maniacs with our cameras. The following night there is a sudden swarm of termites just after dusk: with all sorts of critters – geckoes, a scorpion, squirrels and a mouse – guzzling the writhing seed shaped bodies. This is when Candice came up with the brilliant idea to cook some and eat them. They taste buttery, and their legs crunch in your mouth. After that, all hell breaks loose. One of the fiercest, most deafening storms I’ve ever experienced starts crashing around us. And it doesn’t let it up; it goes on and on. We start off standing under the A frames but we’re soon soaked: gusts blow the rain horizontally through it, and another burst of light and deafening sizzle sends us sprinting into the Landrover. We sit there eating biltong and taking in the storm. It reminds me of being at a drive-in, watching a horror movie.

We don’t sleep too well that night, as the wind blasts the tent until the wee hours of the morning.

Our final camp site is Mpaathutlwa Pan (which means, Giraffe’s Stomach) 12 km from the gate. It’s January 19th, my 36th birthday. By this time I have filled up 4 memory sticks with photos, including pictures of the three hornbill chicks we saw in the nest. There is so much you cannot photograph though, you just have to enjoy it.

The Kalahari Robin runs beak open over hot sand and when it flies; its wings beat so vigorously it sounds like someone shaking a wet cloth next to your ear. We see storks riding an invisible tornado. With outstretched wings they swing vertically as the moving pipe of air rotored them higher and higher. They remind me of fish in a tropical sea. Once they attain the height they want, they peel off and then fly in straight lines to where they want to go. We see large birds of prey like the Bateleur and Tawny Eagles, and hear the soft hoo of a white faced owl at night. We also see birds fly into the air (making the noise of a Gatling gun) and then boomerang back and land like a parachute, legs hanging, not far from where they take off. Other pheasants fly vertically as we approach, do a crazy somersault and land straight back down. We see Steenbokkies almost on clockwork at 1km intervals. We are transfixed by the most elegant of antelope, a herd of Kudu, and during a visit to Khiding Pan we see a community of perhaps a dozen Bat Eared foxes. The plant life is also amazing. Did you know that there is an underground tree (with only leaves exposed) in the Kalahari? Where it grows, nothing else grows. The driedoring (Rhygosum tricotonym) is also interesting in that each branch divides into a perfectly proportioned triangle of three.

So why do we need to go into the wild? Is it curiosity? The desire to be dirty? Don’t laugh – camping in the Kalahari can be uncomfortable. With sand everywhere, you can go to bed feeling decidedly greasy and grimy. My advice: do what the Asians do. Get a wet cloth and wipe hands, arms and face. Or if it’s warm enough, take a shower. On hot days shower with clothes on. In terms of footwear, I’d recommend open shoes, because I don’t like the feel of trapped sand rubbing between shoe and skin. My sister and I wore flip flops, but beyond the confines of the camp, sturdier footwear is necessary to protect against needle sharp thorns. The good news is, in Mabua at least, you won’t suffer from pesky mosquitoes. There’s just not enough water for them. Your shower water comes from a distant borehole (about 300 metres deep) piped to the various campsites.

In the Kalahari you are tested and measured. We believe it is valuable that people interact with animals; probably it does more good for the people than the animals. People ask, What is there to do out there? Well it’s like one big beach isn’t it. Take along bats and a ball. Young children are vulnerable, liable to get bored and so are best left at home. You will find yourself as you get closer and closer to the Kalahari. It seems to me it is all about Discovery. This place is a writer and photographer’s dream, a place of diesel and dust, and sun, sweat, and soil in a vast wilderness.

It is such a compelling experience that you may well suffer withdrawal when you are back in civilization. Unused to road signs, fences, barriers or controls, I missed the first few Stop signs when we were back in Kuruman. Back in Johannesburg I went to gym and while swimming in a swimming pool – a rectangle of water suspended in a building in the city – I realized with some sadness that this is about as far from the Kalahari as one can get. I yearn to return. You will too.

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