Botswana safari part IV: Racing the sun on the Makgadikgadi Pans

Continued from Part III.

why, hello there mr. pool

The last leg of our journey was one that we were all really looking forward to. We’d be quad biking and sleeping under the stars, sans tent, on the Makgadikgadi Pans, basically a large salt desert.

Like the other pieces of our trip, there’d be a long bus ride between destinations. We left our camp early in the morning and boarded a bus in Maun that would drop us off outside Gweta near the other camp we’d booked our trip with.

This particular camp had more luxury offerings than the other places we’d booked with, and as we slowly found out they were good at ripping off naive tourists.

The bus dropped us off at the end of the camp’s driveway and we walked about a mile down the dirt road past large Baobab trees before we reached the reservation desk. After checking in we had a few hours of down time before our tour left. Hello, pool time!

This particular pool was more beautiful than the last one, but it was deeper, which meant the water was even icier. But after carrying all my luggage down the long driveway under the hot sun I jumped all the way in. The pool was surrounded by little huts with wooden beds where we could escape the heat.

When we got thirsty, we moved over to the bar to grab some beers. The bartender asked if we wanted to order food, and I ordered a meal from the lunch menu while the other girls ordered ice cream, with the intention of ordering lunch at a later point.

Time for another lesson in Botswana food service. To summarize, we were the only customers there, a cook was in the kitchen and the bartender brought up the idea of ordering food. We did.

About 45 minutes passed, and the other girls decided to cancel their ice cream orders and go directly for lunch orders since it didn’t look like there’d be enough time to order them after the ice cream arrived. Time kept a’ tickin’ by. Eventually the ice cream was brought out, and the bartender told the waitress, to return it because that order was canceled. We waited some more. Well over an hour after our original order was placed, our food arrived.


Botswana, I love you, but you leave me with so many questions.

nothing but sand and sky

Anyway, after the nice meal we met up with the other people going on our trip. Unlike the other parts of our adventure where we’d have a guide all to ourselves, this time we’d be sharing a guide with about seven American college girls studying abroad and one guy, a dermatology resident working on a Botswana rotation and wearing a Dan Deacon t-shirt, just to remind me of all the uber music fans I left behind in NYC.

Our journey out to the Pans was kind of painful. Previous drivers we’d had would drive at a normal pace over the dirt roads even if that meant the passengers would be bouncing around as if we were on a motorized trampoline. This driver tried to avoid that by driving like we were passing through a school zone for several hours. I’d rather be bounced around.

Plus, those American girls were killing me. They spoke in valley girl tones. They talked about whether their college boyfriends were “the one.” And one girl had inspirational quotes like “Believe in your dreams and they’ll come true,” by Walt Disney written in rainbow colored markers on her white canvas shoes.

I put my head on the seat in front of me and groaned at one point. The British girls I was traveling with found it entertaining, like watching crap TV on the telly.

Eventually, we reached the quad bike pick up point and we broke into pairs for the rides. I’d never ridden a quad bike before, so I hopped on the back of one. My driver wasn’t so familiar with the bike either, but after a bumpy start, we got going and it was great fun rushing through the landscape while the grasses melted away into the lunar-like salt desert.

Meerkats! if their cuteness doesn't get to you, you don't have a heart

Just when we’d gotten the hang of driving, we all pulled over and got back in the van to go see some meerkats.

Meerkats are pretty fuckin’ cute. We spent some quality time with a group of adults and baby meerkats on the crest of a small hill. They’d stand around on their hind legs with their little meerkat paws in front of their chest while they watched the sun set. Mwah.

After the meerkat love fest, we returned to our quad bikes, and this time I was in the driver’s seat. It was an adrenaline rush, and I was enjoying it until I ran into some logistical problems

First, we were driving at sunset, but I kept my sunglasses on to avoid getting dust in my eyes, which meant the further the sun sank, the more difficult it was to see. Not that the dust was really blocked by the glasses. And it wasn’t regular dust, it was salty dust, so salt was blowing in my eyes and burning them. The closer we road to the bike in front of us, the more dust there was, but driving further apart meant risking losing sight of the tail lights and getting lost. It was a catch-22.

The bike in front of us pulled over because they lost the trail of bikes in front of them. I decided to keep going and followed the main set of tire tracks and eventually made it to camp in the dark night. A short while later, the last bike in the group pulled into camp and said the girls on the bike that stopped after getting lost couldn’t get their bike to start again. They were stranded on the Pans at night. Our guide hopped in the jeep to fetch them.

Once we were all back together we had a stake and potato dinner and turned in for an early night.

The starry sky was pretty amazing. We’d had great views of the milky way and the giant Scorpio constellation the entire trip, but the view gets even more impressive when there are absolutely no trees or even tents blocking your view.

waiting to see the big sun rise

When dawn broke in the morning I was expecting to see a giant sun rise from the horizon. Instead the sky gradually became lighter. I went over to the camp fire to warm up and was talking to the cook about it. He was more experienced at watching sunrises than I was, and told me I’d see the giant orb eventually. He was right.

By the time the sun rose everyone was awake and snapping photos. There are salt pans scattered in other countries, too, like Bolivia, and if you’ve ever seen you’re friends’ photos from places like that, you know there’s certain cliché photos to take. The jumping photo. The tall shadows photo. The photo where one person in front of the camera looks like they’re holding another person far away from the camera between their thumb and index finger.

Yep, we took photos like that, too.

Then we got back on the bikes and drove them to the drop off point before getting in the jeep and returning to the original camp we left from to have breakfast in the open air dinning room.

After squeezing in some pool time, we made arrangements with the camp to have a driver drop us off in Gweta to catch a bus to Francistown. It was kind of a bullshit arrangement because the camp was charging us more for a ten minute ride into town then we’d paid for our six hour long bus rides. Plus, the camp didn’t know when (or if) the bus to Francistown would arrive that day. But it was too far to walk and we didn’t really have other options.

Quad biking on the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana_September 2011 from ZsaZsa Balza on Vimeo.

We spent some quality time in Gweta, about two hours sitting in the dirt watching chickens walk by and dogs eating out of the overflowing trash bin before the bus finally arrived.

It was dark when we arrived in Francistown and once again we ate dinner at the KFC because it was the only place open. The same person who was mopping the floor when we were there over a week ago was at it again and it felt like we had never left.

We found a taxi to take us to the lodge we’d booked outside of town. The driver was a bit reluctant because he said the road was dangerous at night and there had been carjackings before. Looking back, we didn’t know if he was genuinely scared or just trying to scare us to increase his tip. Regardless, we were scared shitless and paid him almost double the price we’d agreed on before we left town.

When we got to the lodge, one of the night security guards confirmed some roadside robberies in the past, but laughed off the idea that the place was dangerous.

Anyway, it was nice to finally get to the lodge and a bit of a culture shock to be back in a standard hotel room with a bathroom in the room after nights and nights of camping. There was even a minifridge and South African gardening magazines on the nightstand.

In the morning we had some pool time (obviously) then hitched a ride with the father of one of the lodge employees back to Francistown where we got a bus back to Gaborone.

Back at the house we were staying at we had a reunion with the Frenchman and watched slideshows of our safari photos. It was a nice way to end a very nice trip.

watching Africa fade from view through the back window

One thought on “Botswana safari part IV: Racing the sun on the Makgadikgadi Pans

  1. Pingback: Botswana safari part III: Axing night on the Okavango Delta « The ZsaZsa Balza Column

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