The “welcome to Maun” sign couldn’t have come soon enough. By this point all we had had to eat since lunch yesterday was a handful of cereal each, I had moved past “hangry” and was in a state neither of us had encountered before. This wasn’t helped when Tash decided to have an internal battle with the decision of salad with pumpkin or without, I wasn’t proud of what i was thinking at this point and glad i didn’t say much but after a minute of staring at the two options I reckon Tash could feel my stare burning into the back of her head and quickly made the decision. It was the pumpkin option if the suspense is killing you as much as it was me. After devouring our options before even making it to the car it was time to hit the shops and restock before heading to our camp for the next two days while we did some running repairs and planned our assault on the Makgadikgadi and Central Kalahari.
We had kept in broken coms with ze Germans and were under the impressions that they were in the Magkadigkadi so we thought we would take a chance and head that way first, we managed to get a broken call through to them which confirmed they were in the area but that was about it. We arrived at Nxai Pans, which is probably the most Northerly of the recognised pans in the area, expecting to see their names on the visitors book but no luck. We were in the office when the two walked in, amazed at the coincidence but clearly shaken by the “short cut” they had just taken through the outskirts of the Makgadikgadi to get to Nxai. Apparently it was a terrible and heavily corrugated road, which we joked about till we hit 20kms of the same road heading towards Nxai. The corrugations soon gave way to soft sand which we managed to get Frank stuck in, terribly embarrassed I jumped out and started digging with Manuel on the other side while the girls took photos and laughed at our efforts. After trying again to no avail I gave in and let the tires down which did the job and before we knew it we were at the first section of pans, a few obligatory touristy photos later we shot through the next few pans and eventually hit Baines Baobabs. A stunning site on the edge of a huge salt pan where Thomas Baines once immortalised the scene in paint in 1862 when accompanying John Chapman en route to Victoria Falls, the same unchanged trees can be matched to the painting to this day making this area even more special.
We raced back to make the gate in hilarious fashion with three land cruisers jostling for place on the road from hell, we quickly pumped up the tires to hopefully get back to their camp before lockout. Despite an upside down ‘do not cross’ sign over a river we pushed on and made it, amazingly, however the prices where extortionate at the very least and we decided to camp further down the road which turned out to be a great decision, apart from the shabeen next door which pumped heavy beats till 10, which isn’t bad at all considering. We were off to the Kalahari and they were off to Namibia so we said our farewells to Anna and Manuel, sad we wouldn’t get to hear anymore of Manuels unintentionally hilarious stories about lions sleeping next to the car or mayonnaise debacles inside their car.
After staring at a map for far too long we made our way towards Rakops, supposedly the gateway to the CKGR where you can stock up and refuel as you have to be completely self-sufficient in this park, to the point where you bring in water if you want to shower. Rakops was tiny and clearly the people at the town planning commission where asleep at the wheel in the early days, we drove past the “fuel station” twice before Tash finally spotted it, to this day I am still genuinely amazed as to how she did, we still couldn’t find the market, only to later find out it’s probably because it was called Ingleton Investments.
We made camp for the night where our excitement gave way to fear thanks to the coldest night we had experienced thus far, we both managed a combined 4 hours sleep thanks to the constant shuffling and increased layers of clothes needed on top of the -5 capable sleeping bags. We joked around in the morning that maybe we over played how cold it actually was until I went to turn the tap on only to be greeted by a stalagtite instead of flowing water. Lucky we filled up with water the day prior as all the water in the pipes had frozen overnight, once again we gazed across at each other with a “what are we doing” look painted across our faces not filling either of us with confidence.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve was absolutely fantastic and has to be Botswana’s best kept “secret” in our opinion. After a 40 minute drive we hit the gates where we were greeted by happy, friendly and knowledgable game rangers and staff and to our delight there was an up to date sightings book with lion, cheetah, wild dog and everything in between marked all over the place. We came in with low expectations but were now quite excited. Through the gates we were captivated by the many ground squirrels running a muck and lying sprawled out all over the place, we then had our first sightings of the Bat Eared Fox which, as it turns out, are the CKGR’s most common mammal, we ticked off giraffe, kudu, secretary birds, elephant, you name it we saw it.
We finally saw another car at about 2 o’clock and they let us know that they had seen lion not too long ago down at Sunday Pan. We shot off in the hopes they were still around and that we could catch a glimpse of the quite rare Kalahari, black maned lion. My decision to take the long route to Sunday pan before this new info was clearly not the correct one and when we arrived to a barren waterhole this was even more apparent as we drove around for a bit and unfortunately no lions appeared. We did one last loop past the waterhole and spotted a male and female in some very thick bush, who as to turns out were mating. We decided to accept the same fate as we did in Chobe, forego any food and settle in for the afternoon in the hopes we would see some movement from the pride. This would not be the case as we had a couple of cars come and go but eventually, just before sunset, we started to see movement. Lion started appearing out of nowhere, justifying our decision to stay in the car and not get food out the back. We were then treated to about 12 lion of all different sizes slowly get up and walk around our cars towards the waterhole behind us, this was the queue for the other two cars to shoot off and find a good spot to watch the cubs leaving us waiting for the male and female to make a move. I convinced Tash to wait for the female to move knowing that he would be right behind her and I’m glad we did. Eventually the pair got up and slowly walked straight towards us, both had their eyes locked onto ours as they moved closer and closer before diverting just slightly so as not to bump into us or have to climb over the car. At this point I was in seventh heaven, Tash however was on the receiving end of a one-way staring contest with the male when he decided to saunter up towards her window and without breaking his stare he sniffed the tire and walked straight past her door. I have never been more thankful to have windows in my entire life as it felt like he was sizing us up and if he had the chance he would have been in the front with us. We sat around with the group for another hour or so absolutely dumbstruck with how lucky we had been to have them all come straight past us and then to spend time watching them all play around and just be lions without a care in the world.
We returned to Sunday waterhole the next morning to try catch the lions in the act again but sadly they had moved on so we thought it best to head back to camp for lunch and then head off in search of the cheetah. We didn’t find the cheetah unfortunately but we were treated to a bird party in our camp and a lovely afternoon in the savannah with some very elusive honey badgers and a lovely big herd of springbok that decided to walk around us when we were having a sundowner, completely alone in this beautiful place seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. The next day we decided on the deception pan drive which was wonderful and filled with all the standard sightings out here but still no cheetah. We found a somewhat unused road and took it only to realise it was for a private camp, on our way back towards the main road out of the corner of our eyes we both saw movement in the distance. A scramble for the binoculars confirmed our guesses that it was in fact two cheetah we had seen bounding off into the distance. They were incredibly skittish and must have seen us coming a mile away before darting off and before we knew it we had lost sight of them in the thick bush bordering the savannah. It wasn’t the most amazing sighting but we were very happy that we had seen two of the three big cats in the space of three days. We decided to head back to Sunday pan and have one last ditched effort at seeing the lion again but they were definitely gone, we did however end up chatting to a lovely Alaskan couple that shared our views on Donald Trump and they invited us to share their camp for the evening. We hadn’t booked anything and gladly took them up on the offer which turned out to be a great decision. We had a fantastic evening recounting our stories of the past few months, departing what little knowledge we had about the area and animals they were going to see on their trip that they had just started and soaking up the stories of the incredible things they had done and places they had seen before coming to Africa. We convinced them that an early start was the only chance we had of seeing lion or leopard but sadly neither came to fruition and after another lovely morning spent with Carol and Chuck it was time for us to head back to civilisation and hopefully some running water for a nice hot/cold shower (depending on the time of the day) which we were both desperately in need of.
We spent a night just outside the CKGR again before heading back North towards the Makgadikgadi, this time, however, we were going to drive straight through it and stop at the famous Lekubu, or Kubu, Island. The pans are absolutely amazing, you leave the main road and hit a terrible dirt road where you can see people have gotten continuously stuck in the wet season and to add insult to injury the ruts have filled with a very very fine salty dust that engulfs anything brave enough to unsettle it from its slumber. Once you are through the forest you break out onto small pans that connect like a series of ponds before you hit the largest pan which stretches to the horizon in all direction except where you have just come from. You start to get disoriented and if it weren’t for the fact that other people had created a “road” you could get completely lost. You know you are in the right direction and on solid ground only because you can see where people have made mistakes and gotten stuck in the ever-present and lurking mud below the crust of salt holding you up. We finally arrived at Lekubu island and it is incredible, one side is bordered by vast savannah while the rest is surrounded by a huge salt pan. Not the biggest in the world but part of a system that used to make up a super lake that stretched as far north as the Zambezi.
We hung around for a while and had lunch but decided not to spend the night as we had heard there was a lesser known but just as picturesque island on the other side of the pan called Kukonje island. You could, in theory, set the compass and cross the pan but we aren’t stupid or smart enough to attempt that and the alternative is quite good fun. We continued North to the main road and then South East, through Nata and then back down towards the pan and Kukonje. There are no signs and at times no road, through a lot of guesswork and blind luck we decided that we were on the right road and what a road it was. It tested both Frank and our capabilities for the better part of the day before we realised there was no other option but to find a place to camp for the evening. We had heard of a place to free camp at a baobab on the road somewhere towards Kukonje and luckily managed to find it. There we had a stunning sunset underneath a huge baobab overlooking the pan which was the perfect spot to try our hand at night photography due to the lack of light pollution in the area.
After a great night we decided to move on in search of Kukonje, and we finally found it. We were treated by an incredible, happy and helpful guard that gave us a rundown of the islands history and the best spots to visit. Amazingly they had just started installing pit toilets at the 6 camp sites on the island and as it was classed as under construction we didn’t have to pay but quite honestly we would have happily handed over everything we had left as this place is absolutely stunning. You drive out for about 15 minutes on the salt till you hit the island itself and then drive over or around till you find the camp you like the most, all have their pros and cons but we decided on number 6 as it is below yet another baobab and overlooking the pans away from the mainland. The pictures will never do this place justice that has played host to dignitaries like George Bush and the likes and is definitely worth seeing before it becomes too popular.
After spending the afternoon playing around on the pan and watching the uninterrupted sun slowly set, the night fell in a strange but beautiful fashion, never have either of us experience such darkness or silence before. Having spent many nights in the bush we are used to hearing no human activity and just listening to the sounds of animals, birds and insects, but out here there was nothing, no grunting hippos or elephants snapping branches off on the distance, no night jars calling into the early hours of the morning, not even a breath of wind, just total, deafening, silence, all blanketed in a new level of darkness with a stunning array of piercing, bright stars stretching to the horizon, a new and unique experience for us both.
We would have loved to spend more time out there but we decided to head out and walk up the hills on the mainland to get a better view of the island, this is where we came across thousands upon thousands of large sea-snail shells, bleached by the sun, and assumingly left here from where the pans were once a super lake, but as this lake retreated some few thousand years ago we were astounded as to how well these shells had survived. We pushed on and made the top to take it all in one last time.
Next on the map was Francistown, mostly to fix our roof that had decided to keep popping out from the ball joint of the gas pistons holding it up. Botswana has been beautiful and unreal and everything we had ever hoped for but it was time for a change of scenery and culture as we were heading back to where it all began. Great Zimbabwe.