Saturday 5 July 2008 - Sunday 6 July 2008
We woke up early on the 5th to drive ourselves about 350 km southwest to the very small town of Gweta. We hadn't originally planned on stopping here, but it is on the way from Kasane to Maun (our next big stop), and there are huge expanses of salt pans where an ancient lake used to sit, so we decided to stop for the night and take a camping trip to the pans.
When I inquired about this route before we got to Africa, I read over and over that the roads were great and you could make the trip easily in 3-4 hours with a 2-wheel drive. However, when we told the folks from the lodge and our friends from Zimbabwe about our plans to drive ourselves they seemed a bit concerned and one even laughed at us. Still, we were told if we allowed 4 hours to get there we would be laughing. Not so exactly. The drive took us close to 7 hours in our little Toyota Yarrus. We were delayed for multiple reasons: giraffe, ostriches, and countless cattle, goats and donkeys crossing the roads, an overturned produce truck in the middle of the road, multiple sanitation check points where we were required to get out of the car and walk across a sanitation pad, but mostly potholes. About 30-40 minutes in the potholes started and were pretty manageable, at which point I thought out loud, "oh these guys were exaggerating"... famous last words. About 20-30 km on they began to cover the road, sometimes nearly a foot deep and stretching across both lanes. Likewise, the road was badly damaged where the shoulders would normally be, meaning there wasn't much room to maneuver. Corrie and I (the two drivers) spent about 150km in 1st and 2nd gears to prevent bottoming out and ripping apart our tires. We did, in fact, get a flat tire but were lucky that full size spares are the norm here (for obvious reasons) and we changed it and were bouncing along the road again in 25 minutes.
Finally we made it to Gweta about an hour and a half late to meet our guide for our trip out to the pans. We all felt pretty bad considering there was another couple joining us on this trip and we had kept them waiting as well. However, Franz and Bea (a young afrikaaner couple from Cape Town) turned out to be very cool and understanding about the situation. After quickly packing up overnight bags we jumped into the back of an open air jeep and set off on the 40km ride through the bush to get to the pans. On our way we passed through the village of Gweta. This was a very interesting little town, with a strange mix of typical village dwellings of mud and grass huts, and newer concrete developments. It wasn't uncommon to come across a donkey cart and Nissan waiting in line at the same stop sign. And as has been common when passing through any southern African villages, we received waves and smiles from nearly ever man, women and child (especially the children) that we passed.
Once we arrived at the last camp before the pans, we switched over to smaller quad bikes which allowed us to drive directly on the pans while inflicting minimal harm to the ground. We had to double-up, so Steve and I took a bike together (after mentioning in passing in the jeep that we both liked to drive fast). Before we set off our guide handed each of us a colorful cloth turban which are commonly worn in the Kalihari to protects our heads from the wind and salt. After an amusing few minutes of learning how to tie a turban, we set off. The ride was exhilarating. Steve drove the first leg, and it took a few minutes to get oriented to the bike, but once he did he was a damn race car driver. With the wind, the speed, the vast expanses of land, and the setting sun it made for an incredibly intense moment. We both screamed... a lot. For the first few km we drove through low scrub brush, sand, and small salt deposits, passing large palm trees that lied on what used to be the shore of the lake over 10,000 years ago. We eventually came over a ridge and onto the larger pans which was an endless flat expanse of land, covered in a dried salted crust that held little vegetation beyond the occasional small island of scrub brush. Once we stopped it stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, almost completely flat, white and barren. I imagine this will be the closest I will ever come to standing on the moon.
The ntwetwe pan is part of a much large salt deposit system, the makgadikgadi pans, which is the largest salt flat complex in the world. Due to the natural migration of rivers and water systems, as well as irrigation by humans, the water supplies to this area were cut off and the evaporating lake left behind this magnificent expanse of salt deposits. This is also the site of the largest zebra migration in the world, although, unfortunately, we did not see any while we were there (although I was a little relieved, as where zebra go the lions follow). Being in a completely foreign landscape (yet again) there was a good amount of time devoted to marveling at the cracked, salty ground and the fiery red and orange sunset. We then proceeded to wash the salt off of our clothes and skin (which we were all covered in) and set to the business of making up our beds for the night. Our guide started a fire and began cooking a meal for us. We were lucky that in his previous job he had been trained as a chef at a nearby lodge, so that night we dined on steak, grilled butternut squash, potatoes, mealie meal pan bread, and fruit soaked in cinnamon... much better camp food than I'm used to. We then drank wine and made conversation with our new South African friends, discussing African politics, American barbeque, and the other cultural differences that become so amusing while traveling.
That night we slept out under the stars, without tents, in bed rolls that were surprisingly warm and comfy considering it dipped down near freezing that night. Considering that was the first night I've ever slept completely out in the open, in addition to the fact that we were sleeping in the middle of nowhere with not even a shrub or tree to provide cover, I found it pretty exhilarating. I woke up a few times in the middle of the night and poked my little head out from under the covers to be met with a rush of cold air and a million twinkling stars. It made me smile. The next morning we started up the fire again and enjoyed coffee and muffins while watching the sun rise. Once we were warm and our bellies were full we packed up our things and jumped back on the bikes to drive back to the main camp. On our way out, we spotted hyena and lion tracks in the sand nearby... a curious feeling to be sleeping in the same "bedroom" as one of man's few natural predators.