There is a place in the middle of Botswana that is unlike anywhere else on earth. It covers an area the size of Connecticut, and it is as featureless and devoid of life as the surface of the moon. These are the Makgadikgadi Pans, one of the largest salt flats on earth. It is also where we spent a night as far removed from the rest of world as is possible on this planet.
After driving three hours from Maun, traversing far too sandy roads and almost running out of gas in the middle of the desert, we checked in at the Gweta Lodge in the center of a small village – only to discover that the gas station mentioned in our guidebook closed years ago. Spencer and my dad set off to buy petrol from a man in the neighborhood who sold it by the gallon. Crisis was averted. We all climbed into a safari vehicle along with a guide and a german couple, and headed towards the pans.
Along the way, we stopped at a giant baobab tree. These trees grow to enormous sizes, and can live for thousands of years. They are sometimes called the upside-down tree, because of their thick trunk and gnarly branches that look like roots stretching to the sky.Traveling on a bit further, the vegetation suddenly ended. Before us spread the pans, a featureless expanse of gray that eventually blended into the horizon. As we drove closer, it looked as though we were approaching a large body of water. In fact, the pans are the remains of a giant, saltwater lake that evaporated thousands of years ago. All that is left is miles and miles of dried salt crust, which support no life until the annual rains fall.We arrived just as the sun was setting, and got to see the glorious sunset over the vast horizon, which made for some fun photos.
We walked the final stretch to our camp, the dried clay crunching satisfyingly under our feet. But the real beauty came after the sun went down, and the sky was filled with more stars than I have ever seen in my life.
We had dinner around a large fire as our guide told us local stories about the constellations, then went to sleep on mats surrounded by absolute nothingness in every direction. Waking up to the same nothingness was a bizarre and unique experience.
After breakfast, we got back in the safari car (despite a rapidly leaking tire) and drove to the edge of the pan, where a small colony of meerkats were also just waking up for the day.These guys were endlessly fascinating to watch. One by one they would poke their little heads out of the hole, then scurry off to find grubs and scorpions and other treats. One always stayed back on look-out duty. Standing tall on his tiptoes, he rhythmically scanned the horizon looking for eagles and other predators, but was not at all concerned by us humans tromping around. Luckily for us, they were happy to pose for pictures.