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The Kalahari makes you feel very small in the grand scheme of things as everything around you is larger than life and endless. The Makgadikadi Pans stretch out in front of you into infinity, and you would think you were on the surface of the moon except for the scorching desert heat – this magical space holds no sounds at all, no noise whatsoever – just the sound of the blood running through your own ears.
Yet despite being in such a magical and desolate space it is teeming with wildlife; here you see the zebra racing their own shadows during the golden African sunsets; here you meet the Meerkat families; here you learn desert survival skills from the indigenous Bushmen and follow in the same footsteps of missionaries such as Livingstone. Here you get to canter by moonlight on the white salt crusted plains underneath the black-velvet African sky studded stars; here you enter the Africa of storybooks.
I have been in the Kalahari for just two hours and now I am sat in the saddle, just as the vast round orange sun is setting on the horizon watching a dazzle of zebra set off at a gallop, stirring up the dust as they go. But this is a really unusual sight, like an illusion. The sunlight mixed in with the airborne dust particles, meant that I was looking at zebra racing their own upright shadows. The dust had turned their shadows the correct way up, so it appeared as if the shadows were also zebra and running alongside them, overtaking them as they ran past us. I have never seen shadows do this before and it was a ‘goose bump’ moment, and probably never to be repeated, as it would be hard to replicate the light. Simply stunning!
This perfect evening was rounded off by discovering a set of chairs and a drinks box. Toasting the zebra shadows with a sundowner overlooking the pans as the last of the light faded. What a perfect first impression to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in the Kalahari.
You stay at the delightful Camp Kalahari, with lovely spacious tents, poster beds and a vast oak dining table. The food is so delicious and plentiful it is a challenge to finish it all, so you certainly will not go hungry.
During the day it seems hotter here when compared to other African destinations, not sure why, maybe the white salt pans reflect the heat and sun, plus there is very little breeze to cool us down. But luckily we ride in the early morning when it is cooler, and are in the shade of the mid-day sun enjoying lunch by the time it gets really hot.
The horses are a lovely bunch of well behaved and kind, generous souls. I was lucky enough to ride four of them during my stay and each horse was forward going and willing in his work. They were all incredibly sure footed over all terrain and I think that they enjoyed their gallops as much as we did.
Halfway through my stay we set off to Xau Xai fly camp. On the way we pass through quite different terrain to the Pans themselves, riding past woodlands and parkland with long open plains where we could gallop and push on a bit.
En route we stopped for a break at Chapmans Baobab, this is acknowledged to be one of the largest trees in Africa and could easily be seen from a great distance on the horizon.
Settling into the foundations of this famous tree, David Foot your guide for the week makes the tree come to life by retelling the tales of missionaries such as Livingstone and Chapman who had visited this tree, and their journeys through these parts. He conjures up images of the past by elaborating upon and retelling stories and experiences that their wives and children had to undergo during these arduous journeys by Ox cart across the Kalahari. He describes the hardships that they encountered over the years, all of which have been documented within their diaries at the time. He ends the tale with descriptions of their deaths during the journey, and the accuracy of his descriptions of how it must have been for them during these times brings a real sense of history to the ground you are riding upon.
At fly camp you get the chance to meet the Kalahari meerkats, and so with an early start you set off to find them. The ‘sleepy dust’ from your eyes is soon blown away as on the way we enjoy some great canters on the plains.
The meerkats are not quite awake yet, and we occasionally see one pop his head up above ground, look around, decide it is too cold and retreat back underground again. We only had to wait about 15 minutes and then the whole troop decides to emerge… they have babies too! A family of 9 in total, 4 babies and 5 adults.
We watch them stand upright to warm themselves, all facing the sun warming their bellies (like soldiers on parade) and then off they go never stopping, foraging for food along the way, each adult feeding the babies in turn. Such teamwork, the adults would dig up grubs and bugs etc. and then eat one themselves and the next was always without fail diligently passed to the babies. Each adult had a ‘kid’ to look after and their charge would follow them the whole way waiting for their treat. We walk with them, watching them dig for food and feed. They cover a good distance and are habituated well so that they do not fear our human presence. You can get really close, and if you sit still long enough they will often climb up you and use your head as a lookout tower.
Having spent the morning with the meerkats we decide to head onward with our horses to the Pans themselves. The surface at the edge of the Pans is perfect for a good blast and WE ARE OFF. Everyone fires off, and we are all flat out.
My horse for the day is an older experienced gentleman, who is usually a quiet back up horse, and after about 20 metres he decided that a gallop is far too much effort and slows himself to a steady loping canter (I had been warned he would do this, so I didn’t expect him to win the race or keep up). Everyone disappears from view galloping into the distance, and I am left loping on my horse on my own in the middle of the pans. Utterly wonderful. In the middle of nowhere, empty as far as the eye can see, just emptiness and the sound of my hooves on the crusty salt in in a three beat stride. What a magical moment just loping quietly along, never once worrying about where the others were or trying to speed up or slow down to trot, my boy just kept his steady pace and rhythm.
When I caught up with the others still blowing from their gallop there were smiles all around, but I still believe I had the most secretive and enchanting moment out of us all.
Later after the heat of the day we set off for a quiet ride with horses, onto the pans in the sunset. The silence of this area is so great that if you close your eyes you can hear only the sound of the blood in your ears and nothing else. There can not be many places left in the world without any ‘white noise’ at all. We wandered and stood, wandered a bit more, quietly meandering along into the pans salty surface.
By now the sun has set but we carry on into the dark, just looking at our very own moon shadows of our horses marching along. David points out various stars including Venus and Orions belt, which can all be seen so clearly. Towards the end of the ride we pick up a steady canter and in the moonlight we are just loping along quietly at the edge of the pans in the darkness of the night with the ground lit up by the moon, the cool air making a refreshing change to the heat of the day. It’s been a long but magical day, from Meerkats to Moonlight.
On the last day I was lucky enough to meet the bushmen trackers of the Kalahari. This rural tribe took us for a bush walk and gave a very detailed insight into their survival techniques in this very harsh landscape and heat. They showed us how they hunt for scorpions, and clean the scorpions inside your own mouth to temporarily paralyse them. They talked us through the plants around us and how they use them for healing cuts, medicine, even which tubers to dig up for liquid quenching refreshment when no water can be found in the Kalahari. They show us how they set traps to catch birds for meat, and proudly talk about their lion encounters, showing us the scars on their bodies from arguing with a lion over who was to claim the carcass of a Kudu. The Bushmen won apparently.
They also showed us their poisoned arrows from the guts of a worm larvae. This poison can only be collected in their spring, and can only be used once on an arrow, but is so strong it will kill anything.. Women and children are never allowed to touch the arrows, only the men, and I can understand why if they are that deadly.
I did ask how old the chief was and was told he was 98 years old. I don’t quite believe that, but then they probably don’t use a calenders and diaries or have birth certificates, so how would he know? Maybe that’s the answer to our age obsessed culture, not to count the years and to just live simply and happily gaining memories along the way. The Kalahari certainly gave me memories that will stay with me forever, a unique environment, that is surprisingly breathtaking!
Sarah Dale, 10th May, 2015