Featury and photography copyright Gretchen Healey
There’s something I deeply love about hopping on a bush plane and heading somewhere I’ve never been before. The ride is always visually interesting as the planes fly at lower altitudes. I enjoy it when the pilot buzzes the airstrip to be sure there are no animals on it, and I love that often times, the name of the airstrip is spelled out in rocks nearby. This one was called ‘Tsigaro’, which sounds exotic, but probably means something practical like ‘East’.
This was not my first foray into the Kalahari; I’ve seen parts of it elsewhere in Botswana, as well as in Namibia and South Africa. This was my first time visiting the Magadakadi Pans, however, and I had been looking forward to it for months if not years. Once you move past the ‘Big 5’ when visiting Africa, it becomes apparent that there is an endless stream of wonders - cultural, animal and physical - that could keep a person occupied for years. The Pans are one of those areas that reveal some of these to the curious traveler.
Greeted by our guide Richard, an English zoology graduate who fell in love with Botswana during childhood visits, we set off for Jack’s Camp. The camp is positioned in a palm-fringed oasis, and on arrival you might expect Hemingway to greet you, as it’s replete with everything you might have found in an East African camp during the 1940’s. Rich fabrics line the insides of the canvas, and heavy antiques furnish both the common areas and the guest tents. I won’t even get started on how ornate the toilets are.
You could call the Magadakadi the Serengeti of the South. Africa’s second largest animal migration takes place on this ancient ‘super lake’, which is now extinct. What remains are two enormous salt pans – Sua and Ntwetwe – that are amongst the largest in the world. The bulk of the migration consists of zebra and wildebeest, and during the few times of year there is water, there are also millions of flamingos in the pans.
We were fortunate to be there at the beginning of the rainy season as the migration was arriving. Literally everywhere that we went, there were huge herds of zebra, and much smaller herds of wildebeest. There was also an enormous amount of migratory birdlife present. The rain was infrequent but welcome, as temperatures can be extremely hot during the day throughout the summer (Nov - mid-Apr). The storms were also welcomed because of the drama they brought; watching their furious approach across flat land as far as the eye could see left me gobsmacked and grateful for shelter.
Game drives were leisurely affairs that were geared not just toward viewing but also learning about the environment and the survival, behavior and migratory habits of various species. We visited Chapman’s Baobab one afternoon (one of the three largest and oldest in Africa), and also enjoyed night drives, which open up an entirely new set of game to observe. We didn’t see any brown hyena during our visit, but we saw plenty of spring hare, jackals and a few genet and porcupine, and most specially, an aardwolf, which was an rare and exceptional experience.
While the heat can be intense, time spent at Jack’s is structured similarly to other safaris, in order to avoid the hottest part of the day. There are activities early in the morning and late in the afternoon, leaving the hottest part of the day for relaxation. There is an open-air pavilion with comfortable places to lounge, and a good sized pool filled with shockingly cold water that will instantly dispel any overheating. The self-serve bar next to the pool is full of cold beverages, including the best lemonade I have ever tasted.
While the migration is a great reason to visit Jack’s this time of year, it is not the only specialty on offer. Jack’s (and sister camps San and Kalahari) have access to three families of habituated meerkats. While most guests would generally spend one morning with them during a stay, I couldn’t get my fill and visited three times. They are endlessly fascinating to watch, and each visit was a starkly different experience. Habituated doesn’t mean tame, but it does mean you can walk or sit amongst them as they forage and socialize, and that if you’re lucky, they just might use the top of your head as a sentry outpost to look for predators.
Guests at Jack’s also have the opportunity to walk with a group of San Zu/’hoasi bushmen. The San have occupied areas in Southern Africa for over 40,000 years, and during our time with them, they shared with our group a bit of the knowledge accumulated and passed down over many generations. We set off from camp on an afternoon-long walk and learned about the environment of the Kalahari – about poisonous plants that we should avoid or use for arrow-tips when hunting, as well as about plants containing moisture to be used for food and hydration. We tasted wild tubers that had flavor similar to potatoes, and learned which plants would suppress appetite – something handy for life in the unforgiving Kalahari. Members of the group took turns sharing their wisdom and really engaged our group in learning. It was a special cultural experience and one I won’t soon forget. Also, it might buy me a few extra hours of survival if lost in the desert before succumbing to heat exhaustion, dehydration and hunger, or some type of animal or snake encounter.
Another feature of this isolated area of Botswana is just how remote it really is. Our last evening, as we were driving across the salt pans, we saw something glinting in the distance. It turned out to be the setting of our sundowner drinks – a rustic chest and full bar sitting out in the middle of nowhere. Gin and tonics in hand, salty snacks and a fire at the ready, we watched the sun set across the perfectly flat nothingness, as the sky flashed impossible shades of orange and pink and reflected off of the pans in the distance. I lay down on Ntwetwe’s dusty surface to stare at the emerging stars. ‘Do you realize that you are the only four people in an area of 12,500 square kilometers?’ Richard commented. The silence of the desert was so complete, I had no problem believing him. And I felt like the luckiest person on earth.
You can book a stay at Jack’s Camp with Africa Adventure Consultants (www.adventuresinafrica.com, 866.778.1089) as a standalone visit or part of a longer safari. A stay is all inclusive, and rates start at $900/person/night during the wet season for a 3 night stay. Premium beverages and tips are extra. Horse riding and multi-day quad biking (ATV) expeditions are also on offer – inquire for rates. The camp does not have electricity, though a generator runs during the day which allows guests to run a fan in their tents and to charge camera batteries and other electronics in the main mess. Rates go up for the dry season, and activities change as well. Guests can expect excursions into the pans on quad bikes, as well as archeology focused walks with San trackers. Large game will be less abundant, but there are plenty of other things to keep guests engaged.
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