I stumbled accross this story i wrote in early January this year - and never posted to The Roof for some reason. Am I allowed to post it now? was that a yes?
We arranged to meet friends in Gweta to spend the night on Makgadikgadi pans. This year a full moon and a blue moon marked the end of the old year and beginning of a new decade. Makgadikgadi seemed an obvious choice of venue. Wide salt pans on the edge of the central Kalahari desert. So wide you can see the curve of the earth. Blistering hot and dancing with mirages on a clear summer day; biting cold and a theater of dust devils in winter months – it is a vast empty space that sets the stage of atmospheric dramas of every kind.
We spent the first night in Nata, a small town on the main northern route through Botswana. At Nata Lodge we learned that Ben, an old friend, had passed away the day after Christmas. He had worked at the Lodge for 25 years – since it started; and his ever smiling face and soft voice greeted us each time we arrived. We have spent many an evening with Ben there over the years. How were we to know that the last time was truly the last time? His funeral was to be on 2nd January – we would be there.
The following morning we took a slow cruise along the Maun road to Gweta to meet our pals. This strip of tar, made famous by many a safari tale, cuts across the northern edge of the great salt pans. We slow down for donkeys, cows and villages, and stop to watch a herd of kalanga horses drinking from a rainwater pan – manes and tales blowing in the wind.
Gweta lodge is in the middle of the village, surrounded by mud and thatch homesteads, general trading stores and lively drinking spots. Donkey carts have right of way here. We pull into the gates of the lodge, park in the shade and make our way to the thatched lapa.
Cool and shady – a retreat from the sweltering heat. The lapa in the heart of the lodge, in the heart of the village, is like a warren in the tallest termite mound. The pool sparkles and chugs – bodies bob in bright water – foreign visitors lie roasting in the midday heat. We meet up with some pals, and catch up on lost time while waiting for the rest to arrive from Maun.
The sky is full of large ballooning cumulus clouds. 'so you are planning to camp on the pans tonght?' yip. Well if you change your minds you can always stay here with us.' There is a big party planned for new years, and the mood is convivial. The mercury continues to climb to new heights. Thunder crumps in the giant ballooning clouds creating atmospheric tension. It breaks – rain falls, chasing the sunbathers into the lapa. But the shower is short and sweet filling the air with that heady ozone smell.
We had planned moonlight flights over the pans. Our pilot is sky watching. He blinks often and holds back on judgement. It looks like we are in for rain. Even I can see that. The others arrive – we decide to stay with our camping plan.
An hours drive over rolling spikey grasslands past sleepy cattle, and thorn scrub. The plains open out against a dark purple curtain of rain lit by flashes of lightening. The wind is blowing. The pans are too wet to drive on. Pools of water on the surface mean we don't even have to try. It looks inoccuous enough, and could be tempting if we didn't know just how treacherous that surface could be. Like sirens of the salt pans, a soft voice questions 'how bad could it be? It looks ok? Give it a try…' at your peril – this crusty clay sediment is all that's left of an ancient lake bed. You can be driving along happily and then suddenly it will give way and suck up your entire vehicle up to the chassis. It is corrosive and cloying and there are no trees in site to attach a winch to even if you have one.
So after a cursory check along the edge – we abandon the idea of crossing the pans to camp at the two islands in a sea of salt. The purple rain cloud flashes lightening in the south. We head back to the palm trees to set up camp. Heavy clouds roam the skies speeding across to the purple party. We stop under a spreading camel thorn tree, make a fire, put up tents. A salmon pink splash in the west is the sunset banner in the sky; in the east a full moon rises through the palm trees, between the clouds heralded by bolts of electricity on either side. It is a blue moon. An awesome yellow moon. A fanfare for a departing year.
Billy makes a fire with much puffing and fanning of flames – puffing Billy. We cook potatoes in the coals, and beef fillet on the braai. We stay up late – young people take the quad bikes for moonlit rides. It doesn't rain on us . At midnight we open champagne, hug each other and wish happy new year. The moon spreads its silver light around us.