Day 13 – Nxai Pan

The lookout hide

 The next morning we woke up and after breakfast decided to go looking for one of the look-outs or hides we had read quite a lot about, because we wanted to explore the pans and watering holes and chill out in an environment that is Pure African Wilderness..

Our research had recommended we visit two look-out hides in the park. One is allegedly adjoining the South Camp. The other is up on the sand ridge south of the South Camp where a panoramic view of the Park can be obtained. I’d read somewhere about a family who raved about the lookout and what an amazing time they’d had there. Our previous experience of a hide had been at the Dombo Hippo Pool in Moremi which was a fantastic place in great condition, so we had no reason to think this would be any less fantastic. However our first clue should have been when we asked the scouts at the gate they didn’t seem to know about the existence of even one of these. They recommended we just go to the main watering hole. This is where Mad Dogs and Englishmen say ‘pah’ in the face of good advice, egged on by the fact that a hide was marked on the map they had given us, which was a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a map which had clearly existed a long time ago. The fact it was so greyed-out you wouldn’t spot it unless you were looking for it didn’t deter us. 

An hour later we had encountered some of the most challenging and stressful drives of our entire trip. The road is THICK black sand going uphill which for the only time on our whole trip did manage to lock our landy in its jaws and was starting to pull us in and down. Ed, through a marvel of driving, patience, and bull-dog bloody-mindedness, got us out. I on the other hand did the chocolate teapot thing. Where it isn’t thick sand the track is so seldom trafficked that it has become very indistinct in places. High grasses conceal hidden obstacles, and the grass seeds we’d been told that can clog a vehicle’s radiator fins were in thick abundance.

When we had been driving this deeply sandy, overgrown track for about half an hour Ed started to doubt my navigation. According to the ancient map we were on track, but very worryingly we’d gone completely off road on the GPS Unit and we were currently just a floating triangle in the middle of a blank space. My imagination went into overdrive about getting stuck or into difficulties when clearly no one ever comes along here. I kept on telling Ed we were fine, but you have no idea how overjoyed I was when I first saw what could only be our destination. And then instantly felt my heart sink. Our reward was something which at one time must have been a hide but now was a loosely arranged pile of twigs. As we stepped on it pieces of it fell down. It had clearly seen much better days and was now a very dangerous structure. We were silly and felt after the massive struggle to get there we’d go up in it, but I could see the planks of wood lifting right out and the ones especially at the top of the ‘steps’ were completely loose. I had visions of the whole thing collapsing and no one being around to hear our cries.  From up there we were given an OK view out across the Pan, but I actually much preferred to be down there on it and amongst it.  So, we strongly do not recommend you waste your time and bother with this and I’m concerned someone will get hurt up there one day. Note to self: when in future your GPS unit shows you are no longer on a track of any kind, give up and turn back. 

Baines’ Baobabs

Having given ourselves a good adrenalin boost we decided to head to a different part of the park altogether for a spot of relaxing tree hugging.

In the south of Nxai Pan, Baines’ Baobabs comprise a hardy clump of large baobab trees, rendered immortal in 1861 by painter Thomas Baines, a member of Livingstone’s expedition.

The turn-off eastwards to Baines’ Baobabs is roughly halfway along the entrance track at a signpost. After about 900m there is a fork in the road, both prongs of which lead eventually to the Baines’ Baobabs site. The right fork leads 11km directly to the campsite on a fair surface, although during the wet season, rains may have made it impassable. The alternative left fork is longer (17km) and requires a right (southish) turn after 13.3km.

Trailer warning

The road to and from the trees is quite treacherous if you have a trailer. Our kind of camping vehicle was fine, but those with the camping trailers, very popular apparently with South Africans, are not. We saw two get stuck and one which had apparently been abandoned but turned out to be a group who came to the campsite much later that night after finally getting free of the sand. Later in our trip a family we met here also got stuck on this road, in a trailer. They are either too heavy or the weight distribution forces the front of the trailer down into the sand, so it just wedges and won’t budge.

We approached the trees across the salt pan road. This in itself was very beautiful, a glaring white crystalline world like driving across the surface of the moon with the sun fully on it. The landscape is totally flat white disk with a huge dome-like sky and I felt very humble and small like I was in a snow dome.  Suddenly, as improbably as finding a copse of trees on the moon, the Baines Boababs rise up, huddled together like a group of ancient, wizened old men standing in a piazza setting the world to rights. The trees are bent and twisted, one is lying down altogether. At this time of year they also had no leaves, so they look dead, but they are alive and well.

They are ancient. The area itself is said to date back to the great prehistoric superlake which dried up around 125,000 years ago, which, according to the Bradt Guide, was around the time homo sapiens turned up. I don’t think the trees are that old but the point is that they are extraordinarily old, so you can stand there in their shade knowing that if Christ had done the same then nothing at all about this place would have looked any different, albeit the tree that is lying down might have been upright. Nothing has changed except for the various names scratched in the bark as people have felt the need to make their mark. I couldn’t see ‘JC woz ere’ but I noticed there was one dated 1973 which was when Ed and I were born and apparently there’s some that are a couple of hundred years old. If you compare the site to Baines’ painting, give or take a branch or two, apparently nothing has changed here and long before Baines had immortalized the trees nothing had also changed for a very, very, very long time. I felt very tiny eating my picnic of a cheese and ham sandwich. It didn’t have a sign up saying ‘Picnic Site’ but it was probably one of the best picnic sites in the world.

After a while though you do get that itchy feeling Bill Bryson wrote about when he visited Stonehenge in England, where you’ve traveled all this way to something you know is very significant but once you’re there you feel like your enjoyment of the experience may have peaked a bit too soon after arriving, but given how far you’ve traveled and the significance of what you’re looking at you don’t feel you can just turn around and head straight back where you came from so you spend the rest of the time trying to find ways to eek your experience out to at least appear you’re making the most of it. I felt this very quickly and was glad of the picnic to give me good reason to eek it out a bit more. Heathen that I am, it was after all in the end just a bunch of big old trees, so after an hour we’d done as much tree-hugging as we could and headed back along the bumpy sandy road to the campsite.
   
On the way back to the camp we encountered something as close to total gridlock as you’ll find in the Botswana Bush, when a trailer had got stuck on the sandy single track and no one behind could get past, so we all got out to help, but it took about half an hour before things got moving again.

2 Responses to “Day 13 – Nxai Pan”

  1. Darren Says:

    We are going to Botswana in June 08 and have found your account very interesting and useful. Thank you for taking the time to record your journey.

  2. wilddogsandenglishmen Says:

    I am sorry to report that the Nata Lodge was burned down on 25th September 2008.

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