Text: Leslie Pratt
I spent two years in Botswana, building the soda ash processing plant on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans. One of my responsibilities was air-traffic control for the international airport that had been built specifically for the project and the newly built Sowatown.
In February 1992 the Botswana police approached us for assistance in finding a man and his daughter who were trying to cross into South Africa and had taken the back roads, cutting across the pans.
Spotter planes were crisscrossing both Sua and Ntwentwe pans, which together make up the Makgadikgadi Pans, in search of the fugitive. The safety officer from work and I were in a Toyota double cab, searching the veld along the edges of the pans and the bush between them. As we searched I kept in contact with the ground-to-air radio that I had for my air-traffic control duties.
On the second day of searching, after spending a night at Kubu Island, we came across a fence designed to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease, running between the two pans. The gate was manned by a local officer and, despite our terrible knowledge of Setswana, we established that he had a register of all movement through the gate. A quick look through his register established that the vehicle we were looking for had passed through the gate four days earlier, before we had even been asked to assist in the search.
Such is the African speed to mobilise a search!
Armed with this information I radioed the aircraft, telling them to call off the search, as the pilots were all private volunteers who were running at their own costs.
We headed back across the veld and the pans in the Toyota, having already used five jerry cans of fuel, and decided to spend another night at Kubu Island en route to our camp. When we arrived we started a fire, spread out our sleeping bags and relaxed, discussing the events of the past two days. By at about 9pm we had a sudden change of heart and decided to carry on to our camp, which was situated on a spit of land jutting out into the middle of the pans.
We packed up and headed off into the darkness, in a northerly direction. We weren’t worried at all about getting lost, because we knew that it was only about 50 to 60km across the pan, and once we got close we would be able to follow the camp’s lights.
A “grave yard” is a term used for areas on the pan that are soft under the pan’s surface and can trap a vehicle fast. If a vehicle is too heavy it breaks though the crust and quickly bogs down, sinking down to its belly. When a vehicle is stuck like this you can’t push it out, dig it out or winch it out. The only option is to pull it out with another vehicle.
Well, shortly after heading out we hit a “grave yard”! There were no other vehicles around us and we weren’t going anywhere! Then my safety officer made a statement that I will never forget: “We can walk. I can see the glow in the sky from the camp lights. Trust me, I’m a safety officer!” I’ve never trusted a safety officer again…
Our vehicle was loaded with all sorts of liquid refreshments and each of us took a can of coke with us. Something also made me throw a blanket over my shoulder. So, at about 10pm, off we set into the absolute darkness (I couldn’t see the “glow” my safety officer was talking about).
After about 20 minutes my slops were chaffing my feet, so off they went and I carried on barefoot on the dry, crusty salt pan. At 2am we decided a short sleep was a good idea, so we threw the blanket over us and, using the coke cans as pillows, slept until the first light of dawn woke us.