Having read just about every issue of Leisure Wheels and enjoyed the frequent articles on the Makgadikgadi Pans, Leslie Pratt thought he would give our readers a
different perspective on these pans…
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, cutti ng across the pans. Spott er 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, aft er 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 offi cer 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 informati on 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 fi re, spread out our sleeping bags and relaxed, discussing the events of the past two days. But 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 aft er 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 offi cer!” I’ve never trusted a safety offi cer 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).
Aft er 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. Unfortunately, when the sun rose the “glow” that we were following disappeared, and we found ourselves in a spot of trouble. I made myself a pair of slippers out of pieces of our blanket and we set off in a northerly direction, using the sun as our guide. Two hours into our walk I had to make myself another pair of slippers, as the rough surface of the pan had worn the first pair out. By 9am our cokes were finished and there was still no sign of the spit or the camp. All we could see was the shimmering surface of the pan, disappearing into the horizon in every direction around us.
The sun beat down. At noon nothing had changed, except that I was now on my third pair of makeshift slippers. The sun was now directly above us, no longer any use for navigation, and there were absolutely no landmarks for us to use as references, other than our tracks behind us. At this stage I would happily have given everything I owned just to be able to sit in the shade of a tree! Thirst and dehydration were now a major issue, and we were urinating into the coke cans just so that we had something to keep our lips and mouth moist. I also kept a small pebble in my mouth, which is said to keep your mouth moist. Mirages were now the order of the day. We could have sworn we saw vehicles moving to our left , on the horizon; they looked to be floating two metres off the ground. Later, at around 3pm, I was busy making my fourth pair of slippers when we saw another two vehicles, two metres off the ground on the horizon. I decided to chance my luck and set the remains of my blanket alight, hoping the black smoke would draw their attention. Well, smoke we got, but it did not rise at all and the cars disappeared into the mirage…. There was sti ll no sign of the spit where the camp was, but we could now see what looked like trees on our right. This was a worry because, if those were trees, we had then travelled in a long arc, putting us northeast of Kubu Island. We were now in serious trouble: we had no urine left , no blanket, no shade, were way off course and seriously dehydrated. Just aft er 5:30pm we again saw vehicles travelling south, but to our west. We summoned all our remaining strength to wave at this small convoy, knowing the chance of them seeing us was virtually zero. Lo and behold, the lead mirage vehicle turned in our directi on and headed straight towards us, followed by the others. As the vehicles drew closer we recognised them as being from our camp.
The convoy pulled up next to us with looks of total astonishment on the faces of everyone, all of whom had a can of beer in their hands. We snatched two beers and swallowed them in seconds, followed by bottles of water. Then we took a seat in the air-conditioned 4x4s and the swapping of stories began. They had seen us and thought that we were a pair of ostriches, floating two metres off the pan. Luckily they had come to investigate. We drove back along the way we had walked, back to Kubu Island for a braai. Nobody at the camp had thought to worry about us, knowing that we were out searching for a vehicle and that we had an excellent knowledge of the pans. According to the odometers of the vehicles, we had walked 58km before we had been found and rescued. If that convoy hadn’t come along it could have turned out very differently… At Kubu Island we sank down into the shade of a baobab and watched the others hustle around us as we sipped on ice cold beers.
When we looked at each other we burst out laughing, as we had both turned white from all the salt that had dried on our bodies. I subsequently lost six of my toe nails, from my blanket “slippers”, but enjoyed many more (vehicular) excursions on the pans in my ti me in Botswana. All the vehicles were fitted with Motorola radios, as well as one at the camp, and we became experts on the art of rescue and recovery, being called upon many ti mes to help tourists on the Makgadikgadi Pans. I was very sad to have to leave when the project was finished, as I had really grown to love Botswana and the pans. Since then I have returned many ti mes, always with just as much excitement and enthusiasm. I am now based in Angola and frequently fl y across the Congo River to Cabinda as part of my work. I have had many adventures over the years, with different vehicles and in different places, and hopefully I will be able to share these with you in the future.