When we arrive in Gweta, it is obvious why Africans emphasize the distinction between a village and a town. Gweta is definitely a town – only one road coming in and out, a local market as the only shopping option, and we are staying in the only housing option available! Most people here take a public shared van over two hours to Maun to go shopping at traditional grocery stores on the weekends. We quickly drop our stuff off at the lodge, grab a bite to eat, and load our 4×4 vehicle to head into the Kalahari. We will be off-roading for nearly two hours before reaching our point of interest – the Makgadikgadi salt pans.
It is a rough ride, and we are seated facing out towards the sides of the vehicle. Thorned acacia branches scrape against the side of the car, and the tires struggle to gain traction in the sand. For the first half hour, we see livestock, but few people. We soon come across a small traditional house, and a water pump enclosed by a boma (an enclosure made of sticks). The water pump is the only source of water for many people living here, and until recently, a bucket and a rope were used to extract the well water. Recently, a motorized pump with a hose was installed to make the process more efficient. The men come by donkey cart to fill water buckets for their homes, but the women must walk a long distance to the well and carry the water home on their heads. Elephants occasionally invade the well to try to get water, and they prove their intelligence by throwing logs into the well to raise the water level until it is accessible. The government pays for the water pump, and will also reimburse the people here for any damage done by elephants.
We drive further into the desert, stopping for a break near a giant baobab tree. The tree has no leaves on it during winter, but it is impressive in its size. All eight of us cannot even wrap our arms half way around its trunk. The elephants here often rip trees up by their roots, but this tree will clearly stand its ground for many years to come. After almost 90 minutes of driving on sandy elephant trails, we arrive at a small, traditional home enclosed by a boma. A man comes out to greet us, removing some of the logs from his boma to create a make-shift door. He lives here alone, hours from the nearest village, and helps the guides for our tour company track the meerkats living near the salt pans. We are invited into his home to see how the villagers live in this extreme environment. The bricks used to build his mud hut are made of termite mud and cow dung baked in the sun. The outside is then plastered with a mud layer that will need redone from time to time as the rains wear it down. The roof is made from thatched grasses cut and dried in the sun. The hut is really only used for sleeping – his kitchen consists of a homemade table and fire pit outside, there is no bathroom, and bathing is done by heating water in a kettle over a fire. He does have a solar panel to charge his cell phone so he can listen to music, and people from the village come pick him up on the weekends so he can do some shopping. Otherwise, he is very much alone in the desert. We have seen many traditional homes such as his on our drive through Botswana.
He joins us in our 4×4 and directs us towards the meerkat colony. We quietly approach their dens, and sure enough, some curious adult meerkats cautiously approach our group. As we sit silently watching, a mother meerkat comes out with five young babies. They are very shy, and stay close to their den.
Trying to beat the sunset, we soon leave to head towards the salt pans. The salt pans found in the Kalahari desert are the result of an evaporated super lake that was once connected to the ocean by rivers. As the water evaporated, the salts were left behind. The Makgadikgadi salt pans are nearly the size of Switzerland, and blinding white salt covers the ground, fading into the horizon. During the rainy season, a thin layer of water will cover their surface, brine shrimp will thrive, and flamingos flock here to feed. Now, it is winter, and they are completely dry and empty.
We stay here for sunset, joined on the fringes by an ostrich and elephant, before heading back to camp. Our lodge has prepared a delicious braai for dinner, with chicken, steak, and sausage on the barbeque, before we turn in for the night.