Where the "Wild Beasts" are: Botswana Diaries (Day 1)

Botswana Diaries
by Aron Hyman

Entering Botswana.

The Limpopo river was flowing for the first time in more than a year. Hundreds of kilometers of electric game fences in South Africa were now replaced by a wall of bushveld next to one of Botswana's national highways from Groblersburg to Francistown. There are very few fences here. The odd kraal surrounded by a couple of huts seems to serve no purpose. Goats, donkeys, and cattle roam freely and into traffic consisting mostly of large 'Congo-2-Congo' trucks carrying minerals on flat bed trailers covered by sheets of vinyl, heading to the south. We are heading to the "supersaline" pans of central Botswana where we would attempt to sleep on a baobab covered rocky island.
The country's 2,3 million inhabitants seem blissful in their way of life, sharing the land in a seemingly communal structure without borders or evident ownership. Francistown is developing and people seem to be well off with access to modern infrastructure. There were virtually no beggars and although it was Saturday afternoon, which is usually the time most South African cities have already drunk themselves halfway into a stupor, one of the main shopping centers doesn't even have a bottle store.
We eventually found a Tops @ Spar liquor store in the downtown district where a younger crowd of adults were stocking up for the night. People are conservative here. We stocked up on basic necessities - including a braai roster which was so badly manufactured it instantly started dismantling itself. After wolfing down a couple of Wimpy burgers we headed for Sua Pan, one of the largest pans on the planet.
Besides a police stop at which we were given a speeding fine, and also shown by one of the cops how to use the speed-trap radar, the ride was relatively smooth but slow. At places the road would completely disappear into a pothole.
Just when you come out of one pothole a herd of cows stand idly on the asphalt or a donkey lies on its back with its legs pointed upwards towards the sky in the middle of the road.
One of the most baffling aspects of Botswana is the people's blunt denial that any wild animals exist.
It is as if admitting there are animals would invoke them somehow.
We were kindly informed by a man at a roadblock enforced by a single orange cone in the road, that the pans we were supposed to be able to cross with our 4x4 are flooded.
Skeptically we decided to go to a place called Makgadikgadi Lodge at the edge of Sua Pan. At one stage we reached a gate where we were asked a bunch of bizarre questions by another man who seemed very suspicious about the nature of our visit. Not knowing whether we were entering a game reserve or a cunningly disguised nuclear facility we inquired about wildlife. The man seemed confused and said that there were no elephants here. Behind him was a large sign board warning people to be wary of elephants beyond this point. We called his bluff. When he realised we were onto him he said that there were elephants but now there are none, and there would be no other animals either, only the occasional "wild beast".
He let us through with a concerned look on his face, and at the last moment before we left it almost seemed as though he wanted to ask us why we would be interested in coming to the pans at all.
Five minutes after we entered we spotted our first ostrich, and then an entire herd of wildebeest and zebra.
When we arrived on of the lodge managers greeted us as though she had been waiting for our arrival for a long time.
While we made arrangements a man with a machine gun hanging from his shoulder passed us on a quad bike with full camouflage and drove out of the high fenced camp into the pre-dusk bush.
The lady assured us that there was nothing to worry about because there was no wildlife here. We pointed to a couple of zebra and a lone wildebeest walking along the perimeter fence, but she just laughed, looking at us in with an expression of exasperation.
We shared the camp site with a few local tourists with whom we were soon to "share blood".
After setting up camp we decided to go and watch the sun set over the pan.
Zebra, wildebeest, and ostriches were clearly abundant here and there were signs of elephant.
We even saw a couple of very tame rhino behind a fence which would explain the armed patrol.
Standing on the edge of the flooded Sua Pan was like standing on a vast mirror. For five minutes a soothing breeze blew just strong enough to keep a swarm of mosquitoes from massing around us.
Were it not for gravity's presence there would be no way to tell which way is earth or heaven.

It was utter tranquility.
When the last ray of sun bent out of sight the swarm descended. Chris, who has traveled a good part of the globe's tropical belt conceded that the mosquitoes at Sua Pan were by far the most vicious and I was convinced that a person could actually die from a mosquito attack.
When we made it back to our campsite we decided that the Toyota Hilux, our chariot for the trip, was our only hope of escaping mosquito bite induced anaphylactic shock.
After nine in the afternoon the mosquitoes in Botswana seem to stop biting, rather opting to fly into your ear or eye, so we could sit and enjoy a relaxing gin and tonic while watching satellites streak across the night sky. The stars here will keep you awake.
The night ended rather sadly.
While braaing (cooking) our steak dinner on an open fire a massive beetle almost flew into the flames. Thinking quickly I launched the beautiful specimen several meters into the air.
It started to fly again while spinning through the air and flew full speed straight into the ground making a crunching sound.
It died on impact.
The deceased beetle.