Rod towed us back to Orapa, passing landmarks: dead dog, baobab tree, the wrecked car. Fiona and I had a cup of tea, salty from the local water, which made us realise why the pub was so popular. By four thirty the car was fixed and anti-biotics procured, so off we set again, past the landmarks: wrecked car, baobab tree, dead dog. This time a donkey was standing sentinel over the dog.
We drove past a tiny village where the present met the past. Little mud houses with thatched roofs, sparsely-clad children playing among the chicken and the goats, and the incongruity of a Landrover parked in front of one house.
We saw the villages around Mopipi beside the dried-up pan. The water had dried up, but the villages stayed. We drove through S-bends and dongas, and Rod’s exhaust broke again.
The sun hovered like a giant red planet, casting an eerie pink-grey glow over the sand and salt. I wondered if we were still on earth, or if we had stepped through an intergalactic time machine to find ourselves on some remote undiscovered world. In the distance two figures, one walking, one riding a donkey, moved towards the night, like a scene from a nativity play.
We made camp on the Makgadikgadi pans, in the dust. The sore on Edward’s face had started turning septic. Catherine stood on a large thorn that had to be removed from her foot with a pair of pliers. Michael got hiccups and Fiona started dusting.
The night was cold and the wind whipped up the sand, so we didn’t hang around in the morning. The road was nothing more than tyre tracks. Every so often they were criss-crossed by others, as if to challenge our sense of direction. Occasionally the road disappeared altogether, then we found it again appearing obliquely from behind an isolated bush. Little grew. As far as the eye could see was the whiteness of sand and salt crystals. In the sand were tiny shells, indicating the one time presence of aquatic life.
On the plains we saw our first animals: an eagle, then impala, gemsbok, zebra, and vultures. We drove off the road to see where the vultures were hovering, and were just in time to see four or five almost black Kalahari lions running from the scene of the kill. They had eaten their fill, and it was the turn of the jackals and vultures. The carcass was bubbling as the birds climbed greedily in. We watched for a while, fascinated and nauseated.
On the horizon were the date palms, a relic, according to rumour, of the days when the slave traders, crossing the pans, spat out the stones from their dates, which later grew into amazing tall palms. They bore no fruit, but the children collected vegetable ivory from them, intending to carve wonderful beads and rings when they got home.
We drove through vast areas of nothing but sand, until suddenly we came across a little village, with no visible means of support other than a handful of goats. No grass, no crops, no water. How did they survive? People smiled and waved and looked happy, but what might they have been thinking? Were there no stirrings of ambition or resentment as we passed by in our fancy vehicles? I wondered if maybe those people, stuck with their sparse living, from which they expected nothing, were spared the frustration of failure or the pressures of the materialistic western world lifestyle. Or was that some sort of justification to counteract the feelings of guilt I carried?
When we reached the Maun road, we were made sickeningly aware of the severity of the drought. Through the dusty haze we saw many dead zebra beside the road. Some were reduced to heaps of white bones or bare skeletons, some were dried hides stretched over the bony frames, with gaping holes in the abdomen where the insides had been eaten away.
We came across a Mercedes that had broken down. Hardly suitable transport for such conditions. Our guys got themselves under the bonnet, and with much ingenuity and improvisation managed to get it running.
We saw giraffe moving quickly in slow motion. They, like the lions, were almost black. The trees looked as if there had been a heavy frost, where every twig was dusted with a layer of white sand. And the ubiquitous hornbills portended the rain, which never came.