The Emerald Desert
Issue 35
A month of heavy rain is enough to transform central Botswana's arid plains into grasslands teeming with mammals, butterflies and birds, says Brian Jackman.

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For most of the year the Kalahari is one of the harshest places on the planet. Scorching temperatures and a total absence of permanent water make every day a struggle for survival, and everything that lives here follows one unbending rule: adapt or die. During the dry season sandgrouse survive by flying 40 miles to drink. Oryx exist for months on end without drinking at all. Then, towards the year’s end, the rains come. In the late afternoons the skies fill with towering thunderheads. Storms roam the immense horizons and the Kalahari becomes the greenest place in Africa.

Until this year I had never seen this miraculous transformation, and by luck I had chosen the time when Botswana was enjoying its heaviest rains for decades. At Jack’s Camp on the edge of the Makgadikgadi pans it had rained so hard that we drove for miles along flooded tracks, putting up flocks of red-billed teal as they swam in a foot-and-a-half of water.

Marooned in an island of mokolwane palm trees, Jack’s Camp is a stylish desert fantasy run by the charismatic Ralph Bousfield, whose company, Uncharted Africa, has the motto: “Give them what they never knew they wanted.”

The last time I was here the dry season was in full swing. The grass was the colour of an old lion pelt, and where it ended you could see the glitter of the soda pans on the horizon, an infinity of cracked, white crust over which we had raced on quad bikes, heading for a sleep-out under the desert stars.

Now the Makgadikgadi is changed almost beyond recognition, its sands buried beneath chest-deep waves of puku grass, its flooded pans off limits to all except the thousands of flamingos who come to gorge on brine shrimps.

“It’s a schizophrenic desert,” says Ralph as his Land Cruiser pushes bow-waves of floodwater along the track in front of us. “It has a boom and bust climate, and this is the boom time.”

And he’s right. After months of inertia the rains have unleashed a frenzy of activity as plants and animals hurry to complete their life cycles before the drought returns.

Birds you would never expect to see in a desert – whiskered terns, wattled cranes, 3000-strong flocks of Abdim’s storks – have flown in from all directions.

Paradise whydahs in full breeding plumage trail their long tail feathers among the ripening grass heads where butterflies – brown-veined whites and African monarchs – dance in confetti clouds; and giant bullfrogs which have spent the dry season hibernating two metres underground now emerge to roar and mate all around us as we slosh through flooded glades of thorn scrub.

Next day we pack a picnic lunch and drive into the boundless distance of the Makgadikgadi National Park, looking for the migrating zebras that have come south with the rains. We pick our way among a mosaic of flooded pans whose shores are stitched with brown hyena tracks, until at last we reach the plains were the zebras are feeding in their thousands. We drive all day and never see another vehicle.

It is the same story when I move on to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. It’s the second largest wildlife protectorate in the world, an area the size of New Mexico and there’s nobody else around. I check in at Deception Valley Lodge on the fringes of the reserve, an oasis of luxury in a wild land, and wake next morning to the raucous cries of red-billed francolins. Kalahari alarm clocks, Jacobus calls them.

Jacobus, the son of the lodge’s owner, Gerard Slabbert, wants to take me to Deception Pan. This is where the American zoologists Mark and Delia Owens spent seven years in the 1970s studying brown hyenas and black-maned lions, the Kalahari’s most charismatic predators.

We follow the line of a veterinary fence built to stop wildlife spreading bovine TB among Botswana’s beef herds. The bird life is unbelievable. Every other fence post has a pale chanting goshawk sitting on it. Clouds of queleas swirl overhead and black korhaans the size of turkeys erupt from the grass with clucking voices, then flutter slowly back to earth.

There are even more birds when at last we reach Deception Pan. The skies are alive with kites and eagles, with swooping swallows and wintering storks from Iberia. But what really catches the eye is the abundance of game. The Pan itself is a wide, shallow valley and at this time of year it becomes a carpet of emerald grass, attracting huge numbers of oryx and springbok. The presence of cheetah and lion add a frisson of excitement to the scene; but today they decline to show themselves.

My lion moment comes later, at Meno a Kwena, a marvellous, no-frills safari camp overlooking the dried-up bed of the Boteti River. Each of its seven green canvas tents is surrounded by stone walls and a boma of thorns with a doorway blocked by wooden poles. “Be sure to replace the poles once you are inside,” says Dave Dugmore, the camp’s owner. “They keep the lions out.”

Apparently the lions are used to nosing around the nearby villages in the hope of finding a cow for supper, and I find out what he means after I’ve eaten my own hearty supper of Botswana beef steak. I’m just about to turn in when a lion starts to roar not far off. The roars grow louder. It is coming my way. No doubt about that. At one point I’m convinced it is just outside. But in the morning the closest tracks I can find are 30 metres away.

The Boteti is the southernmost offshoot of the seasonal Okavango floods but it has not flowed this far for years. For the wildlife of the Makgadikgadi national park on the other side of the river this is a disaster. Even now, after the heaviest rains for years, the Boteti is dry and the animals must depend on the man-made waterhole Dugmore has installed in the riverbed.

“Come here in the dry season and you’ll see upwards of 5000 zebras drinking here,” says Dugmore. “Elephants, too; and lions. You don’t have to go out on a game drive. Just sit here with a beer and watch it all happen.”

Meno a Kwena, I discover, is the perfect springboard for day trips to Nxai Pan National Park. To get there we drive along the main road between Maun and Francistown, past elephants and giraffes drawn to the roadside by the green season bounty of wild cucumber plants.

Inside the park, as in the Makgadikgadi, there is not another vehicle to be seen. Why has nobody discovered how beautiful it is at this time of year? On we go, through flurries of migrating bee-eaters, across endless vistas of lush green grass where herds of oryx are grazing among thousands of zebras.

By mid-afternoon we have moved on, drawn irresistibly towards a dark grove of trees that beckon across the flooded pans. These are Baines’ Baobabs, living cathedrals of the desert. Their swollen trunks are as old as Stonehenge. Thomas Baines, a contemporary of Livingstone, painted them in 1862 and the scene he captured remains unchanged.

Beyond the trees I found the fresh tracks of a large bull elephant in the sand. Its giant footprints had filled with rain, and I wished I could have watched him wading out across the pan whose shallow waters now perfectly mirrored a mountainous range of purple thunderheads.
 

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