Wild Night: a Salt Pan Sleep-out
There was once a time when the Zambezi River flowed not over Victoria Falls and out to sea but straight into the heart of Botswana. Imagine that: Africa’s fourth largest river emptying into what is now the Kalahari Desert. The result was a giant lake, perhaps bigger than Britain but shallow – no deeper than the width of a football field.
The lake dried up ten thousand years ago after geological shifts diverted the Zambezi, but you can stand on what used to be the bottom. Or, even better – you can sleep out there. Sure there are safari lodges in the Kalahari but what about really sleeping out? As in under the stars. And what stars there are.
The area is called the Makgadikgadi Pans (try Ma-ghadi-ghadi as the pronunciation). There are two salt pans, and they are surrounded by classic Kalahari savannah: an open, grassy landscape richly populated with wildlife. There are several safari lodges in the area and all offer a good range of activities – from game drives and walks to meerkat encounters, horse-back safaris and quad-bike adventures.
But travel to Botswana next year between 15th July and 31st October (the dry season) and one of them – Leroo La Tau – offers a complimentary sleep-out on a three-night stay. You’ll be driven – or you can travel by helicopter – deep onto the salt pan to your camp, a simple but comfortable one consisting of a luxury bedroll, a pair of washbasins and a toilet. Don’t worry, your guide is discretely on hand and you’ll enjoy a gourmet dinner but the real reason you are here becomes clear after the sun has set and stars start to fill the sky.
Because the Makgadikgadi Pans are so vast and flat, the sky reaches right down to the ground and your view of the cosmos is unimpeded. You can laugh at the idea of light pollution from nearby urban areas (there aren’t any) and so your view is also crystal-clear. Simply sit back and watch as the Milky Way and great constellations slowly march across the heavens, guided by the unwavering hand of the Southern Cross and crossed every now and then by the flash of a shooting star.
Sleep may or may not come easy; there’s no need to worry about wild animals – none come this deep onto the pans and your guide is on watch – but the stars are captivating and the silence almost unnerving – where is the rest of the world? But sunrise will wake you, a soft lightening of the sky and then a crack of light, spilling onto the pans and turning them golden as day returns.
Judging by recent guest feedback (“Best experience in my life”; “Absolutely unbelievable”; “The most amazing thing we’ve ever done”) it’s an experience to rival the ocean of stars at the Makgadikgadi’s famous Kubu Island, and the sleep-out combines well with your other activities at Leroo La Tau.
And it’s not the only Kalahari lodge around; here are our other favourite Accommodations for the Makgadikgadi experience:
Jack’s Camp – the original Kalahari camp and still massively popular; it sits near the salt pans and you’ll explore by 4X4, horse-back, quad-bike or on foot – however you like. Jack’s Camp is good for families with children and its meerkat walks are always a big hit with youngsters.
San Camp – only open during the dry season, this is an elegantly designed camp with a great location on the edge of the salt pan. The emphasis is on a desert experience – walking with Bushman guides, meerkat interaction, game drives and quad-biking on the pan – and the romantic ambience will appeal to couples although the camp is happy to take children of all ages.
Camp Kalahari – a simpler camp that is easier on the budget but without sacrificing comfort, this lodge offers the full range of Kalahari safari activities and welcomes families with children of all ages.