Story by Nathan Hindman
Photos by Tyler Wirken
As the early morning sun rose above the treetops, the temperature began to rise. Then, one by one the animals began to disappear into the thicket, seeking some form of shade from the pounding African sun. So on we traveled. Our next destination was the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. This area was once home to the largest inland sea in Africa, but less than a thousand years ago it dried up completely. Now all that is left is vast salt flat (think Bonneville salt flats in Utah) the size of Switzerland. The density of the salt in the soil makes it a very inhospitable area, and vegetation is sparse at best. Located in heart of this Salt Pan is Kubu Island. Kubu, once an island in the middle of a large sea, now juts up as a large distinct mound in the middle of this barren pan.
Besides the spectacular sunset you are almost assured of seeing, Kubu is renowned for its Baobab trees. These famous “upside down” trees of southern Africa are true giants with girths sometimes exceeding 50 feet. Pictures of the enormous trees simply don’t do them justice, as their surreal appearance is accentuated by the fact that their bark feels as if it has been carved out of stone– perhaps this is because the lifespan of these trees is frequently measured in the thousands of years.
The lack of vegetation out on the Salt Pans also means that there is almost a complete lack insect life as well. The result of this is that there is no “white noise” around Kubu. As I sat there, on the edge of the island completely silent, I gradually became aware of a dull roaring noise in my ears— the sound of the blood rushing through my ears, a sound normally obscured by everyday noise suddenly became like a freight train in my head.
After a night at Kubu Island, we headed up further north towards Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Along the way we passed through a variety of landscapes ranging from an area near the northern edge of the salt pan that looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland complete with sun bleached dead trees and a grey sandy earth, to seemingly endless expanses of tall blonde grass.
The following day we crossed the border from Botswana to Zambia. Defining the border between the two countries is the mighty Zambezi River, home to Victoria Falls. Instead of building a bridge across the river, someone, years ago decided it would be easier to run a ferryboat back and forth across the river. This may have been a good idea when it was first proposed decades ago, however it appears as though the original ferry boat commissioned for the job was the one still in daily use. Now, after years of constant use and abuse, calling this boat decrepit would be an insult to decrepit boats across the world— this boat was downright scary. But unfortunately, it is the only bordercrossing between Botswana and Zambia for hundreds of miles.
Evidently, when the boat breaks down, which I would imagine is often, the boat simply drifts downstream until the mechanic on board can get the engine running. Surely this is a stressful task for the mechanic, considering Victoria Falls is a mere 30 miles downstream of the crossing.
Today however, the mechanical gods appeared to be smiling upon us as the ferry operated without incident. The gods of timeliness however appeared to be in a much less jovial mood. While waiting for our turn to board the ferry, a lorry, which was trying to board, got stuck going down the embankment. The ensuing chaos came in the form of the locals spending almost an hour using various unsuccessful methods to extract the truck. The methods ranged from just plain ludicrous– 5 people trying to push a 9,000 lb truck free, to extremely dangerous– put a rotten log between the lorry and a large 18-wheeler and push the lorry free with the 18-wheeler. After an hour and a half of laboring the lorry was freed, the ferry resumed its duties and we were on our way to Victoria Falls.
Victoria Falls is one of those rare places that exceeds all expectations, and must be experienced to be believed. As we drove towards the falls, the massive plume of mist could be seen rising up above the horizon miles before we arrived. As luck would have it, water level was at a 35 year high, due to a heavy wet season in Angola upstream. This meant that rafting operations were shut down, but made the falls all the more impressive in appearance. Due to the large amount of mist thrown up into the air from the falls, the area surrounding the falls is a micro-climate of lush jungle while outside of the mists reach, barren scrub and desert rule.
After an impressive trip to Victoria Falls, it was time to fill up the 110s with diesel. So we went back to town only to discover that the first gas station was out of diesel, followed by the next station, followed by a third. Asking around, we discovered that not only were those stations out of diesel, not only was the city out of diesel, but the entire country of Zambia had run out of diesel fuel. Upon inquiry at the local Land Rover dealership, they said that the government had just decided to not buy any fuel, and let the country run out…only in Africa. However, luck it seems was on our side– while crossing the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, one of the trucks had begun to have electrical faults. A quick call on our satellite phone to the rental agency in Jo’burg and they had sent a driver up to Vic Falls to swap out the 110 for a… gasp… Toyota Land Cruiser. The luck came in the fact that the driver had filled up the Land Cruiser with diesel just before leaving Botswana, meaning it had nearly a full tank of gas. So after dinner, the evening was spent siphoning fuel out of the Cruiser, one gallon at a time, and adding it to the six other Land Rovers. Huge thanks go out to Dave Wirken, who volunteered for siphoning duty- Dave, you suck!
The next morning some in the group decided to take a helicopter ride over the falls. Although most didn’t go, thanks to the wonders of digital media, we were instantly able to see the awe inspiring views of the falls that you can only get from above. Because the river was running so heavy, the view from the sky was the only way to get a true sense of just how massive these falls are. What we could see from below the previous day was only a small fraction of the falls.