A vast salt pan might seem a strange place to find a hippo, but that’s the local name of Botswana’s forgotten Kubu Island. A place that time and the tides and ancient man have left behind, and which whispers its sacred secrets in the winds blowing through the baobab branches.
As we twisted their ‘ears’, our quad bikes grunted and snorted into life like baby hippos. Looking around at my family, their heads swathed in candy-striped kikois, I fancied that each of them was embarking on a different adventure: my son a special-forces operative, deep behind enemy lines; my daughter an indomitable explorer; and my partner a doctor with medicine for an ‘English patient’.
The reality of quad biking Botswana was far more surreal than any fantasy. As we followed our guide in single file, our chunky steeds spinning their knobbly tyres, I glanced over my shoulder and saw our luxury Botswana safari lodge retreating behind us.
Two minutes later, I looked again, and the tents were hidden from view – just the tops of the palm trees showed where we’d come from. Perhaps this was due to the curvature of the Earth that we’d been told we could perceive out on the pans; perhaps it was a trick of the light reflecting from the glittering white salt.
Our guide was careful to choose a route that minimised our impact on the surface of the pans, and we soon got the hang of riding in his tracks. We had around 100km to travel to our destination: Kubu Island, a granite relic of a time aeons ago when much of modern-day Botswana was covered by an immense lake.
In every direction, the level, almost featureless expanse of the Makgadikgadi Pans stretched to the horizon. It was hard to comprehend the courage (or foolhardiness) of early explorers like Livingstone who crossed these vast expanses of well, nothing really, without maps. Even though our guide had spent many years in this area, I was reassured to see that he carried a GPS.
We saw Kubu Island long before we reached it, standing proud of the surrounding terrain. As we drew closer, it looked to have been created from a jumble of giant boulders and gnarly, bulbous baobab trees, as if a giant hand had grown tired of its own clumsiness and abandoned the project.
The only straight lines we could see were the angles of the tents that would be our homes for the next two nights. As the sole signs of human habitation in this otherwise empty vista, they might as well have been a space station.
Speaking of space, I exulted in being so far from the rest of humanity, and having almost endless scope for my daydreams to take flight. As the last quad bike engine was cut, a huge silence descended on us, and at first, we spoke almost in whispers, as though scared to break it.
The sun was sliding rapidly down the sky, throwing all manner of outlandish silhouettes across the pans. The first stars blinked out of the velvet night, to be followed by thousands upon thousands. The campfire flame danced in the breeze and I wondered how many of our ancestors had overnighted here, crouched over coals.
As I drifted off after dinner, lying on a comfortable bedroll beneath the African night sky, I looked up and distinguished a single mobile point of light: a satellite that was quite possibly the next closest manmade object.
Exploring Kubu Island the next day was the best history, geology and art lesson my kids had ever had, as it encompassed both the beaches of wave-smoothed pebbles and the mysterious stone cairns, carefully constructed long ago. I placed my hand on a sun-warmed dry-stone wall and felt a connection that spanned millennia.
My kids marvelled at rocks splashed with the guano of waterbirds that had flown away thousands of years ago, and the stone arrowheads that littered the ground. It was not hard to see why Kubu Island would be such a sacred site to the local San. Our guide explained that it may well have been used as a site for graduation or circumcision ceremonies. Certainly, we all felt that we wouldn’t leave this place unchanged.
Eating lunch with our backs against the smooth bark of a baobab, we listened as our guide told us the story of one of the largest of them all: Chapman’s Baobab, a long-standing landmark on the far side of Ntwetwe Pan. It had shaded Livingstone’s missionary caravan and served as an early postbox.
In January 2016, Chapman’s Baobab had fallen. No one had been there at the time, which raised the classic quandary: did it make a sound? I imagined a rumble of noise rolling across the dry bed of the salt pans – just like the chortling sound of the hippo after which this island had been named.
After a second night under the stars, we revved up our quad bikes to return home to our safari camp, but however warm the welcome, we each knew that we’d leave a piece of ourselves among the stone tools and bare branches of Kubu Island.