Mapping the Makgadikgadi motherland: a quad bike cruise to Kubu Island

People tend to call these bright white salt-scapes otherworldly, martian or moon-like but there is nowhere more African than the Makgadikgadi.
Written by Melanie van Zyl
13 January 2022

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Scattered with artefacts and fossils, Botswana’s sprawling salt pans are the modern bed of an ancient super-lake that existed thousands of years ago. Attracted by the bounty of water, humans settled at its edges throughout history. Evidence of iron age settlements, stone age tools, pottery shards, plus various stone walls and cairns in places like Kubu Island strikingly similar to Great Zimbabwe Ruins all weave a story of stunning civilisation. A study of mitochondrial DNA further states that the mother of all modern humans originated in northern Botswana 200,000 years ago. This is where the first people of Africa walked and the Makgadikgadi is one captivating motherland. Quad biking only exposes the rawness of this extra, terrestrial turf.

Kubu Island Map

I have butterflies before we set off. An unquashable exhilaration. I had visited Kubu Island before, but in a comfy 4WD vehicle from the south, a well-trodden track that leads into the Makgadikgadi from Botswana’s diamond-mining town of Lethlakane. This would be my fourth visit but on a far more unorthodox ride.

Also read: What’s so special about Baines’ Baobabs anyway?

Those butterflies turn to bees as we stand beside Jack’s Camp. A 400-kilometre journey to Kubu Island lay ahead. I nearly choke when our guide first shares this figure. Surely not. In just two nights? The unshakable buzz only settles when Super Sande wraps the cream kikoi around my head in a rite of salt-pan passage that is tender and surprisingly calming.

Kubu Quad Biking Jacks Camp
Veteran guide Super Sande wraps this iconic headgear around your head before firing up the quad bike engine. The kikoi is an ode to Jack Bousfield, namesake of the Jack’s Camp, crocodile-hunter, adventure pioneer and fixated on the wonders of the Makgadikgadi. It’s said that he eschewed Western clothes in favour of a Swahili kikoi and slept under the stars most nights | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Super was 17 years old, when he met Jack Bousfield, who started Jack’s Camp in the Makagdikgadi back in 1962. An avid storyteller and devoted to the diversity of Botswana, he is our expert navigator through one of the most intriguing places on earth. He has wound his way through this remote realm hundreds of times.

With the cloth wrapped tightly over my hair, loose tendrils tucked into place, and sunglasses slotted over my eyes along with my leopard print cloth face mask – for dust rather than Covid-19 – there is just one final touch to complete the quad biking kit-up. Socks.

socks for quad biking
Yes, socks. A fashionable way to meet the sun, sand and salt. In this scorched landscape the size of Switzerland, your body bears the brunt when riding the plains on an open quad bike. It’s best to be prepared! | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

It’s dusty and crusty, trust me

Departing Jack’s Camp, we set off across Ntwetwe Pan. This ancient lakebed forms the western slice of the Makgadikgadi Pans. No one is wearing a watch and we follow Super blindly out into the bright white. Having been to Kubu Island before, I try to orientate myself at first and make sense of the directions, but I fast lose any reference to direction and time. We leave the golden grasslands behind and the space becomes all-consuming. It is a freedom.

Natural Selection Quad Bike
The bikes are easy to drive, with a simple gear level at the left foot and a thumb press accelerator. After getting into the groove, we pause for a picnic lunch | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Lunch Ntwetwe Pan
Sundrenched salad, fresh as can be, and homemade bread in the middle of nowhere washed down with Botswana’s light St Louis beer | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Quad bike Makgadikgadi
After the short break, we hop back on. Some of the bikes can take two. I share the ride with fellow photographer Teagan Cunniffe | Source: Melanie van Zyl
wet salt pans Botswana
These mudslides remind us about the watery history of the Makgadikgadi. What looks dry and caked with a crunchy surface often belies sodden slippery saline soil below. These are footprints. A steady grip that took a sideways slip. | Source: Melanie van Zyl
mud ntwetwe pan
Getting through the sludge requires momentum. Accelerator on, grins a-go and mud spits up onto everything. Best you aren’t precious about your shoes! | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Sleeping below a spread of stars

Leaving the hoi polloi (like I had once done) to camp at Kubu Island itself, we arrive instead at a sumptuous fly camp set up on the enchanting Lost Island of the Baobabs. Part of the Uncharted Africa concession, it is ours and ours alone.

Every comfort is catered for and we dock our bikes for high tea on a spread of kilims, cushions and bolsters dealt below the boughs of baobab trees. First, I wash my hands in warm water poured from copper jugs and smear the dust from where they had collected in the corners of my reddening eyes.

This journey is not for the faint of heart, but boy, there are rewards for the intrepid.

Island of Lost Baobabs
After four hours of biking through grassland, mud and crunching across salt flats we arrive. Dumela! Welcome to the Island of Lost Baobabs | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Quad Bike Baobabs
We arrive just in time for sunset. Jack Bousfield started using this island in 1978. Super tells us how you can still see where he stashed and buried his barrels of fuel. Jack was one of the first mobile safari license holders. He undertook extended safaris that would’ve taken 30 days to complete at times. “People back then had time”, Super says | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Baobabs Jacks Cam
The rich textiles and lavish interiors iconic of the 1940s-styled Jack’s Camp follows us all the way across the salt pans| Source: Melanie van Zyl
Tea Lost Baobabs
Seriously civilised. Jam scones, cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and homemade lemonade further remind us that this is still a Jack’s Camp experience | Source: Melanie van Zyl
baobabs makgadikgadi
Baobabs seem to thrive in clusters out here. These semi-succulent trees are able to withstand harsh desert conditions and can live thousands of years | Source: Melanie van Zyl
trunk baobab island
Everything is cooked over the fire, with an old steel trunk acting as an oven. This is how mobile camping has operated for decades | Source: Melanie van Zyl
We soon make our way to the fire to wash the dust down with gin and tonics. On day one we drove roughly 100km | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Stars and Baobabs
Being this far from camp makes for sensational stargazing | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Sleeping Under Stars
Tents are set up, but the biggest joy of this trip is being able to sleep out in the open. Botswana is one place where I could watch diamonds glinting in the sky above and know they were lying far below the bedroll too | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Sunrise Makadigkadi
Behind me, you can see why it’s called the Island of Lost Baobabs | Source: Teagan Cunniffe for Natural Selection
Makgadikgadi sleep out
On the other side of our mattresses, the sky is painted a candy-floss pink and the smell of a fire and promise of coffee means it’s time to pull on the salt-spattered shoes and greet the day. It’s going to be a good one | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

The baobab embrace of Kubu Island

The Ntwetwe Pan is prone to seasonal flooding and this epic trek is only possible during the dry winter months, once the lake-like pools from the summer rain disappear into the soil again. The word ‘Makgadikgadi’ is said to originate from the Setswana word go kgala, which means ‘to dry up’.

After a night tucked into cosy bedrolls, an adventure beckoned. It was time to make our way to Kubu Island.

camping kubu island
After breakfast with baobabs and a coffee at the fire, it’s time to suit up again for the quad bikes | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Kubu Island Quad Bike Adventure
On our second day out on the salt pans, I start to appreciate the diversity of the terrain. A landscape described as ‘nothingness’. The dark mud, the ivory dust, the gravel plains, the delicate algae bubbles and salt-tolerant grass | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Elephant Ntwetwe Pan
Elephant tracks. Each step sits deep into the spongy ground. You can imagine the steady squelch required to lift it out each time. Bull elephants will roam enormous distances to find water and follow ancient migration routes to ripe feeding grounds. This is evidence of one such journey | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Empty Makgadikgadi
When the diesel engines are switched off, there is no sound. No birdsong. No animal calls. Often no wind rushing past your turban. The only noise is that within your mind. Super often encouraged us to embrace the space. To notice the silence. To walk away from each other and soak it up | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Coffee Makgadikgadi
On return to the convoy, coffee is waiting. Our first break of the day. Our goal is to find Kubu Island in time for lunch | Source: Melanie van Zyl
quad biking Botswana
But, first biscuits | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Crusty on the outside, sloppy on the inside. Our quad bikes churn up a batter of water and dust, sending mud flicks all around the vehicle. It’s like driving through a flock of wet butterfly kisses | Source: Melanie van Zyl
There’s no choice but to ride it out! | Source: Melanie van Zyl
water ntwetwe pan
After over an hour of riding, we struck water. Shimmering and surreal, this was no mirage. It had been a wet year and these lingering pools so far south were unexpected. Super’s knowledge of the landscape meant we could easily detour, but it would take a little longer to get to Kubu Island | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Finally. Land ho! | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Kubu Island
Kubu Island is an appropriate name for the mounds of rock that look like the ashy-coloured water-wallowing humps of hippo rising from the flat surroundings | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Explore Kubu Island
Following lunch, Super leads us on a walk across the island, which is still sacred to many locals and a highly respected area of Southern Africa. The entire perimeter of the island measures roughly three kilometres | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Super Sande
We cling like antelope to the shade on a scorching day. Super tells us how baobabs work as nature’s fridge. “They are always cool to the touch”. He also likens them to hippos, saying that the trees also produce their own oils for the sun | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Pottery Kubu Island
Our entire party is spattered with mud, which makes me smile. It’s proof that we have endured a journey. “People thought they were on the edge of the world out here”, Super shares. “It’s a very very spiritual place and many come here. The old trees of Kubu Island have witnessed several traditional initiations. There is a stone wall on one end of the oblong island. Every rock there represents an individual who graduated.” Other objects found here, such as ostrich eggshell, beads and pottery shards, date back to AD 1200 | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Kubu Island
Look closely at some of the seemingly whitewashed rocks. Experts say this is actually fossilized guano from waterbirds that once perched, just like us, along the edge of the Great Makgadigadi Lake| Source: Melanie van Zyl
Kubu Island Botswana
With the sun swimming across the sky, it’s time to say goodbye to Kubu Island. As we scream across the salt pans, it’s eerie to think how humanity’s earliest footsteps could have walked here, across this untamed expanse | Source: Melanie van Zyl
quad bike dust
Dusky light and fine dust prove an unforgiving combination on the drive home. Thanks to all that water, we cling to the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans, using village roads to shortcut the way to the Island of Lost Baobabs. It’s hard to follow the other vehicles through the winding detour tracks but we push on to get back to the fly camp before dark | Source: Teagan Cunniffe
desert quad bike
Let it be known. This is a fucking cool way to zip through the desert. Cracked knuckles and dry fingers might grip the handlebars. You may spit out dust through tight, sun-baked lips and squint into the sun, but you also feel like a total badass of the Botswana badlands. Thank god those bikes can only pump out 70km/h maximum | Source: Melanie van Zyl
Island of Lost Baobabs
It’s been one helluva ride, but we return to this romantic scene. The boughs of the baobab dropping in an embracing welcome home | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

How to visit the Island of Lost Baobabs and Kubu Island

You can sandwich in a trip to these incredible treedoms when staying at either the refreshed Jack’s Camp or the more minimal San Camp with Natural Selection and is typically a five-night expedition. You’ll spend your first two nights in camp to see what the Kalahari Desert conjures up on game drives, night drives and walks with the San.

Jacks Camp
The main area at Jack’s Camp | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Then, it’s time to hop aboard your quad bike and barrel across the white earth of the Makgadikgadi Pans.

Weather, luck and the lay of the land all play a role in the adventure too. Experienced hands, like our Super Sande, will sensitively guide you through the network of bogs, water pans and grasslands of Ntwetwe Pan between 1 June to 30 September each year (subject to rainfall).

A generous per cent of Natural Selection’s gross turnover goes to conservation and community projects.

You can also pair this adventure with horse rides and a visit to more baobabs at Nxai Pan National Pan. Get in touch with our expert term to curate an unbeatable Kalahari journey. 

 

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