Saturday, April 11, 2015

Almost off the map in Botswana

We got really lucky a few weekends ago.

Friends of ours recently started work at a four star game lodge on the banks of the Limpopo on the Botswana side, and invited us to come and visit, for free. We didn't need much persuasion even though we weren't planning to go anywhere before setting off for Spain to walk the Camino, but hey, who can refuse a luxury long weekend in the bush, and mahala too?

I've never been to this corner of Botswana. And I mean that quite literally, referring to the notch where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet, known commonly as the Tuli Block. It certainly hasn't been on my travel radar. I doubt whether anyone else but a handful of super-rich hunters and wild-life lovers show up here, and then I doubt  even more whether the rich and famous venture out further than their game drive vehicles will take them.

We crossed into Botswana at the tiny Zanzibar border post, and ten minutes later we were all oohs and ahs about the lodge, which was all bespoke fittings and bush-veld chic. We relished every comfy moment in the massive bedroom with a five star view over the river and the outdoor shower that doubles as a bird watching spot, but having driven all this way we also wanted to explore the area. So after a good night's sleep we set off Saturday morning early on a 200km circular drive to explore the area. (Foreigners go on safari; South Africans take a drive).

The map we used as a guide promised several 'historical sites' and other attractions but there was no actual signage anywhere along the road pointing to them. 'Culture' here seems to be limited to the size of a warthog's teeth and a visitor's ability to tell the difference between a kudu and a waterbuck (all of which we spotted along the way). Which is a shame for a natural history junkie like me.

The dirt road we were on heading east became narrower and rougher as we continued until I was thankful that we were in the Landy and not our friend's hatchback. The landscape gradually changed from low, rocky hills to a broad river valley. Looking for clues of what lay ahead, Google maps showed that we would soon reach a bridge over the Matloutse river.

Well, to be fair, it showed we'd be crossing the Matloutse river, not how we'd be doing the crossing.

We round a sharp, forested bend in the road which then abruptly ended on a sandy bank of the Matloutse's dry riverbed that stretched out ahead of us for about 70 metres or so. On the opposite bank we could see a steep incline where the road - now little more than a washed-out track - continued. The river was a narrow, shallow stream that lazily snaked its way along the wide stretch of sand. A tall, imposing rock wall flanked the river on both edges, creating the impression that the river had at some point thousands of years ago broken through this natural barrier.

There was a strong, almost supernatural ambience here, almost like something from a Lara Croft movie, or a scene from one of those dinosaur hunting movies set in a steamy jungle. It felt like time immemorial has seen natural wonders wax and wane here, until, right now, it was a peaceful scene waiting to be discovered.

What was this incredibly beautiful, unmarked place, about?

It was only later, with the help of Wikipedia that we realised that we'd stumbled upon Solomon's Wall. The huge rock-faces with their ancient vines and the white roots (were these Namaqua fig trees?) spidering on it is called Solomon's Wall, and it once formed a dam behind which was a huge pre-historic lake. As we sauntered around the deep sand in the riverbed we each collected a handful of pretty, brightly coloured pebbles that are an alluvial leftover of the time the area was covered by the lake. There must've been a breathtakingly beautiful waterfall thundering over the wall before time, countless floods and the workings of nature eroded it, leaving the river to flow freely again.

And yet, no signage, no picnic spot, no explanatory notice board, nothing that says anything about what we saw. If not for the details preserved in Wikipedia we may as well be the first explorers to set foot here.

Well, almost. A trickle of 4x4 vehicles and intrepid mountain bikers showed up shortly before we left, just to prove that humanity has indeed reached into all hidden corners of the planet. But still, Solomon's Wall has the ambience of an ancient place where, given time to explore, one can probably dig up up a treasure trove of local legends and myths.

We had to make our way back to the lodge long before I was able to look around and take enough photos to satisfy my curiosity. So I plan to return as some point in the future, perhaps with one of my geologist friends to help lay out the rock history here.

Thinking about Solomon's Wall on the eight-hour journey back to Johannesburg reminded me of Mapungubwe, the site of an ancient civilisation that lay just across the Limpopo river in South Africa. Perhaps for them the lake was where giants and mythological beasts from that long gone era bathed before they were destroyed by a natural catastrophe, only living on in misty legends and fantastical fables.

The scientist in me laughs at that notion. But that's the magic of Africa - the stories it evokes through its amazingly beautiful natural history.

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