Makgadikgadi Pans

Kubu Island, Botswana

Somewhere in the enormous expanse of Makgadikgadi Pans in central Botswana there is a sickle-shaped island of pale rocks piling up like waves on its raised beaches formed by an ancient lake. It is called Kubu Island, and since in Setswana kubu means a hippopotamus, perhaps this old lake used to be kind to the biggest of all aquatic African mammals, who need water to protect their poorly pigmented skin from the burning sun. The salt pans form the driest and the most desolate part of the Kalahari Basin but after much rain they can turn into a milky blue lake of still water and reflect billowing sails of passing clouds.
But this is a dry season, and the pans are bone-white with salt and very dusty. We arrive late, welcomed by a whole family of big-bellied baobabs growing on the rocky ridge and resembling hugely oversized potatoes crowned with a bundle of roots. Some of them may be several thousand years old but, since they do not develop typical sequences of growth rings, no one knows how old they really are. You can carbon date then all you want, and still come up empty. 
But their actual age is not everything: it is the importance of a baobab that matters. If I were a Bushwoman, I would know that this tree had once offended God who, seething with anger, grabbed it by the top and planted it upside down, so its convoluted roots became the sky-scratching branches. And that if I ever picked its flower after it blossomed during a warm spring night, I would soon be torn up by lions. Yet there is also a faint hope of salvation: if I soak the tree’s seeds and drink the infusion, all crocs will avoid me forever.
No water anywhere, and no crocs tonight. The evening sky flares up orange, and then deepens into a pewter soup with shimmering lights of the Milky Way. The air cools. We find a baobab which hugs the most stars and settle for the night. John disappears among the rocks to ponder the sky and tree spectacle, and I play a luxurious animal and savor the cold, some red wine, and the desert breeze.
Next morning we wake up well before dawn but the baobab which embraced the night sky is already glowing ruby red. It is an old tree, its trunk scarred by the sand blowing from the winter-dry salt pan we slept on, and by the mind blowing length of time it took to raise it from the seed against all waterless odds. And some of its broken branches, heavy enough to flatten any living thing passing under their falling weight, litter the ground below: a battlefield of growth and gravity.
I see — with the sun still under the flat horizon — that I am shadowless, with only my feet touching the ridge. This is a magical time, with the colors saturated and strong, and I want it to last forever, even if I must donate the rest of my life’s daylight hours to anyone who wants it. Here, in the blinding light and deep shadows of Africa, such moments are rare.
I walk up and touch the tree. The baobab is smooth and dense and cold, like a column of steel, and as I rest my back against it I feel the night’s coolness radiating from the core of the trunk. I look across the miles of the white salt pan toward a huge expanse of Chobe National Park with its many animals and the people who come to see them. But here, in the raw center of the country, all is quiet, remote and self-contained. And when the sun emerges, faster in the tropics than anywhere else, all the birds — did I mention the birds?–go silent, too. 
©Yva Momatiuk