Start trail, Kubu Island Botswana

Footsteps in the dark – A night on the salt pans

In last weeks blog ‘Lunar Eclipse over Kruger’, I promised to share another story with you. About how Steven and I took some pictures of the stars at the salt pans during a trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe. This was during an amazing camping trip with Steven’s brother and sister and law.


Milky Way at our camp at Kubu Island
Our campsite and the Milky Way.

One of the places we camped was at Kubu Island in the Makgadigadi pans. What a special place. I have never seen anything like it! The Makgadigadi pans are flat, dry as a bone and reach as far as the eye can see. You can actually see the curve of the earth on the horizon. The soil is cracked and white, the sky the bluest of blue; A beautiful contrast.


In the middle of these deserted saltpans, is this beautiful island built up of rocks, tall and majestic baobab trees mixed with star chestnuts. It is too stunning for words. On a moonless night during our few days there, I wanted to take pictures of the Milky Way with the baobabs in the foreground.


We had scouted a perfect location to take my pictures during the day. And when the last light of the setting sun had disappeared from the horizon, Steven’s sister in law took us to the edge of the pan. She spent a half an hour with us and then had to go back to camp. We were leaving for Maun the next day and she wanted to help Steven’s brother break camp in preparation for our departure. We watched her red taillights get smaller and smaller as she drove off. The sound of the engine ebbing away until there was nothing but darkness and silence.


There we were, Steven and I. All alone on two little camping chairs with our backs towards the enormous saltpans, my camera pointing at the Milky Way. I looked at Steven. In the starlight I could only just make out his silhouette. The enormous pans stretching out behind us, and the stars way up high in the sky made me feel incredibly small. And a little paranoid too. What if something crept up on us from behind under the cover of darkness…?


Star Chestnusts Kubu Island and Milky Way night photography
Kubu Island and the Milky Way

I shook my head and put that image out of my mind. I had not seen a single animal the whole time we were at the pans. What on earth could possibly live in this harsh environment? In stead I focussed on the stars. I have never seen so many in my life. With no moon and no light pollution, we could see stars all the way from the horizon behind us to where the Milky Way met the row of trees on the island in front of us. It was too beautiful for words.


I wanted to take a picture of a star trail. So I opened the shutter to capture the movement of the earth that creates those typical circular lines. This would take the better part of an hour, so Steven and I killed the time by chatting about the next part of our trip, the Okavango Delta.


All of a sudden, I heard movement behind us. Ssssssshhhhht! I whispered to Steve. It sounded like footsteps. He had heard it too. Steven got up and switched on his torch. It needed new batteries and only cast a very faint beam of light in the direction of the sound. I stood behind Steven, peering over his shoulder. Steven switched off the torch again and in those few moments it took for my eyes to adjust to the dark again, I clearly heard an animal trotting towards us. “It sounds like a jackal”, Steven said. “What if it is a leopard?” I whispered in Stevens ear. Now sticking even closer behind him. “Maybe it is a dog with rabies…” he joked.


Well it was no joke to me! A scene from one of my favourite Wilbur Smith books came to mind. In that book, a rabid dog attacks Sean Courtney’s friend. Rabies made him go completely crazy and he eventually dies… Well, this mental image made me freak out a little… I am sure that if you ask Steven about that night he will tell you that I freaked out a lot! By the way, this was long before a rabid dog attacked Steven. (You can read about what happened that time here.)


After a somewhat futile attempt to calm me down and with me clinging to Steven for dear life, he managed to ID the animal as a jackal. He saw it in the faint light of his torch through his binoculars. Eventually the jackal disappeared between the rocks and beyond the reach of our light, so we returned to our chairs and my camera. After that, It took me a few minutes to relax. I am not normally nervous around animals on foot, but the darkness makes being out there without the safety of a vehicle a completely different experience. And I have to admit I was quite relieved to hear the sound of the engine and later see the cars headlights when our sister in law came back to fetch us!!




8 thoughts on “Footsteps in the dark – A night on the salt pans

  1. Your story had me on the edge. Gustav always tells me that if I can hear it, I don’t need to be scared, it is probably a stupid herbivore that makes the noise. Haha, don’t know it that helps. Friends of ours got married on Kubu island, it was magical!!

  2. Hahahaha! Scary at night when you cannot see what is coming… Thanks again for your wonderful blog. Enjoy every word.

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