In Botswana, I take a long straight tar road eastward that brings me after a four-hour drive under a blistering sun to the Makgadikgadi Pans.
This is the name for a set of salt flats, the evaporated bed of a massive lake that still holds water during heavy rains. Makgadikgadi Lake was filled by the waters of the Okavango River, until tectonic shifts dammed it into the present Delta, and the dry, flat pans, glaring bright white in the sun, are a vision of what might be if it diverts again. The thick sands of Botswana hide that it lies at the extreme south of the Great Rift Valley and averages an earthquake a day.
Where the road ends, we set up camp near where a lone thorn tree stands on a small island of patchy salt grass, its silhouette an iconic image of Africa. I walk over towards it. Tire tracks crack the white crust, leaving obscenely unnatural marks in the pristine surface. They disappear into a hole where the driver and passengers have obviously struggled mightily to free the vehicle from the sticky mud that lurks under the dry crust.
Rain here falls rarely, when vast flocks of flamingo suddenly appear to briefly enjoy the spectacle. Today, the only signs of life I can see are a dust devil spiraling in the distance and the worn tracks of the many animals who walk endlessly in search of sparse grazing.
“The beauty of the pan is precisely its emptiness,” says Harari. “The sunsets are incredible and at night the absolute silence combined with the endless stars is a surreal experience. It really makes you feel like the world is a big place and the universe even bigger. It is somewhere that can make you reassess yourself. It is haunting and otherworldly.”
I watch the sun sinking with the suddenness that marks the end of the African day. One final burst of red and orange and it is gone. The moon is a sliver in the fast-growing darkness as the sun is chased away under the horizon and the stars wink on in bursts of light. These constellations of the southern sky are less familiar to me than those of home and I look for the Southern Star to orient myself. I recognize Orion and Leo but the Milky Way eventually dazzles everything else into submission.
Lying back on the ground, I gaze at the stars until I feel the earth spinning away beneath me.
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