“Walk out farther,” says Super, my safari guide, throwing his arm in the air like he’s casting a fishing rod. “Then close your eyes and listen to the sound.”
I walk out a few more feet onto the bone-dry salt pan until I’m far enough that I can only hear the crunch of my footprints. I close my eyes and wait for the sound that comes: a pure and deafening silence. It brings an overwhelming sense of calm eclipsed by a wave of anxiety at the sudden reminder that I’m standing in the middle of a plain, where wild animals are free to roam.
This is Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans, a stretch of arid earth in the northeastern part of the country that was once a lake that ran 98 feet deep. The lake dried up thousands of years ago, leaving behind a flat plain of parched, cracked land, which in its entirety is the size of Switzerland. “It would have been the largest landlocked lake in Africa — three times the size of Lake Victoria,” Super says, as he settles into the canvas director’s chair that he’s positioned on the pan.
Along with the canvas chairs, he’s assembled a table with drinks and snacks and lit a camp fire. He rolls a map onto the dry earth. “Water came from the Chobe, Upper Zambezi and Okavango Rivers,” he continues, dragging his finger along the map, circling the land which we are sitting on. Suddenly he stops. He waits. He listens. And he calmly asks us to make our way to the safari vehicle.
A lion’s roar has pierced the silence. The lions aren’t that close, Super assures us. Just close enough for us to be slightly alarmed.
The nearby sound of the lion might come as a surprise to those who have visited the pan before. Yes, the Makgadikgadi is a national park, but up until three years ago, the call of a lion was almost unheard of given that the population was a third of the size it is today. It was only when the the park implemented boreholes — two more were added in 2016 — that brought water to the otherwise thirsty terrain that the animal population spiked.“Three years ago, you would have struggled to see a lion. Since then the animal population has tripled,” Super says.
For the guests staying at Jack’s Camp, a luxury tented camp in the Makgadikgadi, seeing lions is an added bonus. Before expansion of the animal populations, guests at Jack’s Camp didn’t check into the lodge to see hoards of game. They would come to engage in activities that take advantage of the flat terrain (like quad biking and horse riding), to see the earth bloom after the rains, the zebras pound across the plain during the annual migration, and to sleep in one of the deeply romantic bedouin-style tents that come straight out of the pages of an Ernest Hemingway novel.
Many would also come to see the meerkats: squirrel-like creatures that are endemic to certain parts of southern Africa, the Makgadikgadi being one of them. To ensure people have a good chance of seeing these tiny creatures, Jack’s Camp works with nature guides who specialize in meerkats (AKA "the meerkat men"). Guests can spend an entire day (or days) observing meerkats, which look adorable but are actually rather ferocious. For keen safari-goers, the opportunity to have an intimate experience with meerkats is inimitable.
They would also come to see the otherworldly landscape; the endless stretches of cracked earth. They, just like me, would end their day in a canvas director's chair on the pan drinking a gin and tonic while mulling over Super’s map and observing the never-ending pans.
As we clamber into the car and make our way back to camp following the roar of the lions, I am overwhelmed by a visceral feeling. It remains with me long into the night; long after the kerosene lamps have been turned down and the bugs have fluttered away in search of other light. I have no reception on my phone (there’s no Wi-Fi), no Instagram to scroll through or trending SNL clips to redirect my attention. As I listen out into the dead of night, I'm reminded what most people actually come here for: that sound of silence.