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Venturesome Overland

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“Kubu” is the Tswana word for hippopotamus, which speaks to the ancient history of Botswana’s salt pans as a huge inland sea. If you squint a little bit, you can just make them out, wallowing in the long-departed shallows, grunting and blowing exasperated bubbles. The fossilized droppings of pre-historic sea birds stain the big grey boulders that litter the island.


Today, of course, the hippos are only imaginary, and the island, situated in nearly the very center of the Makgadikgadi Pans, is surrounded by infinite horizons of salt and mud flats. In contrast with Kukonje Island, Kubu hosts a developed campground, and you can find a handful of nearby lodges within 30 kilometers of the island on the edges of Nwetwe Pan. Camping is $6 per person per night for Botswana residents, and $15 for international visitors.


The Kubu Island Campsites are administered by the Gaing O community trust, and each well-spaced site is situated under a spreading baobab tree, the signature flora of the island. You’re not the first to lay your head here, however, and you won’t be the last. People have been traveling to and living on Kubu for thousands of years, stretching back to the Stone Age. Some archaeological evidence suggests that even our pre-Homo Sapiens ancestors visited the island.


The island is criss-crossed with meter-high stone walls, built during the historical period known as Great Zimbabwe from the 1400s to the 1600s. It continues to be a locus of cultural practice and spirituality for residents of the local villages, especially rites of passage for young men. Rambling over Kubu (you’re free to walk where you want, just try not to disturb stone structures and never remove any artifacts), you can understand why people are drawn here.


No discussion of Kubu Island is complete without mention of its otherworldly sunrises and sunsets. It’s well worth breaking camp before dawn and taking your tea on the edge of the pan as the sun rolls swiftly into view across the salt flats.


The island is impossible to access during the high water season, and even in May, we had to negotiate some soft and muddy tracks as we sped south to Gaborone across Nwetwe Pan. The folks at the Gaing O Trust are very responsive to email, so check with them to see that the roads are open, and you can book your campsite via their online form.


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