PAN WALK 2010

 

Text: Cecilia Wanger
Photo: Mats Ögren Wanger

 

   Every year the Gaborone based Y Care Charitable Trust organises a fund-raising walk in the salt desert of the Makgadikgadi Pans. The three day long walk, which covers up to 50 kilometres per day, is known as a mental as well as physical challenge.
   "There are three stages of the walk," Stellan Bengtsson, coordinator of Y Care explains. "Day one, most walkers talk and laugh. Day two, their bodies start to protest and in the evening people are quiet, asking themselves whether they should proceed or give in. Day three, it is the mind doing the job…"
   For weeks I had been preparing myself by breaking in my new boots. The walk was scheduled to start on a Friday and end on a Sunday. I spent most of the week leading up to the event just wishing it was Monday. The Monday after the walk, that is.
   I had brought my two kids from Sweden, 13-year old Alice and 7 year old August. They could ride on the supporting quad bikes when tired. We were booked to stay at the Makgadikgadi Lodge in Sowa, the perfect stop-over before starting the walk. On the way, the atmosphere in the bus was filled with anticipation. Some had done it before but for most of us, this was new.
   "I am playing a lot of football, so I hope that I will be able to make it," the man sitting next to me on the bus says. He works for the Barclays Bank, one of the corporate sponsors of the Y Care Walks. My son August listens intently when he recognises the word "Football". He had brought his own and looked forward to playing on the biggest soccer field ever - The Pans.
   The next day is the Big Day. I get up very early to enjoy breakfast and the last shower for three days to come. By sunrise, it is time to leave and Stellan Bengtsson is trying to discipline his walkers.
   "These are the Pans rules: they are very sensitive so don't shortcut! Follow the quad bike tracks, even the bends. A footstep out here can last for years. The Pans should make an impact on us, not the other way around!"
   It is a brisk July morning but soon the sun comes and a blissful warmth is spreading. The Makgadikgadi Pans consist of the bottom of an ancient Super Lake, which is why the surface is covered with salt, making life more or less impossible for plants and animals to survive.
   We are about 75 walkers, men and women, mostly Batswana but some foreigners like me. I pace up to Dr Nomsa Mbere, a dentist from Gaborone, to ask how the idea with the walk was born.
   "I used to come here quite often with a friend to camp and ride quad bikes. I got the idea that I could walk instead, but my friends just laughed and said that they were going to pay me if I did it. If so, I would do it for charity," says Nomsa Mbere.
   In 2003 a few of her family members and friends did the first walk, which has grown from strength to strength. Since the first walk, over P2 million has been given to charities. Dr Nomsa Mbere believes that the challenging conditions in the Pans are part of the appeal of the walks.
   "To be on your own, to meet different people who are all in pain makes you go through different stages. You can't hide behind your mask, this experience breaks down inhibitions." she says.
   "Being part of the support team can also be a challenge," Nomsa Mbere points out. "It is all about teamwork. Some complain but they have to understand that it is better to be communal than individualistic if you want to survive out here."
   As I walk, I enjoy the spectacular scenery. It is a moonlike and peaceful landscape, where you can see the horizon meet an endless blue sky. The sunrays colours, the salt of the surface in all the shades of the rainbow and the light changes all through the day. By the end of the afternoon, the sun is basking the landscape in gold. Sunsets in the Pans are a spectacular sight.
   I finally reach the Camp, which has been set up by the support team. To see the tents, smell the cooking and get treated to a glass of wine and a foot bath by the fire feels great. I am very sore but still excited.
   For dinner, the catering company for the walk, Curry Pot, and its chef are serving a hearty home-cooked meal. "I am happy to contribute, since I know how the funding from Y Care reaches out in the villages. This area is where my ancestors come from," says Mpaphi Ricky "Uncle Rich" Tibone, manager of Curry Pot. "I also believe in simple tourism, like camping."
   I skip the social talk by the camp fire and go to bed early, well aware that the next day will be much tougher.
   I am woken up by Stellan Bengtsson's voice chanting in Swedish, "god morgon, god morgon." I search for my head lamp in the complete darkness of my tent, hoping to find my way out to breakfast, which is served under the glittering morning stars. The coffee is needed since the cold is much worse out here in the desert.
   As we set off by sunrise, we are told that we are going to have lunch at Kokonje Island, one of the so-called Islands of the Pans. These are remnants from the days of the Super Lake. The most famous one is Kubu, with the giant Baobab trees. We are promised that we will be able to see it from the spot where our lunch break is.
   My daughter Alice suffers leg cramps and gets a ride back to the camp. August, on the contrary, is full of energy and plays football with Benjamin, whose mother, Ulrika Egner, is one of the founding members of Y Care.
   Some walkers seem to have all the energy, pacing to reach camp as number one in the evening. Others are already suffering, from blisters or sore muscles.
   Sharon "the Physio" is getting busier and busier on Day 2. If worst comes to worst, there are also doctors available on quad bikes who help the Y Care walkers. The Botswana Defence Force is also contributing by guarding the safety of the walkers.
   At lunch, Dr Nomsa Mbere shows us around the Kokonje Island. It is a beautiful and very peaceful place, with a splendid view of Kubu Island. It makes me reflect upon the vulnerability of the Pans. Since they are inhospitable, they have remained relatively undisturbed. But there are modern commercial operations to extract salt and soda ash. There are also plans to divert water from the Nata River for irrigation, which would cause severe damage to the salt pan ecosystem.
   Another threat is tourism using quad bikes and off-road vehicles, which disturb breeding colonies of flamingos. I am glad that Stellan Bengtsson had told us not to walk outside of the path in this pristine environment.
   My thoughts are interrupted by a call. "Look, a Lion foot print!" This is very unusual, since most animals don't go this far out on the Pans. All alert, we scan the bushes for cat-like shapes as we hurriedly head back to the group. August is with me and finds this very, very exciting and a little scary. I am grateful that the Botswana Defence Force is here!
   Later in the afternoon, after walking long hours in the full daylight, the sun is lowering and I start to sense a triumphant feeling - I am about to have completed the second day and I am still fine! Tomorrow is the last day!
   It seems to me that I am sharing this feeling of relief with others. The silence of the afternoons' challenging walk is broken and everyone starts to chat again. I team up with Boitumelo Sekwababe, CEO of Shell Botswana, another company that always sends employees to the Walk.
   "In 2004, I got a call from Nomsa Mbere. She told me about Y Care and I did my first walk in the Tsodilo Hills. I wasn't that active in sports and I was sore and it was painful but I finished it. Then I was hooked!"
   This year (2010) it costs 6 500 Pula per person to do the walk. 2 000 Pula goes to arrangements and 4 500 Pula to the different beneficiaries, that are sponsored by Y Care Charitable Trust.
   One of them is Stepping Stones in Mochudi, a village outside Gaborone. Here, 70 youths between 12 and 18 years take part in after-school activities. The target group are orphans but other vulnerable kids are welcome too.
   "We focus on life skills, counseling and psychological support. With the funding from Y Care Charitable Trust, we are now able to visit the families who take care of the children. It has made a big difference since it is very important to improve the way that they raise these children," says Lisa Jamu from Stepping Stones.
   "Everyone can apply for funding from us, but we do have criteria which has to be fulfilled," explains Stellan Bengtsson, from Y Care." It has to be a functioning organisation, not a start-up project. They need to have a bank account and the purpose should be to help and support children, youth or women. It can also be about vulnerability, art or sports."
   The charity cause is the reason for the sponsoring companies to participate.
   "The Y Care cause is noble. It is a great way to see the country," says Boitumelo Sekwababe of Shell. "I also think it is a mental journey as well. Doing the walks has helped me quite a bit in my leadership in Shell. It has helped me to cope with stress and to be on "autopilot". I have also noticed that my employees perform better and appreciate teamwork more when they come back!"
   The last night, I sleep badly. A cold wind is sweeping through the Camp and the noise from the clapping tents keep waking me up. I am grumpy and freezing when Stellan Bengtsson starts his annoying singing - "god morgon, god morgon!" I try to psych myself up as I drink my coffee. This is the final day, then it is all over!
   Most of the walkers are now weary and in pain. For us newcomers, it is a bit tough. But the "veterans" from earlier walks are not surprised. One of them is Thuli Johnson, former CEO of Barclays Bank of Botswana. His best memory is the final day of his very first walk:
   "We were eight people who ran out of steam, muscles all sore. But we pulled our arms together and we made it. That is my best memory from the Walks," says CEO Thuli Johnson, who has now has participated every year. "This is really about mind over matter, not just fitness. At the bank, they call it Thuli's walks. But honestly, this is the only time a year that I actually do walk! " he confides with a laugh.
   The sun glares, making the moonlike landscape clear and fuzzy at the same time. A mirage isn't unlikely in this environment, so I keep my eyes steadily focused on one beacon - the toilet tent of the next water control stop.
   It is in the middle of the afternoon and the silhouette of the water control stop just seems to go further and further away the more I walk. My feet hurt and the landscape is so monotone that even the sight of a flamingo skeleton would make a welcome change.
   "Mind over matter." These words ring in my ears. Some of the walkers around me stride with confidence, probably keen runners, others struggle, lean on each other or hold hands for support.
   The drink stop is a welcome break but some walkers just hurry through, wanting to reach base camp as soon as possible and be done with the whole thing. Myself, I just can´t wait to have a shower and to sleep in a proper bed at the Makgadikgadi Lodge.
   But strangely enough, there is also a sense of sorrow that this whole adventure is soon to be over. Something that has been ahead of me for so long will be in the past. Soon, there will be no escaping the realities of the modern world: mobile phones, e-mails, bills, stress and commuting…
   As it gets dark, I finally reach the Lodge. My adventure is over. Some people are so moved that they start crying. Wow, I made it! And in my heart, I am already thinking: I want to do this again…