You can listen to the voice recording below, or read through the story.
It took two days of meandering tracks and then three days of hard bush bashing to reach the pan. By then I had about sixty litres of water left. If I did not find water here, I would have to return to my previous source when I was down to about forty litres, or I might not make it back. That would limit my stay at the pan to a maximum of four days.
The pan was a huge calcareous flat some four hundred acres in size. It was treeless, but with a good covering of stiff grass thatI knew to be softer and good grazing then it was young.
I skirted the pan for game paths. They would lead me to water. I found it near the southwestern edge in a slight depression. The water may have gathered in a hollow there during the rainy season and was held by the clayish nature of the soil, or it might have seeped up from secret fissures below.
Several game paths converged on the water hole. They were trodden to powder by many feet – eland, wildebeest, red hartebeest, gemsbok, lion, leopard, brown hyena, jackal. There were elephant sign too, but a week or so old. The water was only a few inches deep, mud-churned with bits of animal droppings floating on the surface. I could see several dubious creatures swimming around in it – no doubt thriving on the nutrition provided by the animal dung. There were probably many more of microscopic size.
It was heavily used. Probably the only water for many miles around I surmised as I stared at the grey-brown soup. The matriarchs seem to have decided the situation was heading for a disaster and it was time to lead their herds to some other source they held deep in their memories
Near the edge the water was too shallow to scoop from. I tried to wade in, but that caused thick globs of mud sticky as syrup to billow up around my feet. It held my shoes and stuck to anything touched it. Wading in was not a good idea.
I maneuvered a large calcareous rock into the water to stand on. To reach clean water I had to lean forward balanced on one leg precariously planted on the wobbly rock.
It took more than an hour to fill a twenty litre container by patient scoops from the thin film of clear water on the surface. Despite my best efforts, dirt got collected, too. At my fly camp I strained it through a shirt. That removed some grit, the larger creatures, and flecks of debris, but it didn’t do anything to improve the colour, and it was still as thick as motor oil and tasted of dung and earth.
When I had to drink some towards the end of my stay and on the journey back, I could only stomach a few mouthfuls before I had to wash it down with some good water. It kept me alive, but not pleasantly.
It reminded me of once, in the north of Mozambique, somewhere North of the Zuni River towards the Zambezi delta.
It was late afternoon on our second day out of fly camp. We had been drinking sparingly since the morning and had enough water to cook that night and survive some way into the next day. We were still fine, but concern was beginning to rise like a mild heartburn. We were probably already a bit dehydrated.
Vashtudu, my tracker and guide, was leading. I saw him slow down, then stop. I came up next to him. The trees around us were taller, with lusher foliage.
“Maybe here,” he muttered, only half to me, as he tentatively swept aside the sparse grass with his toe and rested his gaze on the sandy soil. It was about water. We needed it badly. His years of bush life alerted him to the signs – the slight hollow, the lusher trees, perhaps some grasses and shrub types that meant nothing to me. He called the two bearers over. They had a short discussion, dropped their packs, and Victor went to work with his machete.
If this did not work and we did not find another source before sunset, we would have to save all we had to try and get back to fly camp – but we would be desperately close to not making it.
We squatted around hopefully as Victor hacked at the sandy soil. Twenty minutes, then the wondrous liquid began to seep from the bottom of the hole. If we waited just a bit it would clear and we could refill our containers with careful half-cup scoops. Vashtudu and I looked at each other wordlessly. Tonight we would have abundance – perhaps even wash off some of the caked sweat and dust.
In the arid parts of the wilderness if one wanders away from a reliable source, water comes alive in one’s mind. If you run out, no matter what fancy equipment you have with you, no matter the size of your bank account, what important people you know, what deity you appeal to, in just a few hours you die. Simple as that.
My Law of Water says, if you are not sure where you will find the next water, never venture from a known source further than you can return with the water you have left. It pays to remember that.