Botswana: Kubu Island

Rising no more than 20m above the Sowa Pan, this national monument with its fossil beaches, stunted baobab trees and mysterious stone walls, leaves an indelible impression upon all who visit its water-worn shores. This scrap of rock and its ghostly baobab trees is surrounded by the sea of salt. In cool weather, this bizarre sight can make visitors feel like castaways on an alien planet. The real name of the island, but less known, is Lekhubu (meaning ridge in Setswana). It is the most famous of all the rock islands in the Makgadikgadi. Most of the rock islands in this area are remnants of ancient sand dunes. Kubu Island is different in that it is one of the scatterings of granite islands.

Many of Kubu's rocks are stained white with fossilized bird droppings. This ancient guano is called apatite and bears testimony to a large bird population that used to live on the island, feeding off the fish of the waters that surrounded their rocky knoll.

There is a trig-beacon on the island's summit. The rocks on the northeastern side are all smoothed by wave action, while on the opposite leeward side are thousands of small, rounded pebbles, which used to protrude as a tiny wave-washed beach. As the level of this immense inland sea rose and fell, there were times when Kubu was deep beneath the waves, others when it lay exposed in a sea of sand and others when it hardly showed above the surface, surrounded by 100km of sea.

The island is littered with artifacts from other ages: Stone-Age cutting tools, shards of pottery at least 2000 years old, and the remains of a low, circular wall.

The magnificent view over the pan from the island was perfectly described by Mike Main in his book 'Kalahari': 'All about you spreads the harsh glaring surface, but in the middle distance the pan is clothed in a somber symphony of muted greys and whites, toned up or down by the shadows of passing clouds, and merging at the horizon into a simple harmony of cobalt blue and grey'. This island was also portrayed on canvas by the artist and hunter Thomas Baines.

There are no camping facilities on Kubu or the other islands of southwestern Sowa, but there are many idyllic spots overlooking the pan. Campers must bring their own firewood and must remove all their litter. A further 38km to the east is the seldom-visited Kukonje Island.

Routes to Kubu Island

There are several routes to Kubu, all requiring four-wheel-drive, but most travel agents or tour operators can organize special trips to Kubu for those without.

The easiest route to Kubu is from Francistown. Take the Orapa road from Francistown and continue for 200km until you reach a dirt road, which intersects with the main road. There is a sign indicating Letlhakane to the left. At this crossroads take the track to the right, to the village of Mmatshumo. As you enter this village carefully measure 350m (450yd) and take the unmarked road that veers right.

This is the track to the pans, Thabatshukudu village and eventually the Nata/Maun road. If you are on the right track, it descends the escarpment a short distance outside Mmatshumo giving a breathtaking view of the pan. Approximately 26km out of Mmatshumo is an unmarked track to the right. Take this turn-off and Kubu is 18km further on.

The ruined stonewall on Kubu encloses what appears to have been an uninhabited area. Archaeologists consider it to have been a ritualistic initiation site.

The GPS co-ordinates of Kubu Island are 20°53'50' S latitude and 25°49'41' E longitude.

More places of interest in Botswana

Baines Baobab | Central Kalahari Game Reserve | Chobe National Park | Chobe River | Deception Valley | Drotsky's Caves | Francistown | Gaborone | Kasane | Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park | Khama Rhino Sanctuary | Khutse Game Reserve | Makgadikgadi Pans National Park | Mashatu Game Reserve | Maun | Mokolodi Nature Reserve | Moremi Game Reserve | Nata | Nxai Pan National Park | Okavango Delta | Sowa Pan | Tsodilo Hills