25 DEC 1995 - Deception Pan, Kalahari Desert, Botswana

It's hot here. I am halfway through my ten liters of water. The thermometer says 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I wanted to be here for Christmas; I wanted a snap from the past two and most humbling years of my life, and here I am. As I left from Gaborone and headed north, there were pillows of clouds all around me. It has been raining here - more rain than I could ever imagine in a desert. It is a carpet of green beneath me. I swoop down low to take a look. It is bush that is green, but off in the distance is a different type of green. There are three of them; they look like the greens on a golf course - all in a line.

I wrestle with wires and switches connecting a video camera suspended beneath my wing; I must film this. I spend less time flying this plane than I do conducting and administrating the cameras and maps that live inside it. The acacia bush stops abruptly at the edge of the pan; there is water in a muddy pool in the center, but all around this magnificent oval is a field of velvet green grass. The next pan whizzes past. I am keeping the wings level so it looks good, but I kick the rudder hard to slide sideways and aim towards the third pan. There are things moving beneath me. Like the eyes of a hunter, the movement attracts me, and perhaps two dozen antelope spring form their cover like a burst of wind shimmering across a lake. This is the Kalahari.

I was told that the Kalahari had received more rain in the previous month than it had in the total of the past five years. "If you go there now," he said, "you will hear it growing." I am heading for the place called Deception Pan. I have a device that tracks satellites and can guide me there. I switch it off. Instead, I welcome the opportunity to feel alone and vulnerable above a vast expanse of wilderness. I have my map, and the line stretches across a large space to a scribbled line that bends - a dried river bed. I was told to look for a clump of trees along a dirt track. "You can't miss it," he said. "There is a place to land there; it's the Owens' old camp, but watch out for the hyenas - they will chew holes in your tires."

This is how you navigate in an empty place - word of mouth and lines on a map. The Kalahari is the second largest protected area in the world - 52,800 square kilometers, I am told, but I am not sure I believe that. I remember the whole northeast corner of Greenland was a protected area too. Maybe this guy hadn't counted that. The further I go, the more questioning I become of any one man's facts and figures. Along the line on my map, there is a place called Gope. This is a checkpoint for me, if it even exists at all, to make sure I am on course and to check my time of arrival at Deception. When I get to Gope, it appears to be a very organized little bush camp with a long airstrip in the middle of nowhere. Something feels very strange about this place.

At last, there is a scribbled line that bends. It is much easier to see if you are low - just off the tree tops. Then the flat world gains relief, and the scribbled line becomes a valley - Deception Valley. I find the trees then land.

This morning, I watch a lake appear in the distance. I set off on an expedition to find this lake, but am wary of lions. I can see countless springbok, gemsbok, hartebeest and the odd jackal. I keep looking for the brown hyena that had kept me up for most of the night. I feel very naked in this place. I am walking down a track with a can of spray engine lubricant and a lighter. If the lion does find me, I wouldn't want to kill him. I would spray engine lubricant and ignite it to create a wall of fire; he wouldn't attack through that. After nearly an hour, the lake is no nearer - still fluid and reflective far away. The sun burns my skin and hurts my eyes. I look back at the plane, now only a dot in the distance, and it also is now surrounded by water. The deception is very clear, but I had to see it for myself.

I imagined what it must have been like for the Owens couple to live here for seven years - lonely and hot. I also am lonely and hot. A truck approaches from the distance. I wonder if this is some sort of illusion like the lake. As the truck draws to a stop, three heads are looking at me. Am I lost, they ask. I suspect that I might be doing something wrong, so I invite them for Christmas lunch.

They have been out looking for poachers this morning; the Basarwa Bushmen are the poachers. They are allowed to hunt species with large numbers, but they can't hunt ostridge or wildebeest or eland because there are only small numbers of these. They are also supposed to be using traditional methods, but now they are using horses and donkeys. One of my guests is the assistant game warden; the other two are Tswana scouts named Lactor and Lemaano. For a long time, we avoid the obvious question - am I allowed to be here. Instead, we talk of the cookies I have brought from Johannesburg and of that strange town Gope. Lemaano knows about Gope. He broke down 20 kilometers from there once with five other people. He didn't have any water, so he collected radiator water and started walking. Occasionally, they shake their heads and smile at me. I think they are still wondering what I am doing here, but I am still curious about Gope. "Well, they are looking for diamonds, and I think they have found some too," I am told. "But Gope is inside the park, how can they look for diamonds there ?" The answer from Lamaano is startling, but clear: "Diamonds are worth a lot of money."

In the back of the truck were some road signs. Aside from looking for poachers, my guests were putting up road signs. The assistant warden tells me that Deception Valley gets its name from that 'lake' down there - the mirage - but also because of this road; "there are a lot of turns, and every one, you think is the last one." There is no limit on the number of visitors to the Kalahari. At the moment, it is a few hundred a year, but more and more are coming; "that's why we are putting up these road signs," I am told. As the last of the Christmas cookies disappeared, my new friends climbed back into the truck to carry on their way. I asked them how much water they had, and they smiled and pointed at the radiator. They then disappeared in a trail of fine dust across the pan - without having asked the obvious question.

My mind drifts in the heat, and I wonder why I have come to this place. There is a track, and as of today, a couple of road signs, but there is very little that has been touched by man here. I wonder about more visitors coming here. There is no reason why they shouldn't, but when they do, it seems to happen that they need a toilet, then a food store, then a petrol station, and then even a paved road. The character of a place has then changed, and it is a "wilderness" no more. I am sure that Gope may have magnificent diamonds, but when will the value of a place set aside as a protected area - untouched in its pristine state - be worth more than diamonds.

It is now late. It is dark and cool. It is Christmas, and I am lonely. I stare out into the night. Far in the distance toward Mozambique is a wall of thunderstorms that stretch almost a full 180 degrees across the sky. I count them; there are three to five flashes per second across the sky, but I can't hear a sound. There is sound from the night - from the desert coming alive, from that same hyena who wants to eat my tires. I can't imagine having ever seen a more beautiful array of flashing lights on any Christmas tree in my life.

Tom Claytor