The zebra’s skull was picked clean of flesh, its half-buried bones gleaming in the sunlight. White on white, it lays camoflaged on the desert floor. In another place I might have walked past without noticing. But not here in this bleak expanse of land. When all around there is nothing, the zebra becomes impossible to miss.
I’m visiting the salt plains of North-Eastern Botswana. They’re the long dried-up remains of Lake Makgadikgadi; a body of water so vast it once covered an area the size of Switzerland. Now, in the harsh dry season, all that’s left is an otherworldly expanse of salt, stretching on until the horizon. So flat, you can see the curvature of the Earth. Rotating slowly on the spot, my view doesn’t change. We’re the only things out here; me, my group and a long dead Zebra’s skull.
The plan is to sleep out in the open tonight; no tent, just a sleeping bag under the stars. Sitting high on the back of our dusty pick-up truck, we watch our guide start to build a fire using wood he brought along himself. Our backdrop gradually morphs from blue to orange. Then, as the sun takes its final bow, we’re plunged into darkness.
A few moments pass then, one by one, flecks of light are born out of the shadows. Scarcely any at first but, as our eyes adjust, hundreds more appear, replaced by thousands and then… the universe reveals itself to us.
I take my sleeping bag and begin to walk away across the barren lunar landscape. Away from my friends and our guide. Away from all distractions. This is not a time to be shared. This is a time to be alone, just me and my thoughts.
I keep going until the camp fire becomes no more than a candle. Then I lay down in my sleeping bag on the hardened ground, pulling the hood up until just my face is exposed to the cold night air. The only sound is the wind blowing in from the neighbouring Kalahari desert. I gaze up at a sky so clear I can see satellites tracking their way across the heavens. I don’t remember the last time I was ever alone like this, or if I ever have been; a solitary figure under a blanket of stars.
Lost in a mesmerising tranquility, my mind begins to wander. Thoughts creep in; some good, some bad. Some that I’ve kept locked away for a long time. They dart into my mind like the shooting stars above. Questions I’ve been too scared to ask myself keep coming and I have nothing to distract myself from the answers.
I believe you are your own worse critic but, as terrifying as it is, sometimes you have to face yourself. That’s why, under the endless sweep of the Milky Way, I let myself be judged, with only the stars to witness.
Dawn’s light awakens me. A bright orange band is already creeping up the sky as a new day starts. Little black mounds slowly appear out of the darkness around me; my friends in their sleeping bags, embracing their own moment of solitude. I wiggle out of my cocoon, now caked in white. Inside I feel different, happy, content… I gather up my things and walk back to join my group. In a place of nothing, I’m leaving with something.
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