Situated in north-eastern Botswana, the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park covers an impressive 3900 square kilometer area and is brimming with natural wonders including the largest tree in Africa, a world famous 5300-year-old Baobab. Makgadikgadi – an area of 12 000 sq kms, part of the Kalahari Basin, yet unique to it– one of the largest salt pans in the world. Game viewing is at its best during the wet season when the plains teem with an extraordinary diversity of wildlife.
For much of the year, most of this desolate area remains waterless and extremely arid; and large mammals are thus absent. But during and following years of good rain, the two largest pans – Sowa to the east and Ntwetwe to the west – flood, attracting wildlife – zebra and wildebeest on the grassy plains – and most spectacularly flamingos at Sowa and Nata Sanctuary.
The Makgadikgadi is in fact a series of pans, the largest of which are Sowa and Ntwetwe, both of which are surrounded by a myriad of smaller pans. North of these two pans are; Kudiakam Pan, Nxai Pan and Kaucaca Pan. Interspersed between the pans are sand dunes, rocky islands and peninsulas, and desert terrain.
Flamingo numbers can run into the tens – and sometimes– hundreds of thousands, and the spectacle can be completely overwhelming. The rainwater that pours down on the pans is supplemented by seasonal river flows – the Nata, Tutume, Semowane and Mosetse Rivers in the east, and in years of exceptional rains, the Okavango via the Boteti River in the west. During this time, the pans can be transformed into a powder blue lake, the waters gently lapping the shorelines, and flowing over the pebble beaches – a clear indication of the gigantic, prehistoric lake the Makgadikgadi once was.
The rains transform the salt pans into a magnificent lake attracting an abundance of wildlife and, most spectacularly, large flocks of gloriously pink flamingos. The area is renowned for its massive herds of wildebeest and zebra which migrate to the park en masse followed by a variety of predators including lion, cheetah and hyena. In the wet season, this reserve can offer good wildlife viewing, particularly when large herds of zebra and wildebeest begin their westward migration to the Boteti region. Other species include gemsbok, eland and red hartebeest, as well as kudu, bushbuck, duiker, giraffe, springbok, steenbok, and even elephant, with all the accompanying predators, as well as the rare brown hyena.
Popular activities include game drives, bird watching, exploring the salt pans on 4WD or quad bikes, tours of Gweta Village, Walks with the San, Walks with the meerkats, Historical sites and fascinating bush walks to historic sites guided by experienced Bushmen trackers.
Africa’s most famous explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, crossed these pans in the 19th century, guided by a massive baobab, Chapman’s Tree–believed to be 3 000 to 4 000 years old, and the only landmark for hundreds of miles around. Seeing this amazing tree today, you are given entry to an era when much of the continent was uncharted, and explorers often risked their lives navigating the wilderness on oxcarts through rough and grueling terrain. No vegetation can grow on the salty surface of the pans, but the fringes are covered with grasslands. Massive baobab trees populate some fringe areas– and their silhouettes create dramatic landscapes against a setting sun.
Humans have inhabited areas of the pans since the Stone Age, and have adapted to geographical and climatic changes as they have occurred. Archaeological sites on the pans are rich with Early Man’s tools, and the bones of the fish and animals he ate. Human inhabitation has continued to the present day; and a number of villages, including Mopipi, Mmatshumo, Nata, Gweta and Rakops, are situated on the fringes of the pans.
One of the most popular destinations on the Makgadikgadi is Kubu Island, a rocky outcrop near the south-western shore of Sowa Pan. This crescent-shaped island is about one kilometre long, and its slopes are littered with fossil beaches of rounded pebbles, an indication of the prehistoric lake’s former water levels. Many rocks on the island are covered in fossilised guano, from the water birds that once perched here. Fantastically shaped baobabs perch on the island, and they are surrounded by the white salt surface of the pan, making for a unique otherworldly atmosphere.
Apart from the eerie isolation of this remote area – and its awesome beauty, Kubu is rich in archaeological and historical remains that chronicle both early human inhabitation and more recent history. Stone Age tools and arrowheads can still be found today along the shorelines of this tiny island; and a circular stone wall and stone cairns suggest that Kubu may have been part of the outer reaches of the Great Zimbabwe empire that was centred at Masvingo in modern-day Zimbabwe.
Botswana’s first community-based conservation project is managed and staffed by residents of four local communities – Nata, Maphosa, Sepako and Manxotae. It is a good example of a non-consumptive means of wildlife utilisation that brings direct financial benefit to local communities. Proceeds from tourism activities in the sanctuary are shared by the four communities for whatever development projects they decide they want and need.
About 3 000 head of cattle belonging to members of these four communities were voluntarily moved out of the area for the establishment of the sanctuary. Nata Sanctuary opened its gates to the public in 1993, and in the same year was awarded the Tourism for Tomorrow award for the southern hemisphere. Covering an area of 250 sq kms –comprising both grasslands and pans, in an important environmentally sensitive area– the sanctuary offers easy access to the pans, and pleasant, reasonably priced camping facilities.
In the peak season, birding, and even game viewing, can be good. When there is water in the pans, thousands of flamingos, pelicans, ducks and geese congregate, and the scene is indeed awe-inspiring. An elevated hide provides an unbeatable panorama of the pans.