About Makgadikgadi Salt Pans
Around the fringes, coarse grasses blow in the wind, ancient baobabs reach to the sky and vultures soar on the thermals. There are prehistoric beaches, Stone Age ruins and salty whirlwinds spinning over cracked earth.
The pans are the relics of Africa's 'super-lake' that covered the Kalahari several million years ago and are littered with the fossils of the changing ecosystems that followed. Nowadays, the wildlife is both hardy and highly nomadic. Meerkats, mongooses, brown hyena, aardvark and aardwolf are present all year round. Secretary birds, ostrich and korhaans step through the grass and bateleurs soar overhead. When the rains arrive a dramatic change takes place. Pink clouds of flamingo come to feed, vast herds of zebra and wildebeest are found on the savannah and the sound of frogs fills the air.
There are two small camps in the Makgadikgadi, and whether you stay in the dry or rainy season they both offer a unique Makgadikgadi experience You will have the opportunity to quad-bike across a saltpan with a kikoi on your head, lie on the desert floor looking for shooting stars and watch the earths shadow grow as the sun sets. A stay on the Makgadikgadi is always an experience you never forget.
Places to visit at Makgadikgadi Salt 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.
Nxai Pan National Park
Part of the great Makgadikgadi complex, Nxai Pan National Park covers an area of 2 100 sq kms, and comprises several larger pans – Nxai Pan, Kgama-Kgama Pan and Kudiakam Pan, which were once ancient salt lakes. These larger pans are now grassed, and are scattered with islands of acacia trees, and smaller pans that fill with water during the rainy season – thus providing rich resources for wildlife.
Wildlife viewing is seasonal, and dependent on if and when the rains come, and when animals migrate. There are several artificial watering points. If the rains have been good, December to April is the best time to visit.
Common species to be sighted are zebra, wildebeest, springbok, impala, gemsbok, hartebeest, giraffe, lion, cheetah, wild dog, brown hyena, bateared fox, and sometimes elephant and buffalo.
The park is one of the more accessible areas of the Makgadikgadi, a mere 50 kms from the Nata-Maun Road.
Baines' Baobabs Camping
Approximately 30 kms from the Nxai Pan National Park entrance, Baines’ Baobabs are a highlight for any visitor travelling this area of Botswana.
Seven huge, gnarled baobab trees, named after the 19th century explorerThomas Baines, are situated on a promontory or island overlooking and surrounded by the white, crusty Kudiakam Pan. Baines stood here over a hundred years ago and painted this otherworldly scene. It has essentially remained unchanged.
Thomas Baines was an explorer, artist, naturalist and cartographer. He and fellow explorer James Chapman travelled through this area during their two-year journey from Namibia to Victoria Falls (1861-63).
They travelled in horse-drawn wagons and on foot, accompanied and led at different times by Hottentots, damaras (a tribe from Namibia) and San. They encountered numerous difficulties, including the harshness of the desert, thirst, hunger, illness, and more than once, desertion by their guides, who made off with their supplies.
Despite all this, Baines’ account of the journey is filled with appreciation of the beauty of africa. ‘I confess,’ he wrote, ‘I can never quite get over the feeling that the wonderful products of nature are objects to be admired rather than destroyed; and this, I am afraid, sometimes keeps me looking at a buck when i ought to be minding my hindsights.’
Baines’ painting of the small island of baobabs shows covered wagons, people tending their horses, and a huge baobab bursting with leaves. ‘We walked forward to the big tree, the Mowana at Mamu ka Hoorie, and found the country much improved,’ Baines wrote of the gloriously shaded area.