Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, an otherworldly destination

Overview

Salt pan is a widespread natural phenomenon in Botswana. This usually forms when prehistoric lakes dry up over time, leaving a precipitated salt layer on the waterbed. Botswana has many of these in the Kalahari region, but the largest salt pan is situated in the northeast of the country. Lake Makgadikgadi was once larger than Switzerland. Looking at today’s vast expanse, it’s unbelievable how it was the most fertile area in Southern Africa 200 000 years ago. Another jaw-dropping fact is that the pan was the site of the earliest modern homo sapiens. Today, Makgadikgadi is an otherworldly destination with unique flora and fauna, waiting to be discovered.

Camping on the pan was really cool abi.bhataccan License: CC

We should point out the important fact about Makgadikgadi that it is not a single salt pan like the Uyuni Pan in Bolivia. Instead, it consists of several smaller pans boasting a variety of game reserves.

Makgadikgadi is nestled between the southeast border of Okavango Delta and Kalahari. There are many salt pans in the area, separated by sand. Sua is the largest of these pans with 4921 km2, followed by Nwetwe and Nxai Pans. In total, these pans cover approximately 16000 km2.

The only water resources in the area are the rivers Nata and Boteti. Nata originates in Zimbabwe, while Boteti flows from Okavango towards the pan. There are also several small lakes and rocky islands emerging from these.

It is impossible to come across the lush green in Makgadikgadi. The salt pans will be covered by thin layers of microalgae surrounded by grassland and shrubland. The biggest highlight of the area in terms of vegetation is the abundance of baobab trees.

The Baobabs on Kubu Island abi.bhattachan License: CC

Although the area is drouthy most of the time, the short rainy season helps the growth of grass, which attracts all the wildlife nearby.

Wildlife

Makgadikgadi Pan National Park witnesses a massive migration of herbivores during the annual rain. This is because of the newly flourished shrubs and increased levels of water around the pan.

The largest migratory herds usually belong to Burchell’s zebra, springbok , and blue wildebeest, but you will also come across packs of eland, oryx and red hartebeest. Especially springbok and oryx regular visitors of the park.

abi.bhattachan License: CC

Given such a large flow of wildebeest, big predators will inevitably follow. The most commonly seen predators are the nocturnal ones like spotted and brown hyena, bat-eared fox, aardwolf, and striped polecat. Lions and leopards are surprisingly common, especially around the riverine forests and near zebra herds. African bush elephants can be seen lurking around the waterholes and puddles around the pan. The rarer encounters are those that are more adapted to sub-tropical vegetation, so you are not likely to see rhinos and buffalo, although it is not impossible.

abi.bhattachan License: CC

Activities

The activities in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park depend on the season you are visiting. The wet season is perfect for game-related activities since you have the highest chances of spotting animals. Game drives are organized three times daily: early in the morning, late afternoon, and at night. The night drives are ideal to witness predators preying on the weaker members of the herbivore herds. During these drives, bird lovers will also feel satisfied to see hundreds of species visiting to benefit the elevated nutrient levels. Flamingos are the primary dream sights. In addition, nature walks are arranged by rangers and the local Bushmen.

Couple of meerkats (Suricata suricatta) playing, Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana Diego Delso Licence: CC

The dry season isn’t nearly as festive, yet it presents a distinct level of tranquility and isolation. The area becomes deserted when the water dries up and the migration ends. This opens the gates to new activities. Tracking animal footprints is an extraordinary activity you hardly will find anywhere else. You can also use this opportunity to focus more on the Bushmen who originally inhabited most of Botswana. The local guides will give you thorough information about their lifestyles and survival techniques. Another interesting activity is quad biking which can be done on the salt pans that dry up completely.

Masarwa man – http://natavillage.org John Rawlinson License: CC

Climate/ Best Time To Visit

From April to November is the dry season that is characterized by huge temperature gaps between day and night and limited rainfall. You must be prepared for single-digit temperatures at night and above 30 degrees during the day. The peak temperatures are usually measured in October around 34-35 degrees.

The wet season starts in November and breathes life into the pan by dropping the temperature levels to 25-27 degrees while inducing plant growth. The rains are mostly in the form of transient showers in the afternoon. January and February can see occasional thunderstorms.

While the pan itself attracts wildlife during summertime, the lodges in the park are located near Boteti, which is a wildlife-concentrated area all year round. July to October is the best time for game-viewing around the river, while December to March is ideal for game drives around the pan.

Elephants drinking from and crossing the Boteti, BA_Banks Licence: CC

Getting There

The closest airport to Makgadikgadi Pans is at Maun, 162 km to the west. Kasane is the second closest place with an airport.

Once you land in Botswana, you have three options. You can rent a car from one of the rental companies at the airport. You can also pre-book one of the safari tour packages that provide transfer to the park by either a private air charter or a shuttle bus. Each lodge around Makgadikgadi has its own private airstrip.

Tips/ What You Need To Know

• Makgadikgadi Pans lie in a high-risk malaria zone, so you need to make sure to take precautions, especially if you are visiting during the rainy season. Consult with your doctor to find out about the antimalarial pills and insect repellents needed.
• Bird lovers will particularly enjoy Sowa Pan covered in grassland. This is a popular destination among water birds like flamingos and white pelicans.

• Planet Baobab campsite is recommended for those who would like to join guided tours into the baobab forest.
• If you are self-driving during the dry season, avoid the dark patches on the pans. These areas bear sticky sand that might puncture your tire or block your radiator.

Baobab (Adansonia digitata) in a typical landscape of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana Diego Delso Licence: CC