The Makgadikgadi is a place of such haunting beauty that it leaves visitors with a profound sense of awe at nature’s raw power. Her harsh cruelty, her delicacy and subtlety, and her ability to create spectacles on a massive scale, throws our own mortality into stark relief. Lying south east of the Okavango Delta, the pans sprawl over 16 000 km2. They are the remnants of the ancient Makgadikgadi Lake, a fresh water lake the size of Switzerland, that dried up millennia ago, presumably due to small tectonic shifts in the underlying bedrock. What is left is a series of salt crusted pans that lie baking in the scorching sun, desolate and dry for most of the year.
But do not let this fool you. As the Nata River rises gently from its source near Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, it gathers power and creates a seasonal flooding of the pan system. This moon-scape transforms into a series of cerulean pools that attracts hundreds of thousands of pink flamingos. Sua Pan is one of only two breeding grounds for the Greater Flamingo in Southern Africa. The privilege of watching these birds spread as far as the eye can see is a truly humbling experience.
Migrations of zebra and wildebeest are closely followed by the black-maned Kalahari lions that have been made into legend by films and photographs. Set against the backdrop of the gigantic baobab trees that have been immortalised by famous explorers such as Thomas Baines and David Livingstone, the Makgadikgadi is sure to crawl into your heart.
The Makgadikgadi pan systems are separated by vast areas of sand, open grassland and rocky islands. To the north lies the remote Nxai Pan National Park. It covers an area of 2 100 km2, and comprises several large pans – Nxai, Kgama-Kgama and Kudiakam. These pans are grassed in the wet season, scattered with islands of acacia trees and smaller ponds– providing a rich ecosystem for wildlife to flourish in. If the rains have been good, then November to April is a great time to view large game such as oryx, cheetah, wild dog, lion as well as the elusive brown hyena.
Situated on an ‘island’ in an endless sea of baking white sand, a copse of seven huge, gnarled baobab trees stands sentinel over the crusty Kudiakam Pan just outside the the Nxai Pan National Park entrance. These 3 000 year old trees were named after the 19th century explorer Thomas Baines and are a highlight for any visitor travelling to the area.
The Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve covers an area of 3 900 km2. It incorporates the western end of the Ntwetwe Pan, with extensive grasslands and acacia woodland at its northern boundary where it meets the Nxai Pan National Park.
During the wet season this reserve can offer great wildlife viewing, particularly when large herds of zebra and wildebeest begin their migration from the Boteti River in search of the seasonal abundance of food and water. Other animals such as bat-eared foxes and meerkats call this area home too, and nothing will give you more joy than to lie in the sand with your camera, snapping away at these busy little creatures, while they scamper about in search of a tasty snack, chattering excitedly to each other as they go.
Sua Pan lies further east of the National Park and is famous for one of the most popular destinations on the Makgadikgadi, Kubu Island. This picturesque rocky outcrop is surrounded by beaches of small round pebbles, and boasts rich collections of fossils dating back to man’s early inhabitation of the area.
This, and ancient cairns and walls found on the island, suggest that it may have formed part of the outer reaches of the great Zimbabwe empire. But the picture that is usually imprinted on people’s memories are the boabobs with their eerily bizarre shapes that are found all over the island. On the northern shores of Sua Pan lies Botswana’s first ever community based conservation area - Nata bird sanctuary. The pan is home to flocks of flamingos, pelicans and other magnificent water birds that cover the water as far as the eye can see.
At first glance, the Makgadikgadi may seem to offer nothing more than a vast area of ‘nothingness’, but nothing could be further from the truth. The area offers exceptional game and bird viewing, haunting scenery and plenty of fun activities for the more active visitor.