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Botswana Safari

The Makgadikgadi Pans

Safari Information

Return to Map of Makgadikgadi

Makgadikgadi PanBotswana's great Sua and Ntwetwe Pans collectively comprise the 12,000 sq km Makgadikgadi Pans. The grassy Makgadikgadi Pans National Park includes only a portion of Ntwetwe Pan. These landscapes are like no other on earth; especially in the sizzling heat of late winter, the stark pans take on a disorienting and ethereal austerity. Heat mirages destroy all sense of space or direction, imaginary lakes shimmer and disappear, ostriches fly, and stones turn to mountains and float in mid-air. These are just tricks that the heat waves cause our eyes to imagine.

In September, herds of Wildebeest, Zebra and other antelope move into the thirsty grasslands west of the pans to await the first rains. Although the water is short-lived, wildlife gravitates towards depressions that retain stores of water after the surface moisture has evaporated.

Around December, the deluge of rain begins. The fringing grasses turn green and the herds arrive to partake of the bounty. Flamingos, pelicans, ducks, geese and other water birds flock to the mouth of the Nata River to build shoreline nests and feed on algae and tiny crustaceans that have lain dormant in the salty earth during the dry months.

The Makgadikgadi Pans are the residue of a great lake that once covered much of northern Botswana, fed by rivers carrying salts leached from the lake's catchment area. Ancient lakeshore terraces reveal that the water depth fluctuated by as much as 33 metres and, at its greatest extent, the lake covered an area of 60,000 sq km. Because the basin had no outlet, the salts were concentrated in low lying areas. Less than 10,000 years ago, climactic changes caused the lake to evaporate, leaving only salt deposits.

Sua Pan
Sua Pan is mostly a single sheet of salt-encrusted mud stretching across the lowest basin in north-eastern Botswana. Sua means salt in the language of the San, who once mined the pan to sell salt to the Kalanga people. In wet season of normal rainfall, flocks of water-loving birds gather to nest at the delta where the Nata River flows into the northern end of Sua Pan. At these times, its expanses are covered with a film of water only a few centimetres deep, creating an eerie and surreal effect that reflects the sky and obliterates the horizon.

Nata Sanctuary: The 230 sp km Nata Sanctuary is a community project designed as a refuge for the wildlife on and around Sua Pan (45% of the reserve is on the pan). The idea was first raised in 1988 by the Nata Conservation Committee and the sanctuary was realized four years later, thanks to the Kalahari Conservation Society and funding from national and international organizations. Local people voluntarily relocated 3500 cattle onto adjacent rangeland and established a network of dust roads.

Mammal species are restricted to antelope - Hartebeest, Kudu, Reedbuck, Springbok and Steenbok; also Springhares, jackals, foxes, monkeys and squirrels. Eland, Gemsbok and Zebra are being reintroduced. However, most of the wildlife has wings and around 165 species - from kingfishers and bee-eaters to eagles, bustards and Ostriches - have been recorded. There are also numerous savanna and woodland bird species. When the Nata River flows, this corner of Sua Pan becomes a paradise for water-loving birds from all around Africa: ducks, teals, geese, and hosts of pelicans, spoonbills and both Greater and Lesser Flamingos.

Kubu IslandKubu Island: Near the south-western corner of Sua Pan lies Kubu Island, the original desert island. But for one tenuous finger of grass, the ancient 20-metre high scrap of rock and its ghostly Baobabs lies surrounded by a sea of salt. In cool weather, this bizarre sight can make visitors feel like castaways on an alien planet. In Zulu-based languages, 'Kubu' means Hippopotamus, and as unlikely as it may seem, given the current environment, the site may have been inhabited as recently as 500 to 1500 years ago. On one shore lies an ancient crescent-shaped stone enclosure of unknown origin that has yielded numerous pot shards, stone tools and Ostrich eggshell beads.

Sua Spit: Sua Spit, about a 10 minute drive north of the Dukwe buffalo fence, is a long, slender protrusion extending into the heart of Sua Pan. It is the nexus of Botswana's lucrative soda ash industry.

Ntwetwe Pan
Convoluted Ntwetwe Pan covers more area than its eastern counterpart, Sua Pan. It was once fed by the waters of the Boteti River, but they were diverted at Mopipi Dam to provide water for the Orapa diamond mine and the pan is now almost permanently dry. The western shore of Ntwetwe Pan is probably the most interesting in the Makgadikgadi area, with landscapes of rocky outcrops, dunes, islets, channels and spits.

Chapman's BaobabGreen's & Chapman's Baobabs: At ephemeral Gutsa Pan, 30 km due south of Gweta, rises Green's Baobab, which was inscribed by the 19th century hunter and trader Joseph Green and Ghanzi founder Hendrick van Zyl, among other characters. Fifteen km to the south-east by rough track is the enormous Chapman's Baobab, which measures 25 metres around and historically served as a beacon in a country of few landmarks. It's thought that it was also used as a post office by passing explorers, traders and travellers, many of whom left inscriptions on its trunk. It's frequently claimed that this is the largest tree in Africa.

Gabatsadi Island: The enormous barchan (crescent) dune known as Gabatsadi Island may see only a handful of visitors each year, but the expansive view from the crest has managed to attract the likes of Prince Charles, who went to capture the indescribably lovely scene in watercolor. It lies west of the Gweta-Orapa track, 54 km south of Gweta.

Makgadikgadi & Nxai Pan National Park
Because of their complementary natures regarding wildlife migrations, Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve and Nxai Pan National Park were established concurrently in the early 1970s, in the hope of protecting the entire ecosystem. In 1992, when the tarred highway was built, Nxai Pan National Park was extended south to the road to take in Baines' Baobabs, and the two parks are now administered as one entity.

Wildebeests in the MakgadikgadiMakgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve: The Makgadikgadi Game Reserve section of the National Park is a 3900 sq km tract of pans, grasslands and beautiful savanna country. Wildlife is plentiful but since the reserve is unfenced, animals may wander in and out at will, and you won't see the artificially high numbers found at Chobe. During the winter dry season, animals concentrate around the Boteti River, but between February and April, huge herds of Zebra and Wildebeest migrate north to Nxai Pan and beyond, only returning to Boteti when the rains diminish around early May.

The range of antelope includes Impala, Gemsbok, Hartebeest and Kudu, but they only appear in large numbers during the immigrations during May and June. Lion, Hyena and Cheetah are also present and when there's water, the Boteti River supports a healthy Hippo population. You'll also see a stunning array of birds, but as there are no reliable water sources, Elephant and Buffalo wander in only during extremely wet seasons.

Nxai Pans Section: After the amalgamation of the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan national parks, the Nxai Pan region was expanded from around 2100 sq km to over 4000 sq km. Nxai Pan lies on the old Mpandamatenga Trail, which connected a series of boreholes and was used until the 1960s for overland cattle drives between Ngamiland and Kazungula.

Kudiakam Pan and Nxai Pan are both a part of the ancient lake bed that formed Sua and Ntwetwe Pans. Kudiakam is comprised of mini salt pans, but thanks to its higher elevation, Nxai Pan escaped encrustation by leached salts.

The Nxai Pan region is speckled with Acacia Tortilis trees and resembles the Serengeti (without all the safari vehicles). In the dry season, wildlife activity concentrates on one artificial water hole, just north of the Game Scout Camp, but in the February to April wet season, Nxai Pan comes alive. The wildlife herds in Nxai's grassy plains can be staggering; Wildebeest, Zebra and Gemsbok appear in the thousands, along with large herds of other antelope and Giraffe. Bat-eared Foxes emerge in force and Lion, Hyena and Wild Dogs come in to gorge on the varied menu.

Baines' Baobabs: Originally known as the Sleeping Sisters, this hardy clump of Baobabs was immortalized in paintings by artist and adventurer Thomas Baines on 22 May 1862. Baines, a resourceful self-taught naturalist, artist and cartographer, first came to Botswana in 1861, and travelled with trader and naturalist John Chapman from Namibia to Victoria Falls. He had originally been a member of David Livingstone's expedition to the Zambezi, but was mistakenly accused of theft by Livingstone's brother and forced to leave the party. Livingstone later realized the mistake, but never admitted it and Baines remained the subject of British ridicule.

The stately cluster of trees isn't particularly special, but when the pan contains water, they present a lovely scene. A comparison with Baines' paintings reveals that in well over 100 years, only one branch has disassociated itself. When the new Nata-Maun road went through, Baines' Baobabs were incorporated into Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan National Park.

Bushman Pits: On the western boundary of the park lie the Bushman Pits. Here, ancient San people dug pits where they could hide while hunting animals that had come to drink at the waterhole. These bunkers may still be seen around the waterhole.

(The above information was excerpted from The Lonely Planet Guide to Botswana).

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Water / Land Activity Table for Botswana camps:  Water/Land Botswana
Flying Times between Botswana camps:  Fly Times Botswana

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