Imagine – if you will – an area the size of Portugal, largely uninhabited by humans. Its stark, flat, featureless terrain stretches – it would seem – to eternity, meeting and fusing with a milky-blue horizon. This is the 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.
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. 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. Research suggests that the Makgadikgadi is a relic of what was once one of the biggest inland lakes Africa has ever had.
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.
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.
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.
The Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve – with an area of 3 900 sq kms – incorporates the western end of Ntwetwe, extensive grasslands and acacia woodland. At its northern boundary, it meets the Nxai Pan National Park, separated only by the Nata- Maun Road.
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.
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.
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.
Baines’ diaries, sketches, drawings and paintings provide fascinating first-hand documentation of that most Africa. Decisive era in the history of Southern Africa.
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.
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.