Makgadikgadi is a wide open, uninhabited space under an endless canopy of blue sky, this surreal wilderness of salt pans were once the bed of a huge prehistoric lake. It is the largest salt pan in the world and its silver-grey surface covers 12 000sq km of completely barren flatness.
Vast migrating herds of animals traverse the area and in the wet seasons thousands of water birds flock to the pans. Every year after the rains, when the eastern edge of the Sowa Pan fills with water the “Pink Tide” comes in - thousands of flamingoes flock to the pans which are the largest breeding site in Africa. Unlike the salt pans which characterize the Makgadikgadi there are also the pans covered with short sweet grass which provides good grazing and attracts large herds of springbok and impala. Other game includes gemsbok, giraffe, kudu, zebra, wildebeest as well as leopard and lion.
In this modern world of cities and overpopulation, it is almost impossible to imagine a place of wide open, uninhabited spaces under an endless canopy of blue sky. The Makgadikgadi is such a place. The largest salt pan in the world, its silver-grey surface covers over 12 000sq km of complete barren flatness. This vast complex bears testimony to the superlake that once covered much of northern Botswana. Thousands of years ago the courses of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers were diverted from the lake and, as it shrank, so the water’s salinity increased. All that was left was the sunbaked bed. Today, it is the Makgadikgadi that visitors find the true peace and serenity of complete isolation.
The Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans Parks were integrated into the Makgadikgadi and Nxai National Park in 1993, making it some 4 000 square kilometres in extent - thus including Nxai Pan itself and part of the Makgadikgadi Pans system.
The Nxai Pan area is a series of small fossil pans, which are covered in short, nutritious grasses, interspersed with ‘islands’ of mainly umbrella thorn trees. Nxai Pan lies to the north of the Makgadikgadi Pans and in the dry season the wildlife concentrates on one artificial water hole, just north of the Game Scout Camp. In the February to April wet season, the concentrations of wildebeest, zebra and oryx are spectacular. In addition there bat-eared foxes emerge in good numbers, while lion, hyena and wild dog have followed the antelope to the area. Nxai Pan and Kudiakam Pan are both a part of the ancient lake bed that formed Sua and Ntwetwe Pans. Kudiakam comprises mini salt pans, but thanks to its higher elevation, Nxai Pan escaped encrustation by leached salts.
The Makgadikgadi pans cover some 10 000 square kilometres in salt. Some of the pan are enormous, others the size of small ponds. Surrounding the pans are vast grasslands fringed with palm trees. The pans flood after the rains (November to March) and this attracts thousands of water birds to the shallow pools. The flamingos and pelicans flock to the salty waters and the animals of the plains to the fresh grasses. The flamingos migrate from as far away as East Africa to filter the newly released nourishment and algae from the waters.
These pans are the remnants of the once great Lake Makgadikgadi that existed some 2 million years ago and presumed to have dried up around 1 500 years ago. The lake was 80 000 square kilometres in extent and up to 55 metres deep, making it the largest inland sea in Africa. Over the years a combination of climatic changes and tectonic activity has drained the waters completely.Alt hough named for the Pans, the Makgadikgadi section of the park is mainly grassland, with only a small area of salt pan. These grasslands also attract wildlife by the thousands, in the rainy season. There is surprising variety in the park - with 4 main vegetation types: riverine woodland, scrubland, grassland and the salt pans, which support Palmtree woodlands, on the edges.
The range of antelope includes impala, oryx, hartebeest and kudu, but they only appear in large numbers during the migrations during May and June. Lion, hyena (brown hyena are prevalent in the area) and cheetah are also present and when there's water and the Boteti River supports a healthy hippo population. The Nxai / Makgadikgadi area has also been made famous by its magnificent baobab trees. There are Baines’ Baobabs, south of Nxai Pan, which form an impressive group. They are named for the painter, who immortalised them in 1862. Baines was travelling with John Chapman at the time, but has also travelled with Livingstone.
At the ephemeral Gutsa Pan, 30 kilometres south of Gweta (the village close to the entrance of Nxai Pan), you will find Green's Baobab, which was inscribed by the 19th century hunter and trader Joseph Green. Fifteen kilometres 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.
Near the south-western corner of Sua Pan is Kubu Island - an ancient 20-metre high scrap of rock with its ghostly Baobabs, surrounded by a sea of salt. In cool weather, this unique 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 1 500 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.