Its stark, flat, featureless terrain stretches 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 floods attract wildlife such as zebra and wildebeest on the grassy plains and most spectacularly flamingos at Sowa and Nata Sanctuary. Flamingo numbers can run into the tens (sometimes hundreds of thousands) and the spectacle can be completely overwhelming.
The Makgadikgadi is in fact a series of pans. Interspersed between the pans are sand dunes, rocky islands and peninsulas, and desert terrain. During rain season the pans can be transformed into a powder blue lake. 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. Up to the present day a number of villages, including Mopipi, Mmatshumo, Nata, Gweta and Rakops, are situated on the fringes of the pans.
Nata Sanctuary For much of the year, most of the desolate area of Makgadigkadi remains waterless and extremely arid; and large mammals are thus absent. But during and following years of good rain the floods attract wildlife such as zebra and wildebeest on the grassy plains and most spectacularly flamingos at Sowa and Nata Sanctuary. Flamingo numbers can run into the tens (sometimes hundreds of thousands) and the spectacle can be completely overwhelming.
n As part of the great Makgadikgadi complex, Nxai Pan National Park covers an area of 2100 km², 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.
One of the most popular destinations on the Makgadikgadi is Kubu island, a rocky outcrop near the south-western shore of Sowa pan.
This crescent-shaped island is about one kilometre long, and its slopes are littered with fossil beaches of rounded pebbles, an indication of the prehistoric lake’s former water levels. Many rocks on the island are covered in fossilised guano, from the water birds that once perched here. Stone age tools and arrowheads can still be found today along the shorelines of this tiny island; and a circular stone wall and stone cairns suggest that Kubu may have been part of the outer reaches of the great Zimbabwe empire that was centred at Masvingo in modern-day Zimbabwe.
Fantastically shaped baobabs perch on the island, and they are surrounded by the white salt surface of the pan, making for a unique otherworldly atmosphere.