Makgadikgadi Pan and Nxai Pan, the largest salt pans in the world offer unique safari experiences, with great game viewing and bird watching challenged by spectacular scenic views and natural isolation. Open all-year round, these parks offer rare safari opportunities particularly in the green season.
Makgadikgadi, the name of which implies a vast open lifeless land, is not without its folklore. There are stories of people setting out from Gweta to explore the land that lay between them and the Boteti River to seek a favourable environment in which to settle.
They entered these great thirstlands at the driest time of year, drawn by what they perceived as large lakes of sparkling water on the horizon. Suffering badly from thirst, the lakes kept drawing them hurriedly on in their attempts to reach the life-giving water that always remained just ahead of them. Gradually, one by one, they fell and died.
More than five million years ago, a superlake formed almost 30 metres deep over 80,000 square kilometers. The area dried up about 10,000 years ago leaving huge salt-encrusted pans. The Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (4,900 sq. km) includes a little more than a third of these enormous Makgadikgadi Pans. But Makgadikgadi is not always dry. The pans, which are situated in half the south, east and northeastern areas of the park, fill with water during the rains from mid-November and mostly retain their water into April or May. The “thirstlands” are then transformed into great sheets of water, which attract a spectacular array of waterbirds and trigger dramatic migrations of wildebeest and zebra.
The lesser-known Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is situated roughly halfway between Maun and Nata on the Francistown road in northern Botswana. A modest looking turnoff to the park’s main entrance can be found 160 kilometres east of Maun and 45 kilometres west of the small village of Gweta. The park covers some 4,900 square kilometres.
During the wet season (from mid-November to March), dramatic migrations of wildebeest, springbok, gemsbok and zebra take place. They are followed by lions, cheetah and hyenas. If the rains are strong enough, the pans fill with waters of incredible scenic beauty, with up to 30,000 flamingos turning them into deep pink. It is unfortunate that this huge water spectacle becomes practically inaccessible by road at this time, but anyone fortunate enough to fly over the area during the wet season sees a water wonderland of incredible scenic beauty.
The dry season (March to September) has its wonders too, for it provides a unique experience of total isolation, grandiloque silence, and mystical feelings across the desolate pans. Game viewing is best from April to June, before it moves to inaccessible areas.