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Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, Botswana

BOTSWANA’s Lost Lake Makgadikgadi

Safari Stories

BOTSWANA’s Lost Lake Makgadikgadi

Approximately 2 million years ago, Lake Makgadikgadi was formed in what is now the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. This vast lake is estimated to have once covered as much as 80, 000 km² and was 30 m deep, all fed by the Okavango Zambezi and Cuando rivers which once emptied into its enormous basin.

As the millennia passed however, 20 000 years ago the lake filled to capacity and proceeded to overflow into the valleys below. The waters began to drain northwards and then eastwards forcing the middle and lower Zambezi Rivers to connect, forging the mighty Victoria Falls into existence. With the water now able to escape from the basin coupled with a drier climate, the once impressive Lake Makgadikgadi started to slowly disappear, draining slowly over time until it eventually evaporated into the sparse salt pans we know today. Although one of Africa’s greatest lakes was lost, this evolutionary transformation left behind unexpected beauty and riches for those who choose to navigate is vast white expanse today.

From horseback riding or quad biking across its pans, to standing amongst ancient giants on Kubu Island, Makgadikgadi makes for a trip of a lifetime.

 Lake Makgadikgadi
Lake Makgadikgadi

As many a traveller will tell you, there is something incredibly moving about standing in the centre of the flat vastness and deafening silence of Makgadikgadi that touches your soul in a way that’s hard to explain. Perhaps it is for this very reason that the ancient bushmen who have inhabited this arid area since the stone age believe it to be a spiritual place of great significance.

With seemingly endless vistas that stretch for miles until the horizon is but a hazy blur, this lends to a strong feeling of isolation. But this seemingly inhospitable landscape isn’t completely barren, with savanna grasslands dotted between the salty desert flats, that in themselves support a thin layer of blue-green algae, magnificent baobabs reach into the sky serving as dramatic waypoints amongst rocky outcrops that support a surprisingly hardy array of life.

In fact, Africa’s most famous explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, who crossed these pans in the 19th century, had been guided through this rough and grueling terrain by one of these massive baobabs, later to be named Chapman’s Tree by a fellow pioneer. Believed to be around 3 000 to 4 000 years old, it was the only landmark for hundreds of miles around from which to navigate this unchartered wilderness by oxcart.

Baines’ Baobabs

Approximately 30 kms from the Nxai Pan National Park entrance, Baines’ Baobabs are a real highlight for any visitor travelling this area hoping to see the distinctive trees. Seven huge, gnarled baobab trees, named after the 19th century explorer Thomas Baines, are situated on a promontory island of rock overlooking the surrounding Kudiakam Pan. Baines stood here over a hundred years ago and painted this unusual scene which has remained almost completely unchanged

 Lake Makgadikgadi
Lake Makgadikgadi

Kubu Island

Another very popular destination on the Makgadikgadi Pan is Kubu Island, a rocky outcrop near the south-western shore of Sowa pan. This crescent-shaped island, roughly one kilometre in length, has slopes littered with fossilized beaches made up of rounded pebbles, an indication of the prehistoric lake’s former water levels. Interestingly, many rocks on the island are also covered in fossilised guano, from the water birds that had once perched here. Now instead stand ancient baobabs, surrounded by the sparse white salt surface of the pan.

Kubu is also rich in archaeological and historical remains that chronicle both early human inhabitation and more recent history. Stone age tools and arrowheads can still be found today along the shorelines of this tiny island; along a circular stone wall and cairns suggesting that Kubu may have once been part of the outer reaches of the great Zimbabwe empire that was centred at Masvingo in modern-day Zimbabwe.

 Lake Makgadikgadi
Lake Makgadikgadi

These pockets of plant growth form an interesting maze of patterns and abstract designs when viewed from above. A truly captivating way to observe this otherworldly landscape is by helicopter which can be booked as an optional extra on our Botswana Lodge Explorer tour. Up in the air, the scale and immense size of the pan takes on a far more striking perspective. Not surprising considering it is one of the largest collections of salt pans on earth roughly the same size as Portugal!

It is also from this height that it becomes clear that 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 is Kudiakam Pan, Nxai Pan and Kaucaca Pan which are interspersed with ribbed sand dunes, rocky islands, and unusual desert terrain.

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 all formed part of this extinct lake. These larger pans covered in grassland, are scattered with islands of acacia tree forests, 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 therefore when the animals will migrate. Because of this 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, bat-eared 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.

 Lake Makgadikgadi
Lake Makgadikgadi

But it is not always dry and arid throughout the year. During the months that follow the seasonal rains, Makgadikgadi transforms into a completely polar opposite landscape. For the two largest pans in particular, Sowa and Ntetwe, the dry and dusty soil is flooded and the rejuvenated grasslands turn into a thriving wetland. Greater and Lesser Flamingos flock from far and wide to the algae-covered lakes in their hundreds of thousands, to feed on the nutrient-rich waters and to breed.

This stunning spectacle of one of Africa’s most iconic birds stretching as far as the eye can see, painting the skyline in a bright pink stroke of feathers, is one of the greatest highlights of visiting this area during the green season.

Nata Sanctuary

Covering an area of 250 sq kms – comprising of both grasslands and pans, this important environmentally sensitive sanctuary offers easy access to the pans. In the peak season, birding, and even game viewing, is excellent. 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.

During this time, migratory Burchell’s Zebras having made a 500 kilometer round-trip from Namibia to Botswana, arrive in their tens of thousands to graze on the nutrient-rich grasses they so rely on for sustenance. This alone is one of Africa’s greatest, yet unknown, natural wonders being the longest land mammal migration to take place in the world. A fact discovered entirely by accident through GPS tracking of Zebras for totally unrelated research!

Naturally travellers in the area during this time can expect to see a whole host of predators that trail behind the zebras, such as lions, cheetahs, and even leopard all taking the prodigious opportunity to stalk such abundant prey. Spotted hyenas, brown hyenas, and jackals can be spotted lurking on the outskirts and vultures circle above ready to swoop in and finish off any remains. Other species including gemsbok, eland and red hartebeest, as well as kudu, bushbuck, duiker, giraffe, springbok, steenbok, and even elephant can be seen.

One of the best ways for clients to be part of this thrilling wildlife event is to follow along on horseback, an excellent adventure activity which can be added to both our Botswana Wildlife Breakaway and Intimate Botswana & Zimbabwe Encounter tours.

At night the sky is a veritable dome mottled with stars and constellations that have watched over the pans for millennia and will still be doing so long after we’re gone. The Milky Way has never been brighter and more opalescent with its nebulous clouds of purple and blue clearly visible without the influence of city lights. Stargazers can look forward to watching many a shooting star streak across this celestial expanse or walking in the moonlight as if it were day time when

 Lake Makgadikgadi
Lake Makgadikgadi

These remote pans in the North-West of Botswana provide a supernatural and mystical feeling that needs to be experienced to be understood. Jenman African Safaris provides you with the opportunity to see it for yourself with our various tours that visit the region.

Take a look at our Botswana Lodge Explorer, Botswana Untouched Lodge Safari, and the Intimate Botswana and Zimbabwe Encounter which all travel through this fascinating and beautiful destination.

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