Makadikadi Pans National Park
The Makadikadi (Makgadikgadi) complex of salt pans lies adjacent to the rather inconsequential junction town of Nata in central Botswana, and is a region frequently missed en-route either to the Okavango Delta or to the four corners of northern Botswana. These are flat lands with very little visible, above-ground feature, but hidden behind that anonymity lies one of the great natural spectacles of southern Africa.
The Makadikadi region is in fact another of those uniquely unusual habitats that makes Botswana such an unforgettable safari destination. It almost goes without saying that no matter what the natural topography might be the area simply teems with wildlife. Technically this is the largest salt pan complex in the world, covering an area of 16 000kmÂ², and part of the ancient lake complex that includes the Okavango and Lake Ngami. It is in fact not one single pan but two large expanses interspersed with savannah plains and woodland, and punctuated over a vast area by individual pans that can vary from a few meters to several miles across. There is everywhere a rich quintessence of Africa. A scattering of baobab trees and Ilala palms interpose vast areas of open grassland that offer grazing for antelope herds. Here is to be found the largest concentrations of Zebra in Africa, and much more besides.
In the dry season between April and October the environment is unforgiving, and the pans dry out and bake under a relentless cobalt sky. Wildlife congregates around areas of permanent water, and the pans offer a bleakly compelling image that is startling in the day time and eerily beautiful at night. During the rainy season from late November to late February the pans flood to a shallow depth providing habitat for migrating flocks of flamingos, pelicans and many other wetland species.
The Pans are very easy to access, and lie south and southeast of Nata, with a network of bush tracks and gravel roads accessing the edges. To really penetrate the region a good four-wheel drive vehicle is a minimum requirement, with the best results being achieved with a mobile camp system that allows for remote camping in many parts of the park and surrounds. The most effective and rewarding way to see the region, however, and to get the best of the local lore and customs, is to check in at one of the many local lodges and wilderness camps. These all have unique access, and typically a resident expert who can be relied upon to know the country backwards.
The Makadikadi National Park is reputed to host the largest zebra herd in the world, and certainly these animals are ubiquitous, as are huge herds of wildebeest and springbok. Others such as gemsbok and buffalo are also common. A striking diversity of bird life also characterises the region, with the seasonal influx of wetland and other mixed bird species augmenting a limited number of perennials that brave the long dry season. Some of the more visible examples are Kohraan, Kori Bustards, Ostriches, Secretary Birds, but look out also for the signature Lilac Breasted Roller, colourful Bee-eaters and the congregationalist nest weavers.
Also frequently seen are Black-Backed Jackal, Red-Hartebeeste, Steenbok, Kudu, Brown and Spotted Hyena, Lion, Cheetah, Wild-Dog, Meerkat, Bat-Eared Fox, Ardvark, Porcupine, Pangolin, Ardwolf and occasionally even Elephant.
In keeping with desert conditions snakes and reptiles are common.
These consist mainly of private lodges and remote tented camps, and of these there is absolutely no shortage. Mobile camp facilities are also available, and most lodges will offer a night out on or close to the edge of the pans. A computer search will throw up a bewildering variety of options, and in keeping with the high standards of tourism in Botswana, and with the influx of South African lifestyle investors, standards on the whole are very high and prices not far behind.
What To Do
Game viewing, wilderness four-tracking and remote camping are all on the menu for a couple of days in the pans. Sundowners on a camp chair looking out across a sun drenched infinity, quad biking across a sea of white clay, moonlight walks, bird-watching, horse riding and indulging in splendid accommodation in the heart of wild Africa, these are all ways to drink in the ubiquitous natural beauty of the Makadikadi.
DonÂt look for too much more than this. Lodge dÃ©cor is exclusively wild Africa, and bar conversation is all about the bush and what lives in and around it. It is bush, bush and more bush. This is a bush destination.
When To Go
Botswana is hot, and in summer it is hotter. There is a brief respite during the winter months between June and September, but by October the heat is rising and the bush is parched. Winter nights can be very cold. In November the annual rain arrived and for a few months the heat is accompanied by oppressive humidity.
For those wanting to enjoy the dun coloured expanses of African wilderness, with wildlife massed around permanent water, then the winter is the optimum time to visit. For those who want to see the pans in flood, and the influx of bird life, then the wet months between November and March are the best.
How To Go
Botswana is mainly a drive destination. The main trunk roads are excellent, and access to the pans from Nata or the main road is usually quite straightforward. You can fly into Maun or Gabarone from Johannesburg, Harare or Windhoek on scheduled flights, but many tour operators offer direct fly-in safaris from many of the surrounding countries. The Botswana road system is very good, so driving in from Namibia, South Africa or Zimbabwe is easy. Coming down from Angola is less easy.