Vast, magical Makgadikgadi Pans offers several sites worth exploring.

Luxury safaris in the Makgadikgadi Pans

Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is situated in northeastern Botswana, surrounded by the Kalahari Desert. Once a lake, the area is now made up of several expansive salt pans, namely Sua, Nwetwe and Nxai. Despite several visits there, I find that this ancient landscape can still surprise with its sudden, seasonal transformations.

In summer, Sua Pan becomes a shallow lake – a vital breeding ground for flamingo – while in winter, ancient stone tools can still be found lying on its surface. This history of human habitation sees sleep-out sites on the pans jokingly being referred to as ‘fossil beds’.

If you choose to do a sleepout, I think there’s no better way to get there than by quad bike – an experience that blends adventure and romance with the opportunity to observe an almost unimaginable multitudes of stars.

This is not the only way this seemingly empty landscape delivers en masse, particularly when it comes to the annual Makgadikgadi and Nxai zebra migrations. These two dazzling treks involve animals moving from the Okavango to the Makgadikgadi, and from the Chobe floodplains to Nxai, with predators in their wake.

Within the overall pans complex lie several unique destinations. Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana’s first community-based conservation project, protects both pans and grasslands, while Kubu Island balances both awesome beauty and mediaeval mystery, with bulbous baobab trees entwined around boulders and stone ruins.

The sheer scale of the pans can dwarf individual landmarks, but not the towering Baines’ Baobabs, made famous by the Victorian naturalist and explorer Thomas Baines who painted them in 1862, en route to Victoria Falls.

Today that spirit of exploration lives on in Makgadikgadi, whether you head out in search of zebra on a game drive; take advantage of seasonal bodies of water like the Boteti River for fishing and even boating safaris; or crouch down to greet the residents of a habituated meerkat colony – a welcome tactile note in an almost lunar setting.

When to Go

The Makgadikgadi Pans themselves are only truly accessible during the cooler, dry winter season, when the full range of activities (from quad biking to meerkat encounters) can be enjoyed. It’s also when the sparkling white salt pans are at their most visually impressive. The pans tend to be completely dry from mid-July until October. This coincides with the peak northern Botswana safari season, when the Okavango floodwaters cause game to be more concentrated, so a visit to the dry pans can be combined with some time exploring the watery wonderland of delta.

During the summer rains, the pans become large, shallow lakes extending for many kilometres, inviting a different sort of wilderness experience. The birdwatching is phenomenal, with large flocks of flamingos and pelicans enjoying the water. From January to March, Botswana’s two zebra migrations arrive at the Makgadikgadi and Nxai pans (from the Okavango and Chobe rivers, respectively) – wonders to be witnessed. This ‘green season’ is quieter in northern Botswana, but the bush is at its most beautiful and predator action is more frequently witnessed.

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