Imagine a vast, open area the size of Portugal, largely uninhabited by humans. Its stark, flat, featureless terrain stretching, what seems endlessly, meeting and fusing with a milky-blue horizon. This is the Makgadikgadi – an area of 7,456 square miles which is part of the Kalahari Basin yet stands alone as one of the largest salt pans in the world.
For much of the year, most of this desolate area remains waterless and extremely arid, with no large mammals inhabiting it. But during and following years of good rain, the two largest pans – Sowa to the east and Ntwetwe to the west – flood, attracting wildlife such as large herds of zebra and wildebeest who come to feast on the grassy plains. Spectacular flocks of flamingos at Sowa and Nata Sanctuary can number into the tens, and sometimes, hundreds of thousands creating a completely overwhelming sea of pink. The rainwater that pours down on the pans is supplemented by seasonal river flows from the Nata, Tutume, Semowane and Mosetse Rivers in the east, and in years of exceptional rains, the Okavango via the Boteti River in the west.
During this time, the pans are often transformed into a powder blue lake, the waters gently rolling onto the shorelines, and flowing over the pebble beaches serving as a clear indication of the gigantic, prehistoric lake the Makgadikgadi once was. Geologic records indicate that the Makgadikgadi is a relic of what was once one of the largest inland lakes Africa has ever had.
Africa’s most famous explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, crossed these pans in the 19th century, guided by a massive baobab, Chapman’s Tree, which is believed to be 3000 to 4000 years old and remains the only landmark for hundreds of miles around. Seeing this amazing tree today on safari, you are given entry to an era when much of the continent was uncharted. 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 the two largest pans are Kudiakam pan, Nxai Pan and Kaucaca Pan. Interspersed between the pans are sand dunes, rocky islands and peninsulas, and desert terrain. No vegetation is able to grow on the salty surface of the pans, but the fringes are covered with grasslands. Massive baobab trees populate some of these outer areas, their silhouettes creating a dramatic landscape against a setting sun.
The Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve, with an area of 2,423 square miles, 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 unique safari 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. Human inhabitants have continued to the present day; and a number of villages, including Mopipi, Mmatshumo, Nata, Gweta and Rakops, are situated on the fringes of the pans.
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