Botswana, a landlocked country in Southern Africa, has a landscape defined by the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta, which becomes a lush animal habitat during the seasonal floods. The massive Central Kalahari Game Reserve, with its fossilized river valleys and undulating grasslands, is home to numerous animals including giraffes, cheetahs, hyenas and wild dogs.
The Makgadikgadi Pan, a salt pan in north-eastern Botswana, is one of the largest salt flats in the world and is all that remains of the formerly enormous Lake Makgadikgadi, which once covered an area larger than Switzerland
From Boteti River Camp we were continuing north towards Planet Baobab, where we’d be exploring the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.
Our first challenge of the day was to cross the Boteti River. In the rainy season, there is a ferry that crosses the river, but in the dry season, the only way to cross the river is to drive across. Our LandCruiser had a snorkel, so we were equipped to go, the only problem is we did not know how deep the water was and the best place to cross.
Karen went to ask at the lodge, and luckily one of the men working there also helped operate the ferry in the rainy season. He rode with us the short distance to the river crossing and pointed us in the right direction. Also, a small group of cows had decided to wade into the water, which gave us some confidence it was not too deep. So, off we went driving to the river. There were a few rocks on the riverbed, so it was a bumpy crossing, but we never got deeper than the top of the tyres. It only took a couple of minutes, and we were on the other side of the river.
About 200 metres from the river crossing was the Khumaga Entrance to Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. We paid the entrance fees and entered the park.
Once again, we were driving on dirt roads and the sand was deeper, if that was possible than anything we’d been on before. We followed the tracks that run down along the river, and it was amazing to see the amount of wildlife, including zebras, antelope, wildebeest and a host of wildfowl. From where we were we could see some vehicles driving on the sandy shores of the river. I thought to myself, it can’t be worse than what we were already driving on, so I found an open spot in the bush and drove down onto the shore. For the most part, I was right about the driving conditions, although we nearly did get stuck once in deep sand. It was all worth it as we got to see the wildlife up close and enjoy the beauty of the river.
We continued along the Boteti River for about 2km and decided it was probably a good time to head back onto the main trails. So, we found a likely spot, slipped the car into a low 4×4 drive and gunned it up the hill and just about made it to the top.
From the Boteti River, we followed the trails through the park. The roads were deserted, despite this being the high-season. Of course there was plenty of sand to navigate. We saw some elephant tracks, but no elephants, but we did come across some oryx wandering through the bush.
After a couple of hours we arrived at the Makolwane Gate and entered on to the A3, a nice tarmac road. From here we travelled east towards the village of Gweta and our next stop, Planet Baobab.
Finding the entrance to Planet Baobab was very easy as opposite the gate was a very large concrete aardvark that is pale pink in colour – hard to miss. There is also a fancy little tower at the entrance gate. As we pulled into the carpark, we noticed a couple of well-worn-looking tuk-tuks and wondered what the story was behind them.
We had arrived too early to check into our room, so we had to wait in the bar area. Like much of the resort, the bar had some interesting interior design concepts, including cowskin covers on the chairs and a huge chandelier suspended from the ceiling made from old beer bottles.
When it was ready, we moved into our room, where we’d sadly be only spending one night. It was a small, round rondavel with a thatched roof and pretty designs on the outer walls. Each of the rondavels had its own unique design. Inside the room had many nooks and crannies crafted from mud and straw. We loved it. The best bit of all about our rondavel was that it was next to the most incredible baobab tree that must have been at least thirty feet in diameter – I would have guessed that it would take about ten people with their hands linked to fit the circumference of this mighty tree. The circumference can be as much as 50 metres.
I had booked us on a late afternoon nature walk. It turned out that we were the only ones on it, so it became a private tour. Our guide was Gabriel and he led us around the resort explaining about the local flora and fauna with a special focus on the baobabs.
The baobabs are the most unusual-looking trees, with spindly branches and massive trunks. They are deciduous, and when they have shed their leaves the branches look like roots, giving the appearance that the tree is growing upside down. These trees are succulents, and during the wet season, they do have leaves. During this season they absorb huge amounts of water, which they turn into dense, nutrient-rich fruits that appear in the dry season, which has earned the baobab the title ‘tree of life’. The fruit is one of most nutrient-dense fruits in the world. Another unusual feature of the fruit is that it naturally dries on the tree rather than spoils. It can sit on the tree for months drying out and forming a hard shell. Once harvested in this dried condition a delicious fruit powder can be extracted.
As well as learning about the baobabs, Gabriel told us about how the local farmers use the land and about the animals that call this arid land home.
We strolled around for a couple of hours, before arriving at a small pan, that was largely dried up, but had attracted some local livestock, including cows and horses. Some of the staff had laid out a table for us with some snacks and there was a cooler with beer and wine, so we were able to enjoy a sundowner. We decided that Gabriel and the young girl who had set up our feast should join us for a drink, which they were at first reluctant to do. As we sat there one of the security guards and his scary-looking dog also came to the waterhole to enjoy the last rays of the day’s sun.
MEERKATS AND THE SALT PANS
We woke to a beautiful morning on Planet Baobab.
Whilst we had plans for the end of the day, the morning was empty. So, it was a slow breakfast followed out by checking out of our chalet. From there we decamped to the bar for the rest of the morning. I took the time to do some admin using the very slow and limited Internet. We thought Karen should get a massage after all the wild and bumpy roads we had negotiated over the last week or so.
By late afternoon we assembled for our trip out to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. We climbed aboard a 4×4 vehicle and met the other two people who would be joining us on the adventure: Alicia and Joshua, a young couple from the Netherlands. They were lovely and a lot of fun. We spent about an hour travelling through the bush, which became increasingly barren as we went, but somehow people were still farming the land despite the lack of water. The only beasts that seemed to thrive in this desert were the ostriches. We saw large flocks of them striding through the dried thickets of scrubby bushes.
The first stop on this trip was to see a band of meerkats. Meerkats are active from the early morning to late afternoon. They are constantly on the move, only stopping to dig to find grubs and insects in the ground. This group are tracked by a local man who keeps an eye on them and is on hand to let the tour guides where to come to. He does this day in and day out. At night when the meerkats go underground to rest is the only time, he gets a break.
We found the ‘meerkat’ guide who led us a few yards into the bush to where the meerkats were feeding. These animals are so used to people that you can get within inches of them, and even crouch on the ground next to them to take pictures. For about 20 minutes we followed them around watching their antics. They are such engaging creatures.
After we returned the 4×4 it was only a short drive to the small farm where we were to pick up our ATVs. Joshua and Alicia easily fitted onto one of the ATVs, but we struggled with our difference in size and arthritic joints, so we ended up on one vehicle each. Joshua who’d ridden a motorbike was off and running, and Karen who’d been on bikes with Ian (and riding a scooter when younger) was not far behind. As for me, I was a lot more nervous. I trailed behind cautiously, not quite comfortable with the controls and steering of the vehicle. After a couple of hundred yards, we were suddenly out onto salt pans, which were flat and white as far as the eye could see. Now there were no obstacles to hit, much to my relief, but we had to contend with the cloud of dust that was thrown into the air.
We had about 45 minutes to reach our destination for the night. Our route was guided by the 4×4 and we followed behind in convoy. Along the journey, we stopped so we could learn more about the salt pan.
Lying southeast of the Okavango Delta and surrounded by the Kalahari Desert, Makgadikgadi is technically not a single pan, but many pans with sandy desert in between, the largest being the Sua (Sowa), Ntwetwe and Nxai Pans. The largest individual pan is about 1,900 sq mi (4,921.0 km2). In comparison, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is a single salt flat of 4,100 sq mi (10,619.0 km2), rarely has much water, and is generally claimed to be the world’s largest salt pan. A dry, salty, clay crust most of the year, the pans are seasonally covered with water and grass and are then a refuge for birds and animals in this very arid part of the world. The climate is hot and dry, but with regular annual rains.
The pan is all that remains of the formerly enormous Lake Makgadikgadi, which once covered an area larger than Switzerland, but dried up tens of thousands of years ago. Recent studies of human mitochondrial DNA suggest that modern Homo sapiens first began to evolve in this region some 200,000 years ago when it was a vast, exceptionally fertile area of lakes, rivers, marshes, woodlands and grasslands especially favourable for habitation by evolving hominins and other mammals.
After our lesson, we set off again, arriving at a spot in the central area of the pan. Some other vehicles had already arrived and were setting up camp. Apart from us four, and some guides, there were only eight others who would be sharing this vast, arid salt pan.
We were not sleeping in tents, instead there we individual bivvy sleeping bags with integrated mattresses. They had been set on the group, but we were told we could move them anywhere we liked. So, if you wanted true solitude, you could drag your bag way away from the camp. There was also a rudimentary toilet set up on the edge of the camp, which I knew we would not be used in the dead of the night, despite there being no shelter around.
As the sun went down, we gathered around the campfire, with our drinks to watch the sun go down. It was incredibly beautiful. Whilst we admired the natural beauty of our surroundings, some of the staff from Planet Baobab who had joined our band, started to cook our dinner on the barbecue. While we waited our guide started to tell us more about the ecosystem.
We had arrived in the dry season, so the place looked totally bereft of life (apart from us). But this is not the case all of the time.
In the wet months, the rains fill the salt pan with water and turn it into an incredible shallow lake which attracts large numbers of zebra, springbok and wildebeest (the second largest migration after that in the Serengeti), as well as breeding flamingos. The pan is home to one of only two breeding populations of greater flamingos in southern Africa. Apparently, below where we were sitting were the dormant eggs of shrimps that start to appear with the rains and the formation of the salt lake. This is the primary food of the flamingos. Additionally, we were told there were dormant frogs in the ground below, which are another important food source.
Our food turned up and we all started eating and talking for a couple of hours. By now the sky was filled with stars. Like our overnight in the Central Kalahari there was no background light, so we could see stars on the horizon. Also, the Milky Way was clearly visible.
As our minds started to turn to think about bed, we wondered how cold we might be in our bivvies. Our guide said they had put bushbabies inside the sleeping bags to keep us warm. We were not quite sure what he meant, but as soon as we climbed into bed, we realised that they had put hot water bottles inside. It was so cosy. The mattress was also extremely comfortable.
We lay on our backs for some time just gazing up at the stars with no sounds around apart from our own breathing, before we fell asleep.
It was a beautifully restful night. We both woke up at different times through the night, to go to the toilet, which was an opportunity to gaze at the stars again.
I was mostly warm through the night, although the wind did pick up during the early hours of the morning and it was still blustery when we finally crawled out of our beds.
The crew from Planet Baobab who had been looking after us were already up and had lit a campfire. We sat down on the camp chairs by the fire, and we were soon joined by Joshua and Alicia, who had been up a while taking pictures. To make things more comfortable we were given some blankets to wrap around us and some hot coffee. A little while later breakfast arrived.
Soon after breakfast we left the staff at the campsite and headed back to drop our ATVs back at the farm. At the farm we had a bit more time than the day before, so we wandered around a bit while they checked the vehicles were okay. In the yard there were some brand-new puppies, which Alicia immediately fell in love with as she loved dogs and was missing the one, they had left back at home with her mother. Whilst we played with the animals, Karen found the grandmother of the family who was giving a lesson to her very young and cute grandson. Karen could not resist joining in and teaching the boy some new tricks.
After we were given the all-clear on the ATVs we jumped back into the 4×4 and headed back to Planet Baobab, where we had a much-needed shower and a second breakfast.
About Makgadikgadi National Park
This Game Reserve is a salt pan with an area of 3 900 sq. kms. Situated in the middle of the dry savanna of north-eastern Botswana it is one of the largest salt flats in the world. The pan is all that remains of the formerly enormous Lake Makgadikgadi.
Lying southeast of the Okavango Delta and surrounded by the Kalahari Desert, Makgadikgadi is technically not a single pan but many pans with sandy desert in between. The largest is the Sua (Sowa), Nwetwe and Nxai Pans. The largest individual pan is about 1,900 sq miles (4,921.0 km2).
The pans are salty desert whose only plant life is a thin layer of blue-green algae. Very little wildlife can exist during the harsh dry season of strong hot winds and only salt water. However, following a rain the pan becomes an important habitat for migrating animals such as wildebeest, one of Africa’s biggest zebra populations, and the large predators that prey on them. The wet season brings migratory birds such as ducks, geese and Great White Pelicans. The Sowa pan is home to one of only two breeding populations of Greater Flamingos in southern Africa.
Planning your visit to Makgadikgadi National Park
There are several entrances to the park, all open 6am-6.30pm Apr-Sep (winter) and 5.30am-7pm Oct-Mar (summer). The main entrance is from Phuphudu Gate in the north, opposite Nxai Pans. A second, exciting way to enter the park is via Khumaga Gate which may involve a ferry crossing though can be impassable at certain times. The third way of entering Makgadikgadi is via the little-used Mokolwane Gate in the parks northeastern corner. There is an old, abandoned and unmanned gate called Xirexare on the parks eastern edge.
Makgadikgadi Pans from Maun or Nxai
Phuphudu Gate is the obvious entrance to use if you’re coming from Maun or Nxai. It’s just south of the A3 highway. Once inside the park, it’s 25 km to Boteti River and a further 5 km to Khumaga Campsite. The turnoff to the east and Tree Island campsite is just by the campsite, while Khumaga Gate is a few kilometres further on.
Makgadikgadi Pans from Rakops & A30
If you’re coming from the south via Rakops, the CKGR or Orapa, you have two options. The first, shortest and most exciting is to cross the Boteti River to reach the Khumaga Gate. In dry season the river is bone dry and you can drive across. When the river is in full flood there is a ferry that will take you across. However, sometimes there’s too much water to drive across but too little for the ferry to work. If so, you must drive 80 km around on tar to reach Phuphudu Gate.
Makgadikgadi Pans from Gweta or Nata
Coming from the east you have two options to enter the park. If you’re only interested in visiting the game-rich Boteti River section of the park, it’s quickest to enter via Phuphudu Gate. If, however, you want to experience the remote east of the park, possibly find the zebras, or camp at Tree Island Campsite, enter via Mokolwane Gate. This gate is not visible from the A3, though it is signed and the track is big and obvious. If you take the direct route, it’s about 75 km to Khamaga Campsite and Boteti River over a mix of hard and thick sandy tracks.
|Hours:||Gate hours of Central Kalahari Game Reserve are 06:30-18:30 Apr-Sep, 05:30-19:00 Oct-Mar.|
|Fees:||Adult 190 pula ($15) per day Children 95 pula ($7.50) per day. Vehicles 75 pula ($5.75) per day. Trailers are extra,|
Things to bring:
|Two spare tires||Seed net/grill||Puncture repair kit||Sand tracks|
|Spade/shovel||High-lift jack||Kinetic strap/rope||Compressor|
|Tire pressure gauge||Car tools and spares|
|Water and food||Fuel||Braai Wood||Flashlight|
|Headlamp||First Aid Kit||Camera||Binoculars|
|Wide-brimmed hat||Sunscreen||Mosquito spray|
Best time to visit Makgadikgadi National Park
Dry Season–April to October
The last rains typically fall in April. The park begins to look parched as the Dry season progresses. June and July represent the most pleasant daytime temperatures, but the mercury starts rising in August, and peaks in October and November.
- April & May – The beginning of the Dry season is mostly dry, sunny and enjoyable. The middle of the day has an average temperature of about 29°C/84°F.
- June, July & August – It is cooler during the heart of the Dry season, with temperatures rising to around 26°C/79°F in the afternoon. Rainfall is very limited. Be prepared for chilly conditions in the early morning (temperatures are about 7°C/45°F).
- September & October – Conditions at night, and in the morning, are agreeable at the end of the Dry season. However, the days get sweltering before the rains finally break. By October, temperatures of 34°C/93°F make the park extremely hot.
Wet Season–November to March
There is great relief when the first rains fall. It immediately cools down a bit, and it’s less dusty. It seldom rains the whole day but short showers are common. It continues to be very warm throughout the season.
- November & December – The end of the year is hot and frequently sunny, and it only rains sporadically. Early mornings have average temperatures of around 19°C/66°F, making them very comfortable.
- January & February – These months receive the most rainfall. It can rain in the afternoon, but generally not for too long. This time of year is associated with heavy storms.
- March – This month sees a decrease in rainfall, but it can still rain every couple of days, and thunderstorms are still around. Mornings have pleasant conditions with temperatures of about 17°C/63°F.
Where to stay
The accommodation at Planet Baobab is truly original, reflecting the traditional building methods of the original inhabitants of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in Botswana. You can choose between a traditional Bakalanga hut, built from mud, and a traditional grass hut, made in the way the Bushmen used to. Because both these types of huts at Planet Baobab are made from natural materials indigenous to the Makgadikgadi area in Botswana, they are perfectly temperature-controlled without the need for air-conditioners.
The Bakalanga mud huts are en suite and equipped with linen. The interiors of these huts reflect what Planet Baobab is about: true creativity. The walls are smeared with cow-dung in traditional Botswana style, and adorned with art made with natural pigments found in the many termite mounds in the area.
The traditional grass huts at Planet Baobab are constructed in the manner used by the first inhabitants of the Makgadikgadi – the Bushmen of Botswana. These huts are not en suite, but you are guaranteed a very comfortable night’ sleep on two single traditional mopane and cow hide beds. If you need the comforting presence of light the paraffin lamp will be welcome. If you want to sleep in your own tent, Planet Baobab has lovely shaded camping sites, each with braai area and shared ablution blocks.
|Reservations:||+267 7769 8240|
BOTETI RIVER CAMP
Located on the outskirts of Khumaga village, Boteti River Camp is easily accessible whether driving from Maun, Nata, Kasane, or Khama Rhino Sanctuary making it a not-to-be-missed and easy addition to any Botswana safaris offering fantastic contrasts with the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, Chobe National Park and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. At Boteti River Camp, you will get to explore one of the world’s largest salt pans and observe Botswana’s unique rural culture in a friendly, comfortable and serene setting.
Each chalet includes
- Twin beds (extra beds on request for children only)
- Family chalets: 2 single beds and 1 bunk bed
- Coffee-/tea station
- Mosquito nets
- Ensuite bathrooms with outside showers and toilets
|Reservations:||+267 7769 8240|
A small-scale campsite with ten camping pitches by the Boteti River. Due to the water, the campsite is known for the large migration of zebras, predators and scavengers. It is quite possible to spot wild animals along the Boteti river. In addition, antelopes can simply walk across the campsite.
You can obtain wood for the campfire from the locals.
Various self drive 4×4 trips visit Khumaga. The campsite can easily be fit into the route from Maun to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, or the Kori campsite in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, for instance.
Khumaga Campsite: P100/P150/P250/$50 per person per night for citizen/resident/SADC/international. Half-price for kids 8-17 yrs, P20/P40/P60 for kids 5-7, under 5s free.
- Shaded camping pitches
- Hot showers
- 2 ablution blocks
- Shared braai
- Laundry facilities
TREE ISLAND CAMPSITES
There are three campsites at Tree Island spaced about 50 m apart and quite private because of the trees in between. Tree Island is very obvious from a distance – a raised mound full of trees, distinct from the flat grassland surrounding it.
Site 1 is probably the best as it has the best views, though sites 2 and 3 are also nice. All sites have a bush toilet and bucket shower (bring your own water) but no other facilities.
Contact the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) to book Tree Island Campsite or to pay conservation fees. Pay in advance and receive a voucher, or pay in cash at the park gates.
Department of Wildlife and National Parks: Botswana Parks and Reserves Reservation Office, +267 397 1405 or +267 318 0774, email@example.com. Office hours 07:30-16:30 on weekdays. Closed weekends.
BAINES BAOBABS CAMPSITE
A small-scale campsite with a couple of camping pitches by the famous Baines Baobabs. The campsite is situated in the Nxai Pan National Park.
You can obtain wood for the campfire from the locals.
Our standard self drive 4×4 trips do not visit Baines Baobabs. However it is very easy to add the place to your custom Botswana trip itinerary.
The campsite can easily be fit into the route from Maun to Gweta, Kubu Island or Nata.
- Shaded camping pitches
- Hot showers
- Shared braai