Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans are desolate, vast, and for us, almost inhospitable. Still, wildlife survives, and it can be observed like in any other place on earth.
When I though about visiting the largest salt flat area in the world, I never thought I would be able to see thousands of zebras, wildebeest and even elephants. Salt flats are usually areas of absolute isolation and emptiness. Yet, the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana proved me wrong. Here I was not only able to explore one of the most bizarre and remote landscapes of Africa, but also enjoy the beauty of a classic game drive.
Located southeast of the Okavango Delta and surrounded by the Kalahari Desert, The Makgadikgadi Pans are part of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi National Park and Nxai Pan National Park. This is not just a single massive salt flat, but a combination of many pans surrounded by desert and savanna. It is so big, that the total area considered as big as Portugal.
When is the best time to visit the Makgadikgadi Pans?
Life conditions at the Makgadikgadi Pans are hard and extreme. During the dry season most of this massive area remains arid and monochromatic. Temperatures are very high and even while driving around, I was quickly losing the sense of orientation. I had no idea in which direction we were going and couldn’t see anything else than a completely flat landscape of nothingness – a true experience of what it means absolute isolation.
On the other side, visiting the Makgadikgadi Pans during wet season is a completely different experience. “During the rainy periods the pans fill with water and attract countless flamingo”, said my safari guide Laps. “There are so many, that they look like a pink cloud in the horizon”.
Even though I did not spot any flamingo during my stay in Botswana (I traveled in December 2019), a lot of wildlife was visible right at the edge of the salt flats. The dry savannas surrounding Makgadikgadi are home for the African elephant, zebras, wildebeest – as well predators such as Lion, Cheetah and Hyena.
During my stay at the Makgadikgadi Pans I saw a glimpse of Makgadikgadi’s zebra migration, spent some time with the San tribe, also known as the Bushmen, and saw for first time a forest of baobabs.
According to the local guides November to May are the best months to spot several species of animals coming together to the few springs of water located around the pans. While the wet season is perfect for watching pats of flamingos, pelicans, ducks and geese together, as well other large mammals such as zebra and wildebeest.
Botswana has one of the most untouched landscapes on earth
The Makgadikgadi Pans are not just a place for experiencing game drives and the usual safari, but to get a very concrete idea of what true remoteness and absolute isolation means. Even while staying on a safari lodge outside the pans, I thought to be completely isolated from civilization. All the electricity used came from solar panels and to get to the next village, we had to drive around 1 hour away.
In a location like this going stargazing can be the highlight for anyone looking forward in seeing the stars. There is absolutely zero light pollution and when I got a clear sky at night, I felt like a child spotting constellations and stars I only knew from photographs, stargazing apps and information. This was probably the best spot I’ve ever been to see the stars and curiously National Geographic selected Botswana and the Kalahari Desert as one of the best spots to do stargazing in 2020.
This desolated landscape is not the place you go on a road trip. The roads are almost inexistent and in some areas of the pans, cars get easily stuck in the mud. Getting lost and dying has happened before and even experienced tour guides would have a lot of respect when it comes to entering the Makgadikgadi Pans and exploring off-road.
For this reason, human intervention at the pans is basically inexistent and this incredible natural landscape remains unspoilt. There have been several cases of illegal hunting and plans for using the pans as a source for natural resources. Nevertheless, the Botswana government is very strict when it comes to wildlife protection: In comparison to other neighboring African countries, Botswana is doing their fair share in protecting these species and the environment around them.
Visiting a salt flat was not the first thing that came to my mind, when I visited Botswana. This is the country where people from all over the world come to see parades of elephants at Chobe National Park or the famous Okavango Delta. However, for the adventurers with more time and lust for something new, the Makgadikgadi Pans will leave them speechless and a different story of Africa to tell back home.