Before I immigrated to Botswana in 2008, I spent many enjoyable hours binging on Top Gear’s Botswana Special – anything to give me more insight into the country I had just decided to uproot myself and my family to. Whilst our beautiful Okavango is the #1 attraction here in Botswana, it strangely wasn’t these extraordinary waterways, nor the stunning luxury bush lodges that attracted my attention. Instead it was the endless horizons paired with the most striking arid and desolate landscape of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. I knew then that I was sold, and this region was going to be a MUST for me when we had settled in what was to be my new home town – Maun!
To give you a bit of background knowledge, The Makgadikgadi region is actually made up a series of salt pans. These pans combined create one of the largest in the world and is all that remains of the former Lake Makgadikgadi. This lake once covered an area larger than Switzerland, but unfortunately dried up tens of thousands of years ago when its tributaries began to divert their course. Some feel it was a shift in tectonic plates, whilst others argue that the cause could have been major climate change. No vegetation can grow on the salty surfaces of the pans, but the fringes are covered with grasslands and massive baobab trees populate some areas – their silhouettes creating dramatic landscapes against a setting Botswana sun.
Africa’s most famous explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, crossed these pans in the 19th century, guided by one such massive baobab, which was subsequently named Chapman’s Baobab and believed to be 3 000 to 4 000 years old at the time. It was the only landmark for hundreds of miles around and was actually used as a type of mailbox, so explorers could leave messages inside the tree for those that would pass there after them. Unfortunately this wonderful baobab, which had a diameter of 25 meters, collapsed on January 7, 2016 under the weight of its age.
When the annual rains start to fall in November, the Makgadikgadi Pans are transformed. It’s a time of plenty (even in the desert), and the salt flats are converted into watery grasslands (simulating its former glory as a lake), becoming almost unrecognisable from the previous months. A layer of emerald-green grass stretches out in every direction, pink clouds of flamingo, pelicans and flocks of migratory birds arrive to nest. It is also Africa’s second largest mammal migration of wildebeest and our black and white striped friends who flood the plains, enjoying the much needed water supply. The green season in the desert is one of Africa’s great, unpredictable spectacles, and a magical time to visit.
As it turns out, my first visit to this intriguing part of Botswana was only 2 years later, when I was lucky enough to be sent on an educational to the iconic Jack’s Camp. A classic mix of old world glamour, Jack’s is located on the largest of the salt pans (Ntwetwe Pan). Despite being 6 months pregnant with my second son, it meant I would finally get to experience my #1 Botswana bucket list region – I was not passing up that opportunity for anything!
The camp itself offers luxury at its highest level, but once outside allows you the freedom to let loose – and that I did, bump at all! From curious meerkats, interactive bushman walks, quad biking the pans at sunset and trawling the night for the elusive brown hyena, it really gave me the most incredible initiation to this region and one I will never forget!
Image: Nicola’s experiences on the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans
It was a further 3 years later (thanks to something called kids!), when along with 9 other Maun ladies I agreed to walk a full marathon (42kms) under a stunning full moon, across this beautiful expanse of nothingness – all in aid of breast cancer awareness. Now if any of you have met me, you will know that I much prefer to be a spectator than a participator when it comes to any form of physical activity! However this was for a fantastic cause, and I was keen to experience the region from a unique aspect – no bells, whistles or frills, but in its truest most rustic form. It certainly did not disappoint!!
Starting at 6pm on the eastern side of the pans, and ending at 6am the following morning at the famous Kubu Island on the west, meant 12 solid hours of walking over these pans, feeling the crunch of salt beneath your blistered feet, with only the full moon to light your way. There was an eerie but intriguing atmosphere about it, and we could somehow still feel the ancient history in our bones! A mixture of fatigue & disorientation led to quite a few amusing hallucinations for us walkers too – I specifically remember convincing myself that a red and black stripped snake had slithered over my foot (queue massive hysteria!), whilst another lady enjoyed great conversations with her puppy, whom she believed was walking alongside her (he was 6hrs away in Maun)! Amazing how your body can prove just how important sleep is! It was the most exhausting yet exhilarating experience of my life, and finishing on a high at the beautiful Kubu Island made it even more memorable.
Image: The famous “moonwalk”
Since that day, I have made every effort to visit the pans as regularly as possible, and by introducing my boys to them at a young age, I have thankfully passed down my love for this region to them too. That being said, having experienced them in both ultimate luxury as well as rustic simplicity, I can safely say that there is absolutely nothing better (in my eyes) than snuggling into a warm bedroll on the pans with family or friends, looking up at the 360 degree star spangled skies, relaying stories of an unforgettable day full of inquisitive meerkats, roaring quad bikes, toasting gin & tonics over the most incredible sunset, and ending with a delicious dinner around a roaring fire! If there is one thing you can add to your bucket list, make sure it’s this!
Image: Quad biking and sleepout on the pans (credit: Natural Selection)