Words by Stephen Cunliffe. Photographs by Stephen Cunliffe & Jean-Marc Gaudin
Botswana’s great saltpans – Nxai, Ntwetwe and Sua – cover an expansive region of northern Botswana known as Makgadikgadi: an ethereal and austere landscape like no other place on earth. A portion of this spectacular landscape is conserved within the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan National Parks. Freelance writer, Stephen Cunliffe, explores the larger of these two intriguing and oft-overlooked parks.
Most people know Makgadikgadi as the home of a host of sprawling saltpans that play endless tricks on the mind. Heat mirages destroy all sense of spatial awareness and orientation, imaginary lakes shimmer on the horizon only to evaporate upon closer inspection, ostriches learn to fly, and stones metamorphose into floating mountains.
There’s no denying that the blinding white saltpans are an otherworldly place and well worth exploring (see Probing the Pans sidebar on page 31), but that is the Makgadikgadi of the rainless winter months. By the time we arrived, the sizzling heat of the late dry season had given way to billowing grey clouds and dramatic thunderstorms.
Owing to the epic scale of the Makgadikgadi saltpan complex, the 3 900 km2 national park that bears its name encompasses only a fraction of the overall pan network. Extending from the wildlife-rich Boteti River in the west, to the enormous Ntwetwe Pan – the largest of the saltpans – in the east, the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park protects large swathes of savannah grassland, palm forest and Boteti River woodland, along with the western reaches of Ntwetwe Pan. This lesser-known overlanding destination is home to a couple of luxury lodges and a handful of basic campsites, making mysterious Makgadikgadi the nearexclusive domain of the adventurous 4×4 aficionado.
Passing through sleepy Khumaga village, our Hilux came to a juddering halt when the swollen Boteti River blocked our onward progress. In 2009, record rainfall resulted in the highest Okavango flood level for 25 years, and with the Boteti forming the main outflow of the delta, the rising water levels rejuvenated the dusty river which then surged down the western boundary of the national park once more.
Luckily, a two-vehicle pontoon ferry bobbed a few metres offshore and it wasn’t long before Otetseng Motlhabani, the amiable pontoon captain, appeared. For the princely sum of BWP 130 (or ZAR 150) we were provided with an official receipt and safe passage across the river.
Disembarking on the eastern shore, we met Jason on his way out of the park, and started chatting. Driving a Toyota Hilux Raider from Bushlore 4×4 Hire in Joburg, Jason had spent the previous three days exploring the park and the neighbouring Nxai Pan. “Last night, we had a massive storm here, so I’d be careful if you plan to explore the pans,” he warned, “but the game viewing around Khumaga has been excellent. During my drive yesterday afternoon, I ended up surrounded by close to a hundred elephants, and then the lions kept me awake all night with their roaring.”
The only natural source of permanent water in the reserve, the Boteti is the scene of an under-rated wildlife bonanza – where dense concentrations of elephants dominate the show and clans of dainty impala and families of curious kudu complete the riverine spectacle. The burgeoning elephant population has hammered most of the trees along the riverbank and the widespread devastation is, in many ways, reminiscent of Chobe.
We were also surprised to find an inordinate number of zebra carcasses littering the floodplain, giving an inkling of the harsh challenges faced by the herbivores that throng to the river to assuage their thirst during the long dry season.
Although we saw plenty of elephants, along with a raft of hippos at the aptly-named Hippo Pool, most of the game herds had already dispersed eastwards with the arrival of the rains.
Triggered by the onset of the annual rains in late spring, the Makgadikgadi plays host to the dazzling spectacle of the largest surviving zebra migration in Southern Africa – with an estimated 30 000 animals participating each year. The golden grasslands in the east of the reserve are transformed into a nutritious green carpet that stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s an attractive landscape, punctuated by the occasional palm-tree island along with a plethora of small seasonal pans and temporary natural waterholes.
Without warning, and as if by magic, large herds of zebra suddenly materialise on the rambling plains, drawn by the lush, grassy expanses; and for several months during the rains, the verdant eastern grasslands pulsate with life and teem with game.