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Makgadikadi Pans

Most people think of Botswana’s Makgadikadi Pans as vast salt pans with one or two bits of vegetation. In fact the area is only one fifth pans, the balance is rolling grass plains with the Boteti River on the western border…thick sand borders and lush riverine vegetation.

The grasses are highly nutritious and provide a rich diet for the many zebra that migrate to the Boteti River side of the park from October to April. The Boteti woods provide good cover for bushbuck, duiker and other woodland animals year round. There are always permanent pools especially near the Khumaga camping site at Hippo Pool No. 1 (which is named, funnily enough, after the hippo that are sometimes resident!) and the perennial pools attract waterbuck and bushbuck.

Once buried under the waters of the awesome Lake Magkadikgadi, the waters receded leaving the Boteti River in the neck of the hour glass shape that was the lake. The vegetation is diverse throughout the park and includes palm groves interspersed by yellow grassland. Near the pan area is a unique succulent with one meter high branches and amazing maroon flowers (rarely present), the Hoodia lugardii. Prickly salt grass grows on the pans and salt crystals are often seen on the leaves.

No visit to Botswana is complete without a visit to the Makgadikgadi Pans, a unique expanse of nothingness and yet …


At sunset the subtlest change in hue turns the pan world into a magical wonderland of color. The remoteness, the inaccessibility and the danger all add to the mystique of the pans. The Makgadikdi consists of two pans, Ntwetwe and Sowa plus a number of smaller pans.

The Makgadikadi Pans are only accessible when it is completely dry, from May to September but during a very wet season they may not be reachable even in May. During the day the pans are extremely hot but at night the temperature is mild. In winter one definitely needs a blanket!

There is abundant evidence the pans have supported humans and their herds for a long time. On Kubu Island there is even evidence of a stone age settlement, a rocky outcrop on the south-western shore of Sowa Pan. One theory is the people living on this island were part of the Great Zimbabwe Empire centered in Zimbabwe. There are a number of ruins radiating outwards from Great Zimbabwe which could have been the center of a huge trading dynasty dating back to 1250AD.

Dr David Livingstone was responsible for opening up a trade route through this area and early white explorers such as Andersson, Cummings, the Green brothers, Chapman and Baines all passed through this area.

Together with the majestic baobabs (Adonsonia digitata), is another tree species, the African chestnut (Sterculia Africana). This has a large tennis ball sized fruit and is abundant on Kubu Island.

Wildlife on the pans is scarce but includes springbok, gemsbok, steenbok and zebra. Most animals simply cross the pans to the rolling grass plains in the rest of the park. When water floods the pans the tiny crustaceans hatch and provide food for flamingoes. The largest breeding spot in Africa for greater flamingoes is found on Sowa Pan.

A fascinating account involving the Makgadikadi Pans was written by Peter Johnson in his book “Okavango – Sea of Land – Land of Water”. During a flight over the nearly dried up mud, he noticed strange movement on the ground below, and so circled lower to identify what it was. What he saw was five thousand flamingo chicks, all unable to fly but able to walk; their tracks trailed off over the horizon. Amongst all the babies were a few parent birds, seemingly guiding and guarding the youngsters – they were migrating from one dried up pool to another! A similar event has happened before at Etosha Pan in Namibia, in 1971, when 30,000 flamingo chicks trudged 80 kilometers to water – the parent birds flew in relays, bringing regular food supplies to feed their young for the entire, epic journey.

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