The Makgadikgadi Pan, a salt pan situated in the middle of the dry savanna of north-eastern Botswana, is one of the largest salt flats in the world. 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.
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), Nwetwe and Nxai Pans. The largest individual pan is about 1,900 sq mi (4,921.0 km2). 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.
Very little wildlife can exist here during the harsh dry season of strong hot winds and only salt water, but following a rain the pan becomes an important habitat for migrating animals including wildebeest and one of Africa’s biggest zebra populations, and the large predators that prey on them. The wet season also brings migratory birds such as ducks, geese and great white pelicans. The pan is home of one of only two breeding populations of greater flamingos in southern Africa, and only on the Soa pan, which is part of the Makgadikgadi pans. The only birds here in the dry season are ostriches, chestnut-banded plover (Charadrius pallidus) and Kittlitz’s plover (Charadrius pecuarius). The grasslands on the fringes of the pan are home to reptiles such as tortoises, rock monitor (Varanus albigularis), snakes and lizards.
The Nxai Pan National Park
The Nxai Pan National Park is basically a salt pan. After a good rainfall water flows into the pan and on the grass country. The way into the pan should be travelled only by an all-wheel-drive vehicle.
The fossil pans of Nxai Pan offer spectacular, seasonal game-viewing in the rainy season (November – March). Huge herds of Zebra, Wildebeest, Springbok and Gemsbok attract many predators – lion, cheetah and both brown and spotted hyena. There are large numbers of bat-eared fox, which preys on rodents and reptiles.
This is one of the few areas in Botswana that is more interesting during the rainy season – when huge herds hit Nxai’s grassy pans. The numbers can be staggering; wildebeest, zebra and gemsbok appear in their thousands, along with large herds of other antelope and giraffe. Perhaps the focal point of Nxai Pan is the water hole, situated only two kilometres from the entrance gate, in a large grassy plain which is dotted with a few clumps of short umbrella thorn trees. Here, and within the mopane woodland, lion, giraffe, kudu, impala, ostrich, fascinating birdlife, and large numbers of springbok, together with a good population of jackal, bat-eared fox and numerous smaller creatures, are permanent residents.
Once the rains have started, gemsbok, elephant and zebra migrate to the area. At that time, zebra is present in the thousands and drop their young at Nxai Pan, rivalling the spectacle of the multitude of young springbok, to further enhance game-viewing opportunities. Whilst many other parks and reserves are not considered to be at their best during the rains, Nxai Pan becomes a veritable Garden of Eden.