After leaving Cape Town, South Africa we traveled by air to Maun, Botswana to prepare for our seven day safari into the Moremi Game Reserve, Savuti Marsh, Chobe National Park, and finishing in Livingstone, Zambia where we visited Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the world. While waiting to start our safari in Maun we decided to rent a four wheel drive pickup and travel the 70 or so miles to the Makgadikgadi Pan.
The Makgadikgadi Pan, together with Nxai Pan forms the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan National Park. The park contains a number of diverse habitats including riverine woodland, scrubland, grassland, and salt pans. Large areas of the Pans are covered in lush swathes of mixed grasses that offer a banquet for thousands of animals including species like wildebeest, zebra, springbok, oryx, kudo, and steenbok among others. Predators including lions, leopards, cheetah, and extremely rare wild dogs are attracted to the Pans where they hunt this abundant bounty. The grasses of the Pans, like ‘prickly salt grass,’ are adapted to the alkaline soils of the region and you can sometimes see salt crystals on their blades. The grasses are also adapted to dry conditions as the Pans receive very little rainfall. As a result, the rivers of the Pan, like the Boteti River, only flow during the rainy season between November and April if at all. The precipitation of the rainy season supports perennial pools located in the riverbeds and flood plains that attract waterbuck, bushbuck and resident hippos. These rains are also essential lifeblood for the grasses of the Pans, which are revitalized and spring back to life after going dormant during the long dry period. The Pans are truly captivating and you can feel their ancient appeal as you travel through them.
We entered Makgadikgadi National Park through the Phuduhudu Gate where upon leaving the black top of Botswana’s Highway A3 we instantly found ourselves driving through the deep sands that dominant the Makgadikgadi. The truck felt and drove like maneuvering a bicycle through thick pudding. It took a while to figure out the correct gears to navigate in, but eventually we were able to maneuver easily through the soft sands without ever getting stuck. Within a hundred meters of passing through the gate at Phuduhudu we entered a barren, burned landscape that stretched for as far as the eye could see. The Makgadikgadi, which we later discovered had suffered a massive bush fire two weeks previous to our arrival, had been transformed into a blackened moonscape. The only area having been spared was the riparian woodlands of the Boteti River, which itself had just started flowing again in 2009 after 20 years of drought. The area was desolate, silent, eerily devoid of almost all animal life, not a single singing bird, and the few wildebeest, giraffe, and oryx we did encounter appeared as if a surreal mirage against the blackened background that confronted us.
Leaving the Boteti, we traveled deep into the burned area when miles in front of us we began to see numerous vultures circling almost directly above the sandy two-track we traveled on. As we approached closer we were able to make out a hulking mass just off the road to our left. “It’s an elephant, a dead elephant,” we exclaimed! As we pulled up and shut down the engine we were at once exhilarated and deeply saddened by the image before us. Elephants are incredibly intelligent, have complex social structures, and seem able to feel grief for their dead. All of this made our encounter bittersweet. We left the truck, approached the lifeless hulking mass, walked around it, snapping photos in complete silence for what seemed like an hour. Having never been so close (we touched it!) to an elephant in the wild, there really was nothing to say. We knew this was a once in a lifetime experience. The carcass was splattered with vulture droppings, its eyes long since eaten from their sockets, the stench abhorrent, yet we stood mesmerized before it. What had happened to this individual? Its death didn’t appear to be a direct result of the fire. Had it become disoriented and separated from its family by the fire? Unable to find food, water, and alone had it simply succumbed to the brutal landscape left by the fire? Was it disease that killed it? We would never know the answer, but we will never forget having come across its lifeless form lying among this desolation.
We finally left the carcass and began our return to the blacktop highway and the safety of Maun. As we looked back at the sun setting over the pans we reflected on our experience and thought how the beauty of a Makgadikgadi sunset is like no other, how the vastness of the Pans seemingly endless desert brings one face-to-face with true isolation, and that the landscape left behind by the fire made it seem even more so. Memories of our visit to the Pans will remain with us forever.
For further information on the lives of elephants and their conservation in Africa a fascinating read is Martin Meredith’s “Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa.”