The Makgadikgadi & Nxai Pans - Vast Grasslands Supporting an Ancient Migration

The Makgadikgadi Pans and Nxai Pan are places of seemingly endless sky and land.  Home to salt flats the size of Portugal it is a surreal, harsh, yet abundant ecosystem.  Pans are shallow depressions in the earth that hold seasonal water.  During the rainy season when the pans are full countless flamingos and other birds come here to breed.  Despite the lack of water for most of the year the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans contain a number of diverse habitats including riverine woodland, scrubland, grassland and salt pans.

hwange giraffe

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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, kudu, and steenbok among others.  This large population of grazing animals attracts the charismatic predators that Africa is known for including lions, leopards, cheetah, and extremely rare wild dogs have even been recorded from Nxai Pan.

The grasses of the Pans, like the  '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.  However, 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 rest on an area that during wetter times supported huge lakes.  The lake located where the Makgadikgadi now exists covered a 30,888 square mile (80,000 square kilometer) area and reached depths of nearly 100 feet (30 meters).  Over 10,000 years ago the climate of the region began to warm and dry, and the lake slowly evaporated.  Left behind were the salt encrusted sediments of the lake bed, which today we recognize as the Pans.  Now, the salt Pans of both the Nxai and Makgadikgadi are vast, open and stretch on in flatness to the horizon.  On occasion the flatness is broken by rocky outcrops and large stranded sand dunes

One major attraction of Nxai Pan are the Baines’ Baobabs.  It is a cluster of huge baobab trees, located on the edge of a salt pan just to the south of Nxai Pan itself.  The famous explorer Thomas Baines first documented and painted these baobabs during one of his expeditions in the middle of the 19th century.  His painting soon became famous and led to the area being used as an important camping sight for many other explorers.  While Europeans first found these baobabs only recently, the San Bushmen have been using these trees for thousands of years to access water.  The so-called bushman pots are large crevasses in the trees, which hold water from the rainy season for many months. The Bushmen actually carved small steps up some of the larger trees to access the water. These steps can still be seen today.

The Pans are truly captivating and you can feel their ancient appeal as you travel through them.  Sunset on the Pans are entrancing, and those who experience a Makgadikgadi sunset will confirm they are like no other they have ever witnessed.  During the day the sheer vastness of the Pans seemingly endless desert, bring one face-to-face with true isolation.  Memories of your visit to the Pans will remain with you forever.

Our Best of Botswana Camping Safari visits both the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans.