The Makgadikgadi Pans were formed millions of years ago. The Makgadikgadi Pans National Park gives one the impression that you are not likely to find much life, but there are villages on the boundaries with evidence of there being life there as far back as the Stone Age. Lesser desert-adapted mammals abound, including charming critters like meerkats and bat-eared foxes. If you know where to look and what to look for, Makgadikgadi has much and more to offer visitors.
Each year from November to March, when the rains come, the pans fill with water. The main water source is the Nata River, known as 'Amanzanyama' in Zimbabwe, where it rises about 37 mi (59.5 km) from Bulawayo. A smaller amount of water is supplied by the Okavango Delta's Boteti River. It is at this time that massive numbers of hoofed animals move in to make the most of the new growth of grass and vegetation. The rains also attract flocks of waterbirds that are drawn to the spectacular transformation from desert into paradise. 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.
As the pans start to dry and the grazing areas begin to deteriorate, the animals once again start looking for other sources of water and grazing and move on. During times of plenty, though, sightings of predators may surprise you. Wildlife here includes the magnificent black-maned Kalahari lion, but other predators like the leopard, cheetah and wild dog can also be seen preying on the migratory herds. Springbok, herds of wildebeest, gemsbok and zebra as well as the spotted hyena occur throughout.
Walking or driving though this expansive wilderness accompanied by an expert guide is a dreamlike experience. The pans that make up the Makgadikgadi salt flats are numerous and differ in size, some as small as a pond and others too large to see where they end. On their fringes and in between the pans, grasslands and occasional striking islands are found.
The Bushman way of life is constantly under threat by development and relocation, and tourists have been in a large part responsible for being a lifeline to the original peoples’ lifestyle. If you are in the Makgadikgadi, tracking through the wilderness with one of the bushman and learning how they have survived for hundreds of years is simply priceless.
Another way visitors can become acquainted with the local people and get to know more about their culture and way of life is to visit one of the local villages. It is here, at their home , where some of the most remarkable activities and customs of the Bushmen can be experienced.
Guests visiting the Makgadikgadi will be welcomed at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg where they will be assisted in transferring to their cross-border flight to Maun in Botswana. Guests will be required to take a light aircraft from Maun to the Makgadikgadi region. The airstrip you will be landing on in the area depends on your choice of safari.
The Makgadikgadi is almost the same size as Portugal, and it goes without saying that there are many ways to get there and many gates through which one can enter. To make the trip as comfortable as possible, African Sky will charter their guests directly to the closest landing strip to your lodge in the Makgadikgadi. You will be transferred from the strip in a private, air-conditioned vehicle.
If at all possible, try to visit the Makgadikgadi Pans twice in your lifetime - once to see the pans when they are filled with water and birds flock to them in masses, and once when not a trace of water can be found. This dramatic transformation is truly miraculous and the area offers different activities in each season.
During the rainy summer season from November to May, some parks and reserves close due to inaccessibility, but at those that are open the birding is excellent. In the dry winters from May to October, wildlife viewing is the best and many consider this to be the best time to visit. It ultimately depends on the experience you are looking for.
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park was already declared a reserve in 1970, but was only proclaimed as national park in 1992, when it was also extended. Makgadikgadi in a local language simply means 'salt pan', and that is exactly what it is. It is not one salt pan, but a series of very large salt pans that once formed the Makgadikgadi. This lake was one of the biggest inland masses of water at the time and of great importance for the human race. This is due to the fact that stone tools that even predate Homo sapiens have been excavated in the area. On the shores of this great lake that covered the entire area that now forms the national park, our prehistoric ancestors made a living.
Much more recent relics such as a baobab tree that is believed to be up to 4000 years old can still be seen in the reserve. Early explorers such as Dr David Livingstone and Courtney Selous used to leave letters in a crack of this same tree on their exploratory missions across this vast arid wilderness. Recently the Makgadikgadi Pans became quite well know when the infamous car show presenters of ‘Top Gear’ crossed the desolate pans in second hand two wheel drive cars that cost less than £1500. The episode came out on 4 November 2007 and Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May became the first people to ever cross the pans in two wheel drive cars.
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park has two distinct seasons. The wet season normally starts in November and ends in March. During this time the pans fill with water that attracts a multitude of species. Enormous herds of blue wildebeest and Burchell's zebra migrate to the water-filled pans from the Okavango Delta. Other antelope include red hartebeest, kudu, bushbuck, duiker, springbok, eland and gemsbok. This massive influx of prey draws a lot of predators to the area. These include lions, cheetahs, leopards and brown hyenas. Even the world's largest land animal, the elephant, is drawn towards this oasis in the desert.
The most spectacular visitor might be the greater flamingos that come here to breed on such a large scale that it is basically impossible to count them. Claims are made that they number into hundreds of thousands. The flamingos are accompanied by large numbers of duck, geese and great white pelicans. During the dry season from March to October, the pans dry up and only desert species can survive here. One of the most famous species would be the ever-watchful meerkat that move around in large groups. With enough patience and a little bit of luck, there is also a chance of spotting rare desert species like the bat-eared fox and the highly elusive aardvark.
One should not be fooled by the fact that the Makgadikgadi National Park is largely made up of salt pans. It is important to note that it is not one pan, but rather a conglomeration of pans with desert vegetation in between. The salt pans, which are one of the largest salt flats in the world, are the remnants of what was once the gigantic Lake Makgadikgadi. The pans do not sustain a variety of vegetation - in fact, only blue-green algae can be sustained by the salty arid terrain. And yet, the pans are one of the most important habitats for the region's wildlife.
Once rain has fallen in the area, an abundance of wildlife is drawn to the seemingly dead pans. This includes flamingos, wildebeest and zebras and the predators that follow closely behind. The pans are surrounded by grasslands, a couple of rocky outcrops, and in some areas, large baobabs tower over the grassy vegetation, creating stark silhouettes against the vast background. Good rains create perennial rivers, and the pans are transformed into a shallow lake giving visitors an idea of what the historic Makgadikgadi Lake must have been like. To the west of the park, grasslands and acacia woodlands can even be found.
The largely uninhabited flat area of the Makgadikgadi Pans is surprisingly rich with things to do and, more importantly, things to see. If there is one thing you will remember, it will be the triple S – the sunrises, the sunsets and the star-filled skies, all of which are so spectacular to view that you will find yourself unintentionally holding your breath at the sheer greatness. It goes without saying that landscape photography and cinematography opportunities are as endless as the pans themselves. Upon taking a game drive over the seemingly desolate landscape, you will be pleasantly surprised by the amount of wildlife that occurs in the region.Interactive walks with the Bushmen that have called this apparently barren land home for centuries are sure to offer a remarkable transfer of knowledge, and should be considered a great honor. Not only will you learn about the animals and the vegetation, but also about the almost-lost art of survival in one of the harshest environments imaginable. It is also imperative to visit some of the archaeological sites and natural monuments, such as Kubu Island. For the more adventurous types, quad bike rides are available and also serve as a great method to cover a lot of ground within the vast expanse.
The finest experiences to be savored highlight the unique and otherworldly nature of the pans, from swathes of pink stretching across the stark white landscape after the rains to the alien appearance of baobabs jutting out from Kubu Island.
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