The Makgadikgadi pans are a 12,000 square km network of dried up lakes. According to Lonelyplanet, Salar de Unyuni, in Bolivia, is the largest salt pan in the World, but the three pans of the Makgadikgadi, combined, are bigger. The whole area use to be a gigantic lake, which dried up around 10,000 years ago due to climate changes caused by a distant ancestor of Al Gore.
There are different routes into the pans, and I chose to drive to the small town of Nata and see the Sowa pan. Sowa means salt in the language of the San people (better known as Bushmen, but today, that’s like calling Inuits Eskimos).
It gets very hot in this area and, like in Etosha, animals seeks what little shade they can find. However, this was the first time I saw insects hiding in the shade. These very large butterflies were at the entrance to the lodge where I was camping. They also flapped outside my tent as if they were dying and turned out to be noisy and more disgusting than beautiful from up-close.
I would have loved to just go driving on the pan by myself, but part of the road required a 4×4, so I went on a sunset guided tour organized by the lodge. The guide was very interesting and I learned all sorts of random things. For instance, the winds in this part of Botswana almost always come from the East. So, if you need a compass, look for a tree. The nests are always on the West side!
The National Park where the pan is located also has vast areas of pasture. Many birds, including ostriches, and grazing animals such as these buffalos roam around freely inside, but the park is fenced.
For a few seconds, I looked at these cows as if they were perfectly normal, and then it hit me: wild cows?!? I asked the guide what they were doing in a game reserve. As it turns out, developers want to build a big resort in the area (possibly the South African chain Protea, I’m not sure). Right now, only small lodges operate there. Local opinion is divided, but for some reason, farmers are opposed, so they breach the park fences and let their cows in. I didn’t understand how that affects whom, why, in what way and for what purpose, but there you have it, cows in a park. Too bad there are no lions; it would have been quite the show! In the background of the picture, you can see the beginning of the salt flats.
The grounds of the pan is a mixture of mud and salt. During the rainy season, it gets covered by a thin layer of water and a huge number of water birds flock to the area. However, this year the rainy season was late. It had only rained for a few hours in several months and, according to our guide, the flamingos had come and gone without waiting for the rain.
Even if I had had a 4×4, I would have thought twice before heading out on the flats. The area is enormous, remote, and unforgiving. Your vehicle can get bogged in wet salt, you can easily get disoriented, and the conditions are harsh to say the least. Travel in convoy is much safer.
Baby flamingos often learn of the harsh nature of the place the hard way. Unlike other species, flamingos don’t care that well for their young. When the adults feel it’s time to move on from the pans, they go. If the young can follow, good, of not, too bad. Youngsters left behind soon get thirsty and start running madly towards the mirages. Once they get there and find no water, they look back and see the mirage the other way. They start running like crazy again. Very soon, they die of exhaustion. Quite sad.
While I am sure there are all sorts of insects and things living on the pan, to the untrained eye, it was lifeless. There were no birds and no wind. I thought this might have been one of the most quiet places I had ever been to, were it not for the German tourists joking around while chugging beers at sunset. I moved away until the noise died down a bit and enjoyed the beautifully desolate scenery by myself.
Just before sunset, I just laid down on the ground and took pictures. I wish I could have spent the night there. It feels like having your very own planet!