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Why should a safari to Botswana's Makgadikgadi Salt Pans be on your holiday bucket-list?

Kate Pirie By Kate Pirie
02 Jul 2019
Botswana - Kubu Island - Group on quads - NaturalSelection.jpg

The enormous dramatic and shimmering salt pans of the Makgadikgadi offer up such a totally different experience to the ‘traditional’ safari. I love the absolute freedom of being alone in the middle of nowhere! No noise, no light, only the sound of silence.

Botswana offers a myriad of unique and astounding regions, and the Makgadikgadi pans in the Kalahari desert are one of the most breath taking of all. The word means ‘dry thirsty place’ in the language of the San people of the Kalahari, and indeed it is a dry thirsty place!

This natural wonder covers over 30,000 square kilometres and is all that remains of the formerly enormous Lake Makgadikgadi which existed up until 10,000 years ago. The present-day Makgadikgadi is not one continuous but several individual salt pans and open grasslands that make up the whole habitat, the three main pans being Sua (Sowa), Nxai and Nwetwe Pans. The pans lend themselves perfectly to active and adventurous safaris! During the dry season, they are easily accessible and great for exploring on foot, vehicle, horseback and quad bikes.



Quad biking and horse riding across the endless landscape of the pans

There a lots of ways to explore the pans. Quad biking in the dry season is great fun for every age. For the more adventurous there is a quad bike safari for five nights which includes two nights sleeping out under the stars at Kubu Island. Families often enjoy this option, and children from 6 years can experience the quad bike riding (riding with an adult). Over 12’s can take their own bikes out.


Horse riding can be organised as an activity for any age; riding in the pans offers up a lot of opportunity for beginners as the wildlife in the area doesn’t include dangerous species and the terrain is flat and open. For those more experienced one can ride out for several hours and get some good mileage across the salt pans.

For keen and experienced riders there are also some amazing riding safari options lasting between three and five nights which uses both the permanent camps and fly camps. These safaris will see much more wildlife around the base camps combined with the quieter desert experience of the pan. I recommend spending a night out under the stars in the Makgadikgadi Pan; listening to the horses rustling around nearby is just the most magic feeling.


Where can you stay in the Makgadikgadi?

The terrain around the pan where the lodges are based is grassland and shrubby savanna with baobabs serving as prominent landmarks. There are some permanent water holes for resident wildlife. There are three camps with direct access to the pan on the north-western edge of the Makgadigadi, each offering something a little different.

Jack’s Camp is the flagship camp of Ralph Bousfield. The central old-style 1940’s style tents, so large and comfortable, are full of stunning antiques and artefacts collected by the Bousfield family over generations and perfect for every type of traveller. Jacks Camp is closing for a refurbishment from 16 October 2019 until April 2020, however Jack’s Migration Camp will be operating in its place offering just as much luxury and comfort while the base camp gets some beauty treatment.


Their sister camp San Camp is a little more private and exclusive with the interior décor focused on more of a classic safari feel and white tents that complement the white salt pans they look over. Here you are close to the San village and can take walks in the desert with the San people. Both Jacks and San Camp have wonderful canvas structures and keep you close to nature no matter in how much comfort you are in!

Camp Kalahari is very relaxed and just perfect for families or those on more of a budget, though they offer all the same activities as Jack’s and San camps.


Another camp on the edge of the reserve but a distance away from the Salt pans is Meno a Kwena. The focus when staying here is not on the salt pans, but more of the desert landscape, Boteti River and wildlife in the area. This is a very family-friendly camp with simple comforts, and a perfect stop for a few nights from which to explore the river and see the wildlife it attracts, as well as interact with the local San people in nearby villages.

All these camps offer luxury tented en-suite accommodation, they are all quite exclusive with around 10 tents in total, and there is specific family accommodation at each. All feature a pool to cool off in, tasty meals freshly prepared, highly trained guides and opportunities to learn about how this amazing wilderness area works and the Kalahari San skills needed to survive in this environment.


Why not enhance your exploration with a private specialist guide?

The guides at these camps are really fantastic. However if you are seeking a unique experience with one of the legendary guides in this region, they are very accessible and really bring so much to your safari experience making it a truly once-in-a-life time trip. I highly recommend Ralph Bousfield and Super Sande from Jack’s and San Camps and David Foot from Ride Botswana for those riding enthusiasts.

The migration of zebra and wildebeest

Many of the ‘adrenaline activities’ take place during the dry season, but there is still plenty to see here should you be visiting during the rainy season! The rains can begin as early as late October lasting until mid-April, but are generally from December through March. The desert scape is brought to life during this time with flora and fauna appearing, followed closely by the dramatic zebra and wildebeest migration.


Up to 30,000 animals move from the Okavango delta to the Makgadikgadi pans following the rains which bring on new grasses. They arrive from January to April in the pans and spend time grazing here before turning back from July when the pans start to dry out. They return to the wetlands and river areas elsewhere in Botswana such as the Linyanti, the Okavango delta and Chobe, with the larger predators – lion and leopard – on their tail.

The wildlife of the pans does not disappoint

This area is also home to the third largest carnivore on the continent – the brown hyena. They have a wonderful dark brown shaggy coat and a cream coloured ruff and like spotted hyenas, have powerful jaws. However, whilst spotted hyena kill more than they scavenge, brown hyenas primarily scavenge and have a good sense of smell; required to find their food many kilometres away! They also eat insects and rodents as well as fruit and fungi. The desert or Kalahari truffle is delicious to both brown hyena and man! One mostly sees them at dusk, early morning and at night.

And not to dismiss the all the other amazing animals that survive in and around this terrain, the list includes desert adapted species including bat eared foxes, aardvark, aardwolf and even bull elephants on occasion - one of which was recently photographed by a client eating casually right outside her tent at Camp Kalahari!

When there is water in the pans migrating birds such as the great white pelicans and greater and lesser flamingo arrive and stay for a few months, and all year round one can find the famous meerkats, who are not shy and often use their human visitors as a look-out point, if you sit quietly enough on the desert floor for a few moments!


Giving something back

Very importantly, as we travel we become more and more aware of our need to understand the issues affecting conservation and community in the areas we go to. The camps and operators mentioned above specifically support and invest in community and conservation projects in their areas. These include, to name but a few:

  • The Environmental Club at Moreomaoto Village Primary School teaches the students about the national park they live next to, including taking the local children to the national park so they can learn to treasure their local wild areas.
  • Makgadikgadi Conservation Initiative supports Africa’s longest and Botswana’s largest mammal migration. Their aim (in brief and best said in their own words) is to “identify and promote migration routes of least resistance, thereby promoting regional wildlife migrations and corridors” and “community embracement of sustainable conditions for wildlife alongside their own wellbeing” - surely the only way forward for wildlife conservation.
  • Ride Botswana is doing amazing work helping young people in the communities they work with access educational training schemes and gaining qualifications within tourism. You will most probably meet some of them during your time in Makgadikgadi as they work as guides, managers, chefs in many of these camps ...


What is the best time to visit the Makgadikgadi?

The dry season generally runs from mid-May to mid-October and the pans are generally accessible during this time so adventuring can be done on foot, vehicle, horseback and quad bikes.

If you would like to see the zebra and wildebeest migration, the rainy season between December and March is an ideal time to travel.

Please do feel free to contact me for more information on Botswana, the Makgadikgadi pans, and active safaris in general, I would be delighted to discuss these further!


Images kindly provided courtesy of Natural Selection Safaris