Imagine a place of peace, solitude and intense silence only broken by the moaning sound of the wind. Where it could just be you for miles and miles with no other living soul.
Imagine standing in the middle of an ancient lake that dried up thousands and thousands of years ago. A place that has a wealth of archaeological sites, yielding both fossil remains and tools from the Stone Age and Early Iron Age. A place that looks the same as it did thousands of years ago
Yes, it does exist!
Located in the north-east of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve and south-east of the Okavango Delta lies a complex of huge, flat salt pans, collectively known as the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. The word Makgadikgadi derives from the word “kgala” which means thirst or dried up.
These pans capture the heart and imagination with its startling, moonlike landscape that cover an area of 12,000 km², they represent the ultimate escape back in time maybe, the only place where you can be transported to 1000 years ago. The landscape is entirely flat, creating a delusional feeling of eternity.
If you have spent an evening in nature you will know that magical feeling of looking up and seeing the night sky flood with stars. You are reminded that we share the universe is with all sorts of fascinating objects, each one more perplexing than the next.
Just before sunset, a dark red band lays about the western horizon while to your east the sky is filled with ribbons of pink, lilac and blue-grey. Jupiter and Saturn come out first thing at nightfall and start their journey across the sky setting below the southwest horizon. As the night gets deeper a bright object rises in the east sky, she is Venus, you get a good glimpse of her before sunrise. As you keep looking at the east sky just after midnight you see the yellow-orange shine from the Red Planet (Mars). The sky is truly there to put on a show for you. Its dry climate and remote location make its night skies among the clearest and darkest in the world. On a moonless night the Milky Way arcs over you like a giant swathe of smoke.
The granite basement, flanked by the Karoo rocks, within the Kalahari Sand give a crunch, shattering the salt-crusted surface underfoot. A combination of arid climate and soaring temperature on the vast Ntwetwe and Sowa Pans make it quite inhospitable for most of the year; with no bird insight (apart from the odd crow, of late) not an insect, tree or shrub that disrupts the horizon.
In contrast, during the wet/summer season Sowa Pans becomes flooded and turns into a sea of endless water. The myriad of powder blue lakes and verdant landscapes form to become a hub of wildlife activity. The pans attract huge flocks of Lesser and Greater Flamingos making the sky bright pink creating a picturesque view against the blue and whites.
During the dry season, November/December the rains in the Makgadikgadi area triggers the Zebra migration, the second largest migration in Africa, where the herds will travel for a few weeks from the Okavango Delta/ Moremi area to feed on the nutritious grass of the Makgadikgadi. They settle in for around three months, with March being when Zebras are massing for the return trip north or east to their dry feeding grounds.
Our visits to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans have always left our heart full of feeling completely immersed in nature. It’s desolate and beautiful.
Desert and Delta’s Leroo La Tau and Natural Selection’s Meno A Kwena offer a complimentary Makgadikadi Pans sleep-out experience for guests staying 3-nights or more. The experience may be requested and booked between July and October.
TIP: Include a scenic helicopter flight as a transfer (30mins) for a truly remarkable experience
We’re only momentarily disorientated… I’ve been lucky enough to call Botswana home for 7 years now and have traversed most of its dusty roads. However, there are always new gems to explore and last weekend the Makgadikgadi National Park was on the itinerary. This largely underutilised park only has a couple of roads crisscrossing its interior and most of them are long and straight with miles of visibility. Despite these pretty good odds, I still managed to be momentarily disorientated… or in plain English “lost”.
In hindsight this is actually a pretty impressive feat seeing as there are so few roads and yet we still managed to miss one of them – turns out it was the crucial one. We had booked a campsite in the middle of the park but for some reason we ended up on the Boteti river which forms the western boundary of the park. I’ll never forget when we came out of the ‘woods’ onto a ridge with a very pretty view of a dry river bed. After a moment or two of complementing the view it dawned on me that we were looking down on the Boteti and nowhere near where we were supposed to be. The little cement pillar stating Khumaga office a mere 2km away confirmed this. I couldn’t help but start laughing, almost uncontrollably, at this rather long detour. It was now 15h00, we’d left Maun at 8h30 and still had to cover 60km to get to the campsite and set up camp. Suffice to say the giraffe, gemsbok and elephants we’d passed earlier looked a little surprised to see us again so soon going the opposite direction at a slightly faster pace..
We made it to Tree Island in record time, set up camp and managed to get out onto the pans for a well-deserved sundowner. Nothing beats the open spaces the pans have to offer, there is quite literally nobody around let alone any man-made structures to disturb the endless views. My Dutch friend, who is an avid sailor, likened the emptiness of the park to being out at sea – the grass waving in the gentle breeze reminded him of the waves and if you know enough about astronomy you can easily navigate by the stars. I’ve seen plenty of impressive night skies but on a moonless night like we had, the universe in all its glory makes you seem very small and irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. A feeling that more people should experience more often if you ask me!
Back in camp dinner was served and we ended the day with a nightcap around the fire – you’re not camping properly if you’re not sitting around a fire contemplating the days’ adventures whilst hearing lions roar in the background.
The next morning, we left bright and early, changed our second flat tyre and made our way back to the Boteti (we knew the road by heart now..) to catch the annual zebra migration. This natural phenomenon is utterly astounding and quite literally breath taking. Imagine hundreds of zebra and wildebeest making their way down to the river, which isn’t much more than a couple of big puddles and trying to squeeze in between large herds of elephants. We parked our car under the trees, opened our picnic lunches and just sat there for hours watching the spectacle unfold before our eyes. Whilst the zebra, wildebeest and elephants were all jostling for space lions starting calling. I’m convinced they did so just to make the experience all the more surreal for us.
No matter how long I’ve been in Africa for nor how many safaris I’ve done, those hours spent on the river banks watching the spectacular migration in action is something I won’t easily forget. It ranks pretty high in special moments and trust me, this continent has granted me quite a few!
Arriving at our mobile camp set up between 2nd and 3rd bridge in Moremi Game Reserve after dark was like arriving in fairy land, with all the lanterns down the pathways and throughout the camp. Welcomed with a glass of sparkling wine, we were settled in.
This luxury mobile set up boasts a combination of elegance and a kind of exploration history giving you all the comforts of beds, en-suite bathrooms with bucket showers and flush toilets. This was to be our home for the next 2 nights. A mobile safari gives you a private camp feeling much closer to the bush than the infrastructure of any lodge. Lying in bed at night and listening the bush come alive, as certain curious species of game come to inspect the different smells and activities of our camp.
Our Guides, Ralph Bousfield and Greg certainly did not disappoint with their in depth knowledge and passion for the bush and stories of exploration, history, culture and scientific facts kept us all engaged and entertained the entire time we were with them. The other advantage of a mobile safari is creating a trust and a bond with your guide that will be with you throughout your trip.
Day 3 we boated far into the Okavango Delta, to our Island stop where Devon (our Camp Manager) was waiting for us, fly camp set up, with more food and drinks. Our set up was a roll mat with a mosquito net under the vast stars in the middle of the Okavango Delta. It gave us a feeling of being truly in the wild, in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Here we experienced the water ways of the Delta, whilst competing against each other on the number of Sitatunga and Otters we spotted. Nature walks around the island with Ralph proving to Simona we could still make a pizza from natural plants, mushrooms and shrubs on the island as well as curing malaria at the same time.
Day 4 our Delta experience was over and we flew out to the openness of the Makgadikgadi Pans. Our home here for 2 nights was in the most feminine of all 3 Uncharted Africa camps, San Camp.
You have a choice of 3 camps all meeting 3 different styles and budgets, whilst you can all enjoy the same activities.
Camp Kalahari situated further back in the grasslands is the least expensive of the 3 camps. It is currently raising all the tents, to allow the breeze to blow through and give you more of a view of the Pans.
San Camp being the lady of the 3, situated on the edge of the pans themselves is seasonal and only operational from April to October. Its white tents on the edge of the pans gives you the true feeling of being on the moon.
Jacks Camp, this colonial and historic camp based at the edge of the pans but slightly back into the grasslands is the grande-dame of the three. Packed with history and science with their registered museum, it does look fabulous after the completion of its refurbishment.
One thing to mention on the activities, is all 3 camps run the same activities on a rotational cycle so that guests from 2 different camps don’t do the same activity together. This is the reason that a 3 night stay in the dry season is recommended to be offered the surprise sleep out (weather dependant). Activities include a cultural bushman walk, game drives looking for more adapted desert species, quad biking in the dry season, following and interacting with the very comical habituated meerkats, horse riding as an optional extra and watching the sun set where it is so silent that your ears ring.
A safari to the Salt Pans is such a unique experience, from the Zebra migration in the Green Season to exploring the pans on quad bikes in the dry season, it should not be missed.
For those of you who have not been to Meno a Kwena Tented Camp – a plan must be made to go! It is not just a traditional safari experience. It is a unique insight into how tourism does succeed in embracing community and culture, as well as wildlife and the wilderness, as an integral part of the tourism environment.
We were met by Jeff and other ‘Meno’ team members at the camp after a brisk 2 hour drive from Maun and we spent the afternoon in camp at the floating hide viewing wildlife. Elephants, zebra, fish eagle and wildebeest kept us occupied and our cameras clicking. As sunset fell and the landscape transformed into a mirage of colours a rogue steenbok sprang out from nowhere, catapulting us from our seats in a desperate attempt to keep it in eyeshot while it sprinted along the river bank and made a gigantic leap into the river and swam across! We managed to get a photo of it – somewhat blurred, but despite of all our scanning around the vicinity we could not find any evidence of what could have made this steenbok ‘jump out of its skin’ and into water! Later we were told that there had been a leopard sighting in the area… Meno is definitely a camp that does not require you to go out on activities to be lucky with sightings. That night we also got to witness bush babies playing- chasing each other up and down the trees and the roof of the dining tent!
The next morning we went for a nature walk with Xao and members of his family and village, Xaixai. Any scepticism that I had had prior was immediately and totally eradicated! This was not culture put on a stage – it was natural, interactive, educational and extremely fun. They taught us some games which we played together, as well as song and dance. Besides entertainment, these activities were directly related to enhancing skills and attributes necessary for traditional hunting, care of the environment and family life. We ‘walked away’ with some great wilderness survival tips, a better understanding of the bushman culture, new friends, some light exercise and very happy faces.
After lunch it was time for a game drive! In the very safe hands of Cell our impressive guide, a short boat transfer along the Boteti River took as to the Makgadikgadi National Park. Our game drive vehicle was waiting for us and within our first 30 minutes we were blessed with wild dogs, white backed vultures, wildebeest, elephant, and getting stuck in thick sand. Being a lady, I found a cool spot under a raintree and equipped with an icy bottle of water and perched on a fallen tree trunk I proceeded to provide moral support to the boys as they proceeded to get the vehicle out of the sand. I even offered them some tips.
We continued our game drive along the western part of the park and the Boteti River and took in more delights with tawny eagle, honey badger, steenbok, giraffe, magpie and more…a portion of this drive runs along the fence /boundary of the national park that was erected to prevent the cohabitate of wildlife and cattle. This was necessary to prevent the spread of anthrax as well as other potentially fatal variables that can negatively affect wildlife, cattle and surrounding communities. This portion of fencing, however, as it cuts the river off from the park and thus access to water for wildlife, has resulted in wildlife forcing their way through the fencing – and not only opening up the fence to the free movement of cattle and wildlife across the boundary of the park, but also sometimes animals get entangled in the fencing causing fatalities.
The surrounding communities have culturally lived a pastoral farming lifestyle and thus access to some part of the Boteti River was deemed necessary for them to continue with their traditional life. However, with the emergence of Meno A Kwena and their close relationship both economically and sociably with surrounding communities as well as government empowerment initiatives, the communities now see the benefits of tourism as well as the destruction caused by the proximity of the fencing to the river. As we speak now, it is the communities that are now humming for the relocation of the fence. It is indeed a true sign that communities are‘owning’ their surroundings and proudly so. We look forward to the news of the movement of the fence. But in essence, visitors do need to be sensitised to this history in order that they may appreciate that change can be a process and that the protection of wildlife and the environment is key to the ultimate goal.
Yet another great experience that Meno A Kwena has to offer is an overnight pan trip. As it is quite a lengthy drive to the pans – to avoid disappointment book a 3 night stay at Meno and indicate that you would like to go there! I experienced the night out with Meno and amongst colleagues and family of Safari Destination earlier this year in June. It is an experience that is hard to describe and unforgettable – I felt like I was floating, with the endless panoramic views – a feeling of weightlessness. I understood then the cliché often used… ’sleep under a canvas of stars’. There is no other way to say it… and don’t forget to take your camera to get shots of you looking like you have special powers… but bring your thermals as it is cold at that time of year, and as much as you feel like a super hero when you are there – sadly, you are still prone to the elements… You may even be lucky and see a family of meerkats on your journey. This activity is not possible in the rainy season as the pans are flooded and it is impossible to get near them!
And of course a visit to Meno is often portrayed in photos against the background of a contrast of black and white stripes surrounded by a sea of soft dust… The Zebra Migration! The larger concentration of zebra is best experienced outside of the rainy season- perhaps between June-September (dependent on the weather maker).
Meno A Kwena is a great way to start or end your visit to Botswana and get a feel of the country with its complimentary offering of wildlife, culture and community in an intimate environment.
We have several itineraries that include Meno a Kwena, one of the most popular is our “10 night BEST VALUE Safari”, a combination Livingstone, Chobe, Delta and Makgadikgadi. You can download the details from our agent’s corner.
With our first rain of the season last night, the residents of Maun are breathing a sigh of relief. It is a welcome reprieve from the October heat. With all the industry talk of “Green Season” and the countless specials on offer, I thought I would shed some light on the subject for those wanting to travel to Botswana at this special time of year.
The green season in Botswana (Dec—Mar) is becoming increasingly popular as many operators offer significantly reduced rates paired with clever marketing strategies. However, you need to know the difference in the product during these months and be honest with your prospective customers.
Both wet and dry spells occur throughout the season. Typically short, spectacular afternoon showers offer a welcome relief from the heat of the day and make for great photographic opportunities. However, periods of heavy rain, low cloud cover and drizzle can occur.
Large concentrations of wildlife surrounding the permanent waterways during the dry season disperse to seek new grazing and are sustained by the seasonal pans now filled with rain water. Lower concentrations of wildlife are compensated for with lower visitor numbers offering added exclusivity. With the arrival of the rain comes new life as birthing season begins for many species. Predators take advantage seeking out the vulnerable young as easy prey creating spectacular wildlife interaction. Heronries and other nesting colonies are very active at this time of year and it is the peak breeding time for many of the colorful migrant birds.
The normally arid landscape of the Kalahari is transformed into a thriving paradise teaming with herds of springbok and gemsbok attracted by the short, sweet grasses and the water filled pans. Nxai Pan becomes home to thousands of Zebra resulting in excellent predator interaction with the resident lion prides.
The scenery is refreshingly lush and vibrant as the dust is washed away and trees and flowers burst into life. The retreat of the flood means that more varied habitats are accessible to explore on game drives. Lower water levels in the delta can limit water activities dependent on seasonal flood levels. Walking is limited for safety reasons due to the cover provided by the long grass and lush vegetation.
The green season rates offer excellent value for money, providing a great opportunity to visitors that could otherwise not afford Botswana, or returning visitors that would like to see a different side.