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Makgadikgadi Pans - A view from our expert author
During the rains the Makgadikgadi Pans come to life with huge migrating herds of zebra, wildebeest, and occasionally (if the pans fill with water) pelicans and millions of flamingos © Jandrie Lombard, Shutterstock
The Sua and Ntwetwe pans that comprise Makgadikgadi cover 12,000km² to the south of the Nata–Maun road. The western side is protected within a national park, while the east is either wilderness or cattle-ranching land. These are amongst the largest salt pans in the world and have few landmarks. So you’re left to use the flat, distant horizon as your only line of reference – and even that dissolves into a haze of shimmering mirages in the heat of the afternoon sun.
During the rains this desolate area comes to life, with huge migrating herds of zebra, wildebeest, and occasionally (if the pans fill with water) pelicans and millions of flamingos. A couple of odd outcrops of isolated rock in and around the pans add to their sense of mystery, as well as providing excellent vantage points from which to view the endless expanse of silver, grey and blue.
The encrusted tracks of lion or cheetah sometimes appear on the pan surface, particularly towards the west, but the comparative lack of large herbivores means that larger predators are scarce, and a wandering lion is apt to be shot by cattle ranchers. More common are the smaller nocturnal carnivores that can survive the harsh conditions and thrive on smaller pickings.
Brown hyena inhabit the area, and a habituated clan of these elusive predators may be observed at close quarters from Jack’s Camp, on the western shores of Ntwetwe, where they have been studied by zoologists. Their catholic diet includes tsama melons and ostrich eggs, as well as spring hares, young springbok, smaller mammals and carrion.
These fascinating dry salt pans change character completely during the rains – if you time it right, you could see some absolutely stunning birdlife.
Black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox and African wildcat are widespread, while yellow mongoose is common in sandy areas, where it is an accomplished killer of scorpions. At night, a legion of smaller mammals moves out across the grasslands. Spring hares thrive on damaged grassland and are common around villages, where up to 60 may occur per hectare. Their eyes shine brightly in torchlight, and casting a beam around your campsite will usually reveal at least one foraging nearby.
Aardvarks are found (though seldom seen) in open areas with plenty of termites, scrub hares hide up in acacia thickets, and porcupines occur anywhere. Acacias provide shelter for lesser bushbabies, which feed on their gum during winter when insects are less abundant. This diminutive, nocturnal primate performs astonishing leaps from tree to tree and seldom comes to the ground, progressing on its hind legs in huge hops when it does. Common rodents include typical Kalahari species such as ground squirrel, Damara mole rat, hairy-footed gerbil and black-tailed tree rat.