Around 250km to the southeast of the Okavango Delta
the vast flat landscape of the Kalahari sandvelt contains the even flatter, harsher and emptier landscape of the Makgadikgadi Pans.
These blinding white sand flats are all that remain of a vast inland lake that occupied a large part of central Botswana several million years ago. The lake was fed by the Boteti and Nata rivers, the former flowing from the Okavango. So in some ways these pans can be seen as precursors of the Okavango Delta and, some would say, an indication of what those swamps are destined to become if the region's climate continues to become more arid.
It is often said that standing out in the centre of the pans is the closest that most of us can ever get to going to the moon. Actually the moon surface is a lot more contoured and the experience up there is presumably further enhanced by a rather impressive view back to earth! But anyone who has spent any time in a desert area will appreciate quite how powerful nothingness can be ... and it does not get any more nothingnessy than out on the centre of these pans.
There are not many people who make it out this far who don't return having been absolutely entranced and energised by the experience.
Makgadikgadi is home to one of the most famous camps in Africa ... the fabulous Jack's Camp
. Named after the crusty old pioneer who was the first white man to ever spend time out in this wilderness, the camp is now owned and operated by his son, Ralph Bousfield. This is a place of genuine style, somewhere that dares to be different and to challenge its guests. But above all it is a camp which manages to bring this apparently empty landscape to life and provide an amazing wilderness experience.
Most of the other camps in the area are owned and operated by the same people, notably San Camp
, which is located close to Jack's Camp, but is right on the edge of the pans themselves.
These camps are the primary reason to visit Makgadikgadi, because without their expertise the landscape would not carry sufficient interest for most people and without their style and flair the experience would be all the poorer.
During the dry winter season, June to October, the usual time to visit the Okavango Delta, this part of the world should be at its harshest and all of the migratory game should be long gone. So it might seem to be a strange time to visit. But it is only under these dry conditions that it becomes possible to really get out onto the pans, when their surface has dried to a crust.
Makgadikadi pan expeditions are carried out by quadbike, following strictly controlled routes in order not to damage the ancient surfaces. Sometimes trips take a few hours, sometimes a few days. Here and there the guides will draw your attention to the remains of an elephant or a collection of stone tools, artifacts which have lain out here under the burning sun for years, decades, centuries or even millennia.
Camping out on the Makgadikadi pans is an experience never to be forgotten, sleeping in lightweight net tents under the most enormous and star-covered sky imaginable.
It may be difficult to convey in words, but this really is one of the most special experiences on the continent.
As touched on above, this is an awesome location for finding prehistoric remains. At Jack's Camp itself there is a large display of stone age tools which have been found in the area and guests are taken out onto what would once have been beaches on the edge of a great lake to inspect impressive stone tool working sites.
Additionally this is a great place for finding fossils and again at Jack's Camp there are some good examples of the mega-fauna which once existed out here.
As did his father before him, Ralph has been working with the local San bushmen for decades and has created a very strong relationship. So the bushman experience that is offered here is generally a cut above. Guests usually head out for a short walk in the company of a couple of local hunters, who are able to impart a little of their incredible knowledge of the Kalahari landscape, with plant gathering, trap setting, animal hunting and fire-making ... all of which should serve to help you gain an appreciation of quite how remarkable it is that anyone can survive, never mind thrive, in this apparently impossible landscape.
The area around Jack's Camp
is one of the best places to view one of Africa's most loved animals ... meerkats. Although the series "Meerkat Manor"
was filmed further south, across the border in South Africa, it is arguably this area which offers the best chance for visitors to meet and interact with these lovely little fellows.
This has been made possible by the work carried out by researchers at Jack's Camp, who spent many a long hour sitting by the burrows and slowly habituating these cute little creatures to the presence of humans. Guests are usually able to visit a burrow and, if you are lucky and sit still enough, to enjoy the privilege of serving as a meerkat lookout post.
There are presently four clans of meerkats habituated to humans.
As well as the images in the slideshows above, you should take a look at "The Meerkat Picture Show"
in the Jack's Camp
Now brown hyenas may not have the same public appeal to the vast majority of people out there, but anyone who has read Mark and Delia Owens fantastic book Cry of the Kalahari
will be aware of quite how interesting and special they are.
In February 2010 a brown hyena den was discovered by the operators of Jack's Camp and a researcher from the long standing brown hyena research project in Central Kalahari has been working to slowly habituate these normally reclusive creatures to the presence of people. By late 2010 reports from the field are that the hyenas are now quite at ease with humans as close as just ten metres, closer on occasion.
Brown hyena pups usually stay at den for around 15 months, with the den being reused by subsequent generations, so we are hopeful that this will remain an attraction for some time to come. Guests from Jack's Camp
, San Camp
and Camp Kalahari
are all usually able to visit the den, usually from late afternoon for a few hours, which provides time to meet the pups and hopefully see one or more adults return from foraging to feed to nurse the youngsters.
8. A great contrast to Okavango during the dry season
It should also be mentioned that during the dry winter, June to October, a visit to Makgadikgadi provides an incredible contrast to the water wonderland of the Okavango
. It really does seem quite bizarre to be gliding in a canoe through a swamp which absolutely throbs with life one minute and then just an hour or so late be standing in what appears to be one of the most parched and desolate landscapes on earth. This is the classic "desert and delta" experience for which Botswana has become so renowned.
9. Green season game
In a complete change of pace we now turn our attention to the green season, November to May ...
Once the summer showers start to fall, the grasslands which surround the pans start to come alive. The effect on flora is more or less immediate, as is the relief that is brought to resident game. But it is usually some weeks, or even months, before the main change takes place ... the arrival of the migratory herds.
The annual migrations of Botswana have been seriously reduced and distorted in recent decades by the raising of several extremely long fences, designed to protect domestic cattle from catching diseases from wild animals, but even so Makgadikgadi still receives a huge influx, mainly comprised of zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, tssesebe and elephant. Along with these herds come predators such as lion, cheetah and spotted hyena.
In other words, from around December up to April, even into May, Makgadikgadi also becomes a decent gameviewing location. The only downside is that at this time it may no longer be possible to quadbike out onto the pans.