Imagine – if you will – an area the size of Portugal, largely uninhabited by humans. Its stark, flat, featureless terrain stretches – it would seem – to eternity, meeting and fusing with a milky-blue horizon. This is the Makgadikgadi – an area of 12 000 sq kms, part of the Kalahari Basin, yet unique to it – one of the largest salt pans in the world. For much of the year, most of this desolate area remains waterless and extremely arid; and large mammals are thus absent. But during and following years of good rain, the two largest pans – Sowa to the east and Ntwetwe to the west – flood, attracting wildlife – zebra and wildebeest on the grassy plains – and most spectacularlyflamingos at Sowa and Nata Sanctuary. Flamingo numbers can run into the tens – and sometimes – hundreds of thousands, and the spectacle can be completely overwhelming.
The rainwater that pours down on the pans is supplemented by seasonal river flows – the Nata, Tutume, Semowane and Mosetse Rivers in the east, and in years of exceptional rains, the Okavango via the Boteti River in the west. During this time, the pans can be transformed into a powder blue lake, the waters gently lapping the shorelines, and flowing over the pebble beaches – a clear indication of the gigantic, prehistoric lake the Makgadikgadi once was. Research suggests that the Makgadikgadi is a relic of what was once one of the biggest inland lakes Africa has ever had.
Africa’s most famous explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, crossed these pans in the 19th century, guided by a massive baobab, Chapman’s Tree – believed to be 3 000 to 4 000 years old, and the only landmark for hundreds of miles around.