Expert Reviews – Makgadikgadi Pans NP

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The Big Empty
Overall rating
3/5

The Makgadikgadi is an extraordinary place. Once, 20,000 years ago, there was a lake here, twice the size of Lake Victoria. Then it vanished, leaving the mosaic of soda pans you’ll see today. In the dry season you can drive by quad bike into their blinding emptiness, where the silence is absolute. But come back in the green season when the flamingos arrive by the thousand and you’ll find them transformed. This is the time to see herds of gemsbok and zebras munching their way across endless vistas of emerald grass. With luck you might see cheetah and Kalahari lion, too; but the true superstars of the Makgadikgadi are the rare brown hyena and the habituated meerkats you can meet at Jack’s Camp. This is the only place I know where you can get so close to them, and a stay here is an absolute must, not just for its stunning location in a palm grove on the edge of the Pans, but for its comfort, style and sheer romanticism. Ralph Bousfield, who owns Jack’s Camp, knows the Makgadikgadi like the back of his hand. Ask him to take you to see Chapman’s Baobab, named after the Victorian explorer who came here in the 1850s. Lanner falcons nest in its seven giant spires and Chapman’s initials are still there – together with the marks left by stone-age hunters.

Don’t pass the salt
Overall rating
4/5

The appeal of this park comes down to personal taste. To some, it is depressingly desolate; to others, a fascinating wilderness, with the challenge of finding elusive wildlife. On my first visit I saw precious little game but was bewitched by the vast grasslands and spectacular storm skies, and thrilled to find breeding flamingos in huge numbers at the edge of Sowa Pan, plus springhares bounding past my campfire at night. Lodges that operate in this area are not focused solely on the wildlife, but will take you out onto the vast salt pans to learn about everything from the stars to the ancient archaeological sites. The bonus may well be close encounters with unusual wildlife, from brown hyenas to meerkats – or, at the right time of year, you may meet the herds of zebra, wildebeest or gemsbok as they pass through on migration. At the far west of the park, when the overspill of the Okavango brings the Boteti river into life, these herds may generate some spectacular action, with lions, cheetahs and other predators arriving to take their pick. For the independent traveller, this is an area that rewards exploration – but only venture onto the pans themselves with a proper vehicle, expert advice and great caution, as the fragile soda crust can easily give way.

The largest saltpans in the world
Overall rating
4/5

In a country best known for its shimmering inland waterways and huge, charismatic herds of elephants, Makgadikgadi offers visitors a startling change of scene. Its giant salt-encrusted pans, once the bed of an ancient expanse of water, are truly surreal.

I’m not generally a fan of quad bikes – I don’t like the way that, like jetskis on wheels, they can cause great disturbance to animals, plants and the environment – but there’s no denying the thrill of whizzing around this forbidding patch of the Kalahari.

The pans may seem stark but the park is by no means all bleak desolation. Guides can help you find meerkat colonies, Sowa Pan in the east is the breeding ground for greater and lesser flamingoes, and the western reaches become grassy after the rains, attracting streams of wildebeest, zebras and lions.

World of extremes where the Okavango meets the Kalahari!
Overall rating
4/5

Makgadikgadi Pans is where what all those billions of gallons of Okavango riverwater disappear when they have finally completed their course all the way from the rainy hills of Angola. As such it is a place of extremes: in the dry season it turns into a hellish dustbowl (although having the benefit of concentrating wildlife around what little water can be found); in the wet the surface of the roads (not to mention the campsites) turn to rutted liquid mulch that can be tough going even for the hardiest 4wd. It is an adventure at any time though and wildlife sightings include some of Africa's biggest zebra and wildebeest herds. This was my second visit to Makgadikgadi Pans. Because of its isolation both times we had the entire park completely to ourselves.

A vast nothingness
Overall rating
3/5

The Makgadikgadi National Park offers a unique travel experience – with its vast open space, timelessness and complete nothingness. For much of the year, most of this desolate area remains waterless and large mammals are absent. But during and following the rainy season, the pans flood, attracting wildlife with large herds of zebra and wildebeest, followed by lion, cheetah and hyena. In very wet years, the pans fill with water, with thousands of flamingos arriving.

By complete chance, one wet April I came across the legendary zebra migration. At the time I had no idea how lucky I was to see this ephemeral spectacle.

The dry season (April to September) provides a unique experience of total isolation and ear thrumming silence. Game viewing is best from April to June.

Lodges offer meerkat encounters, quad bike rides and the unique opportunity to sleep out on the pans – in the midst of the vast nothingness.

Dazzling Zebra and Shimmering Salt
Overall rating
3/5

Botswana’s great saltpans – Nxai, Ntwetwe and Sua – comprise an expansive region of northern Botswana known as Makgadikgadi: an ethereal and austere landscape like no other. Extending from the wildlife-rich Boteti River in the west to enormous Ntwetwe Pan – the largest of the saltpans – in the east, the 3,900 km2 Makgadikgadi Pans National Park protects large swathes of savannah grassland, iconic palm forest and Boteti River woodland, along with the western reaches of Ntwetwe Pan, within its confines. This lesser-known safari destination is home to a handful of luxury lodges and campsites.

While it might not claim the same predator-viewing potential as Botswana’s frontline reserves, it does boast extraordinary elephant viewing that rivals the world-renowned Chobe. Throw in an astounding diversity of habitats, picturesque wilderness campsites, and a dazzle of zebra second only to the Serengeti, and you have a year-round safari destination that’s difficult to omit from any itinerary exploring the best of northern Botswana.

Beautiful nothingness
Overall rating
4/5

Standing in the middle of this immense expanse of what was once a super lake you suddenly feel very small. Lying south-east of the Okavango Delta and surrounded by the Kalahari, there is something beguiling about the beautiful nothingness of this place. Don’t expect to see much in the way of wildlife. While it does exist – migratory animals such as wildebeest, zebra, springbok and gemsbok are drawn in numbers by the temporary waterways during the rainy season – the true lure of Makgadikgadi is in experiencing the magnificent solitude and isolation of being in the middle of nowhere. That is, unless your guide, as ours did, chooses a campsite only a few kilometres from the main road. It was an odd feeling having the serenity of our surrounds intermittently interrupted by the distant rattle and hum of a truck as it rumbled down the highway. Even more surprisingly, we found we still had cell phone connections! The illusion however, was still upheld by the 360 degree views of crazed-cracked salt pan and the soft, pink glow of the sun as it slowly sank below the horizon revealing the vast star-studded night sky.

The desolate beauty of the seemingly-endless salt pans
Overall rating
4/5

Makgadigkadi is home to the world’s largest salt pans and stands in striking contrast to the Okavango river that finally meets its demise here. Not surprisingly considering the desolate terrain, big game tends to be scarce and hard to find, though large herds of zebra and wildebeest migrate through the park during the wetter months and bring with them better chances of seeing predators. The rare brown hyena is a fairly regular sighting here. Smaller mammals such as meerkats are common, while the Sowa Pan in the east is a popular flamingo breeding ground.

For the most part though, Makgadikgadi’s main draw card is the barren landscape and the complete sense of isolation that it invokes. As well as the vast salt pans, there are also rugged rocky outcrops, rings of ancient baobabs and strangely incongruous tall, thin palms. On our visit here, we didn’t see a single other car inside the park which, for me, is always a treat.

The World’s Largest Salt Pans
Overall rating
3/5

Forming part of the northern Kalahari, the Makgadikgadi Pans is the largest network of salt pans on earth. The pans lie at the eastern end of the park, a fascinating world of endless horizons that spills over beyond the protected area. Indeed, some of the best pans – such as Ntwetwe and Sowa Pans, with their isolated islands of baobabs – lie beyond the park’s boundaries, and they’re the scene for the spectacular wet-season migration of zebra and wildebeest. At the eastern end of the pan network (again, beyond the park boundaries) is Nata Bird Sanctuary with tens of thousands of flamingos and pelicans in the wet season (November to April). At other times, Ntwetwe is good for some real wildlife specials, among them brown hyena and meerkats, and I’ve also had luck here with aardvark. For more traditional wildlife watching I prefer the park’s western end, along the Boteti River. One of few perennial water sources in Makgadikgadi from May to October, it’s a magnet for herbivores with lions, jackals and other predators in tow. Take your sundowner out on the pans.

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