Expert Reviews – Nxai Pan NP

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Nxai Pan: the Elusive Horizon
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These salt pans, like the contiguous Makgadikgadi to the south, are white worlds surrounded by islands of scrub and oases of greenery to provide some relief. There’s an epic quality to the landscape, a frontier world beyond the realm of human habitation with mirages shimmering above the white pans. The stand of vast baobabs known as Baines’ Baobab is one of the Kalahari’s most evocative sights and a fine place to camp. Whenever I’ve visited, cheetahs and lions have been relatively easy to spot, making it one of the best places in Botswana to see the former. Elephants are also common, as are gemsbok and impala. For the best wildlife watching, try the waterholes north of South Camp, or the more remote Kgama Kgama Pan away to the northwest – with few vehicles heading out this far, you’re far more likely to discover something interesting and then have it all to yourself.

Salt pans and endless sky
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Nxai Pan is one of Botswana’s more remote parks and the game is certainly not as densely-populated as the likes of Chobe National Park, though there are still large numbers of elephants and plains game around, and we also saw lion, jackal and bat-eared fox during our short stay here in September 2014.

Nxai Pan is a striking park too, with low, open savannah and sparse, moon-like salt pans occasionally punctuated by a ring of baobabs or a crop of acacias. In the dry season game congregates around the small number of water holes. The light at dawn and dusk is spectacular; the heat in the middle of the day can be unforgiving.

Elephants are regular visitors to the generally well-maintained and shaded public camps. We were travelling through Nxai Pan with a trailer in tow, which made the 52km track of soft sand from the gate through to our camp a fairly slow and arduous undertaking.

Aside from its elephants, Nxai Pan isreputed for cheetah and wild dogs. Predators are said to be more active here in the wetter months, due to the higher numbers of migrating herbivores.

Baobabs, big cats and salt pans
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Between Botswana's famous Kalahari and Okavango Delta, it's well worth stopping at the extraordinary network of salt pans known as the Makgadikgadi Pans. In this surreal area, heat haze shimmers above the cracked white pans, warping the horizon and the knotted shapes of baobab trees. There are several renowned baobabs here, including Baines' Baobabs, which drew me to the Nxai Pan section of Makgadikgadi. Rising starkly from the edge of a pan, the impressive clump of trees was immortalised in pictures painted by the intrepid artist Thomas Baines in 1862.
Large herds of animals migrate across the park, and seeing predators among the acacia trees in this bleached environment is a treat. On a guided safari from Planet Baobab near Gweta (recommended), we spotted a lioness leading her cubs towards zebras, springbok and wildebeest at a waterhole. The potential pray didn't seem bothered – they knew the lioness wouldn't risk leaving her young alone.

Baines Baobabs
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As the name suggests the focus of this wildlife-rich park is the pan itself, a large waterhole in the centre of the park surrounded by plains. In the dry season, you’ll see little more than gemsbok, zebra and small groups of springbok but like CKGR it all comes alive in the wet season, December to April, when grazing is plentiful and most of the animals drop their young. Now you could see exceptional concentrations of plains game (even the occasional rhino) with their hungry attendants, lion, cheetah, both species of hyaena, wild dog and jackal. Leopard are plentiful, and make sure you can tell the difference between springbok and impala because this is one of the very few places where both species exist alongside eachother. A word of warning though, all this depends on the rather unpredictable rains.

The other spectacularly notable area is Kudiakam Pan with the famous Baines Baobabs, an oasis of seven huge, gnarled trees brought to life on canvas in 1862 by the explorer and painter, Thomas Baines. I’ve spent ages with my camera trying to capture the tree island, with the equally photogenic gemsbok and zebra in the foreground.

Where cheetahs race through the haze
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Nxai Pan lies immediately north of the Makgadikgadi Pans and shares many of its characteristics, but the density of animals and plants here is greater. Like Makgadikgadi, it’s stark during the dry season and grassy after the rains, but the soil here is richer and the foliage considerably lusher. The park’s most recognised landmark is a ring of baobab trees made famous by the British naturalist Thomas Baines, who painted them in 1862.

An impressive variety of herbivores including elands, impalas, springboks, oryx, zebras, giraffes, blue wildebeest and red hartebeest use this small park as a grazing ground. Naturally, these attract predators, including cheetahs, for whom the even terrain serves as the perfect running track. In my opinion this is one of the best places to see cheetahs in the wild in southern Africa. It’s also an excellent place to see bat-eared foxes, jackals and brown hyenas.

Botswana’s big sky country
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Nxai Pan – forget the x unless you can master the Khoisan click language and pronounce it to rhyme with sky. An appropriate word because the flatness of the desert and its heat-hazy horizons makes for huge skies – especially in the rainy season when apocalyptic thunderclouds build up in late afternoon. Encircled by seas of fossil dunes, the pans themselves are ancient salt lakes covered in short, sweet grasses that spring up in the wake of the rains, attracting huge numbers of zebra, blue wildebeest, springbok, gemsbok, eland and red hartebeest. The herbivores in turn are followed by the big cats as shown in Roar – Lions of the Kalahari, a spectacular National Geographic movie filmed at Nxai Pan in 2003.

Apart from the game the other big attraction everybody wants to see are Baines’ Baobabs, the seven giant trees painted by Thomas Baines in 1862. In the vast expanse of the Pans they dominate the horizon for miles around, presiding over a landscape that has hardly changed since Baines himself was here.

Baobabs, salt pans and great herds!
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Nxai Pan (to say it authentically you need to use a Bushman click that sounds something like 'KLAI' and becomes weirdly obsessive if you do it more than a couple of times) is part of one of the largest salt pans in the world. This was my second safari in Nxai Pans and I will always remember it as the location of my first sighting of wild dogs. Large wildebeest herds and wild dogs are a highlight here and as for landscapes few can make the drive into Nxai without pausing to have a look at the famous Baines's Baobabs. It is not just the three ancient baobabs (a perfect picnic spot incidentally) that are spectacular but more specifically the way in which they are reflected in the mirror-like (whether from mirages or genuine water) surface of the pan. For tracking enthusiasts the pans here are irresistible: you can read the recent passage of wildlife as clearly as newspaper headlines in the surface of these pans. The main campsite at Nxai is very frequently visited by wildlife. In the dry season elephants occasionally destroy the ablutions block in search of water and a friend of mine had a lioness pass within 5 feet of him as he sat sipping (or more likely, clenching, white-knuckled) his gin and tonic.

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