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Botswana - Kalahari Desert and Makgadikgadi Pans

An aerial view of a small plane flying over the stark white expanse of the Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana.
© Michael Poliza larger image
In the heart of northern Botswana lies the Kalahari desert, a striking contrast to the verdant Okavango and Linyanti regions and a must-see for visitors who wish to experience the full extent of Botswana's diversity. At first glance, this apparently barren landscape seems as if it has little to offer, but appearances are deceiving - a closer look reveals a surprisingly fertile environment and a unique population of desert-adapted plants and animals. Despite its name, the Kalahari encompasses grasslands and temporary wetlands as well as sand dunes and salt pans.

Chapman's Baobab is one of several enormous trees which served as landmarks for early explorers in the Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana.
© Julian Asher larger image
The Makgadikgadi salt pans in the northeastern Kalahari were once the bed of an ancient superlake which covered most of southern Africa - over 80,000 square kilometres (30,888 square miles). Their crystalline white surface, speckled with palm-topped grassland 'islands,' creates a unique moon-like landscape. This is Botswana at its most enigmatic, a land of undiscovered fossil beds and prehistoric beaches scattered with Stone Age artefacts. Enormous isolated baobab trees are a distinctive feature of the pans, and some of them (Chapman's Baobab, Green's Baobab) served as landmarks for early explorers.

During the rains, the Makgadikgadi undergoes a stunning transformation into one of Africa's most important wetland sites. As the dry pans fill with water, they become a breeding ground for huge flocks of migratory birds. The rains regenerate the grasslands and many open areas become undulating seas of grass, drawing animals from near and far.

A sub-adult brown hyena exchanges a nose-to-nose greeting with a young cub at Jack's Camp in the Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana.
© Wilderness Safaris larger image
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve, located in the centre of the Kalahari, is one of the largest game reserves in the world - just a bit smaller than the combined area of Holland and Belgium. Its unusual wildlife and wide-open spaces were immortalised in 'Cry of the Kalahari' by Mark and Delia Owens, two American conservationists who spent the 1970s studying brown hyaenas in Deception Valley. It is the only game reserve whose aims included preserving not only the wildlife but also the people who lived there - the San.

Wildlife Wildlife in the Kalahari is rich, but highly seasonal and nomadic. Game-viewing focuses primarily on desert species such as meerkats (suricates), gemsbok (oryx), springbok, the shy brown hyaena, and the magnificent black-maned Kalahari lion, though non-desert species such as cheetah, kudu, and giraffe may also be seen during the wet season. Smaller animals include aardvark, porcupine and reptiles such as the rare Makgadikgadi spiny agama.

A guest and a guide experience a close encounter with a family of meerkats at Jack's Camp in the Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana.
© Wilderness Safaris larger image
During the wet season, huge herds of plains game are drawn to the grasslands in a migration unmatched outside the Serengeti, with zebra and wildebeest gathering in the tens of thousands - shadowed by their predators. Cheetah sightings are particularly good during the wet season, when the springbok gather on the short grass plains. The rains also bring frogs out from their underground sanctuaries to take to the pans in a frenzy of breeding activity.

While game-viewing is good and the chance to see desert-adapted species is unique, it should be noted that seeing animals here requires more effort than it does in the fertile regions of the Okavango and the Linyanti.

During the rains large herds of zebra migrate across the grasslands of the Kalahari desert, Botswana.
© Wilderness Safaris larger image
A wide variety of bird species may be seen in the Kalahari. Residents include both the world's largest bird, the ostrich, and the world's largest flying bird, the kori bustard, as well as coursers, secretary birds, pale-chanting goshawks, owls, falcons, hornbills and rollers. In the summer, resident populations are joined by a huge influx of migrants, including storks, bee-eaters, and shrikes. After the rains transform the pans into temporary glassy lakes, aquatic birds arrive by the thousands. The shallow waters and saline conditions are ideal for the large flocks of greater and lesser flamingos which breed here during some years - the largest breeding population of flamingos in southern Africa.

Culture The Kalahari is home to the last of Botswana's San (Bushmen), a unique group of people whose traditional hunter-gatherer way of life is thought to be very close to that of the first modern humans. At one time the San lived throughout much of Southern Africa, leaving a legacy of enigmatic rock paintings whose meanings continue to puzzle modern anthropologists. Conflict with European settlers and other African peoples gradually pushed the San into this inhospitable region, where they developed a materially simple but culturally rich way of life. Many of the trackers and guides at safari camps in the Kalahari are of San origin, and their bushcraft and intimate understanding of the environment will add immensely to your experience.

A San Bushman guide shows guests one of the medicinal roots found in the Kalahari at Jack's Camp in the Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana
© Julian Asher larger image
Few San live a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle today, and people you meet are more likely to be seen in safari gear than in loincloths. However, the rich traditions of the San remain alive and well, and during your time in the Kalahari it is possible to visit a San community and to learn about their traditional healing practises, story-telling traditions, music, dance, and crafts - an experience that will open your eyes to an entirely new aspect of Botswana and provide new insight into what it means to be human.

San bushman hunters in traditional garb demonstrate their skill with a bow and arrow in the Kalahari desert, Botswana.
© Michael Poliza larger image
Thanks to the longstanding relationships between the safari camps and the San communities, those who wish to immerse themselves in San culture may organise a mobile safari to one of the remote San communities in the western Kalahari where the people continue to practise a more traditional lifestyle. Far more than a village visit, this expedition will enable you to participate in daily community life, from gathering roots and herbs to hunting and creating traditional crafts. By special arrangement it may be possible to join an adolescent San boy on the initiation hunt which marks his transition from boy to man. The remoteness of these communities and the logistics involved in visiting them mean that this is not inexpensive - but as a once in a lifetime experience shared with only a few very privileged outsiders it is truly priceless.

On Safari Some safari camps in the Kalahari/Makgadikgadi region are open throughout the year, whilst others operate only during the dry season. Activities are highly seasonal, focusing on day and night game drives around the grasslands during the rainy season and quad biking or drives on the pans during the dry season. In addition to game-viewing, geography, anthropology, and archaeology play an equally large role in a visit to this remarkable region. For more detail on camps and activities in the Kalahari/Makgadikgadi, please go to the Kalahari accommodation page.

When to Go The following brief notes focus on the Kalahari/Makgadikgadi region. For more detail on Botswana's climate, please see the main Botswana Weather page.

Quad biking on the pans is a major feature of dry-season vists to Jack's Camp in the Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana.
© Julian Asher larger image
The Kalahari/Makgadikgadi follows roughly the same weather patterns as the remainder of northern Botswana, with a rainy season (December to March), a dry season (May to October), and two transitional months (April and November). Due to its arid environment, temperature fluctuations in the Kalahari are more extreme than in other parts of the country, with higher highs and lower lows. Cold snaps with temperatures below freezing are not unknown in the winter months - fortunately, the camps are well-equipped to cope with these! On the opposite end of the spectrum, the heat of the summer months can climb well past 40°C (104°F), though the dry desert air moderates the humidity which is a major feature of summer visits to the Delta and the Linyanti.

Much more than in any other region of Botswana, the time of year will have an enormous impact on your experience in the Kalahari/Makgadikgadi. The months following the rainy season will feature seas of grass supporting significantly larger and more diverse populations of wildlife and birdlife, with plains species and even wetland species joining the local desert-adapted species. The dry months will feature primarily desert-adapted animals, birds, and plants. Ideally, every visitor should see the pans twice - once in the rainy season and once in the dry season - to fully experience all they have to offer.