Crunch, crunch, the dry salt ridges of the vast Ntwetwe Pan cracked to dust underfoot. Stop. Now only the sound of the wind as it brushed past my ears. Not a bird or insect stirred, not a tree or shrub broke the horizon. I was in the Makgadikgadi, Botswana, so vast and empty it was like being on the moon.
Back on the quad bikes we’d cast long triangular shadows on the pan as the sun slumped to the horizon. Then we’d stopped at a turning point; we would go back in the same tracks, to avoid making new ones.
Ntwetwe, Nxai, Sowa and Lake Xau all make up the white Makgadikgadi pans. Long ago the Zambezi, Linyanti and Okavango used to flow together to join the Boteti River, which continued to the Limpopo and so to the Indian Ocean. They filled the pans, which a million years ago used to be lakes up to 300m deep in places.
Then movement of tectonic plates made a ridge to the west of the pans and water could no longer pass. Water evaporated from the lakes leaving condensed minerals and salt behind. ‘There used to be people and lots of animals on the pans, and Stone Age implements are still discovered there,’ head guide Bapabi (Bacos) Taubaka at sister property Planet Baobab told us. Today the pans are filled only by rain water, except Sowa, which also gets water from the Nata River to the east.
Camp Kalahari is one of a quartet of Uncharted Africa Safari co. camps in the Makgadikgadi. There was good food, lots of wood, colourful sofas and camp chairs around the fire in the common area, and a pool deck off to one side.
The landscape in the semi-arid Makgadikgadi is mostly grassland with mokolane palms and purple pod terminalia. Here secretary birds walk 20-30km a day in search of food like snakes, small birds and reptiles, and steenbok have adapted to the dry conditions by digging tubers and eating grass early in the morning when it has more moisture so they don’t need to drink.
More than 20 000 zebra and 10 000 wildebeest migrate here in search of good grazing after the first summer rains. It’s not much less spectacular than the Serengeti migration but a lot less well known. ‘They enjoy the Kalahari spike grass that grows here,’ said guide Fanuel Shawa. ‘See these salt crystals on the grass? They eat this then they don’t need a salt lick.’