Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
The lesser-known Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is situated roughly halfway between Maun and Nata on the Francistown road in northern Botswana.
The Boteti River, once a broad strong-flowing waterway fed by waters drained from the Okavango during the months of June and July annually, later dwindling to a chain of pools, last ceased flowing in September 1992. The last few deep permanent pools that remain are competed for by humans, livestock and wildlife, causing considerable conflict. It is hoped by all that the present drought cycle will soon be broken.
Makgadikgadi, the name of which implies a vast open lifeless land, is not without its folklore. There are stories of people setting out from Gweta to explore the land that lay between them and the Boteti River to seek a favourable environment in which to settle. They entered these great thirstlands at the driest time of year, drawn by what they perceived as large lakes of sparkling water on the horizon. Suffering badly from thirst, the lakes kept drawing them hurriedly on in their attempts to reach the life-giving water that always remained just ahead of them. Gradually, one by one, they fell and died.
But Makgadikgadi is not always dry. The pans, which are situated in half the south, east and northeastern areas of the park, fill with water during the rains from mid-November and mostly retain their water into April or May. The "thirstlands" are then transformed into great sheets of water, which attract a spectacular array of waterbirds and trigger dramatic migrations of wildebeest and zebra. It is unfortunate that this huge water spectacle becomes practically inaccessible by road at this time, but anyone fortunate enough to fly over the area during the wet season sees a water wonderland of incredible scenic beauty.
Makgadikgadi was initially state land. People have never been resident in its waterless interior, but in times of drought, surrounding villagers were permitted to graze their livestock within the area, withdrawing them to their homes when conditions improved. The area was declared a game reserve in 1970 and in December 1992, the boundaries were extended and National Park status was attained. The present park covers some 4,900 square kilometres.
Here, as with all parks and reserves, the use of an anti-malarial prophylactic is strongly recommended and, when travelling within these areas, a 4x4 vehicle, carrying emergency water and food, is necessary. Engaging 4-wheel drive before negotiating sandy patches not only minimises the possibility of becoming stuck, but also saves chewing up the road surfaces for others.
Both dry season and wet season visits to this park are recommended in order to witness the dramatic appearance of the pans at their driest and to experience the transformation to a water wonderland, and see the wildebeest and zebra migrations, in the wet season. Linking a few days in Makgadikgadi with a similar period of time in its nearby sister park, Nxai Pan, will give visitors a distinctly different experience. Makgadikgadi - a vast wilderness of space and timelessness.