June, 2017: In north eastern Botswana is a vast series of savannah plains, baobab forests and salt flats called the Makgadikgadi Pans. It’s a sparsely populated, rural area where you’re more likely to run into a goat herder than a herd of big game (at least in our experience). Still, it’s an immensely beautiful part of the country and well worth spending at least a few days. We only intended staying two nights on our way from the Okavango Delta to Gabarone but ended up spending nearly a week. We found the warmest hospitality at Gweta Lodge; enormous and ancient trees at Baines Baobabs; and camped out on the Makgadikgadi Pans themselves with nothing but the twinkling milky way for company. Why visit Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans? This is why…
Makgadikgadi Pans shenanigans: Baines Baobabs
In the 19th century one of the first white men to explore the centre of Botswana was Thomas Baines. An avid naturalist and talented artist, Baines’ drawings and watercolours captured the imagination of people back home with his beautiful renditions of the exotic wilderness he found. One such painting was of a set of enormous and ancient baobab trees set on the edge of a vast salt flat or ‘pan’. Ever since these iconic trees have been known as Baines Baobabs. Quite amazingly, it’s claimed that if you compare Baines painting from 155 years ago with the baobabs of today, not a single branch is out of place. They look exactly the same. These enormous, gnarly old trees who have obviously stood the test of time.
After helpfully being able to camp for free in the Nxai Pan National Park gate carpark, we set out early one morning to explore the park. Along with Baines Baobabs, Nxai Pan National Park itself is well known for it’s rolling savannah country and good game viewing. We saw barely any wildlife though. Instead we nearly shook ourselves and our Toyota Bertha to death on the awfully corrugated roads. With the corrugations driving us crazy we decided to cut the game safari short and head straight to Baines Baobabs for breakfast. Our decision felt vindicated when we arrived at a stunning little island of HUGE baobab’s in the middle of a blindingly white salt flat. As we rolled out the muesli, yoghurt and coffee it was surreal to have the place to ourselves. We walked out on the salt and looked back at Bertha being dwarfed by the size of the ancient baobab’s. Yet another ‘how lucky are we’ moment!
Makgadikgadi Pans shenanigans: Gweta Lodge
Gweta is a small village sandwiched between the Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi Pan National Parks. It’s a dusty, friendly little place which provides a great base for exploring the area. Initially we had planned on camping a little out of town at Planet Baobab but on learning the price headed back into the village itself to check out Gweta Lodge. Gweta Lodge is owned by James and his fiancé Shayna and they really know how to make you feel welcome. While we only intended on staying for one night we ended up staying for four. Sure this was in part due to some raging hangovers but it was mainly due to the hospitality of James, Shayna and their staff.
While much of our time at Gweta Lodge was spent lazing around the pool, or propping up the awesome open air bar, we also got in some great exploring. A particular highlight was heading for a sundown picnic at a beautiful waterhole surrounded by baobabs and ancient hunting hides of the local San people. After enjoying a few G&T’s we wandered around the waters edge as James pointed out the remains of the hunting hides. You could see what would have been semi-circular structures in which the San hid in wait for game coming down to drink. According to James, when the waterhole is much drier you can find elephant fossils left from this ancient hunting practice. As the sun set over the water hole we felt so privileged to be introduced to this stunning and almost spiritual place. Later that evening we went camping with James and Shayna in a forest of baobabs and closed the night talking rubbish under the stars. Magic!
Makgadikgadi Pans shenanigans: driving the Kubu island road
Once we finally managed to pull ourselves away from Gweta Lodge, we took the sandy road south east headed for Kubu Island. This rather epic road takes you through local villages and mopani forests before bursting out on to the magnificence of the salt pans. It’s an alternate and adventurous route to get from Gweta down towards Gabarone but doesn’t come without risks. While the pans are indeed stunning and an amazing experience to drive across, they can also be a boggy trap for the unprepared. The salt pans may look and feel solid but often there is sticky mud lurking just below the surface. With minimal warning your car can break through and start sliding and if you’re not ready, it’s very easy to get stuck up to your axles. According to James, one of his vehicles got stuck out there for weeks as they simply couldn’t get to it to pull it out.
Given the above, we were mildly perturbed to come across a long boggy patch where other vehicles had obviously broken through the salt. While I had a momentary thought of turning back, after walking out through the mud for a few hundred metres there seemed to be a reasonably safe route through. Besides, why else did we buy a 29 year old Toyota Land Cruiser if not to do a bit of mud bashing? We engaged Bertha’s 4WD in low gear, locked the front wheels, crossed the fingers and toes and took off. For the next 300-400m Bertha’s four litre engine bellowed and mud sprayed everywhere as we fish-tailed our way through the morass. While I had a few sweaty palm moments that we wouldn’t make it, before long we charged out the other side. Woooo hoooo, go Bertha!
Makgadikgadi Pans shenanigans: Bush camping on the pans
For the rest of the afternoon we had a few other adventures in the mud but in general spent the time marvelling at the extraordinary scenery. The salt pans shimmered into eternity and every now and then an island of baobabs and cattle herders would appear. After getting through the previous mud it felt exhilarating to be charging out across the pans with the windows down. This was why we came overlanding! Around 3:30pm we arrived at Kubu itself but on discovering the exorbitant price for just visiting the island we decided to push on. An hour later we pulled off the road in the middle of endless rolling savannah and more salt flats. As we switched off Bertha’s engine and set up camp we felt like we had all of Botswana to ourselves. The sun went down and the milky way exploded across the sky. The stars felt so close we could almost stand on the car and grab them. It’s an experience we won’t forget in a hurry.
Makgadikgadi Pans shenanigans: a few other tips
- Nxai Pan camping: if you’re heading to the Nxai Pan National Park and looking to save a few bucks on camping you should ask if you can camp at the park gates. The staff took a little convincing but given it was basically dark they generously let us camp in their car park for free. They even kept the toilets open for us even though there was no running water or toilet paper.
- Gweta Lodge: James and Shayna have simple but very adequate camping facilities at the back of the lodge with power, hot water showers and braai sites available. They also have a range of bungalows / rooms around the pool which are super comfy. Decent free wifi is available around the pool area. Camping costs BWP80/person/night. James grew up in the area so is a wealth of local knowledge and is very happy to share it. They can also organise a variety of trips including safaris into the National Parks and camping under the stars on the pans. We really loved staying with James and Shayne so if you’re in the area we definitely recommend staying a night or two.
- The Kubu island road: If coming from Gweta definitely check in with James and Shayna about the condition of the road. They can also give you directions on how to get there. There are a few turns coming out of Gweta village but there is virtually one road which goes all the way past Kubu island and on to the village of Letlhakane where the tar starts again.
- Camping on the pans around Kubu island: There are camping facilities on Kubu island but given the cost and our desire to camp by ourselves out on the pans we opted for the pans. We just drove until we found a suitable looking spot, drove a little further off the road and then pitched up. In order to preserve the pristine nature of the pans try not to drive too far off the road, be very careful with fires and don’t leave any rubbish.