One of the greatest experiences on a Kalahari safari in Botswana is discovering the vast alien landscape of the desolate Salt Pans region.
The Northern Salt Pans of the Kalahari are located in an area where an overwhelming sense of isolation prevails. Those who are willing to brave the temperatures of this unique destination will find themselves in an immeasurable and surreal landscape, where the white-hot horizon disappears forever to the observer.
The geography of the Pans creates an area that is flat and desolate. The Pans region is situated between the village of Nata in the north-east, and the town of Orapa in the south. The region itself encompasses approximately 12 000 square kilometers. At its centre are the Makgadikgadi Pans. These consist of two pans next to each other, with the Sua Pan to the East and the Ntetwe to the West. In addition, there are a number of smaller pans surrounding these main pans, such as Nxai Pan to the north.
How these pans come to be is a matter of debate among geologists; however it is agreed that this region was once part of the vast Lake Makgadikgadi, as a result of radical changes in climate, lost its water supply. Due to the inhospitable conditions of the Pans, human intervention in the region has been minimal. The wildlife population is considered to be sparse. However, extreme fluctuations in the numbers of certain species occur with the onset of seasonal rains, creating a wildlife spectacle against the backdrop of this surreal landscape.
The Makgadikgadi Nature Reserve is located on the western side of the Pans, and forms part of the western section of Ntetwe Pan. The Eastern side of the pans mostly consists of open wilderness, with some cattle ranching areas. After the mass water depletion of Lake Makgadikgadi all that remained was a dry layer of salt and thick Kalahari sand that characterizes the surfaces of this area.
The landscape is completely barren and rock formations are rarity. This ancient layer of sand has preserved fossil remnants dating back hundreds of millions of years. In addition, minerals such as gold, silver, nickel and diamonds have formed beneath the surface due to the extreme temperatures. During seasons of good rainfall, the pans are transformed into large lakes - a confirmation of what the landscape once was.
The Nxai Pan National Park to the north allows for greater maneuverability, and is well known for a greater number of sightings of game during the first half of the year. As with the Makgadikgadi, the Nxai Pan, it is also a remnant of the antiquated lake, which today appears as a salt crust surface.
Due to the fact that grasses are prevalent on the surface, and water holes are filled up during the rains, the pan is able to support larger concentrations of wildlife such as Zebra which migrate down from the Boteti River. In exceptional flood years, the Okavango drains out through the Boteti River into the Pans. The landscape generally appears open and featureless, with the exception of the spectacular Baines Baobabs toward the south.