Imagine a moonscape on earth. Capture the emptiness, the immensity, the utter silence. From your palette, paint the earth a shining grey and blue the sky with cobalt but merge it with the land so that their separation is indistinct. Imagine no grass, no trees, no leaves, no stones, nothing but an unrelenting surface of smooth hard clay that reaches away in every direction. This is the shore of Makgadikgadi Pans. ‘Pans’ is a misnomer. True, there are two huge ‘pan-like’ features, Sowa Pan in the east and Ntwetwe in the west, each of them larger than 3000 km² but neither are pans in the true sense of the word. They are not wind-formed but are the remains of a once-vast palaeo-lake more than 100000 km² in area. At its greatest extent it included the lower third of the Okavango, Lake Ngami, Mababe Depression, Nxai Pan and was in the order of 45 m deep.
Its origins go back to when the Okavango, Chobe and Upper Zambezi all joined, crossed Botswana, and followed the Limpopo to the sea. Up-warping, perhaps two million years ago, ponded this great river, created the lake drowning much of northern Botswana. In following millennia, the Upper Zambezi was ‘captured’, taking its present route to the sea. Faulting, associated with the East African Rift Valley system, created the Okavango Delta and diverted the Chobe into the Zambezi. Successively deprived of major inflows, the lake diminished in stages, still visible today in distinctive, separate shorelines.
The most dramatic shoreline I know lies high on the slopes of an escarpment at the southern end of Sowa. Follow the rugged track and descend a steep slope and, as you do so, a stupendous view of the pan opens before you. Just below the crest your vehicle will crunch and slide over a wide belt of rounded pebbles. Examine these and you hold in your hand wave worn stones from millennia past. Close your eyes and listen to the surf pounding towards you. From the ground, hear the wave ebb back through the shingle. It is an extraordinary experience, made more so by contrast with today’s airless heat and before you a sea, not of water but of thorn trees dancing in the shimmering haze.
The gem in Makgadikgadi’s crown is a small 20 ha granite island called Kubu that juts far out into the pan. Its setting alone makes it unimaginably beautiful but there is a surrealistic quality enhanced by towering granite boulders, once shaped and washed by waves now polished by the sun, and groves ancient and grotesque baobab trees. Here fisher-folk once were and leave behind remains of their 800-year-old village. Some 400 metres of stone wall suggests mystery and perhaps, an abandoned initiation site, not used though, for two or three hundred years.
For all Kubu’s beauty, there are other gems in Makgadikgadi’s crown. There are other islands, much less frequented, hardly known, in fact. Sowa has several, all picturesque, each with its extraordinary baobab trees and skirt of Stone Age tools left by hunters past. In Ntwetwe the islands are stranded sand dunes. Born at a time of periodic dryness they swarmed across the pan for tens of kilometres from the western shore. But the water returned and the dunes were temporarily caught. When once more the lake dried, and near-desert conditions returned, the strange horseshoe-shaped islands were trapped, held in place by the grass and shrubs that now covers them: vivid evidence of the cataclysmic climatic cycles this lake has seen.
Few surrounding rivers have large catchments so annual in-flow tends to pool at their deltas. An exception is the Nata river. This frequently floods and 2 metres or more of water may lie for several years on north-east Sowa. Here Nata Sanctuary has become a haven for birders and here, in wet months, water-birds, waders and European migrants mass, helping the Sanctuary build an enviable reputation. Flood waters from Nata spread across the pan towards the south and there, augmented by run-off, fill huge shallow basins. These and the algae they contain, provide a perfect breeding ground for greater and lesser flamingos, making Sowa the second largest flamingo breeding ground in Africa.
Outside National Parks, there is little game around the pans. Over the years I have seen a small herd of gun-shy springbok steadily decline and I have watched wildebeest numbers wax and wane. In the south, elephant are extremely uncommon but this was not always so. Around Kwadiba the baobabs are still deeply scarred by stabbing ivory that ripped off sections of bark to help quench an elephantine thirst. In Ntwetwe and in Makgadikgadi National Park herds of zebra and wildebeest in the wet season dot the grass plains adjacent to the pan like grains of sand upon the shore. Such abundance brings the predators with it and is the place to be reminded of Africa’s fecundity and the vicious circle of birth and death that is Nature’s relentless law.
Occasionally dust storms engulf these pans. Low, menacing and initially unrecognised on the distant horizon, they advance with terrifying speed, swirling up tonnes of dust, towering for thousands of metres above, darkening the sky and pausing, seemingly for silent minutes before striking with battering winds so powerful that almost everything is taken before them. I have watched tables, sleeping bags, chairs and the like take on a life of their own and disappear, spinning away into the distance. These are elemental experiences that reach deep down into the soul. Frightening, but awe-inspiring.
Cattle see rainstorms differently. Every year they happen with the same tragic consequences. Small herds turn their back to the driving, ice-cold, sharp shafts of rain. Unwittingly they walk to their death as they tread out into the pan that becomes more and more of a quagmire as the rain continues. Finally, cold, wet and without the strength to battle with the sucking mud, they settle to a starving death, caught fast, far from the sight of man. In 1983, 300 cattle died this way in a single incident.
So the great paleo-lake we call Makgadikgadi is both life and death, fear and joy, light and darkness. It is searing, stark but never drab. Even at its worst, it is beautiful, unique. Towards the end of day when the light takes on an amazing quality of magic, there is nowhere quite able to match its special qualities.
Years ago I took a priest friend to Kubu. He returned at sunset from an hour-long walk. There were tears in his eyes. He said: “To walk round this island, in this light, in this simple, uncomplicated landscape, to share this beauty, is feel as if you have walked with God.” He is right.
Author: Mike Main