The Makgadikgadi Pans form an alluring space on the map of Botswana. Nestled below the better known Okavango and Chobe regions, the magic that occurs on these fossilised lake beds is not known by many travellers. We were lucky enough to experience the pans during the wet season and not enjoyed the magic of an encounter with a family of captivating meerkats on the meerkat tour, but also stumbled across the world’s longest zebra migration.
We set out from our base at Planet Baobab on the northern border of the pans after lunch with our fabulous guide Bacchus, who stopped at many of the amazing birds along the way – feeding us a steady course of interesting new tidbits including how the lilac breasted roller nearly became Botswana’s national bird and how people love the black breasted snake eagles as they keep all the snakes away.
The two hour drive traversed more ecosystems than we could count and we loved watching the majestic leadwood and baobab trees transform into mopani woodlands with their butterfly leaves, then thorny flat topped acacias trees before passing through sections of whispy wavy Kalahari silky grass with its soft brown seed heads – used by the Bushmen for their houses – gently waving in the wind. At regular intervals we’d pass a fenced off field being carefully tended by a local homestead and saw numerous horses, donkeys and cows free ranging through the trees.
Amidst these stereotypical African scenes you can imagine our surprise as we hit the lush green fields of Kalahari salt grasses nurtured by the recent rains and were confronted with herd upon herb of zebra! In every direction, black and white stripes, intense stares and then herds galloping through the bushes to protect their young foals or move away from local horsemen moving through the landscape. We saw more than a 1000 zebra in this short period and were the only vehicle sitting amidst Africa’s longest migration. The famous wildebeest migration of the Serengeti and Masai Mara involve more animals but in Botswana these zebra move further. There are two massive migrations – one following the rains and fresh grass from the Chobe Riverfront on the border with Namibia to the north through the amazing Savuti grasslands to the Nxai pans. The other from Moremi to the Makgadikgadi Pans with the zebra in search of nutritious fresh grass. Not many people know about these migrations, even the scientists are only starting to understand the movements. Indeed, it is only on the last 10 years that fences which have previously stopped the migrations were removed and the zebras (none of which were alive before the fences were put up) re-established their ancient movements, many travelling over 1000 kilometres per year.
While we tried to take in the sight of so many zebra, we were distracted by vultures perched on the trees waiting for a zebra to hurt itself or be taken by lion, stunning wattled crane at a nearby waterhole and even striking yellow flowers on a cactus plant emitting horrible smells to attract the flies which pollinate it.
But we weren’t actually there to see the zebra migration! We were on a tour to visit a family of habituated meerkats. Planet Baobab offers these amazing experiences and, as with the gorillas of central Africa, has guides who camp in the field near two meerkat colonies so the meerkats are used to the human presence and so the guides know each day which burrows the meerkats are currently using. We got there in the late afternoon of a cooler, overcast day and many of the younger meerkats were already in the burrows getting ready for the night and we thought maybe we wouldn’t see any after all. But after standing around for a couple of minutes a little head popped out of a hole as if to say – ‘well there you are, we’ve been waiting for you’, and the alpha female and male of the colony proceeded to spend a good 45 minutes captivating us with their incredibly cute antics. The guides showed us how to sit and lie quietly by, never ever trying to touch the meerkats, but letting them go about their business of constantly checking the skies for danger, having a great scratch and clean of their tails, fixing up the entry to their burrows and quite endearingly, having a really good look at us. We were all completely mesmerised by the experience and seeing the world from the perspective of a meerkat, let alone seeing a meerkat eye to eye, is something that will stay with us all forever.
But our day was not to end with this incredible experience. We then drove through the grasslands to view Ntwetwe Pan itself. This massive fossilised lake bed is the size of Sydney and is usually the stark white clay bed of numerous photographs. However, a recent storm had dumped 50ml of water over the pan and we were confronted with a mirror perfect surface of blue-purple water which melted seamlessly into the sky. As the sun descended towards the horizon it sent out some last rays of golden African sun setting the plains and pan alight and searing on all our memories.
Planet Baobab offers the following activities:
- Game drive to Ntwetwe Pan, including visiting the meerkats (June to October this activity is on quad bikes)
- Sleep out on the Pan with quad bikes (dry season only)
- Local village walk
- Local baobab walk
Depending on the year – and time of year – you can also view Africa’s longest land mammal migration at Nxai Pan and Boteti River.
We can include the meerkat tour and other Planet Baobab activities in the following Travel Africa itineraries: