Among the largest salt pans in the world, Makgadikgadi salt pans stretch for roughly 12000 square kilometres. Imagine this: a large, flat and featureless expanse. Like a desert, little grows here, and the horizon stretches for miles and blurs into a haze at the edges. If you time it right, Makgadikgadi is a photographer's dream. When there is enough rain in the rainy season, the pans fill with water. Shallow, still water for kilometer upon kilometer, reflecting the expansive sky and attracting wildlife. Millions of flamingos and other birds are attracted to the region when the pans fill with water, bringing the flat, featureless face of the pans to life.
Makgadikgadi Salt Pans are actually comprised of many smaller pans, the largest of which are Ntwetwe Pan and Sua Pan. Ntwetwe Pan lies partially within Makgadikgadi National Park. Sua Pan lies to the south of Nata Bird Sanctuary.
Nata Sanctuary is a must-visit place if you are spending any time in Makgadikgadi. Nata Sanctuary has been created in a way that protects both the ecology of Makgadikgadi and benefits the local communities.
Nothing grows on the salty surface of the Pans, making it a hard life for any animals that live in the area. The plant-life varies significantly depending on the area you visit. Large mammals are scarce, partly due to the hostile nature of the pans themselves, and partly due to the disruptive influences of cattle ranching and fences on migration patterns. Zebra, wildebeast, elephant and giraffe have all been spotted in the pans, and there is a permanent herd of springbok that live in the grasslands adjacent to the pans. Due to the relative lack of large game, predators are also scarce, with most carnivorous species found in the pans limited to smaller species that can live on smaller game, like black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox and African wildcat.
Bird-life is the true attraction of the Pans. When the rains are good (Dec-April), the pans flood, attracting tens of thousands of flamingos that gather to breed (the largest gathering of flamingos in Southern Africa). These can best be seen from the Nata Bird Sanctuary, where in a good flood year you will also find pelicans, egrets, herons, darters, cormorants, and many others. The challenge is this: the pans don't flood every year. But if you are traveling in the wet season, plan a stop to Makgadikgadi: if the pans flood, it is a sight you wouldn't want to miss.
Makgadikgadi is best visited in the rainy season (Dec-Apr) when the pans are flooded. The birdlife at that time provide an unmissable sight. The expansive sky alone is worth a visit at other times, but the wet season is when Makgadkgadi truly comes to life. It is best to check the conditions of the roads before you set out however - the water can make the roads impassable. April is often the best time to visit.
Makgadikgadi is very sparsely populated: the food and wine you can access will be dependent on where you lodge.
A hostile landscape, no one chooses to live on the Pans, where fresh water is scarce and very little grows. There are a few villages located in the region, mostly along the main roads, including Nata, Sowa, Gweta and others.
Makgadikgadi is a harsh and unforgiving landscape. There is no shade, and the sun beats down unmercifully, so it is essential that you are fully prepared. The rainy season runs from December to April; the rest of the year is quite dry, though cooler in the winter months (Jun-Sept).
Traveling to Makgadikgadi is often done by road. Some lodges (eg Leroo La Tau) have their own private air strips and can provide guided tours of the Pans and surrounds. If you choose to drive through Makgadikgadi, do so with great care. Travel in a convoy with at least two fully-equipped 4x4 vehicles, and carry at least one GPS, extra batteries, satellite phone, and way more food, water and petrol than you think you will need. Some tracks in the salt pans are traveled very seldom: there is no 'right' way through the pans, with many paths diverging. If you get into trouble it could be weeks or months before another traveler comes along. If your vehicle breaks through the crust of the pan to the silt below, getting unstuck can be extremely challenging, even with another vehicle to assist.