Botswana’s Nxai Pans

The Camping Files
July 4, 2018
Namibia’s National Parks: Where Do All the Skeletons Come From?
July 4, 2018

Bull Elephants race for the waterhole at sunset.

Text and Photographs Annabelle Venter 

We’ve just returned to South Camp and it’s almost dark. Stretching our stiff limbs, the place is silent tonight since we are the only campers. And then we hear it, a soft swishing sound in the grass. Moving cautiously to the edge of the tree line in the deep twilight, we can just make out a solid mass of elephants mere metres away from us. They’ve stopped and are watching us now, trunks extended, exploring our scent. They saw us first, though, and have decided we are not a threat. So off they go again, completely silent except for feet brushing through the crisp grass. 

Sunset at the beautiful campsite number 2 at Kaudikam pan.

They’re gone as quietly as they arrived and within a few minutes, it feels like a dream. The experience leaves us feeling incredibly humble and privileged. That’s what camping in the wild is all about, living respectfully in the presence of wild creatures, neither one disturbing the other.

This is why we love Botswana’s Nxai Pans. When we first discovered this national park 20 years ago, my husband declared it ‘his favourite place on earth’. There were few visitors back then and on several occasions, we were the only people in the park for days on end. In those days the rangers didn’t always have a vehicle if someone had gone to Maun for supplies. There were five campsites and just a single ablution in the centre of the camp, with au natural decorations like a discarded snakeskin. On that first trip, the only other visitors related that when they arrived that morning there were lions relaxing in the shade of campsite 5. They had no option but to go for a drive until the big cats had finished their nap! 

Back then we also spent hours on camp chairs at the old waterhole, chatting with the staff and watching lions making kill after kill in front of us. This is where our interest in wildlife photography was piqued. During this time wildlife filmmakers, Tim and June Liversedge and their crew were filming spectacular footage for their IMAX/National Geographic movie called Roar, Lions of the Kalahari, featuring the lions we had also come to know.

Visitors then were mostly local nature enthusiasts, only because they truly loved the place and didn’t mind the lack of facilities, or the tortuous 6-lane, 35 km, deep sandy track to get there. A track that chewed up certain 4x4s and left them stranded on several occasions, blocking the track! 

A typical late afternoon scene at the Nxai Pans waterhole.

GETTING THERE BY ROAD FROM NAMIBIA:

You will need a 4×4 camping vehicle, preferably with a rooftop tent, with the appropriate border clearance papers from the car hire company. Nxai Pans is roughly 1000 km east of Windhoek by road via Gobabis, Ghanzi and Maun. Leave Windhoek by 7 a.m. to avoid arriving in Maun after dark, and watch out for donkeys on the roads when you enter the town. You’ll be travelling east and the sun sets earlier than in Windhoek. There’s a wide variety of accommodation and camping to choose from for your overnight stay.

You need to be self-sufficient and can stock up on supplies in Maun before leaving town. It’s best to leave early in the morning for Nxai Pans, to do the 35 km sandy track from tar road to camp office before it gets too hot. Experience in driving in sand is advisable.

There is no office or water at Baines’ Baobabs. 

One beautiful spring morning in September 2001, the 11th to be precise, we were parked next to the road chatting to the only other campers when one of us noticed some lionesses approaching far away in the distance. We sat and watched silently as three lionesses, each with three tiny cubs, strolled nonchalantly between the two vehicles en route to the waterhole! We followed and watched this beautiful scene in that magical pink first light, feeling that all was well in our remote part of the world. 

A little later that morning, the pride’s male, ‘King Nxai’, arrived to slake his thirst. It was a moment we won’t forget. Arriving in Maun the next day we discovered that the previous day was one that the world will not forget either, when the Twin Towers fell in New York.

Nxai Pans is the northern part of the greater Makgadikgadi pans complex, an ancient fossil lake bed, some 15 kms wide, and there are many tracks dotted with baobabs traversing the area.

The park includes three pans, the larger one centred around the park’s waterhole, just 2 km from camp. To the northeast lies Kgama Kgama Pan which is wonderfully remote, and if you are travelling alone then it’s a good idea to let your neighbours know where you are going. In summer, when it’s raining, the track there is treacherous with deep hidden potholes, but still always worth a visit. To the south is Kudiakam Pan where you’ll find some famous baobabs.

Summertime is very wet in the pans, with a shallow layer of water covering all the uneven road surfaces. The tracks become extremely slippery and one can end up against a tree, as we almost did! They usually dry out during the day, but on a trip in February back in 2004, we found ourselves completely flooded. After an extensive shopping expedition en route in Maun we found we had the campsite once again to ourselves. We selected our spot, set up the tents, and unpacked groceries and cool boxes. Once settled in we set out with our friends on an afternoon game drive, but no sooner had we left the camp when the clouds burst. We skidded and splashed along for a few kilometres while the rain subsided. Returning to camp an hour or so later we found the campsite knee-deep in water, all our gear floating in the mess. This quickly reduced our food supply since the water was mingling with the ablution’s drains! Moving out of the campsite (it was like a basin) to higher ground we discovered all our clothes were also wet! A routine of draping clothes on bushes for a few hours, before the next downpour, continued for the next four days. It was great fun indeed and luckily our friends who were on their first camping trip in Africa thought so too!

A cheetah mum and her two cubs visit the waterhole at last light for a final drink of the day.

At night we sat reading in our rooftop tent listening to the nocturnal sounds in the soft rain – lions hunting zebra 50 meters away followed by hooves thundering past us into the darkness; unidentified footsteps splashing through the flooded campsite next to us; tiny lion cub cries as the pride passed between the vehicles below us. It was thrilling and a trip I will never forget. Camping in the rainy season is not for the fainthearted, but brings beautiful sights with it too. Fresh pink lilies break through the compacted earth. Dung beetles make light work of the mountains of elephant dung. Delicate fungi pop up in the dung overnight, waiting to bewitch us as the sun rises. Baby zebras frolic on the plains while the predators hunt in the long grass. Nxai Pans are the destination of one of the longest animal migrations in Africa when the zebra move south from the Chobe River to feed on the new summer grasslands.

All too soon the dry season descends on the pans once more, and the predators and other game must visit the waterhole daily. The original waterhole was a spectacular place to pass the whole day, but since a lodge was built with its own waterhole on the western side, the animals now move between the two. Occasionally the water tower near the camp overflows and elephants stop to quench their thirst there. Then apparently it’s also a good place to spot cheetah drinking very early in the morning.

In the past, when Botswana still allowed hunting, breeding herds of elephants were scarce and we have only seen those herds twice in the past 20 years. The first time we glimpsed a really scared group running across the pan, but last year they were back at the waterhole and much more relaxed around the vehicles.

We have several times woken to find no water in the campsite and the staff told us that the elephants had ripped up the pipes once again. Since the new ablutions were added the elephants have found other ways to access water during the dry times. Single bull elephants regularly visit the campsite during the day and night and one must be watchful not to bump into them on a dark night. Did I mention the campsite is not fenced?

Although there are plenty of baobabs to see around the pan’s edge, no trip to Nxai Pans is complete without a visit to Baines’ Baobabs on Kudiakam Pan. 

Sunrise at Nxai pans and the pride males relax with wet chins after drinking.

This pan can be reached by taking the turnoff east, about 18 km south of the main camp. It’s a beautiful sandy drive over some 15 km of open veld until you reach the first pans. Look out for lion, caracal, small antelope and the occasional elephant. You’ll see the famous group of baobabs some time before you reach it. It’s so flat around here that they stand like sentinels above the pans. Named after explorer Thomas Baines who painted them in 1862, these baobabs have hardly changed since. 

Camping is not permitted at Baines’ Baobabs themselves, but it’s a lovely place to stop for a quick picnic. If you are keen to photograph these beautiful trees there are campsites available in the area, but these are spread out some distance away. This is probably the best way to get good light and no people in your photographs plus the feeling of remoteness at night is really special. Campsite no. 1 is directly across the pan from the main group. When we first visited there we found fresh lion spoor, and various birds exploded from the tree on our approach – barn owls, hornbills, bee-eaters. There are basic ablutions now but for that first memorable camp at this spot we rigged up a water bag from the roof-rack. While enjoying that outdoor shower, knowing there was no one else for many kilometres around us, suddenly a small aircraft zoomed out of nowhere right past the camp! The pilot must have been as surprised as us because he flew around the island for a second pass, much lower and closer this time! I’ve never seen an aircraft over the pans before or since that day.

The gentle rhythm of daily camping life at Nxai Pans is pleasantly soporific and it’s a good idea to stay at least three days, but of course 5-7 would be better! One falls into a routine of being up before dawn and out at the waterhole just as the sun rises. Lions come to drink then before choosing a tree to lie up for the day. As the heat rises, groups of antelope begin the long trek to the waterhole. It gets crowded by ten o’clock and tempers flare around the water, sending all the animals scattering in clouds of dust. This is the magic of Nxai Pans: the dust, the animal interaction and the unexpected visitors. 

After lunch and showers at the camp, we’re back at the waterhole by mid-afternoon to wait for the elephants. The heat and stillness can make you drowsy, and on more than one occasion we had almost fallen asleep, waking with a start as the elephants burst out of the bush next to us! Sometimes we are able to spot them from far away, approaching the waterhole in a line and these are the sightings that make Nxai Pans so special. 

Gate times in Botswana are set for all the national parks and at certain times of the year you still have time after sunset to return to camp, ideal for catching those golden light moments for photography.

Getting back to camp it’s time to reflect on another magical day in Botswana, to listen for the night sounds, see if you can spot the bush babies in the Terminalia prunioides trees above you and watch the moonrise. 

Just remember to keep your eyes open for elephants! TNN

Male lions are always a highlight at the waterhole.
Bull Elephants tend to dominate the waterhole during the daytime.
Tempers flare as the temperatires rise mid-morning.
This article was first published in the Travel News Namibia Winter 2018 issue.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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