I have on many occasions accompanied guests, friends or family through the Makgadikgadi Pans of northern Botswana. Without fail the feedback has always been one of only two responses: a few have questioned my sanity for bringing them to such a dry and barren world, but most have simply been blown away by the stark majesty of the place.
And these widely diverse responses reflect the very nature of the planet’s vast environments that exist on the edge of extremes. Because of the climatic patterns brought to bear on their geographical locations, the landscapes and the adapted biodiversity have evolved to survive amidst severe environmental fluctuations. When the rains do come, there are fleeting moments of obvious bounty, but mostly, these are arid regions, seemingly parched of life and comfort. For some, this suggests an unfamiliar harshness and hostility that immediately evokes a sense of foreboding, but on this occasion, everyone was thrilled to enter the realm of the Makgadikgadi.
We were extremely fortunate to have Mike Holding and Tanya Jenkins, two of the continent’s most respected and well-known wildlife film-makers, lead us in the two-day crossing. Long time locals to the Okavango and the greater region, they have been involved in so many inspiring documentaries over the years, including recording the breeding cycle of the million or so flamingos that inhabit Sowa Pan during the wet season, and the Botswana sections in the hugely successful Planet Earth series. We would no doubt have found our way without them, but the way they shared their considerable experience and knowledge, (and their food I might add), of the place while filming this short leg of the expedition for us brought a fascinating dimension.
Situated south-east of the Okavango Delta and within the central regions of northern Botswana, the greater Makgadikgadi system exists as a single ecological unit covering almost 30 000 sq. kms – this includes the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan National Parks (7 300 sq. kms), which were integrated in 1993, and the two major salt pans of Ntwetwe (6 500 sq. kms) and Sowa (almost 5 000 sq. kms). The rest comprises a number of smaller pans, seasonal water bodies and surrounding grasslands that are integral to the system. Regarded as the largest salt pan complex on the planet, the sediments are remnants of an ancient super-lake that began drying up less than a million years ago when tectonic movement ensured the Okavango River ceased flowing into the basin.
But, despite its size and fragile nature, the vast majority of this area comprising the two pans and the surrounding grasslands still does not have any form of protection status. And it is these areas that remain a vital wet season range for a significant variety of species and biomass of wildlife. During wet years, once the first smattering of rain falls, the region plays host to one of Africa’s few remaining migrations – tens of thousands of animals, mostly zebra and blue wildebeest, trek from the Boteti River in the west, and they are joined by a lesser number of animals arriving from the Linyanti and Savute regions to the north, all in search of grazing. The animals disperse sometime in March and April once the rainwater pans have dried.
The birdlife can also be prolific in wet years. Brine shrimps and algae stir from the salty waters providing food for hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of both lesser and greater flamingos that arrive to breed on the southern edges of Sowa Pan. And pelicans, waders and waterfowl congregate mostly towards the northern edge where the Nata River enters.
While not as impressive, the wildlife to be seen over the rest of the year is just as appealing. Brown hyena and aardvark, two of the most elusive of the nocturnal creatures are seen regularly, and oryx, caracal, eland, suricate and red hartebeest are other prominent species that act as draw-cards for the region. And sightings of elephant, lion, cheetah and kudu occur from time to time. Without any formal protection of the entire region, Botswana is at risk of losing a significant and unique component to its wildlife heritage. There is talk, and apparently plans exist for an integrated management plan, but this needs to happen sooner rather than later as mining companies, domestic livestock and unregulated tourists are moving in on the area.
A related issue that needs addressing is that of the veterinary fence that runs from Nxai Pan along the western and southern edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park before bending eastwards and extending towards the centre of Sowa Pan. Constructed in the mid 2000’s, it came about at the instigation of the rural communities to the west as an attempt to keep wild and domestic animals apart. Initially, it succeeded in keeping domestic stock out of the park, but without maintenance, the fence has in many places become a mess of tangled wire and fallen poles. Is it not time to re-assess this fence with an eye to removing it? Fences such as this remove the onus of responsibility for sound husbandry practices from stock owners to every other stakeholder – and at the same time, the alignment of this one has caused havoc amongst wildlife populations.
From the Pans, we headed to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary were we bade farewell to Team McCallum, Steve Moubray (the holder of the Yellow Jersey) and the Berning’s. What wonderful company and riding partners you all were. From there it was on to the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, another important wildlife reserve and component to the Limpopo /Shashe TFCA that includes the Greater Mapungubwe area. Tucked away in the far eastern corner of Botswana where its border meets those of Zimbabwe and South Africa, this private reserve has much to offer, particularly with regards to elephant sightings. Here we were warmly hosted by David Evans and his team from Mashatu Lodge. We had time to ride the first morning of the Tour de Tuli as guests in David’s group, before we retired to an afternoon of rest – many thanks to David for his firm support of the TRACKS project.
Before ending, I must mention one particular stop on this recent leg. Our route from Pandamatenga to the Pans was made all the more memorable by a one-night stay at Nata Logde, situated a few kilometers outside the village of Nata on the northern tip of Sowa Pan. Going back 30 years and more, there is hardly a seasoned Botswana traveller that is not familiar with this famous stopover on the Johannesburg to Maun road. Recently rebuilt and expanded, the lodge offers an extremely convenient and comfortable way to break this journey. We were at their camp site and everyone in the TRACKS team voted the ablution facilities by far and away the best we had encountered on the entire trip. Many thanks also to Diane and James French, the General Managers, for inviting us all to a sumptuous dinner.
Tomorrow (4 August 2012), we cross into South Africa at Pontdrift and head for Musina and then on to Pafuri in the Kruger National Park. We now have the wind in our sails as we approach the last quarter of the trip. The day we arrived in Tuli, we passed the 4 000km mark – and we have all admitted that it’s a great feeling to know we only have a 1 000 or so to go. Frank and Johnny particularly have an added zest to their daily routines as their wives, Ida and Carol, have joined us – a very warm welcome to them and we shall be on our best behaviour while they are with us for the next week or so. And then Ian and I have much to look forward to when we reach Pafuri in four days time – Tessa, Liam and Sharon will be there to meet us. Now that’s certainly worth pedalling 100kms or so per day for!