Imagine a landscape the size of Portugal, with few humans and stark, flat terrain stretching to eternity, fusing with a distant horizon. This is the Makgadikgadi, an area of 12 000 sq. km; part of the Kalahari Basin, yet unique being home to one of the world's largest salt pans.
Most of the year, this desolate area remains waterless and extremely arid, with large mammals all but absent. However, in years of good rain and the years that follow, the two largest pans – Sowa to the east and Ntwetwe to the west – flood, attracting wildlife – zebra and wildebeest on the grassy plains – and most spectacularly
flamingos at Sowa and Nata Sanctuary. Flamingo numbers can run into the tens – and sometimes – hundreds of thousands, and the spectacle can be completely overwhelming.
The rainwater arrives in massive downpours in summer months and longer spells in February and March, swelling the Nata, Tutume, Semowane and Mosetse Rivers in the east, and in years of exceptional rains, the Okavango via the Boteti River in the west. During these periods, the pans are transformed into vast powder blue lakes - a reminder of the gigantic, prehistoric lake the Makgadikgadi once was.
The Makgadikgadi is actually a series of pans, the largest - Sowa and Ntwetwe – are surrounded by a myriad of smaller pans. North of these two pans is Kudiakam Pan, Nxai Pan and Kaucaca Pan. Interspersed between the pans are sand dunes, rocky islands and peninsulas, and desert terrain.
No vegetation can grow on the pans' salty surface, but the fringes are covered with grasslands. Massive baobab trees populate some fringe areas – and their silhouettes create dramatic landscapes against a setting sun. Africa's most famous explorer, Dr David Livingstone, crossed these pans in the 19th century, guided by a massive baobab, Chapman's Tree, the only landmark for hundreds of miles around. This ancient specimen is believed to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old.