Botswana’s next big thing
Nxai Pan National Park is home to the famous Baines’ Baobabs, but not everyone is aware of the spectacular sunsets and roaring lions that you’ll also find here. Indeed, a visit to this park could easily be the highlight of your holiday in Botswana.
Ipull up at the entrance gate to Nxai Pan National Park. A sheet of paper is pasted to the wall. “Strictly 4x4”, it warns. For a brief moment I feel nervous about the four days I’m about to spend inside. I have full confidence in my Isuzu bakkie, but getting stuck when you’re all alone is no fun.
I get a map at the reception office and it shows that all the routes in the park are accessible, except for the old road leading to South Camp. This jeep track is apparently “extremely sandy” and should be avoided. Luckily there’s an alternative route that runs parallel. (Turn to page 61 for a map of the park.)
The alternative route might not be sandy, but it’s badly corrugated and after 17 km my kidneys feel bruised and battered. I turn off to Baines’ Baobabs to recover and have lunch, but the 12 km jeep track to the iconic clump of trees is also in a poor state and takes me more than half an hour to drive. Despite the suffering to get there, however, it’s thrilling to stand in the shade of these baobabs, where the artist and explorer Thomas Baines stopped in 1862 on his way to Victoria Falls.
His painting of these baobabs has attracted many a traveller to Nxai Pan over the years. There are three campsites in the vicinity, on the edge of Kudiakam Pan, but I’m planning to pitch my tent at South Camp, about 32 km away to the north-west.
When everything pans out
The eponymous Nxai Pan is the most famous pan in the park, but there are also two others: Kudiakam and Khama Khama. Centuries ago, this pan system was part of Lake Makgadikgadi. Look around now and it’s hard to imagine that the arid landscape was once under water.
About 2 km from South Camp I notice staff quarters and a shop that sells almost everything you’ll find on the shelves of your local Spar. The prices aren’t outrageous either, especially when you consider where you are.
South Camp has 10 stands in a grove of mopane trees. Stand number 6 – mine for the night – is under the biggest of those mopanes. It might be June, but it’s still warm and I’m thankful for the deep shade under the green canopy.
Being winter, the pans and natural waterholes in the park have run dry. There’s no river and only one permanent waterhole, about 4 km from South Camp, which is filled by a borehole.
During the dry season, many animals migrate to the Boteti River (see page 22) or other perennial water sources, but an equal number remain thanks to this lone waterhole.
If you visit in winter, you can rest assured that everything with teeth, claws, spots, hoofs, trunks and horns will come and visit sooner or later…
The landscape around the waterhole is flat and open. I’d easily be able to see a wild dog approaching from afar. For now, though, I have to make do with an elephant and two giraffes quenching their thirst.
I’m the only human here. I wind down my windows and scour the plains with my binoculars. The openness airs out my thoughts. To the west, black dots turn into lollipops that turn into giraffes, loping in slow-motion. Guineafowl stomp past an elephant to get to the water, while the late afternoon sun sets fire to wispy clouds. The limy landscape burns orange at sunset, then fades to hazy pink and finally to greyish blue. A choir of jackals sings in the night.
I’ve already grown attached to this place. Saying goodbye in three days’ time will be tough…
A crush around every corner
I go back to the waterhole early the next morning, where a lone black-backed jackal and some pigeons keep me company. Two other jackals join us, but they’re clearly not on friendly terms with the first. The first jackal is chased off, along with a few pigeons for good measure. I decide to drive on before I become the next target.
The park isn’t very big and you can easily drive all the roads north of South Camp in a day. Right now, the white lime soil is dry and hard, but deep mud tracks show how things can change after rain.
The so-called Baobab Loop goes through the north-western corner of the park. There are some beautiful big trees and the vegetation is denser. I see fresh cheetah spoor in the road, but not much else.
To the east is mopane veld. I pull over for a coffee break under yet another striking baobab. There are big waterholes further east, but they’re all dry, so I turn onto a jeep track that leads off the main route north to Khama Khama Pan. The route around the pan is clearly not used a lot and is badly overgrown in places. If you don’t enjoy the sound of bushes clawing at the sides of your vehicle, give this road a miss. I don’t see anything of interest and at one stage I even have to get out of my bakkie to look for the jeep track in the bush. I start to wonder if there’s any game left in this part of the park during winter…
My lonely game drive was a lesson. Why go elsewhere when the waterhole at South Camp is where it’s at?
When I drive there later, I see a herd of a few hundred springbok and some wildebeest drinking water. A martial eagle sits on the ground nearby and I see two white-headed vultures further off. A third vulture arrives. The martial eagle takes off and flies low over the heads of the antelope, causing them to scatter. I park my bakkie and wind down my windows. This is a waterhole where waiting will pay off.
Before long, a herd of elephants arrives, coated in white dust. They drink and take long mud baths. They’re so close to my bakkie that a spurt of water from a bull’s trunk almost lands on the windscreen. I listen to the rumbling of their stomachs and the
slurping, gulping and spraying of water. A bateleur lands for a quick sip, then flaps away into the sun. Some ellies also wander off, but others soon arrive and the waterhole remains busy. And all of this basically just for me: During the course of the afternoon, I only see two other vehicles.
Later, silhouettes of giraffes materialise on the western horizon and grow bigger as they approach. In the dusky light, two of them rub their heads and necks together. I wish my wife were here with me.
When I eventually settle down for the night at about 11 pm, I hear something that could be a lion roaring in the distance. I hold my breath and listen. Nothing. I’ve read that the low sound made by an ostrich can easily be mistaken for a lion’s grumble, so I turn over and fall asleep.
I wake at 3 am. This time there’s no doubt: A pride of lions is in the road that runs past the campsite. The canvas of my tent suddenly feels very flimsy. My heart gallops and I consider getting into the bakkie.
I take deep breaths and try to appreciate the moment. How often do you get to listen to these magnificent animals talking to each other in the night? The ground vibrates with their roars, which sets off jackals into a frenzy of nervous yelping. What a wonderful, terrifying cacophony!
Soon enough the roars fade into the distance, but I can still hear them until an hour before sunrise.
As soon as the sun is up, I drive to the waterhole. I’m certain that’s the way the lions were headed last night. But there’s not a single lion in sight, just a herd of springbok huddled together. I start my search in the direction of the Baobab Loop, mistaking every brownish bush, every springbok and every anthill for the king of the jungle.
Before long, a herd of elephants arrives, coated in white dust. They drink and take long mud baths. They’re so close to my bakkie that a spurt of water from a bull’s trunk almost lands on the windscreen.
A cat-like shape crosses the road up ahead. Another one follows. And another one! My hands get sweaty and I give the Isuzu a little more diesel.
They’re about 80 m away when they disappear into the veld: a female cheetah with two adolescent cubs. I forgive the lions for playing hide-and-seek. This is amazing!
I consult my map and see the cheetahs are walking towards a short circular road, so I set off to intercept them. When I encounter them again, they’re stalking a springbok ram. The adult takes the lead; the two youngsters follow close behind. They move slowly, their long bodies hovering centimetres above the ground, completely camouflaged in the grass.
The cheetahs lie down and the unsuspecting springbok walks straight towards them. I sit perfectly still. Another step closer. The springbok is still none the wiser, but he changes direction on a whim and begins grazing off to the left. The direction of the breeze will alert the antelope to the predators soon. Come on cheetahs, now’s your chance!
The springbok sniffs the air and looks to where the cheetahs are waiting in the grass. He senses something and trots off. The cheetahs stand up as if to say, “Yes, we’re here, you caught us.” Then they lie down again.
A final conversation
All that stalking seems to have tired out the cheetahs and it doesn’t look like they’ll move again anytime soon. I start the bakkie and carry on, still hoping to track down the lions that woke me last night.
On the roads around the waterhole, I see lots of kori bustards, a martial eagle eating a guineafowl and a lizard buzzard gulping down a lizard. ( True to form. – Ed.) Two ellies take a mud bath.
Later in the afternoon I return to where I saw the cheetahs. They’re still there – three shadows moving quietly in the veld. They cross the road in front of me and crouch down to stalk a herd of springbok in the distance. The antelope are far away, but the cheetahs are more careful this time around.
I watch them until the sun rests in the branches of the thorn trees. The springbok move further away and again it looks like the cheetahs will be unsuccessful.
On the way back to South Camp, I see a vehicle in the veld next to one of the roads. It’s getting dark and I wonder if the occupants might be in trouble. I peer through my binoculars and see that it’s a game-viewing vehicle. Then I spot the lioness lying nearby. I inch closer – I don’t want to spoil the moment for the other tourists, but I can’t let the chance of seeing a Nxai Pan lion pass me by.
One lioness lies close to the vehicle and there’s another one further off. Three small cubs are playing in the space between the two adults. It's nearly dark and it's so quiet that I can hear the cubs rolling around in the dust.
Nxai Pan has given me a glimpse of its most feared predator on the last night of my visit. “Thank you,” I whisper to the wilderness. “I’ll definitely be back.”
And later, when the lions visit South Camp again, I imagine they’re also saying goodbye. “We’ll wait for you. And bring your wife along next time…”
IT’S 100 % WILD. Baines’Baobabs (below) are the top attraction in Nxai Pan National Park.
The park has one permanent waterhole (pictured on previous spread). It can be deceptive: Sometimes it seems like nothing is happening. But the next moment herds of springbok and wildebeest arrive, and a martial eagle completes a regal fly- over.
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. Nxai Pan is a very photogenic park, with the dusty plains, late afternoon light and plentiful game often combining to create memorable photographs.
ME-TIME. Stands 3 to 7 at South Camp are shaded by dense groves of mopane trees. These stands are close together; for more privacy pick stands 1, 2, 8, 9 and 10.