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.

Night ter­rors

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.

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