A few months back we visited South America and had the chance to see salt flats for the first time in either of our lives. First we marvelled at them in Chile in the Salar de Atacama and then we spent a day on the spectacular Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. My mind was, as they say, blown away by the unique and unbelievable landscape presented to me – it was something I had never seen before and never thought I would see again. It was forever to be associated with the foreign Andean life I had experienced in South America. You can then imagine my surprise when I heard our itinerary for our Botswana holiday and that, in this African adventure, we were also going to be visiting a salt flat.
Salt flats (or salt pans) originate from prehistoric lakes. Essentially, as the lakes evaporate, they leave behind salt deposits. The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt flat at about 10,582 square km. The Makgadikgadi salt pans in Botswana’s Kalahari desert is a network of separate pans – the largest pan is only 4,921 square km but the total area of the whole network is about 16,000 square km. The Bolivian Salt flats are on the altiplano – those high altitude planes in the Andes – sitting at about 3600m above sea level. The salt crust on the salar is a few meters thick and tucked within it is the word’s largest lithium deposit. The Botswanan pans have a dry salty crust most of the year but the rest of the time it is covered with water and grass – a place of refuge for birds and mammals in this desert landscape.
When we arrived on the Botswana pans, the main difference that struck me was that where the Bolivian salt flat had been a bright piercing white as far as the eyes can see, see the Makgadikgadi pan had a duller, more brown-white appearance. However, the Makgadikgadi pans give you that same sense of eternity we had experienced in Bolivia… the flat empty nothingness of the pans rolls out before you, inspiring in you, equally, a sense of unfettered freedom and the fear that if you move you will never be able to find the same spot again.
Where Uyuni has its cactus island (Incahuasi Island), Makgadikgadi has its baobab island (Kubu Island). In the local language of Setswana Kubu means hippopotamus and Lekhubu (something of an alternate name) means rock outcrop – the latter definitely being a more appropriate name at this stage of the salt pans life! Kubu Island is not very big – it only takes about 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other – and is completely surrounded by the flat white pans. Kubu Island is the only place to stay if you want to stay on the pans. This island became our home or 2 nights – our dusty oasis in the middle of a salty landscape.
It is not an easy place to get to – the best places aren’t. You will need a 4×4 and an excellent gps system (preferably with a maps programme like Tracks4Africa loaded to show the many unmarked paths en route to the island). A compass may also be of help! You will also need to be entirely self sufficient to stay there. There are no ablutions (except for some old long drop toilets) and absolutely no running water. Take more water than you need and plenty of firewood. The website asks that you take all rubbish away with you but when we were there, a little rubbish dump seemed to have been set up that campers were using. There are 14 campsites that are dusty but gorgeous. They are nicely spread out and you can persuade yourself that you are the only people there. When you arrive, have a look around for the best spot for you – there are plenty surrounded by beautiful big baobabs. My particular favourites were the ones on the far end right next to the salt pan. The campsites cost 100 pula per person per night (SADC members) or 150 pula per person per night (international rates). Advance booking and payment is required. This may seem expensive when you are essentially being provided with no services but remember that you are in a national park enjoying what of the most extraordinary places on earth.
When you get tired of lounging in the shade of the baobab trees or exploring the island on foot – then the pans await you. We easily filled hours walking, driving, photographing, exploring….