Day 12 & Night 12 – Nxai Pan

Nxai Pan National Park

Today we drove to Nxai Pan National Park. It took us 3 hours. En route we had opportunities to buy fuel at Nata and Gweta: this is the last place you can stock up with fuel, firewood, food and water before Maun. We stopped at Gweta and restocked on fuel. After Gweta we turned right to go north at a clearly sign-posted junction. The entrance gate is 37km further north along the deep sandy track. This stretch of road was one of the hardest of the entire trip. Do not under-estimate, only 4×4 vehicles should attempt the journey, the sand is very deep and in other places the road is very bumpy, you must carry a spade. If you get stuck don’t panic and be patient. Remember – tire pressure out, firewood, digging. Also when driving around the park look out for long grasses with black seed heads and watch out for the seed heads collecting around your vehicle exhaust and radiator as apparently these can catch fire. The Bradt guide to the area mentioned a burnt-out car along this road. We had grown very used to lovely smooth hard tar roads since Kasane, so to suddenly be back on bone-shaking, teeth-jarring, wheel-spinning sand and bumps came as a shock to the system. We thought we had left the worst roads behind us. Once we got over the sandridge that surrounds the southern rim of the park the roads were superb, hard and baked and almost as good as tar, but you’ve just got to grit your teeth along the road to get there.

Nxai Pan National Park consists mainly of a series of fossil pans, all of which are covered in golden short grasses. On the pans are “islands” of umbrella-shaped Acacia trees that form shady spots in which the animals often rest during the day. Nxai Pan is well known for a huge springbok population, as the short-cropped grasses can testify, and extraordinarily large herds of giraffe with up to 30 in a group. Also to be seen are blue wildebeest, gemsbok, eland, greater kudu and red hartebeest. The more commonly seen predators are spotted hyena, cheetah, leopard and jackal with the elusive brown hyena a rare treat. During the rains buffalo and elephants may also be seen. Once the rains start, game viewing can be good and the birdlife is excellent. Lion, giraffe, kudu, impala, ostrich, fascinating birdlife together with a good population of jackal, bat-eared fox and numerous smaller creatures, are permanent residents of Nxai Pan National Park. During the rainy season (November to April), gemsbok, elephant and zebra migrate to the area, during which time the zebra and springbok foal in their thousands.

On the Internet: “In spite of our low season visit, the game viewing was a delight. We spotted a pride of lions with young cubs next to a water hole. We were able to view and photograph them, sometimes within ten or twenty feet from our vehicle, for long stretches of time. We also saw a dramatic confrontation between two bull elephants at a water hole which resulted in one of them losing a large chunk of his left tusk (the ivory was left with park officials). Elephants, lions, oryx , jackals, springbok, zebra, giraffe, impala and ostrich as well as many birds. The viewing by one of only two water holes was exceptional. A pride of lions was resting near the water and it was quite a show watching the prey animals approach for a drink. The darkness at night was particularly noticeable since there was nothing other than our modest kerosene lamps and small flashlights to mar the bush blackness. It was a treat looking up at the sky a night to see the southern hemisphere stars in all their glory.”

On arrival at the gate I went through the obligatory permit and paperwork, but also had an opportunity to chat to the two scouts. These scouts were the most impressive we had met the entire trip, and I can say they run a very tight ship here at Nxai. Most impressively they gave us a map of the park which had the main watering holes marked on it to help visitors make the most of their experience. They talked us through the map and what sort of animals we might see at the watering holes. They also warned us against driving north out of the park where they said the road was very overgrown, but reassuringly told us in the park itself it was very hard to get lost as the roads looped back on themselves in the end. Over our time here the guides did regular patrols, asked us nicely and politely but assertively to keep to the roads and ran a tight ship around the campsite which was very well organised as well. They were highly professional and clearly took a great deal of pride in their work there. They were very friendly as well, asking us where we had come from and about the UK. I instantly liked them very much, and of course that instantly gave us a warm and glowing feeling about our days ahead in their park.

Night 12 – The Campsite – South Camp, Nxai Pan

We camped at the only available campsite in the park, South Camp, which is a camping delight, situated at South Camp (S 19°56.199’/ E024°46.572′) within a tree-covered area on the edge of the pan. This was a pre-booked and paid for campsite all arranged for us by Safari Drive. It is right near the entrance gate, you basically enter the gate and go almost immediately right, and then the campsite is about ten minutes down the track on the right hand side.

This proximity to the gate is both reassuring as the scouts live at the gate and it is very handy after that terrible road to the gate. Ed and I were considerably more relaxed on our approach to this campsite because we’d been told there were no predators around at this time of year as they have moved after the massive herds of larger grazers who have moved on to seek more water. I believe you’ll be very lucky to see or hear predators in this park in the dry season. However, predators still do exist here and like all Botswana National Park campsites, there are no fences, so you still need to be aware of your surroundings, and on approaching the campsite we did go right by a group of about 5 large bull elephants which given the damage in the campsite they definitely do come into where people camp, so you will still need to be careful. The campsite is only about a minute’s drive from the main watering hole in the park, so you can concentrate your driving to a very limited stretch between the main watering hole and campsite and have a wonderful time.  Our campsite pitch was well marked, and the facilities included a basic ablution block and braai pit. There were showers and flush toilets, and there are water standpipes however hot water for ablutions and most of the standpipes had been destroyed by the elephants, not that this mattered to us one bit. The campsite is set under stunning trees with a dried purple flower, so overall it was a purple-dappled idyllic spot. 

That evening we went to the main watering hole and watched the same group of bull elephants jostling and charging each other who we had seen near the campsite, together with a large herd of giraffes trying to sidle up and get a place among the giants to drink. We watched the giraffes having to spread their spindly Dali-esque legs so they could reach down to the water. The evening in this place gives one of the most beautiful landscape scenes all trip, as the gold grass growing on the pan is dotted with scatterings of sculptured acacia trees, it is how I had always imagined Africa to look like and had seen in films. It was enormously evocative and stunningly beautiful. It was so flat you could turn 360 degrees and it felt like you were in the centre of a huge disc under  huge blue dome sky.  With the animals at the watering hole and the African sunset turning it all rose-gold, reflecting the burning colors of the sun, it was unforgettably wonderful and one of my favorite memories of the whole trip.

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