Nxai Pan National Park is perhaps less celebrated than many of Botswana’s great wildlife parks, but it’s a place of giant surprises.
The man in the pink dressing gown
The first time we visited the park, the man in the pink dressing gown angrily turned us away. We’d broken the rules by driving at night and anyway, we should never have got there. Everywhere was flooded – the roads, the campsite, the pans. Mr Pink Dressing Gown had spent all day hauling a large 4×4 out of the clay. He was exhausted and now, out of the darkness, arrives a small car (a Subaru Forester) with a tent on top.
Navigating a flooded road
We understood, and we were sympathetic. The heavy rain and flooding had been exceptional, particularly in what was technically the dry season.
Nevertheless, we tried to explain. Our friend’s vehicle had broken down at the park gate, we’d failed to get them going, they’d urged us not to forgo our booking, the chap at the gate said that despite the torrential rain, the road to the camp was fine. It wasn’t. Navigating the flooded 35 km dirt road had taken two nail-biting hours. Not our fault then, that we’d arrived in the dark.
“You’ll have to make yourselves comfortable somewhere here”.The man in the pink dressing gown.
Mr PDG was unmoved. We pleaded with him, told him how we’d nearly come to grief at one deceptively deep point when the bonnet was submerged, the head lights snuffed out, and that only a miracle (actually a thrust of the turbo) had got us out of there.
Mr PDG softened. “The camp’s flooded, You’ll have to make yourselves comfortable somewhere here”.
Somewhere here was the staff compound, under water too. We turned back and, two hours later, reached the warmer welcome of our stranded friends.
Any headache tablets?
Ten months on, mid-morning, and we’d returned. We looked forward to meeting Mr PDG again, so that we could mend fences and show we could obey park rules.
Disappointingly, a stranger in a green uniform greeted us. “Got any headache tablets?” he asked.
I gave him a couple.
“Only two?” he said.
Another two didn’t cut it either. I gave him the whole box.
Mopanis and black mamba
Our allotted campsite was a further disappointment. The other sites looked inviting but ours was a claustrophobia-inducing clearing in a dense stand of mopanis that afforded no outlook. And then there was the newly-shed black mamba skin. Not a place to linger. We decided rather to spend the day exploring.
Nxai Pan lies to the north of the main Maun-Nata road, opposite Makgadikagadi National Park. Fossil pans characterise the area but it’s better known for the seven baobabs -Baines’ Baobabs – named after the artist-explorer, Thomas Baines, who painted the scene in 1862.
It’s a small park by Botswana standards, about 2,600 km2. In the wet season, the roads can turn to clay (as we discovered in the dry season…), but the flowers, the wide green expanses, the herds of plains animals, and accompanying predators make a visit then worthwhile.
A park for all seasons
In the dry season it’s another country altogether – not so pretty, hot as hell, dusty, but somewhat easier to drive around, although the 35km stretch from the entrance gate to the camp is deeply sandy making four-wheel drive essential.
Our second visit came at the tail end of the rains. Although parts were still green, the land was already drying out, making the pans a white-hot glare under the searing sun.
We drove out from the camp expecting some wild entertainment, but nothing much was happening. Siesta time in the bush. We decided to do the same and parked at a waterhole where, the guide book indicated, the famous IMAX movie, Roar: Lions of the Kalahari, was filmed.
Heat, dust, and danger
It is also memorable for the heat, lack of shade, dust lands, and pancake flatness which, we reasoned when we climbed out of the car and rolled out our awning, made it safer than the campsite because you can see for miles. And anyway, what’s the difference between being out of the car in the unfenced camp and out of it in the unfenced elsewhere?
A few springbok, a kori bustard, and a party of picnicking plovers were our only company as we ate our lunch, sitting with our backs against the car about 15 metres from the muddy waterhole. Some distance away, zebra sought the begrudging shade of acacia trees.
A jackal pulled in. He eyed us from across the pan, plucked up courage, and tiptoed into the mud. Taut-bodied, alert, he sipped, looked up, sipped, looked up, then zigzagged away, his silent departure emphasising the stillness.
The husband nodded off. I kept guard. So too did the springbok, their muscles twitching, and sharp eyes scanning the veld. The heat was savage, the tension almost unbearable. Danger seemed imminent but there was no saying where it would spring from. So this is how it felt to be defenceless prey at a waterhole! But we at least had the car to protect us from mighty-jawed, machete-clawed predators.
Arrival of the giants
They appeared like ships on the horizon. Two mighty bull elephants, they could at first have been trees in the shimmering heat haze that blurred everything.
As their shapes grew more defined, I woke the husband. “We need to keep an eye on this”.
Of course they were only coming for a drink. Just minding their own business. They’d quench their thirst then turn back. No need to panic.
In moments, they reached the drinking hole. Instead of stopping, they continued round the edge of the pan in our direction.
Time to leave. Except the awning, attached to the car, was still up. Packing it away took time. The activity might be more than the elephants would tolerate.
From the hot pan into the oven
We snuck into the car, closed doors and windows and waited, baking, while the elephants paused to siphon a drink. Surely they’d turn back now?
They continued in our direction. It was now clear that we were on their route. Or in their way. Here was the wild entertainment we’d anticipated.
The towering two surged straight toward us. The windscreen was suddenly filled with elephant. How small we felt in our small car – even with its tent on top. The husband’s hand was on the ignition keys. I aimed my camera, shakily. If these were to be our last moments (driving off was not an option as the ellies were now so close, a sudden getaway attempt might have provoked them to charge), at least my pictures would tell the tale of our demise – unless the camera got flattened too.
Silence of the giants
Had we been more familiar with elephant behaviour, we’d have recognised that we were more in danger of suffocating in the airless, oven-like car than of being trampled. Those gentle giants were as relaxed as we were frightened. They meant us no harm. Closer than too close they glided past. We felt not even a vibration. Even the awning was unscathed, and our camping chairs untouched.
I caught the eye of one of those giants as he passed just inches away. I’m sure he winked at me.
Back in camp we told a German couple of our close encounter. They were appalled. “You must keep 50 metres between you and wild animals!”
Tell that to the elephants.
The second encounter
We saw that same pair of ellies again. It was later that day en route to Baines’ Baobabs. Just outside the camp, a group of bulls had congregated at a pan. So that’s where our two had been heading! Like all men at their favourite watering hole, they were in their element, drinking up a storm. One was more serious than the rest and nursed his drink while contemplating, perhaps, why his pals had long tails and he, just a stub.
The others, having had one too many, were acting silly. They sprayed water everywhere, and tossed dust and mud over their broad shoulders. One of the lads was laughing so much, he had to sit down.
We also met several breeding herds during the drive to the baobabs. They were in a different league to the bulls – as distrustful and touchy as could be. Seeing our approach, the mothers and aunts corralled the calves while the matriarch, her ears spread wide, glared at us from 50 metres away. (She knew the rule). Don’t come any closer, her attitude announced. We wouldn’t have dared.
Art and ancient giants
You see the baobabs long before you arrive. Gigantic even from a distance, they stand like watchtowers above the wide white expanse of the Kudiakam Pan.
It’s a surreal, silent place, and awe-inspiring when you consider how old those trees are. According to guide books, the scene, complete with fallen baobab, is unchanged from when Thomas Baines painted it.
When we were there, the place was deserted except for legions of mosquitoes that launched a ferocious attack on us. And when we took a stroll on the pan, fresh lion spoor spoke of other dangers.
In camp that evening, the German couple lamented they’d seen nothing. “Did you see anything?” they asked us.
“Giants,” we answered. “Everywhere”.