The Botswana Salt Pans cover a fascinating, off the beaten track area with plentiful wildlife, wide, mystical landscapes and amazing stars. This self-drive guide covers all the things to do in the area, from the national parks to the smaller attractions.
The Botswana Salt Pans are composed of several large pans, mainly enclosed between the A30 and A3 highways, about 150 km east of Maun. They contain a few protected areas such as Makgadikgadi Pans and Nxai Pan National Parks, and the Nata Bird Sanctuary.
Tips for the Botswana Salt Pans
- The Tracks4Africa Botswana Map* is very useful in the salt pans.
- Prepare for hot days in summer, and freezing nights in winter.
- There is some limited phone signal around the pans
- Check out our articles in depth on Nxai Pan, Makgadikgadi Pans or Kubu Island.
- We stopped in the salt pans twice during our two-month Botswanan road trip which you can read more about in my book*.
The Salt Pans cover a huge area of northeast Botswana, arguably the largest salt pans in the world. An underrated destination that’s sometimes overlooked, you can have amazing wildlife experiences, see incredible scenery and feel true remoteness in this starkly beautiful landscape. Nxai Pan is beautiful but highly accessible (with a 4×4), and Makgadikgadi is utterly remote while Kubu Island is a magical, out of this world experience.
It’s relatively easy to self-drive through Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi Pans National Parks, to visit Kubu Island and to explore Nata Bird Sanctuary. There are camping options within the parks, at Kubu Island and inside the Bird Sanctuary.
It’s slightly more difficult to visit the famous giant baobabs (Greens and Chapmans) and see the meerkats (both near Gweta, outside Magkadikgadi Park) by yourself. This is because there is a maze of small tracks leading to them and even with a good online map (e.g. Tracks4Africa* or Maps.Me) it’s easy to get lost. We tried to visit in mid-April but got lost and ended in a flooded field which stopped our progress.
Alternatively, there are several affordable lodges with camping around the edges of the pans, some of which can organize game drives, day and overnight trips to the pans, visits to meerkats and giant baobabs. Gweta Lodge and Planet Baobab in particular are well-placed and organize many activities.
Things to do in the Botswana Salt Pans
- Wildlife on the pan
- Baines Baobabs
- Amazing sunsets
- Elephants, lions, cheetahs (if lucky)
- Magical landscape – rocks and endless pan
- Beautiful sunsets and sunrises
- Fantastic stars
Nata Bird Sanctuary
- Thousands of birds, including flamingos in wet season
- See the Sua Pan – an endless white plain or a vast lake
- Wildlife by the Boteti River
- Zebra migration (Dec/Jan-Mar/Apr)
- Remote east with unusual landscape
- Hippos, crocodiles, elephants, lions (if lucky)
- Game/scenic drives
- Visit habituated meerkats
- Sundowners by giant baobabs
- Camp on the pans under the stars
- Quadbike or horseride on the pans
Botswana Salt Pans Itinerary
We spent three nights at the Salt Pans in mid-April, then came back a few weeks later to visit Kubu Island. On our first afternoon, we visited Nata Brid Sanctuary, before staying at Nata Lodge and having a fantastic meal in their restaurant. On our second day we headed to Tree Island Campsite in Eastern Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, seeing huge herds of zebra on the way.
On the third day we drove through the park to Boteti Rive where we saw many animals, before heading north to Nxai Pans National Park. We drove around the park before camping at South Camp. The fourth day, we visited Baines Baobabs in the south of the park before leaving and driving on to Maun.
We then drove around the north of Botswana before returning to spend one night at lovely Elephant Sands where we saw elephants and springhares during the night. From here we headed to Nata, then west 15km before driving south to Kubu Island where we camped one night. We left the following morning and drove south to Letlhakane and on to Khama Rhino Sanctuary.
I think our itinerary was quite good, but if returning I would spend a night at either Gweta Lodge or Planet Baobab to visit the large baobabs and see the habituated meerkats. Camping out on the pans in dry season also sounds like a cool excursion. I think I’ll also try and visit Kukonje Island next time.
Best Time to Visit the Botswana Salt Pans
The dry (Apr/May-Oct) and wet (Nov-Apr/May) seasons in the salt pans both have their charms. In the wet season water covers the pan and vegetation springs to life, it’s the best time for game but the tracks can be muddy and the pans uncrossable. In summer the landscape is out of this world and the driving easy.
In the dry season the roads are easy and everywhere is accessible. The pans appear as incredible, endless sheets of shimmering white, beautiful and desolate. They’re so large and flat you can see the curvature of the earth. Many lodges offer overnight trips to sleep out on the pans, underneath the large sky full of more stars than you’ve ever seen.
In mid-winter it can be freezing cold at nighttime, though the days are pleasant. In the months before the rains, September and October, the heat returns and can be overwhelming. In the dry season the best places to see game are along the Boteti River and the permanent waterhole in Nxai Pans.
When the seasons change (Apr, Nov) many tracks can be dry yet the pans are still full of water and the density of wildlife high. This can be a great time. Kubu Island tends to be accessible from April, though sometimes as late as May.
In the wet season the concentration of birds and animals increases greatly as the pans fill with water. This is also an amazing sight as vast inland lakes appear, a complete surprise in the centre of the normally dry Botswana desert. However, you may find it difficult to get close to the edge of the pans, and you won’t see an endless expanse of salty crusty ground stretching to the horizon, but lots of water. It can be very hot in the middle of the day during this time.
Thousands of birds flock to the Nata Bird Sanctuary including flamingos, pelicans and all kinds of ducks, geese and other waterbirds. However, some of the tracks within the park are flooded.
Large herds of game flock to the pans, especially in Makgadikgadi Pans and Nxai National Parks. The large herds of zebra are around Dec/Jan-Mar/Apr and animals tend to give birth in Nxai Pans – springbok in December and zebra in Mar/Apr.
Makgadikgadi Pans Zebra Migration
The zebra migration of Makgadikgadi Pans is the second-largest land animal migration in the world and takes place twice a year. When the rains begin in Nov/Dec, the zebra head southeast into the normally dry border regions of Nwetwe Pan for the lush grazing. When the rains come to an end around April, the zebra herds trek back northwest across the wilting grasslands to the banks of the Boteti River, to Nxai Pans, and then beyond to the Okavango Delta.
In total the zebras migrate a few hundred kilometres each way, following the rains, with roughly 30,000 animals taking part. From Dec/Jan-April Makgadikgadi Pans will contain many zebra, as they spend the rainy months here. Outside of these months, the great herds will be gone and the desert will become still once more.
History and Geology of the pans
The Makgadikgadi Pans are one of the largest salt flats in the world. They formed when huge inland Lake Makgadikgadi, covering an area the size of Switzerland, dried up sometime in the past 50,000 years. Water from the Okaganvo Delta flowed into the lake, but this was stopped when tectonic activity on faults near Maun raised the land and blocked the flow of the river.
Humans have lived here for a very long time, and the earliest humans may have evolved here over 200,000 years ago. At this time the lake still existed, surrounded by rivers, woodland, and grasslands that supported bountiful game and fish.
It’s hard to imagine such a productive ecosystem here. Today several large pans make up the region – Sua (Sowa) near Nata, Ntwetwe in the west and Nxai to the north. In fact, Makgadigadi means ‘place of many pans’ in San. Most of the year the pans are dusty, salty, crusty, hot and dry. Though for several months a year these pans turn into huge inland seas, so wide you can’t see the other side.
Nata Bird Sanctuary
Nata Bird Sanctuary is just 15 km south of Nata. It was founded in 1992 as a community project, with locals sharing the revenue generated. It aims is to protect bird habitats and is visited by flamingos, pelicans, all kinds of geese and ducks and other waterbirds.
The best time to visit is in the wet season (Nov-Apr) when the pan is full of water and birds are plentiful. However, at this time tracks can be flooded and a 4×4 is needed. The vast lake is cool to see. In dry season driving in a 2×4 is possible. The endless white shimmering bed of the hot pan is very impressive.
We visited in mid-April and quite a few of the tracks were totally flooded. We managed to visit the viewpoint and see all the water. I was a little disappointed that the flamingoes weren’t there and there weren’t too many other birds there either. We did however see a few pelicans, spoonbills and wildebeest.
Nata Bird Sanctuary Community Restcamp (Website): Fine campsite with braai pits, hot showers, flush toilets, near the park entrance and A3 (some noise from the road).
- Gate open 7am-7pm.
- Entrance fee: P50/100 local/international pp + P50 for the car.
- Camping: P50/80 local/intenational pp (plus entrance fee)
- Cash Only
- Contact: +267 247 1995
- [email protected]
- There have been reports of parties on the weekends inside the reserve.
Gweta: Baobabs & Meerkats
The landmark Greens and Chapmans Baobabs, 25 and 35 km south of Gweta respectively, are huge historic trees. Chapmans baobab has now fallen down but is still impressive. It served as a post office for travellers and adventures in the 1800s when they hung messages in the trunk and on the lower branches of the tree.
The trees are hard to find on your own and can be very difficult to reach in the rainy season. We tried and failed to do this in mid-April, but we did see some unique landscapes of luscious green. Ask for directions from Gweta Lodge or Planet Baobab (see accommodation box below), or go on a tour.
These lodges can also organize visits to the habituated meerkats (as seen in Dynasties – Extras). They live near the edge of the Nwetwe Pan and are accustomed to humans so you can take great close-up photos of them and watch them at play.
In Gweta itself there is an easy to reach large baobab close to the A30. It’s worth the quick detour and very impressive.
Kukonje Island (aka Kukome Island)
An alternative to Kubu Island is Kukonje Island, a similar granite outcrop in the middle of the salt pans. Kukonje Island is also known as Kukome Island (on Google Maps). Kukonje is on the eastern edge of Sua Pan (while Kubu is on its western edge).
Kukonje Island is bigger than Kubu, but also flatter with fewer baobabs and less spectacular rock formations. There are still beautiful views and it’s a lovely wilderness camping spot. An advantage however, is that very few people visit Kukonje Island and the true remoteness of the place, knowing hardly anyone has ever been there.
Camping on Kukonje Island
There are six campsites on Kukonje Island. Most of them have a bush toilet, table and shade. Camps 1-3 are on the north side of the island, while 4-6 are to the south. Campsite 1 has the best views though the other sites have more picturesque baobabs. Campsite 4 has the best shade.
Camping rates are P100/50 adult/child per night – be kind and leave money in the hut if nobody is there to accept payment. Cash only.
The island can be unreachable due to water in the pan. An alternative is to camp at the pebble beach on the ‘mainland’ just opposite the island.
Directions to Kukonje Island
The main North-South access track (brown-beige dashed on Tracks4Africa) is good and fast in dry season. In wet season this track can become soft when nearing the edge of the pan. There are also a few little streams you must cross – take care the mud doesn’t suck you in. From the ‘mainland’ to the Island it’s 7 km across the pan, easy in dry season and impassable in wet season.
From the south there are two fine routes from the A30. Either take the track 100 m east of the Thalamabele vet fence (85 km east of Orapa) or head north from the centre of Mokubilo by the fuel station (105 km east of Orapa).
From the north take the road just NW of Dukwi after the outskirts of town, heading SW off the A3. It’s on the SE side of the vet fence control gate. Ask someone at the gate about the road conditions if you’re unsure.
From both the north or south, aim for Kwadiba Vet Fence Gate (about 45km from the north or south, open 6am-10pm). There might be people at the fence who you can ask about the crossing. From here, a track heads west to Kukome Island about 7 km away. It can be entirely flooded in the wet season, and you shouldn’t attempt the crossing if it’s even slightly wet.
Driving around the Botswana Salt Pans
Road Conditions in the Salt Pans
The condition of the roads in the salt pans varies drastically depending on the time of year. In the dry season the tracks might be sandy, but no worse than anywhere else in Botswana. The tracks across the pans have a hard base so can be very quick.
However, in the wet season the pans turn to very sticky mud and can be covered with a metre or so of water. Some places such as Kubu and Kukonje Islands cannot be reached. You also might not be able to explore all of Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (the remote southeast section), much of Nata Bird Sanctuary (many of the tracks can be flooded but you might reach the edge of the pan) or Baines Baobabs in Nxai Pan. By yourself, it will also be difficult to reach Greens and Chapmans Baobabs.
All year round the tracks can have sections of thick sand, especially between Boteti River and the east of Magkadikgadi Pans and the entrance track to Nxai Pans, however nothing a decent 4×4 can’t handle fairly easily.
How much Fuel do I need?
There are several fuel stations dotted around the Botswana salt pans so fuel shouldn’t be an issue if you always top up when you can. Most of them are reliable, with the exception of Gweta. We fuelled up in Nata, drove through Makgadikgadi to Nxai and then on to Maun where we refuelled.
During these three days we drove 794 km and used 85 litres of fuel, giving a fuel efficiency of 9.3 km per litre (10 on tar, 9 in the parks). As a breakdown, we drove 60 km from Nata to the Bird Sanctuary and back, 110 km from Nata to Makgadikgadi entrance, 275 km in Makgadikgadi, 210 km in Nxai, and 140 km from Nxai exit to Maun.
When we visited Kubu Island we filled up in Nata and refuelled again in Letlhakane, having driven 207 km and used roughly 20 litres of diesel. We got very good mileage on our Kubu Island trip – no thick sand.
Accommodation in and around the Botswana Salt Pans
To stay within Nxai Pan or Makgadikgadi Pans National Parks themselves you must either camp or stay in the luxury Nxai Pan Camp Lodge. Both parks have one larger campsite with ablutions blocks and sites close together, and one smaller campsite with only three sites spaced far apart and bush toilets.
If you don’t want to camp, Gweta Lodge, Planet Baobab and Boteti River Camp all offer affordable options nearby the parks with many activities on offer. The town of Nata also has several good options though it’s quite far from the National Parks.
There are three luxury lodges 30-35 km south of Gweta in a huge private nature reserve bordering Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Activities at all camps include game drives, bush walks, meerkat visits, horse riding and quad biking.
- Jacks Camp (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – Reopened in 2021 after renovations, this is an iconic lodge with only 9 guest tents, each with its own private plunge pool.
- San Camp (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – Romantic camp with delicious food, only open in dry season, 01 April – 15 October.
- Camp Kalahari (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – A rustic lodge with 12 Meru tents.
There are two luxury lodges on the banks of the Boteti River, just outside the western edge of Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. They can both organize game drives, boat trips (in season), bush walks, day trips to Makgadikgadi Pans and cultural activities.
- Meno-A-Kwena Tented Camp (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*)
- Leroo La Tau (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*)
Nxai Pans National Park
Affordable Lodges with Camping
There are two affordable lodges with camping close to Gweta, from where it’s not far to reach the salt pans and landmark Baobab trees. Activities at both lodges include game drives and overnight trips to Makgadikgadi Pans, bushwalks to the impressive nearby baobabs and Gweta Lodge also offers local village walks.
There is one affordable lodge with camping on the banks of the Boteti River, very close to the Khamaga Entrance Gate to Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.
- Boteti River Camp (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – activities include half and full-day game drives and village walks.
There are two places to stay near Rakops, only the Riverlodge has camping.
- Rakops Riverlodge (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – lodge with camping, no riverviews, some maintenence issues
- Xere Motel (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – fine but lacks holiday vibe
A3 towards Maun
- Leopard Plains (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – Relatively affordable lodge 85 km from Maun. Activities include game drives to Nxai Pans and Makgadikgadi Pans, and local bushwalks. No camping.
A30 towards Francistown
Orapa and Letlhakane
There are several places near Orapa and Letlhakane, only a selected few are mentioned below. Note that Orapa is a closed town so you can’t buy supplies or fuel here – head to nearby Letlhakane instead.
- Makumutu Lodge and Campsites (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*)
- Tuuthebe Lodge & Camping (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – nice camping, meals on request.
- Khwee Sands Lodge (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – Good WiFi, no camping.
- The Plot (Website) – Nice ablutions, many birds, camping only.
There are quite a few affordable places in and around Nata, with only a selected few mentioned below. Elephant Sands is very nice but a bit far from the salt pans – it’s a great place to stay if travelling between Nata and Kasana/Chobe in the north.
- Nata Lodge (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – Nice camping, good restaurant, popular with Overlanders. Activities include bird watching, game drives to the pan, and a Nata village tour.
- Pelican Lodge and Camping (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – Has a restaurant, though lodge has some maintenance issues.
- Eselbe Camp (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – a small, affordable lodge and campsite on the banks of the Nata River. Activities include canoeing, bird watching, and game drives to the salt pans.
- Mokoka Rest Camp (Website) – a new (2021) lodge with cute chalets and camping.
- Elephant Sands (Website, TripAdvisor Reviews*) – Lovely chalets and camping set around a waterhole frequented by elephants, popular with Overlanders. Activities include game drives, bush walks, bush braais and overnight trips to the pans. 55 km north of Nata. Best in dry season, May to November, when elephants are almost guarenteed.
Nxai Pans National Park
There are two campsites within Nxai Pans, for more details read our article covering Nxai Pans.
- South Camp – private (Xomae Group) campsite with 10 sites close together and ablutions blocks on the edge of Nxai Pan.
- Baines Baobabs – private (Xomae Group) expensive campsite with 3 sites fairly spread out in the south of Nxai park, each with a bush toilet and bucket-shower.
The Middle of the Pans
There are two similar campsites with basic facilities (bush toilets only, no water) on the edges of Sua Pan. Read more about Kubu Island, or Kukonje Island.
- Kubu Island is ‘famous’ and much more popular, perhaps rightly so as the rock formations are very impressive.
- Kukonje Island is less impressive but wonderfully remote.
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
There are two campsites within Makgadikgadi Pans, for more details read our article covering Makgadikgadi Pans.
- Khumaga Campsite – private (SKL Group) expensive campsite with10 sites close together and ablution blocks on the edge (but with no views) of the Boteti River in western Makgadikgadi Pans.
- Tree Island Campsite – DWNP, cheap campsite with 3 spread out sites each with a bush toilet and bucket-shower in the eastern part of Makgadikgadi Pans.
Booking Campsites in the Salt Pans and Park Fees
We ended up booking all our campsites in Botswana via Botswana Footprints who were very professional and their booking fee was surprisingly low. It saves a lot of hassle. You can also book yourself by contacting the relevant campsite owner, though sometimes it can be hard to get a response.
Contact the Department of Wildlife and National Parks to pay park fees in advance and receive a voucher, or pay in cash at the park gates.
Park fees: P10/30/120 for citizen/resident/international per person per day + vehicle fees per day of P10/50 for local/international. Children 8-17 half price and under 8 free. From 2021, park fees are per day, not per night, so if you stay one night you will pay two days of park fees.
- Makgadikgadi Pans Khumaga Campsite – SKL Group
- Makgadikgadi Pans Tree Island – DWNP
- Nxai Pans South Camp or Baines Baobabs – Xomae Group
- Kubu Island – Gaing O Community Trust
- Nata Bird Sanctuary – Nata Conservation Trust
Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP): Botswana Parks and Reserves Reservation Office, +267 397 1405 or +267 318 0774, [email protected] Office hours 07:30-16:30 on weekdays. Closed weekends.
Nata Conservation Trust: +267 247 1995, [email protected]
We visited the Botswana Salt Pans twice on our two-month road trip which you can find out more about by reading the travel adventure book I wrote, No Footprints in the Night: On Safari in Botswana*.