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Botswana - Nxai Pan National Park

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The Republic of Botswana is a landlocked African nation, enclosed by neighbouring nations, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The government of Botswana is committed to preserving its natural heritage. Of Botswana's 600,370 sq km total footprint (slightly smaller than Texas, USA1), some 17%2 (one sixth) is devoted to wildlife reserves. One of these reserves is the Nxai Pan National Park.


In globally geographical terms, Nxai Pan National Park is situated at roughly 19 degrees south and 24 degrees east. Locally, this puts it to the north of the 305 kilometres-long (east-west running) Nata-Maun Road and in the northern centre of Botswana, about 167km from Nata and 138km from Maun. The entrance gate and Game Scout Camp is logged by G.P.S.3 at 19°56.025'/ E024°45.736'.

Ancient History

Geologists4 believe that once upon a time, the Okavango and Chobe-Zambezi rivers flowed through the area of the Makgadikgadi to the middle Limpopo valley and thence to the sea. Warping of the earth's crust, associated with the extension of the Great African Rift (valley) south-westwards to beneath the sandveld of the Okavango Delta area, opened up a new passage for the Zambezi to the sea over the Victoria Falls. It also blocked off the old Zambezi-Limpopo course by a new ridge south-east of the Makgadikgadi. The water, which was backed up behind this ridge formed the great Lake Makgadikgadi, estimated at 80,000 sq km in area. Nxai Pan and the associated Kgama-Kgama Pan and Kudiakam Pan complex, all of which formed part of the Makgadikadi lake system have subsequently dried up (as has Makgadikgadi itself).

Recent History

Nxai Pan National Park was established in 1970 as a 1676 sq km game reserve5 at the same time as Makgadikgadi Game Reserve, some 35km away to the south. In December 1992, upon completion of the bituminous surfacing of the Nata-Maun Road, the boundaries of Nxai Pan National Park were extended southwards to meet the 'new' road and to incorporate Kudiakam Pan, as well as to meet the northern boundary of the Makgadikgadi Game Reserve (thence renamed Makgadikgadi Pans National Park), thus, to some extent, preserving one distinct 7,500 sq km eco-system in its entirety.

Features of the Park

Lion, giraffe, kudu, impala, ostrich, fascinating birdlife and large numbers of springbok, 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.

The focal point of the Park is the watering hole, situated only two kilometres from the entrance gate, in the midst of a large grassy plain (the 11km long kidney-shaped Nxai Pan itself). This area is an especially good spot for observing springbok, zebra and giraffe.

Around 12km north-east of Nxai Pan is Kgama-Kgama Pan, which is an especially good place to observe gemsbok giraffe and elephant.

To the south of Nxai Pan, and about 20km away, is the Kudiakam Pan complex. Apart from the abundance of wildlife, Kudiakam Pan is also noteworthy as the site of 'Baines' Baobabs', a clump of seven Baobab trees immortalised on canvas by painter/explorer Thomas Baines on 22 May 1862. It is commonly held that if Thomas Baines were to repaint these Baobabs today (140 years on!), there would be no discernible difference.

A further attraction of the Nxai Pan National Park is the south-west to north-east running Old Cattle Trek Route to Pandamatenga (at the Zimbabwean border). This old track, running some 12km inside and roughly parallel to the north-west facing boundary of the Park was pioneered in the 1950s and used until 19636), as a short cut through Ngamiland to Kazungula (at the Zambian border) via Pandamatenga, along which cattle were driven before the advent of the modern veterinary control fences. Further, it is evident from 1936 mapping contained in the 1929-37 Bechuanaland (the old British colonial name for Botswana) Diaries of Sir Charles Rey7 that this track was also the proposed route of an erstwhile proposed Walvis Bay (on the Namibian west coast of Africa) to Livingstone (a Zambian town at the Victoria Falls - Zimbabwe/Zambia border).

Visitors' Facilities

There are no lodges or hotels in the park, but there are three designated campsites. This limits access to all but the fully equipped self-drive visitor, or those on tailor-made safaris. The three campsites inside the Nxai Pan National Park, are North Camp, South Camp and Baines' Baobabs. North Camp and South Camp are the imaginatively named original pre-December 1992 campsites, while the campsite at Baines' Baobabs was subsequently added when the boundaries of the Park were extended. All the campsites are unfenced.

South Camp (S 19°56.199'/ E024°46.572') is situated within a well-treed area on the edge of Nxai Pan about 5km east of the Game Scout Camp and Park entrance. Theoretically, the campsite has an ablution block containing showers and flush toilets, and there are water standpipes. However, water is frequently found to be unavailable and the buildings unusable having been trashed by elephants or inhabited by bees.

North Camp (S 19°52.752'/ E 24°47.303'), situated some 12km north of the entrance gate in Mopane woodland on the northern cradle of the kidney-shaped Nxai Pan is (theoretically) supported by a standard ablution block, which is equipped with showers, hand basins and flush toilets. A water standpipe is central within the camping ground. Again, elephants can be a 'nuisance', if some degree of luxury beyond just plain camping in the bush is expected, and this campsite is often no more than a designated space to pitch a tent.

Baines' Baobabs Camp Site is situated on the periphery of Kudiakam Pan and is totally undeveloped, and does not pretend to be anything more than that. Water can be obtained at the Park entrance gate.

Two viewing platforms have been established (possibly by Raleigh International) at Nxai Pan, one adjoining the South Camp and the other up on the sand ridge south of the South Camp where a panoramic view of the Park can be obtained.

Matters Pertaining to Access and Egress

Visitors to Nxai Pan National Park most commonly arrive by road, either from Maun or from Nata. Turning north at the unobtrusive but sign-posted junction 167km from Nata or 138km from Maun, the entrance gate is 37km further north along the deep sandy track. The sandiness of this track should not be underestimated and only 4x4 vehicles should attempt the journey, engaging 4-wheel drive before negotiating the deep sand - carrying a spade is also wise. There are no supplies of fuel available in the park - the nearest being in the village of Gweta, 102km from the entrance gate back towards Nata in the east.

The turn-off eastwards to Baines' Baobabs is roughly halfway along the entrance track at a fairly distinct crossroads, onto what is the Old Maun Road. After about 900m there is a fork in the road, both prongs of which lead eventually to the Baines' Baobabs site. The right fork leads 11km directly to the campsite on a fair surface, although during the wet season, rains may have made it impassable. The alternative left fork is longer (17km) and requires a right (southish) turn after 13.3km.

Leaving Kudiakam Pan, it is possible to rejoin the Old Maun Road and travel the 17km east to the boundary fence-line of the Odiakwe Quarantine Camp, and then south for about 23km to rejoin the Nata-Maun Road.

An alternative route out of Nxai Pan National Park is to take the Old Cattle Trek Route north-eastwards to Pandamatenga, around 200km away.

Both these two last-described routes require careful consideration and planning before embarkation. The tracks are seldom trafficked and can become indistinct in places. High grasses conceal hidden obstacles, such as termite mounds and the grass-seeds can clog a vehicle's radiator fins consequently causing the engine to overheat.

Booking A Visit

Although it is possible (with luck) to book at the gate entrance, the Government of Botswana does place limits on numbers entering its National Parks and Reserves. Thus, it is advisable to make reservations in advance. Such reservations can be made through either of the two reservations offices:

Parks and Reserves Reservation Office
PO Box 20364, Boseja, Maun, Botswana
Location: Next to Police station in Maun

Parks and Reserves Reservations Office
P.O. Box 131, Gaborone, Botswana
Location: in the Government Enclave of Gaborone, opposite the end of Queens Road

Opening hours: 7:30am - 4:30pm, closing for lunch from 12.45pm to 1.45pm (Monday to Saturday) and closing at 12 noon on Sundays. Public holidays are normal working hours. Closed only on the 25th December.

Note that non-citizens and non-residents should be prepared to pay more for the experience, through a policy introduced to ensure that the Parks and Reserves remain accessible to the local population.

1Source: The CIA World Fact Book, 2001.2Source: Visitors' Guide to Botswana, Mike Main, John and Sandra Fowkes; Published by Southern Book Publishers, 1987, ISBN 1-86812-002-3.3Source: The Botswana Project.4Source: The Botswana History Pages by Neil Parsons.5Source: Botswana Tourism Department, although mapping produced by the (Botswana Government) Department of Wildlife, National Parks and Tourism in 1978 indicates that the boundary of the Nxai Pan National Park enclosed an area of some 2,100 sq km.6Source: Botswana Tourism Dept.7Monarch Of All I Survey, published by The Botswana Society, ISBN 99912-60-00-5.

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