The sun slowly set in the sky, casting long shadows across the desert landscape. From our comfortable chairs around the crackling fire, we listened to the eerie calls of jackals filling the air. The night was filled with their yips and howls, echoing across the pan as the stars began to twinkle overhead. The only sound that interrupted the peacefulness was the sound of the logs in the fire popping and spluttering as they burned into ash.
We eventually moved from the fire to the dining tent, where the sounds of hyenas whooping in the distance could be heard. We were surrounded by the solitude and stillness of Botswana’s Nxai Pan. It was a beautiful, almost desolate place. It is one of two National Parks that make up the Greater Makgadikgadi, located within the Kalahari Desert. This is the world’s largest salt pan and is so dry that it seems almost impossible that any creatures could survive here.
During the dry season, which lasts for most of the year, there seems to be no life on the pan. All that can be seen in the distance is the mirage of a salty plain. In the months from June to November, a few animals, such as bat-eared foxes and elephants, can be seen passing through in search of food and water. Otherwise, the area is devoid of life, and peace and solitude reign supreme.
However, when the rainy season comes, everything changes in Nxai Pan. Seasonal waterholes appear as sweet grasses sprout on the edges of the vast pan. The wildlife migrates in, and the area becomes alive with movement. Giraffes and elephants wander about, while springboks, wildebeests, impalas, and kudus start to graze on the fresh vegetation. The most impressive of all are the zebra, who trek to the pan every year for its high-nutrition grasses.
Over 30,000 zebras migrate each year to Nxai Pan, marching across territory that is predominantly inaccessible to humans. The journey from Chobe to Nxai Pan is almost 500km long, and the zebras travel in a direct line, which takes them 14 to 20 days to complete. The extraordinary movements of the zebras were not noticed until researchers placed GPS collars on eight adult zebras in 2012. The GPS confirmed that Botswana’s zebras were completing an annual round-trip journey of around 500km, making it Africa’s longest mammal migration.
Botswana has two main zebra migration routes. In the dry season, the zebras are around the Okavango Delta and the Chobe River floodplain. When the rains begin in November or early December, there is a migration from southeastern Delta to the Makgadikgadi Pans and back. The other migration route is from the Chobe floodplains to Nxai Pan National Park, which typically takes around 14 to 20 days.
The grasses in Nxai Pan contain more minerals and protein content than the ones in the Okavango Delta or the Chobe floodplains. This is why the zebras migrate. Rich and nutritious, the grass attracts up to 30,000 zebras every year.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Botswana put up extensive veterinary fences to combat foot-and-mouth disease in domestic cattle. These fences stretched for hundreds of kilometers, blocking migration routes. From about 1968, no zebra could migrate. It wasn’t until around 2004 that the fences were removed, and what happened next was extraordinary. Within three years of the fences being removed, some of the zebras had started to migrate again. No living zebra could possibly have remembered the routes, so it is believed that the zebras instinctively followed the same ancient migration patterns as generations before them.
We had come to see the zebras that had taken the Chobe – Nxai Pan migration route. These zebras spend the harshest of the dry months around the Caprivi Strip in northeastern Namibia, as well as on the Chobe River floodplain, which forms the Namibia–Botswana border. When the rains begin in early December, they begin their journey southward. The journey is mostly in a direct linear path, but some zebras take less direct routes. About two to three weeks later, they arrive in Nxai Pan National Park, where they disperse throughout the area for about three months. The females give birth during this time, and the pan is dotted with countless playful zebra foals.
We discovered that there was much more to see than just the zebras while exploring the pan. Large groups of giraffes gracefully undulated towards the acacia bushes, while herds of white-faced springbok, sometimes thousands strong, stretched out across the pan. The playful young males twisted and levered each other with their horns, practising for later, when such skills would become important for establishing dominance and breeding rights. Shy bat-eared foxes, with their oversized ears, walked quietly, listening for insects. A male and female ostrich protectively shepherded their flock of young, and several desert-adapted elephants ambled across the pan remarkably quietly, given their size.
The elephants here are sometimes called the ‘ghosts of Nxai Pan’ because the white clay from the fossil pan sticks to their skin, giving them a whitish-grey hue. We searched for the famous black-manned Kalahari lions and cheetah, whose speed is perfectly suited to the flat expensive landscape, but saw only their tracks in the sand.
The zebra’s home in Nxai Pan and the camp from where we based ourselves during our visit, the African Bush Camp’s Migration Expeditions camp, are all temporary homes that only exist seasonally. The camp is eco-sensitive and comprises four Meru-style canvas tents, each with comfortable beds and en-suite bathrooms with basins and bucket showers. The spacious dining and lounge tent has a chef who conjures up incredible meals given the remoteness of the location, so we never felt as if we were “roughing it” despite being in the remote wilds of Nxai Pan.
Botswana’s zebra migration is one of Africa’s best-kept secrets. The chance to see thousands of zebras moving across the raw Botswana landscapes is an experience that few travelers ever get to experience, but it is definitely worth it.