Nxai Pan National Park and the adjoining Makgadikgadi Pans National Park are the only true pan ecologies in Botswana found outside the Kalahari Desert. Unlike Tau and other pans inside the Kalahari, these two were once part the single massive lake which covered central Botswana and which today has shrunk into the Okavango Delta.
While they share much ecology with pans found anywhere in southern Africa they differ in having more and larger natural water holes. These are occasionally augmented by the ancient Boteti and Nata Rivers when running. This is why Livingstone stopped here and even today the remnants of numerous ad hoc boreholes dug during the early years of exploration can be found.
The more continuous source of some water creates woodlands peripheral to the pans which tend to dominate grassland ecologies more than in the Kalahari. The woodlands draw elephant in the wet season, and elephant are rarely found in the Kalahari.
But there are still areas of grassland and in the wet season the pans become one of the best areas in all of Botswana for big game viewing: a large fraction of Botswana’s zebras and gemsbok migrate here to calve. But as much as three-quarters of the pans’ wildlife leaves in the dry season.
The resident big game population that stays is composed mostly of predators and browsers like giraffe and kudu, although many of the springbok also remain after the rains end in April/May. This leads to terrific tension during the dry season.
The landscape of the pans has drawn famous painters for years ever since Livingstone described it as one of the most beautiful places he would stop on his journeys from The Cape. The 19th century painter Thomas Baines’s most famous painting, “Baines’ Baobabs” is of a scene at the edge of the pan which remains largely the same as when he painted it in 1861.
The name, Nxai, comes from the San word for a hooked metal rod. Hunter/gatherers would use these implements to pry springhares from their holes. Makgadikgadi is a San word for lifeless desert.