Deep in the heart of the northern Kalahari, Botswana’s Makgadikgadi salt pans are the biggest in the world, covering an area the size of Switzerland. For most of the year these barren thirstlands are a burning desert, somewhere to explore on quad bike adventures, or sleep-outs under the brightest stars in Africa. But from December to April it’s more like being in the Okavango Delta as brief but apocalyptic thunderstorms bring about a miraculous transformation.
Overnight, the air echoes to the croaking of a million bullfrogs. Red-billed teal swim down the desert roads and vast flocks of flamingos descend on the pans in candyfloss clouds to gorge on brine shrimps. And it is now, in this half-drowned world of shallow pools and emerald plains, that the stage is set for one of Africa’s best-kept secrets: the Makgadikgadi zebra migration.
It happens every year as 25,000 zebras trek south from Chobe, heading for the Boteti river, creating a wildlife extravaganza second only to the Serengeti wildebeest migration. Nor are they alone. Giraffes, springbok and herds of oryx are their travelling companions, and shadowing their every move are the big cats: lion, leopard and cheetah.
Twenty years ago I was privileged to witness the spectacle from Jack’s Camp, a unique oasis of five-star luxury in an island of palm trees at the edge of the pans. From there, with Ralph Bousfield, the camp’s enigmatic owner, we drove deep into the national park across a mosaic of flooded pans and treeless plains.
The first animals we saw were herds of oryx, shattering the mirror images of blue sky and cumulus clouds as they splashed across the pans. And suddenly, there were zebras all the way to the horizon. We drove for two hours and there was no end to them – and nobody but ourselves to gasp at the wonder of it.
March is usually the best month to catch the zebra migration. Take advantage of low-season prices and see it with Expert Africa (020 8232 9777; expertafrica.com), which offers three nights at Nxai Pan Camp and three at Jack’s Camp, for £5,495pp based on two sharing. The price includes inter-camp flights and flights from Heathrow to Maun via Johannesburg with South African Airways.