Safari Self-Drive #4: Nxai Pan National Park

All right. It’s time to actually go into a park or reserve, despite our tremendous success futzing about outside them.

The park system is not like it is in the US where you can drive to a park whenever you please, pay the entrance fee at the Visitor Center or drop it in a box, and be on your way. Here, entrance fees are handled at a central location in Maun, and the office isn’t open 24/7. In other words, you have to plan, which requires a commitment. These are not our strong suits.

But we did it. The office closes at 4:30 p.m. (which is 16:30 here). We got there at 4:00 to make a day-trip reservation for Nxai Pan National Park for the following morning.

Now, about the name “Nxai Pan.” It is commonly pronounced “Nigh Pan,” which rhymes with “sky man,” but that x isn’t really silent. Nor is it pronounced like a z, or ks, or any other sound familiar to my American ears. It’s a click, part of the Khoisan languages. I don’t know how it’s done, exactly, but it’s fun to try, so give it a shot.

We had a goal to get to the park early, so on the way we didn’t search for wildlife the way we would normally. However, our eyes were open, and some things can’t be missed. This black-backed jackal, for instance.

Black-backed jackal.

Black-backed jackal.

There were three of them, and these were the first jackals we’d seen, so of course we stopped. It’s a rule.

And then there were white-backed vultures sitting still in a tree.

White-backed vulture sitting in a tree.

White-backed vulture

And then we were at the park.

After a slight faux pas in park entrance etiquette—hey, it’s not as though there are signs or people telling you what to do upon entering a park for which you got a pass the previous day in an altogether different place—we got ourselves and our vehicle signed in (separately . . . um, why?) and were on our way.

I wasn’t thrilled with the deep sand and narrow road at the very beginning. It reminded me of Outback Australia where there’s just a single-lane road. When cars meet, each gets to have two tires on the center lane and the other two are on the dirt shoulder. But in Australia, the center lane is asphalt and the shoulders are firm; here, it’s deep, soft sand, edge to edge and beyond. We met a vehicle right off the bat and got through what I considered one of the worst spots, so started the day with a smidge of confidence in Mike’s sand driving.

We began to see wildlife right off the bat, too.

Three giraffes

Three giraffes, hanging and cruising together.

Giraffes were everywhere.

Mama giraffe and baby, Nxai Pan National Park

Mama giraffe and baby.

We even saw a baby! How adorable is that?

When giraffes are born, their ossicones are flat against their heads. They don’t ossify and fuse to the skull until later in life.

I want to touch ossicones, feel the difference between a cartilage one and an ossified one. There are places with tame, pet-able giraffes, and someday I’d like to visit one.

Horizon with several giraffe necks and heads sticking up above the terrain.

Giraffes on the horizon.

While I love seeing animals close up, seeing a wide-angle view of giraffes and elephants out on the savanna, with giraffe necks punctuating the horizon, was a thrill. In my mind, it’s a quintessential snapshot of Africa.

An elephant and two giraffes, hanging near one another in the park.

Elephants and giraffes, living together in Nxai Pan National Park.

I didn’t expect to see elephants and giraffes hanging out so near each other. They strode right past each other.

“Morning, Sam.”

“Morning, Ralph.”

Four elephants hanging out together.

Elephants all over. Lots of ’em.

So, yeah, we were seeing lots of elephants in the first stretch of park, too.

Elephant, head on.

One African elephant, coming at you.

It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it: I’m always wowwed by how big Denali is. Coming around the corner from Kantishna, the first view of Denali always surprises me. I know it’s coming, but I never seem to anticipate the size quite right.

Same with elephants. Every time I see one, I marvel at the size.

Two elephants.

Elephant pals.

Look at the guy on the left. See the wet spot on its temple? I think that’s blood. He’s got a matching wound on the other side. Is it possible they were made by another elephant’s tusks? What I know for sure is that this is a male. Through the binoculars, those wet spots looked like puncture wounds. We saw this guy both on the way in and the way out, and the wet spots looked the same both times. They didn’t dry up or flake off like caked-on mud.

And then there was this, another first:

Gemsbok in the middle of a sandy road.

Gemsbok on the road. “You shall not pass! Unless, of course, you really want to.”

A gemsbok. Pronounce that g like an h.

Gemsbok or oryx standing on a sandy road.

Gemsbok, also called an oryx.

Those colors! Those horns! Is that a cardigan hide with a black zipper? Does this come in a herd? I’d like it in a herd, please. Maybe next time. Wouldn’t that be cool?

And then there was this guy, also in the road.

Mike holding a tortoise.

Mike and a mountain tortoise, I think. Well, I’m sure about Mike but not the tortoise.

From the looks of his shell, battered and broken on the right side (his right, your left), he spends a little too much time on the road. Or perhaps he got trampled by an elephant.

After the soft sand, giraffes, elephants, gemsbok, and tortoise, we came to the pans. Pans are areas that hold water and get grassy during the rainy season. The ground isn’t as sandy as what we had just come through: Where it’s dry, it’s hard packed, like dry clay. In puddles and where it’s wet, it’s gloopy, like wet clay or silt. Or maybe concrete?

When it’s wet, the soft sand packs and becomes more driver-friendly, while the pans get slick, soupy, and less driver-friendly. When it’s dry, the sand is soft, deep, and less driver-friendly, while the pans are hard, though bumpy, and more driver-friendly. Got that? Driving is never easy in both sections at the same time.

There were some puddles in the pan roads, but mostly they were dry. However, all the ruts from the recent wet period made for an uncomfortably bumpy ride. I am no four-wheeler: Mud and bouncing around are not what I call fun. While the scenery and wildlife compensated for the discomfort, it occurs to me that I might leave my fortune to Botswana Parks so they can buy graders for their roads.

And maybe some signage. We don’t have our GPS disk yet, and the maps we had didn’t jibe well with our odometer or what we saw out the windows. We got onto a track we didn’t plan to take. It took us away from the pan into a brushy area where the main attraction was an old baobab tree.

Big baobab tree.

Big baobab tree.

That is a lovely tree, I’ll grant, but the road . . . ugh! We made our way back to the pan where the view opened up. And what did we see?



Springbok, side view


Another first: a springbok. Is that a racing stripe?

And another first:

Zebra baby nursing. Mom and baby have prominent brown shadow stripes between the black stripes.

Zebra baby nursing.

A baby zebra nursing. Note the brown shadow stripes between the black stripes and the stripes all around the belly and down the legs.

Zebra with no shadow stripes.

Zebra with no shadow stripes to speak of.

Not all zebras have shadow stripes, stripes around the belly, or stripes down the legs. And then it seems there are ‘tweeners.

I’m taken by the zebra stripes. They’re beautiful, and the patterns are interesting: all different when you look closely. Look at their faces and manes. A bunch of zebras together on an open plain are striking.

Just as elephants and giraffes hang about together, so do zebras and wildebeest.

Wildebeest in Nxai Pan National Park

Blue wildebeest

Another first. How many is that? I’ve lost count.

This guy was beating up a shrub for a good ten minutes. Or perhaps he had an itch.

Now, I found the buffalo quite handsome, but this guy was . . . not so much. Rather funny looking, really. He seems pieced together with spare, unmatching parts and lazily painted. They ran out of large back ends and stuck on a medium. Then they started to go for black stripes, but changed their minds or ran out of paint and tried to wipe them off, only smudging them instead. I guess they ran out of time, gave up and went with gray, and moved on to the next animal. The name “blue wildebeest” seems a weak attempt to boost this animal’s self esteem and popularity.

Somebody’s got to be at the bottom of the beautiful-animal list. They can’t all be giraffes.

Water hole with surrounding grass and sand.

Water hole in Nxai Pan National Park.

Unmapped side tracks led to water holes. During the dry season, a water hole is the place to sit, watch, and wait for wildlife that invariably comes because water is scarce elsewhere. But this is the wet season. Little puddles and temporary water holes like this mean that animals can spread out and wander elsewhere; they don’t have to go to any one place to find water. The only things visiting these water holes were birds.

I was completely lost and disoriented by now—did I mention that the three or so concrete blocks with place names and arrows appeared to have been bumped and turned by careless elephant feet? When an arrow points to where there is no track, I have to think something is not quite right.

Anyhoo, another side track who-knows-where, led us to these:

Ostriches in Nxai Pan National Park

Ostriches: one male, the rest female.

We sat in the car in the blazing sun, had some lunch, and hoped they’d wander closer, but they didn’t. They didn’t seek shade. They pretty much stood like this the whole time we watched and waited. Good ostrich pictures will have to wait for another day.

When we checked in with the park official this morning, we were told there was lion activity in the area we planned to visit. My private, heartfelt response to Mike as we returned to the car was, “I don’t think we’re ready to see lions.”

Mike disagreed. He’s ready to see anything.

Lions are sort of the pinnacle of African wildlife viewing. Everyone wants to see lions—and leopards and cheetahs, the Big Cats. Certainly, I want to see them, too, but I don’t need to see them right now. I don’t feel especially eager or in a rush. I’m enjoying everything else so much, I’m happy to take whatever comes, and I kind of want to save something for later. Shouldn’t there be a longer build-up before the climax of the trip? Wouldn’t that ultimately be more satisfying?

But, then, who says lions will be the climax for us, or that we will only see them once?

As you know, if you’ve read this far, we didn’t see the lions. That’s just fine. It was an awesome day, and we’ll be out again.

Categories: Africa, Africa, Travel

7 replies »

  1. I am so impressed with your stories! Jenn, you are an awesome writer! Can’t wait for the next installment. We want to be doing what you two are doing! How very exciting!!!

  2. Bill and Diane, are you registered with one or both of the websites? If there’s anything we can do to help, just say the word. You’re perfect for this!

  3. Hey Jen. We are really enjoying reading your stories – great to see you are getting out and about!
    The “bleeding” on the face of the elephant is actually leaking from the temporal gland which usually indicates a bull elephant in “musth” pronounced “must”. Musth is when they are interested in mating. It can also occur in females who may be stressed.
    The wildebeest beating up the bush is also an indication of a male either marking his territory or interested in mating or as you say – just beating up a bush!
    And the tortoise is a leopard tortoise!

  4. Musth. Interesting! Thanks, Alison. I’m going to have to look that up. I wonder if/how that is advantageous: Does it release an odor? I have to say, I’m glad the elephant wasn’t injured.

    Male moose and caribou also beat up bushes during mating season. In part, it helps to rub the velvet off the antlers, but the sound also alerts other males. When hunters want to call in a bull, they will sometimes rattle bushes themselves.

    I need to read up on mating seasons here.

    Leopard tortoise. Cool! The variety of animals here is fantastic. A wildlife watcher can stay entertained for ages.