Salt Pans in Africa

Flatness, horizon and skies

The moon

My most memorable experience in Africa was the rising moon over the Makgadikgadi salt pans in Botswana. Lying on our bedrolls in this vast environment of emptiness, where you only hear your own blood streaming through your ears, we sat in utter silence as we waited for the full moon to rise. With the horizon nearly covered in darkness and the last lights fading away above us, the moon made its appearance by showing a sliver of the deepest orange. A complete sense of ‘ being at easy’ occurred when the moon left the division between salt and sky and hang there. Orange, fragile and incredibly beautiful.


Salt pans

Contrary to popular believe, Africa’s salt pans are not all bare, empty spaces. Only in those parts of Africa where the concentration of salt is very high, vegetation will be absent and the areas are often so dry that no surface water is available and therefore wildlife very scarce. But every pan has a fringe and one can never be sure that no (dangerous) wildlife will occur there. And yes, I have seen lion prints on the edge of a salt pan.


One of the most impressive sights on, or close to salt pans are colonies of flamingoes. They may occur in their thousands and are very often accompanied by other water birds. Obviously the flamingoes will only be present during rainy seasons as this is the the time for them to breed. It is quite simple: no water, no flamingoes. This is also the time of year when they work on their tan. Due to foraging in the alkaline waters and feeding on shrimps and algae, their coats and legs become a lot more pink or even orange. As soon as the pans start to dry out the flamingoes will leave in search of wetter pastures. The video below is from the Rift-Valley lakes in Kenya, some of the most important breeding grounds for flamingoes in Africa.

Other wildlife

But other wildlife can occasionally occur on salt pans as well. Especially species that are fairly resistant against drought (springbok and Oryx) or those that travel far in a day (like elephants). Especially after the rains, when the pans have been able to soak up a fair deal of water and a thin layer of grass is growing on the salty surface, can grazers be seen in bigger numbers. Yet, some areas are so salt that they will never sustain vegetation and will be devote of wildlife year round.


Once the pans have dried up completely and the top-layer of salt is starting to crack, it can be very tempting to take that 4×4 and start exploring. DON’T!

First of all there is the risk that you enter an area that looks dry on top but that could be a super mud-bath underneath. Once your speed goes down and the top-crust breaks, you could get bogged down for hours, if not days or weeks. Secondly, the tracks that are created on salt pans will be visible for many, many year to come. So don’t scar those pristine areas and leave them as beautiful as they are.


I urge you to visit salt pans when you are on your African safari. Not for the wildlife experience, but only to get a feeling of freedom, relaxation and to feel humble. Enjoy.

Posted in Destinations.