Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans are a gem for viewing incredible birds and wildlife, and with lucky timing, Africa’s second-largest zebra migration
Perched at the edge of the Boteti River, Leroo La Tau safari lodge offers a front-row seat to a parade of Botswana wildlife. From the verandah of my room, I watch an elephant wade up to her wrinkly knees, trunk swinging with enthusiasm. A smirking crocodile suns himself at the river’s edge, seemingly uninterested in the yellow-billed storks fishing for lunch nearby. Balanced on spindly legs they make quick jabs into the river with their arrow-like beaks.
I could have happily lounged there all day. But you don’t spend your safari on a verandah, no matter how incredible the view. Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans National Park awaited.
What Makes a Botswana Safari Special
Botswana was an easy choice for my first African safari. Its geographic diversity creates more varied habitats than anywhere else in Africa. Parched desert and vast salt pans, lush wetlands and waterways which meander through the Okavango, one of the largest inland deltas in the world. And seasonal flooding which prompts Africa’s second-largest zebra migration, and provides a significant breeding site for flamingos.
Botswana is a country of just over 3 million people, one of the most sparsely populated places in the world. And among African countries, it’s one of the most politically stable, with a history of peaceful democratic elections since its independence in 1966. Its low-density tourism model has enabled it to limit development, and the problems of over-tourism found in some other African countries. About 40% of the country is a protected area, and 17% of that is national parks and game reserves. (National parks are designated and controlled by the government, while game reserves are often tribal lands that are leased to safari operators.)
The pristine wilderness surrounding Leroo La Tau was everything I imagined, with one exception; I thought a safari meant “peace and quiet”, instead it was delightfully noisy. Some wildlife sounds were easy to identify: zebra bray like a donkey and wildebeest moo and bellow like cattle. But hippos — their vocal repertoire was unmatched: grunts, rumbles, honks, and moans.
A group of hippos, fittingly called a bloat, create a cacophony that can reach 115 decibels, as loud as the thunderstorms that paint the Botswana sky purple. Add to all that a symphony of bird calls, a collaborative performance between the locals and the summer visitors. Between November and April (Southern Africa’s summer) birds migrate to Botswana from as far away as Europe, to escape the cold and enjoy the plentiful food supply.
On my first night at the lodge, a noise from just outside my room woke me from a jet-lagged slumber. I recognized the low, rumbly growl of a lion, even before I was fully awake.
My heart thrummed in my chest, and I thought back to my room tour the previous afternoon. The Camp Manager, Lesh, had provided my orientation and explained that Leroo La Tau has no phones. Instead, it had — I tried to recall what I should do in the case of a (lion) emergency — an “emergency horn”, one in each room. I peered through my mosquito net to the wardrobe where the horn was stored. With a few moments to consider my options, I reasoned that a lion outside my room did not warrant waking the staff.
Leroo La Tau has a fence to keep elephants out; they can do a lot of damage to a camp, but everything else roams freely. For that reason, guests are never permitted to walk around the camp on their own after dark, and must be accompanied to and from their rooms between sunset and sunrise.
A Botswana Safari with Desert & Delta
Leroo La Tau is one of nine lodges in the country operated by Desert & Delta Safaris, a Botswana specialist with upscale properties located in the country’s most scenic regions. The lodges are managed by Botswana citizens, and notably, women work in many roles within the company, including as safari guides at the well-known, Chobe Game Lodge. Guiding has historically been the purview of men in Africa, but that is changing. At Leroo La Tau, Rose and Onka (both women), assist Lesh in management.
Botswana is located in Southern Africa, directly north of South Africa, and also borders Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.
Like many Botswana safari lodges, Leroo La Tau is in a remote location. The Magkadikgadi Pans region is located in the dry savanna of the Kalahari Desert and the camp is reached by about a 45-minute flight from the town of Maun, considered the gateway to safari adventure in Botswana. Flights are also available from Kasane, further north. (I reached Maun via a direct flight from Johannesburg, South Africa.)
Flying in was remarkable, an endless panorama of green — grassy plains mixed with scrubby trees and scattered patches of blue where elephants gathered for a drink. A narrow line of runway appeared ahead of us and with a couple of bounces, we touched down in the heart of a remote paradise.
I was met at the airstrip by DR, a friendly Leroo La Tau guide with a great sense of humor and infectious laugh. When we left the paved road and turned into the bush he told me that today’s ride came with a complimentary African massage — the experience of being jostled about as we bumped along the dirt path. He also kindly corrected my pronunciation of “Makgadikgadi”, when I took a photo of the sign that marks the entrance to the national park. My clumsy attempt had us both laughing.
Botswana's Makgadikgadi Pans & National Park
Botswana’s salt pans were once a vast lake; over time the water evaporated and left 12,000 square kilometers of mineral-coated expanse. It is among the largest salt pans in the world, and the white color makes it visible from space. During the African summer, the rainy season, the pans attract thousands of birds, including many migratory species, the flamingo among them. The Pans are also known for their towering baobab trees.
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is a protected area within this region and was established in 1992. It is home to an incredible array of wildlife, making the location of Leroo La Tau, just outside the park, ideal.
Guests of the lodge who stay at least three nights have the option of a Makgadikgadi Pans sleep-out experience (available July 15 to October 31) or a Nxai Pan day trip, available year-round. I didn’t do either on this visit, but I loved Makgadikgadi so I hope to return with my family and experience the otherwordly landscape of the salt pans.
DR escorted me to meet up with my guide, Ollie. He and some guests from Switzerland were waiting in a jeep at the park entrance. After quick introductions and the organizing of camera equipment, we made our way into the park. It was more lush than I imagined. Colorful birds swooped around us and Ollie stopped the jeep so we could take pictures, identifying and narrating the story of each bird as clicked our cameras.
At Leroo La Tau, your guide is your host for the entire trip. They wake you up (very early), share meals with you, guide your exploration which includes answering your many questions, and even take photos of you, upon request. As the sun begins to sink, they set out the sundowner and teach you that in Botswana, you toast a perfect day with the word “Pula”.
During my “African massage,” DR had asked me what animal I thought I’d see first. I didn’t have a strong feeling about this so said the first that popped in my head – “elephant”. I knew that Botswana had the highest concentration of elephants in Africa.
As Ollie drove along a grassy ridge, a view of the river came into view where a group of five “bachelor elephants” were enjoying a sundowner of their own, in the Boteti River. (The river that runs in front of Leroo La Tau also winds through the national park.)
Ollie explained that male elephants often pal around in groups, especially young males. The elephants were a distance from us but seeing such majestic animals in a beautiful setting, the winding blue of the river with the green vista beyond, warrants the cliché, breathtaking. And I had guessed correctly — elephants!
Botswana Zebra Migration
Every year, tens of thousands of zebra make their way across Botswana following the rains and lush grasslands that spring up in their wake. They travel over 500 kilometers from the Chobe River in the north to the Makgadikgadi Pans. It is the second-largest zebra migration in the world, after the one between the Serengeti and Maasai Mara in East Africa. The dates of the migration vary, based on seasonal rains, so when I booked my trip I knew there was only a small chance that the zebra’s trip to the Makgadikgadi would coincide with my own.
Shortly after seeing the elephants on that first afternoon, zebra began to appear. One here, a few there. A while later, Ollie brought the jeep to a stop when a Zebra caravan appeared — a long line of them crossing the road ahead of us. Ollie confirmed that the migrating zebra had arrived in the park early, due to less rain this year. They were following a path that would take them down to the river.
Ollie knew where they were headed and we bumped along the windy road to a grassy clearing overlooking the river. Close to a hundred zebra, came into view. They were walking up and down the hill in a surprisingly orderly fashion, and large groups of them stood in the river, drinking. Suddenly, a few lifted their heads and began running and squawking — a noisy bray that would escalate into a high-pitched squeal. That led other zebra to run, squawk, and squeal, and then more would follow. The orderly caravan of a few minutes earlier had turned to revelry at the river. Then the noise stopped and they returned to drinking, or grazing on the grass next to the river, or just standing around in groups, as zebra do. A group of zebra is referred to by several names: a herd, a zeal, or my favorite, a dazzle. The chance to observe such a large group at the river, in the late afternoon sun, was incredible, something I will never forget. I was — dazzled.
I fell entirely in love with the madcap zebra, over the next few days. You never knew what would set them off running and braying, but it made me laugh every time. They were also curious about us, and would sometimes stand still and stare, making them a delightful subject for this amateur photographer. The curious babies were especially adorable, with their chestnut brown stripes, and a matching spiky tuft atop their heads.
Often, the zebra were with their BFFs, the wildebeest. Conveniently, these herbivores each prefer a different type of grass — zebra like it long and wildebeest short, so they happily graze together. They are also better able to evade predators as a team; zebra have excellent eyesight and wildebeest have superior hearing and smell.
Sundowners at Leroo Le Tau
When it was time for our sundowner, I glanced at the dense brush; it occurred to me that we had no way of knowing if animals were nearby in the brush, including my growly visitor from the previous evening. But I had complete faith in Ollie. I sipped a delicious white wine from South Africa (gin and tonics are the classic choice but I was still recovering from my jet lag) and we toasted a wonderful afternoon. The sun slipped toward the horizon bathing the Makgadikgadi in golden light.
Leroo La Tau Lodge Experience
One of the things I love about travel is the discoveries you make about yourself. I knew I enjoyed birding, but seeing them with a guide was even more fun than I expected. Between game drives, I began to recognize a few regulars that would visit my verandah, such as the red-billed hornbill (who you may know as Zazu from the Lion King).
Leroo La Tau’s 12 chalets all overlook the Boteti River, which mysteriously began flowing again in 2009 after a 20-year drought. Ironically, water levels are highest during Botswana’s dry season, when floods arrive from the highlands of neighboring Angola. Boat cruises along the river are available when water levels permit.
The chalets are designed to blend in with the natural environment. They’re a lovely combination of rustic and elegant, with vaulted thatched roofs, wood floors, and colorful accents. Expansive windows and glass doors provided views of the river and valley, from everywhere in my room, including the spacious walk-in shower. Each chalet is the same with the exception of a family suite which has two bedrooms and two baths.
I appreciated the many thoughtful touches in my room (beyond the emergency horn), such as a coffee and tea station, a vanity with a hair dryer and the large en-suite bath. The king bed is enclosed by a mosquito net each night at turndown service, and I wasn’t at all bothered by bugs. (Malaria is present in Botswana, although it’s been greatly reduced in recent years. Travelers are advised to consult with a doctor about antimalarial medication.)
The entire Leroo La Tau camp was recently refurbished. At the center of the camp are the main lodge, a pool, a fire pit and outdoor gathering areas. There are several spaces for relaxing, indoors and out: a library with books and board games, a lounge with a bar (always open), and two shaded patios with comfy chairs.
And for a change from observing wildlife from your verandah, there is a wildlife viewing “hide” built into the riverbank. It’s a perfect place to watch the animals at the river and capture some photos.
Of course with a safari comes delicious dining and lots of it. Meals were served four times a day: a continental breakfast before the morning game drive, brunch afterward, afternoon tea before heading out again, and dinner at 8. Leroo La Tau has two chefs: Reuben, who comes from the nearby village of Khumaga, which we drove through on our way to the park, and a Chef Kenny, a woman.
The food was excellent, fresh, and inventive. Dining catered to the tastes of international guests, and included local dishes to try. I really enjoyed the bream, a tender fish caught in the Boteti River. There were also imported treats such as cheeses from South Africa and lots of wonderful wine.
Conservation is important at Leroo La Tau and they are able to mostly avoid single-use plastics. The water supply is drawn from a borehole and passed through a reverse-osmosis filter making it exceptionally safe to drink; it exceeds safety levels of the tap water in most American homes. Refillable water bottles are provided to all guests.
The Gift of a Botswana Safari
Being on safari is like unwrapping a special gift. You never know exactly what you’ll see, so each day is a marvelous surprise. It turns out that bachelor elephants don’t always get along. Late one morning, Ollie and I happened upon a group of male elephants traveling through the forest. Two of them broke away from the group and began jostling each other.
What Ollie characterized as “testing one another’s strength” quickly escalated. They backed up and then charged at each other, trunks swinging and tusks jabbing. “They are in musth,” Ollie said, when testosterone levels rise and they are ready to mate. The winner would get his pick of local lady elephants. The confrontation continued for a minute or so and then fizzled out. They backed away from each other and rejoined the group.
Hearing Ollie’s excited reaction to this drama — he told me he had never seen elephants fight so aggressively — was almost as much fun as watching the elephant dust up. A safari, with its low guest-to-staff ratio, brings the opportunity to become quickly acquainted. Spending time with Ollie, and all the wonderful staff at Leroo La Tau, was a highlight of my trip. Especially since I was traveling on my own.
Over the next few days, I would see giraffe, wildebeest, kudu, impala, jackal, hippos, crocodile and a remarkable array of birds, including Botswana’s national bird, the kori bustard. We didn’t see Ollie’s favorite, the Pel’s Fishing Owl. They hunt at night which makes sightings difficult.
And I never did see the lion who woke me up on my first night, but I’m ok with that. If I had, they may well have been on the hunt, and after one of my little chestnut-striped friends. That’s a slice of Botswana life that I am ok to miss.