The cluster of millennia-old baobab trees in the Nxai Pan National Park in Botswana owes its name to the man known to have discovered them. Thomas Baines, artist and fellow explorer to John Chapman, captured in paint the scene in 1862 on a trip through the expansive salt pans, en route to the Victoria Falls. Baines’ Baobabs, as they are known today, are a sight sought by many travellers venturing into the untamed terrain of Botswana.
The horse-drawn event of the 1800s, an era buried in history, took Baines and Chapman through wild Botswana and across the bare Makgadikgadi Salt Pans and eventually, to the oasis of ancient baobab trees. This pit stop was painted; a wagon-filled campsite beneath 7 towering ‘upside-down trees’. The appearance of the broad, gnarled trees has barely changed over 150 years and what visitors see today is almost identical to the sight depicted by Baines on a pioneer mission through Africa in the 19th century.
In place of the ox wagons are 4x4s, and a journey that would have taken months is now accessible to any self-drivers with the tread in their tyres and the desire in their hearts to explore some of the most historically significant and awe-inspiring areas of remote Botswana. Baines’ two year trip from Namibia to Victoria Falls was a death-defying journey, riddled with risk and dominated by danger.
The entourage travelled on horses and by foot, joined on various legs of the journey by local tribesmen to lead the group through the unfamiliar land. Many members of the group died en route, falling ill, and dying of starvation or dehydration was commonplace. Baines was, many times, deserted by his guides who had swiftly taken off with his supplies in the middle of the night. It was a harsh and trying expedition, but one notable stop at the phenomenal baobab island has cemented his place in African history.
A trip into Nxai Pan National Park has eased up over the centuries since Baines’ trip, but it is still an adventure for experienced campers. The deserted pan, which the baobabs overlook – Kudiakam Pan – is not a permitted camping area and visitors are expected to carry enough food, water, fuel and other supplies to travel in comfort in this bizarrely beautiful region of Botswana.
Kudiakam Pan is one of the three largest pans neighbouring the more famous Makgadikgadi Pans, changing drastically and beautifully with the rains. The starkly dry and cracked salt surface of the pan remains bare and uninterrupted for most of the year, changing briefly after summer downpours that drench the land, encouraging the intermittent growth of water lilies.
Regardless of the rains, Baines’ Baobabs stand tall (and wide); a landmark and attraction only gaining value and significance as they age. On the same trip in 1862, John Chapman, Baines’ travelling companion, landmarked an exceptionally large and impressively ancient baobab tree said to be 4 000 years old. This 25m (trunk diameter) tree is known as Chapman’s Tree and is located nearby in the Makgadikgadi Pans.
Nxai Pan National Park, whose original borders were extended in 1992 to include Baines’ Baobabs (now a national monument), has been nicknamed the Garden of Eden; an unexpected name to give an area abandoned by the lakes that used to reside on its surfaces. This complimentary nickname stems from Nxai Pan’s fleeting summer makeover, which sees the area adorned with greenery, grass and gallivanting gazelles. Here, among the mopanes and umbrella thorns, thrives populations of kudu, giraffe, jackals and lions. Elephants, zebras, bat-eared foxes, ostriches and astounding bird species flock to the emerald pastures with invigoration.
This lesser known national park of Botswana, said to be named after a hooked metal rod used to remove springhares from their holes, has an allure appreciated by wanderers seeking the silence of a road less travelled. There are other attractions in the area, such as the ‘old trek route,’ used in the 1950s as a cattle transport route, and the ‘Bushmen Pits’; man-made hunting hides.
Be prepared to bump around on rough terrain, and check the weather before you set off, but pay a visit to Baines’ Baobabs and bask in the wonder of eras lived before you.