The tarred Nata–Maun road bisects this barren region. To the south of this lie the vast, dry depressions of Sua and Ntwetwe, with their scattered 'islands' of granite and fossilised dunes, fringed by grassland and acacia savannah. To its north is the Nxai Pan complex, including Nxai and Kgama-Kgama pans, now grassed over, and Kudiakam Pan which is overlooked by the famous Baines' Baobabs.
Much of the region is unfenced ranching country, where wildlife has largely been supplanted by cattle. However, the fauna and flora are protected in a number of reserves. Makgadikgadi Pans National Park extends south of the Nata-Maun road, between the western shore of Ntwetwe Pan and the Boteti River. Nxai Pans National Park adjoins this to the north of the Nata-Maun road, and includes the Nxai Pans complex and Baines Baobabs. Meanwhile the much smaller Nata Sanctuary is situated in the northeast corner of Sua Pan, and was proclaimed to protect the seasonal breeding waterbirds of the Nata River Delta. Each of these areas has its own distinct attractions and seasonal peculiarities.
The Magkadikgadi Pans consists of an immense expanse of largely flat and featureless terrain in the north of the Kalahari. The pans themselves are located roughly between the diamond town of Orapa in the south, the village of Nata in the northeast and the Boteti rivercourse in the west. This falls away northwards towards the Mababe Depression and the Chobe-Zambezi river catchment system.
At its centre lie two huge adjacent salt pans – Sua (to the east) and Ntwetwe (to the west) – which cover an estimated combined area of roughly 12,000km2. Around them are a number of smaller pans, including Nxai Pan to the north and Lake Xau to the south.
To grasp the complex geology of this area, you really require a broader understanding of the way in which the whole Kalahari was formed. In brief, the pans are the desiccated vestiges of the huge 'superlake' which, several million years ago, covered most of central Botswana and moulded the landscape of the entire region. Subsequent climate change, seismic upheavals and the diversion of rivers (the details of which divide geologists) starved this lake of its water supply, shrinking it to today's flat, caustic depressions of grey clay, and withering its surrounding wetlands into arid savannah.
Today the pans receive no more than 400–500mm of rain annually, and have no permanent standing water. After good rains, however, they briefly become shallow lakes again, fed by the seasonal Boteti river from the west – bringing the overspill from the Okavango – and the Nata River from the northeast.