Kubu Island – Mmatshumo, Botswana - Atlas Obscura

Kubu Island

Mmatshumo, Botswana

An enchanting rocky island of scraggly baobabs surrounded by an ancient sea and sprawling salt pans.  


Rising like the grey-colored humps of hippo wallowing in muddy water, Kubu Island is a fitting name for the mounds of rock that lie almost smack bang in the middle of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. “Kubu” is the local Setswana word for hippopotamus and besides describing the island’s physical characteristics, the local lingo for this popular off-roading destination also alludes to its surprising watery history.

Although the rocky outcrop is roughly 30 feet high, the summit of Kubu Island is enough to offer panoramic views across the vast plains surrounding it. Turn in a 360-degree circle and you cannot see any other civilization, only an infinite white horizon. This total lack of human habitation also makes this great white space a top location for uninterrupted stargazing. 

Geologically speaking, these sprawling salt flats bear proof that this was once a prehistoric lake. The water that now feeds the Okavango Delta, all the way from Angola in the north used to spill over here, but tectonic activity shifted the waters away leaving today’s travelers with the only desert. Look closely at some of the seemingly whitewashed rocks. Experts say this is actually fossilized guano from waterbirds that once perched along the edge of the Great Makgadigadi Lake.    

Know Before You Go

Kubu Island and the pans surrounding this enigmatic anomaly in the otherwise sparse landscape is only accessible in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. You can access the island via Gweta, north of the Makgadigadi Pans, or via Lethlakane, in the south. Take off-road navigation with and ask for directions from somebody familiar with the area. You can camp below the baobabs at Kubu Island by making a booking with the Gaing O Community Trust, who are the custodians of Kubu Island National Monument and campsite in Sua Pan. Take everything you need to be self-sufficient. There is no water or firewood and only very basic long drop ablutions. Be respectful. The island is still largely considered a sacred place by locals.

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