Surrounded by the rust-red sands, sun-faded dust and blond grasses of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park’s South African side, Justin Fox discovers more big cats than tourists. Photographs by Samuel Cox
A northerly wind twists sand devils into the sky. The day has grown intolerably hot, the vegetation brittle from months without rain. In the south, the sky turns dark as towers of cumulonimbus boil over. There’s a splinter of lightning and thunder rolls across the dunes. The lioness lifts her head, flared nostrils tasting the air. That smell, like no other.
Veils of rain are drawn across the southern sky. From every quarter antelope trudge, heads down, towards the horizon’s promise. Not too distant, thinks the lioness, calculating how far her cubs can walk. She stands up, stretches and moves out. Behind her trail the younger lionesses and a handful of cubs playfully swatting the tips of the bigger cats’ tails.
Ahead of them the rainsquall is already transforming a patch of Kalahari earth into a green island. Within days the antelope will be savouring succulent grass, flowers will have sprung from dust and the cats will have their day.
Summer has come to the Kalahari.
The marriage of two parks
Officially opened in 2000, the vast Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is an amalgamation of South Africa’s former Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park. Before the merger there were three main camps on the South African side: Twee Rivieren, Nossob and Mata-Mata. They remain excellent bases for exploring, but the options offered by six wilderness camps and a number of 4WD routes have added great diversity.
On my recent trip I focused on the new additions. Apart from Kalahari Tented Camp, all comprise four or five units. So, including the ranger, there are never more than a dozen people in the camp. This is exclusive, remote Kalahari at an affordable price.
A Kgalagadi adventure normally means cruising up and down the Nossob and Auob riverbeds, both excellent for game viewing. The new camps and trails allow access to remoter regions of the park that were formerly out of bounds. While a normal sedan will get you to most of the original camps, access to Bitterpan and Gharagab is via restricted 4WD routes through the dunes. Here the isolation is almost overwhelming. Just switch off your engine and listen to the soft, deadly breathing of the desert.
Tackling the Kalahari in midsummer, when temperatures soar into the high 40s and the ground sizzles above 70°C, may seem crazy. But there are many rewards. It’s a time of broiling skies, green dunes and babies galore. And, on the hottest days, the game concentrates around waterholes in large numbers.
Where summer rain had already fallen, we found the ground creepered in yellow devil’s thorn flowers and gifbols (tumbleweeds) showing off their pink blush. Camelthorn trees had shed their blossoms and were sporting branches laden with pods. Avian migrants were everywhere, and eye-catchers such as swallow-tailed bee-eaters and Marico sunbirds were in noisy abundance. Many predators had young. Lion cubs tormented their parents. Baby jackals, left out of sight by their mothers, couldn’t contain their inquisitiveness when a car passed. Adorable meerkat youngsters played on the porches of their subterranean manors.
Antelope, too, had dropped their babies, and the riverbeds hosted large nurseries. Rounding a bend, we came upon a wildebeest mother that had just given birth in the middle of the road. The baby, still wet, was attempting to stand on wobbly, ‘plasticine’ legs. Each time it took a tumble, either its mother would nudge it back to its feet. The next day we passed the same herd and the baby was already indistinguishable from two-dozen other gambolling young’uns.
Cats for Africa
I’m certainly no big-cat diarist, and it’s best not to be when you’re in the Kalahari, as sightings can be rare. On my last visit (in winter) I had seen hardly anything feline, so we came with expectations suitably tempered. But by the end of the trip even the biggest cats were receiving a cursory glance. You can’t blame us: 26 lions is a good score, even in a place like Kruger’s ‘cat run’ at Satara.
Every game drive produced lion, but the most exciting incident was a standoff between three young males and three hyenas directly in front of our chalet at Urikaruus Camp. A springhare tried to mediate, but seemed to lack authority. After much growling and whooping, the dogs backed off and the cats sauntered over to watch us barbecue from a discreet twenty metres. This meant our meat was not given the undivided attention it was due, and an unpricked gem squash exploded like a cannonball, sending tinfoil shrapnel tailing into the darkness.
And lions weren’t the only cats. At Grootkolk a leopard strolled past our tent on its way to drink at the waterhole. The neighbourly genet at Kalahari Tented Camp jumped onto the step to lick the hot braai grid an arm’s reach from our table. Most rewarding was a cloud of dust that metamorphosed into a herd of fleeing springbok. When calm returned, we noticed an exhausted cheetah beside her prey, one paw resting on its rump like a caring friend.
After a few days the arid beauty begins to work its magic. Every evening geckos sit in the mouths of their burrows filling the air with eerie clacking. A hyena whoops, its call echoing across the dunes. You sense the eyes of owls and jackals tracking your every move.
Boerewors sizzles on the braai. The Milky Way has sagged so low that it looks in need of a tent pole to keep it aloft, but you worry this might puncture more stars in the night sky and, my goodness, there are more than enough already. Close, too, are the San hunter-gatherer ghosts. They’re there in the wind’s whisper, in the names of dry places whose glottal stops and plosives evoke vast tracts of time: Gharagab, Cubitje Quap, Kannaguass. You’ve driven for days through an unpeopled land, but their presence is tangible, their ancient footprints still fresh in the sand. You can almost hear the chanting of their gemsbok dance, round and round the campfire, leg rattles rustling like the wind.
Most people fall hard for the Kalahari on their first visit. You can stay away for years, and it lies dormant, this feeling for a landscape that is like no other. Like a desert seed waiting for rain. When I returned, I was brutalised by the heat, but I fell just as hard.
• For a portfolio of more stunning photographs of Kgalagadi Tranfrontier Park, click here.
Across the border
Kgalagadi’s remote Botswana side is steeped in history and folklore, says Mike Main
For the first five decades after its creation Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park lay abandoned to the wilderness from which it had been created. The only access was through South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, and only along the main road beside the Nossob River on the South African side. There were no tracks of any kind across the river, into the interior of the park, and all visitors used the South African facilities.
Following negotiations in the mid-nineties, the formal creation of a combined park was mooted and the new Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, one of the first of its kind in Africa, came formally into being in May 2002.
Initially, apart from simple campsites along the river, there was still no access into the Botswana side but, over the years three major 4WD trails with limited facilities have been developed. These routes are heavily booked and are very carefully controlled to ensure that privacy and the pristine nature of the environment are preserved, as well as attending to the need for safety. Travelling in this remote area of the Kalahari is not for the faint-hearted: it’s not intrinsically dangerous but the sandy environment can pose challenges and help will not be immediately forthcoming.
The 4WD drives are well mapped and there is the added convenience of being able to exit South Africa through the main gate at Twee Rivieren and enter Botswana from Kgalagadi either at the Kaa Concession in the north or through Mabuasehube Game Reserve in the east.
The southwest (and Kgalagadi in particular) is the most arid part of Botswana, with rainfall averaging 150mm a year but with a very high variability: you can expect floods (very rarely) or long, dry periods. Consequently, one finds oneself in near-desert country. Stunted trees and shrubs abound and grassy areas are widespread, but there is no surface water. There are manmade waterholes all along the Nossob but none in the interior, so game viewing is mostly restricted to arid-adapted animals. You can expect to see innumerable springbok and wildebeest as well as famous black-maned lion, cheetah and a host of smaller mammals.
However, the attraction of the Botswana side is more than its animals. As you traverse the rugged trails you follow in the footsteps of some fascinating history. It was on this side that German forces from the then German South West Africa fought a series of engagements with the renegade leader Simon Cooper. In the final battle, involving more than four hundred men near Seatsub Pan on the Kaa 4WD route, over forty people were killed, including the German commander. Cooper escaped to settle eventually in Lokgwabe, where his descendants and the memories of him live on.
It was on this side of the border, too, that William Leonard Hunt, otherwise known as Guillermo Farini, claimed to have discovered the Lost City of the Kalahari in the 1890s. His book (of the same name) spawned more than twenty major expeditions into the Gemsbok Park in search of the elusive city. So far it has not been found, but at least you have an added reason for visiting this remarkable part of the world.
• Getting there Twee Rivieren, the flagship camp at the park’s main entrance, lies 1076km from Cape Town and 1090km from Johannesburg. From either city, drive to Upington and follow signs for the park north on the R360. Access to Kgalagadi is also possible from Botswana through Twee Rivieren, Mabuasehube and Kaa, and from Namibia through Mata-Mata.
• When to go The best time to visit is in autumn (mid-February to April) and spring (August to mid-October).
• Where to stay On the South African side, the three traditional camps have the most facilities. !Xaus Lodge provides high-end accommodation in a private concession. There are now six unfenced wilderness camps, but you’ll need to bring your own food, drinks and firewood. The park also has campsites (bookable through SANParks). On the Botswana side, the region specialises in 4WD trails and prior booking is essential. You need to be entirely self-sufficient and a minimum of two vehicles is compulsory. Camping is available at Polentswa, Rooiputs and Mabuasehube.