On a self-drive exploration of Botswana, Anthony Ham records his adventure to the heart of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
Deception Valley, 5pm
My first sight of Deception Valley is of golden grasses dancing in the breeze. To the south, islands of acacia shelter shy springbok. Nearby, greater kudu consort with gemsbok, while the kori bustard, the world’s heaviest flying bird, pretends that it has not seen me. To the north, a family of bat-eared foxes watches from a distance, within sight of African ground squirrels that stand, like meerkats, on their hind legs, taking in the last warmth from the setting sun.
From noon and for hours thereafter the Kalahari had possessed all the charm of an over-exposed photograph, all colour leeched from the day by the dry-season sun. Now there is magic in the air: the land has turned golden, animals are everywhere, and the darkening thickets of thorn scrub, of Terminaria sericea and the Kalahari apple-leaf tree, have become charged with the potential of predators emerging from the shade to hunt.
Darkness falls, and with it comes the silence of the Kalahari. Whenever I make the slightest sound I wince lest I disturb the night. I have slept in the Sahara under the stars, but this is lion and leopard country and the night is alive in a way that few deserts truly are. Out here, I am utterly alone, and the thought thrills and frightens me in equal measure. I lie very still, scarcely breathing. I remain awake until deep into the night.
Deception Valley, 6am
Although I did not hear them in the night, lionesses and cubs have passed by, leaving footprints within metres of where I slept. Now, at first light, a lion roars down in the valley. The mournful call drifts out across the Kalahari. I wait for him to appear.
In time, from behind the wall of trees far across the east side of Deception Valley, a male emerges. Such a sight, in the clear light of morning, is one of the finest in nature. I drive slowly along a track that runs parallel to his path, south along this ancient river valley. We are separated by perhaps 500 metres at first, but the distance between us lessens as he moves away from the acacia canopy and into full view of the plain.
Cheetahs seem to glide, and leopards pad in stealth. But the stroll of a lion is an open challenge to the world. One big paw after another strikes the earth, the walk of a creature with nothing to fear. Dr Paul Funston, the Senior Director of Panthera’s African Lion Project and a Kalahari specialist, once told me that most of the myths surrounding Kalahari lions may not be true, but they do, of necessity, cover much greater distances at night than their cousins elsewhere. Kalahari lions have some of the largest known territories of any lions on earth.
The distance between us narrows. The springbok and gemsbok grazing the valley floor do not run on seeing the lion – a lion in sight is preferable to one lurking in the shadows. Even so, they stand alert and ready; it is clear from the lion’s stroll that he is not hunting. Just in case, they drift away, judging his path, eyeing routes to safety. This is relatively open country, at least for the central Kalahari, and Kalahari lions have one of the highest hunting success rates in the lion world, nearly forty per cent, almost double that of the Serengeti. This male, in the prime of life, is unlikely to waste his energy on a pursuit that he has no chance of winning.
One formidable paw after another, a look that mixes defiance with lazy majesty, on he marches, this ruler of the Kalahari, his black mane a hellish crown, its golden upper reaches a halo.
He crosses the vehicle track barely breaking stride, cutting a long, diagonal path through the valley. Finally, he climbs the gentle rise that closes off the opening to the west, following the direction of footprints, those that passed close to my camp in the night. He marches away into the Kalahari bushland, once again a silhouette in acacia shadow.
Passarge Valley, 2pm
The northern reaches of Passarge lack the immediate beauty of Deception Valley. But Passarge, too, has a lion, a large black-maned male resting under a tree. In the midday heat he barely raises his head when I approach. Even so, I watch him for more than two hours and have him all to myself. At one point I leave, driving south for three kilometres, only to return just in case he has moved. He hasn’t.
Passarge Valley broadens and becomes more beautiful, even in the sun of mid-afternoon. This is one of the emptiest places on Earth – empty not of wildlife but of humans. From the time I leave Leopard Pan close to midday, I shall see no other cars, no other people, and I shall see none until tomorrow.
I go quietly and am rewarded with more sightings of bat-eared fox, and a honey badger by the side of the road; seeing the latter pleases me greatly. The gemsbok scatter at my approach and the springbok too are wary and skittish.
Later, two springbok run at speed to my right. In the far distance, through binoculars, I glimpse a cheetah, standing in elegant grace for perhaps ten seconds, before slinking away into the undergrowth. From the line of white along its nape it seems a juvenile, and I scan the scrub for its mother. I wait. But the cheetahs of Passarge have no wish to be seen.
Where Passarge Valley disappears in a tangle of camel thorn, the waterhole promised to me by rangers at the Masetwe Gate is a mere puddle attended by gemsbok. A lone black-backed jackal arrives but seems unable to place me in his world of threats, and he leaves. Soon, when the puddle dries out, the Kalahari’s creatures will have to find their water elsewhere.
Motopi Pan, 6pm
Slowly, and with a sense of foreboding, an awareness comes that the sun will soon be setting and I am still far from camp. To make up time, I drive too fast. When the turn-off to the camp fails to materialise I try a different GPS setting, convince myself that it must be true, and hurry on.
On the far side of Motopi, one of the CKGR’s larger pans, an ostrich breaks cover to my right and sprints across the dustbowl at astonishing speed, within sight of gemsbok and giraffe, golden in the warm light of dusk.
I follow tracks that are increasingly overgrown. I cannot find the campsite. I throw the vehicle forward, then back, stalling in deep sand; the sun has already set. Deep in lion country and surrounded by tall grass, I find a small clearing and, in the half light and the gathering gloom, I set up camp and withdraw behind canvas.
Night falls and the Earth is silent. I will later learn that there are no human beings for fifty kilometres in any direction. I lie, listening to the night. Birdsong dies and the world falls silent. The African night is eerily quiet – no distant commotion, no cicada call, no lion’s roar.
I lie awake in the moonlight, enveloped in perfect stillness, wondering into what silent place I have wandered.