22 Feb 2014

Into The Wild

Botswana: Kalahari National Park, Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park

Having travelled this far in Africa we thought we had built up a pretty good repertoire of adjectives to describe the things we have seen.  The Central Kalahari Game Reserve has blown that notion out of the water.  This is, quite simply, one of the most jaw-droppingly beautifully places on the planet.  From peach melba and azure blue dawn to fiery red and gold sunset, this 53,000 km2 wonderland delivers one breath-taking view after another.

Equally striking is the fact that it is virtually devoid of people.  Not just tourists, but anyone.  For this is a place of great controversy as well as great beauty.  Only the indigenous hunter-gatherer San were ever skilful and stubborn enough to populate this area, but even they were powerless against the government’s internationally derided re-settlement programme.  As recently as 2002 San people were still being evicted from the reserve, purportedly in the name of wildlife conservation but coincidently at the same time as De Beers were lobbying the government for diamond concessions in the area.  This tragic programme has since been successfully challenged in the courts, but few San have returned, and the damage to their way of life seems irreparable.  So, for now at least, this vast wilderness is home only to stunning fauna, tenacious flora and, for five days in February this year, us.

The 45km road from Rakops to the Matswere Gate at the Eastern border of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is an experience in itself.  Described by our guidebook as “almost impassable” in the wet season, we were pleasantly surprised that the track had dried out over the last few days and was now mainly compact mud with only the occasional stretch of waterlogged black cotton soil.  This track gave us a foretaste of what was to come – a 360˚ horizon of unblemished wilderness surrounded us with Savannah and bush stretching out in all directions. The terrain is so flat here that you get a good sense of the curvature of the Earth, a feeling of being on a planet rather than just in a country.  Even now in the “wet season” the sky is deep blue, broken by fluffy white clouds.  And the sun is intense.  Hoards of butterflies carpet the muddy tyre ruts and scatter like confetti as we approach them. 


 


Checking in with the ranger at the Matswere Gate, the emphasis is firmly on self-sufficiency.  From here on, 600km of bush tracks separate us from the next fuel stop in Ghanzi, which is itself a middle of nowhere town and another 1,000km from our planned border crossing into South Africa.  600km of sand and mud is a very different prospect from 600km on tarmac, and we were loaded with 180 litres of diesel and 80 litres of water – neither of which are available in the reserve.  You are very much on your own here – the park rangers do not even have a vehicle, so any assistance in case of emergency is likely only to come from fellow travellers, if you can find any…

But the remoteness and solitude of the Kalahari is key to its appeal.  There are no overland trucks or tour groups here, and it is far from the madding crowds of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara.  This is one of the last few truly pristine wildernesses on earth. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Kalahari is not a place of endless sand dunes and sun bleached animal skeletons.  Now, in the middle of the rains, it explodes in a riot of colour – wild flowers jostle among lush grass and seemingly dead bushes suddenly sprout back into life.  This is one of nature’s most ambitious but short-lived displays of survival – by late April the intense drought will return again, and colour will fade from the landscape for another 9 months.




It’s not only the vegetation that is making up for lost time.  Enormous numbers of oryx and springbok populate these seasonal grasslands, stalked by opportunistic cheetah, leopards and, the Kalahari’s most famous predator, the black maned lions.  






Our first two nights were spent camping at Deception Valley, close to the spot where Mark and Delia Owens spent 7 years between 1974 and 1981 studying lions and brown hyena.  It was this study that resulted in their famous book “Cry of the Kalahari”, and after only two nights, we could understand why the place held such a fixation for them.  We saw three cheetah on our first evening there, a mother and her two cubs relaxing in the last golden shafts of sun just before dusk.  Being all alone with them was a truly magical experience.  



Back at our camp – on Valentine’s day – we grilled fillet steak, made home-made chips and watched as the silvery glow of a perfect full moon gradually replaced the dying embers of the sunset.  This is truly the stuff of dreams.  But this was not the end of the show.  Even with a full moon, the stars here are incredible - so bright that they seem to merge into one another.  The experience is intense even with the naked eye, but not content with that, we ended the evening leaning back in our camp chairs and gazing at the heavens through our binoculars.


 


The Kalahari is also famous for its “pans” – a series of seasonal floodplains linked together by ancient fossil riverbeds.  The rivers themselves have not flowed for 16,000 years, and it is statistics like these that make you realise what a fragile and unique ecosystem this is.  In the wet season the pans resemble marshy meadows, which not surprisingly attract the most game and predators.  The downside is that driving anywhere near them is a very risky business, as they are notorious for bogging down cars in axle-deep mud.  We soon got first-hand experience of this at our next stop over at Piper Pan…

In February, the pans consist of several inches of water on top of a thin crust of dense mud, which, occasionally, gives away to seemingly bottomless primordial gloop below.  The key to driving on the pans is, like driving on sand, to maintain momentum – low gears and high revs.  This worked until we began to lose nerve and hesitate about travelling so far across the pan – wet marsh stretched as far as we could see, and by the time John had even started to think about easing off the accelerator and turning around, it was too late.  Tonka’s wheels began to sink, spinning helplessly and sinking deep into the gloop. We were very much stuck.  All alone, and with no prospect of a tow, this was not a good situation to be in.  Uncharacteristically, Josi did not take this opportunity to play the “I told you so” card, but rather gave moral support as John set to work with the shovel.  Clearly her instinct for survival was weighing heavier than her instinct to chastise her husband.  Bit by bit, with furrows being dug behind him and all four wheels spinning madly, Tonka managed to drag himself out of the muddy grave he had been digging for himself.  It was then a case of beating an unceremonious retreat in reverse at full speed.


For our efforts on the pan we were rewarded with the best evening of game viewing of our trip so far.  As a spectacular sunset lit up the savannah in bronze and gold, we watched four cheetahs in hunt formation stalking a herd of springbok.  This went on for some time, with the prey remaining out of reach of even the lightning fast cheetah.  With darkness coming fast, we set off back to camp.  




But as the moon rose dramatically behind a copse of acacia trees, Josi thought this was too beautiful an opportunity to miss and got out of the car to film it.  It was precisely at this moment that John caught a glimpse of something moving through the shadows on the other side of the car.  “Josi! Josi! Get in!”  Sensing the urgency in his voice, Josi shot back in, just as an adult lioness moved across in front of the car.  It was quickly followed by another, and two pairs of bright amber eyes, wide and unblinking stared at us through the windscreen.  The expression on their faces was distinctly different from the yawning, bleary eyed lions we have seen slumbering under bushes in the heat of the day.  Now, in the moonlight, a night of hunting ahead of them, they were wide awake and primed for action.  It is at moments like these that lions can move at 17 metres per second.  Fortunately, as John can now testify, so can Josi…



After a fourth night at Xade camp, we exited the Western border of the reserve and followed the sand road to Ghanzi.  This was an opportunity to stock up on food and fuel, before driving 370km to Hukuntsi via Kang.  

Hukuntsi is the Northern gateway to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, our final expanse of wilderness before crossing into South Africa.  While undoubtedly a beautiful place, with red sand dunes punctuated by tufts of tumbleweed, it did not captivate us in the way the Central Kalahari Game Reserve had.  Perhaps sensory overload was catching up with us.  



After one night in the remote North Eastern region of Mahuasahube, we drove a punishing 220km of corrugated sand ruts to the Nossob river valley, the natural border between Botswana and South Africa and another long since dried up riverbed.  



There is no border post here, and the only indication that you have reached the continent's southernmost country is a sign with a lengthy disclaimer by the South African National Parks Authority warning of the dangers of local wildlife.  Predictably, the campsite here is super organised – an electric fence runs its perimeter, which is the first of its kind we have encountered.  This seemed unnecessary, but we concluded that South Africans are so used to fences that they feel more at home behind them.





From here the trail winds south along the Nossob valley for 170km before arriving at the “formal” entry point into South Africa – Twee Rivieren.  Not surprisingly, this was the smoothest and easiest border crossing we have experienced – they even have pens at the immigration counter.

After a night at the amazing campsite at *Kgalagadi Lodge* (so impressive that we initially mistook our ensuite shower block for one of the private villas), we pressed on to the first proper outpost of civilisation – the bustling town of Upington - a full 1,600km since we entered the Kalahari.


Back on tarmac on busy shopping streets, we, and Tonka, suddenly seemed a bit out of place.  After 25,000km of Africa, we have now arrived somewhere completely different…

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