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Desert Storm

Desert Storm

This story was first published on 18 April 2016 and was updated on 8 January 2019.

Finally, on the Botswana side of the parched Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, comes relief. Clouds pile up, an ozone-fragranced promise fills the air, and a full-scale storm erupts…

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We first met those lions four years earlier. It was dawn and they were coming off the bone-dry Mpayathutlwa Pan in Botswana’s Mabuasehube Game Reserve on the eastern side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP).

We’d known they were nearby; camped across the pan, we’d heard them throughout the night. At first light, we four (my husband John and I and our friends Don and Hilary McLernan) drove out to find them. There were about a dozen – three adult females and their cubs. We judged the cubs to be about ten months old as their spots were fading, their claws already lethal weapons, and the boys sported fledgling manes.

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Cuddly they seemed, but those youngsters already wore the self-assurance of the sovereigns they would one day be. As intrigued by us as we were them, they came directly over and studied us for half an hour. Finally, when black-maned Dad paraded onto the scene, the juveniles lost interest in puny humans and ran to greet the King.

Entering the pride lands

For us it was a sublime encounter and more comfortable than the experience two campers at another of the park’s unfenced sites had endured a couple of nights earlier. That same youthful gang and their mamas had snuck up to the ground tent and had a whale of time testing its strength. Unsheathed claws ripped the canvas and muscular bodies slammed into the tent walls for what seemed an eternity, until the cats moved on.

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Next morning, the shaken humans arrived at our camp – the same we occupied now, four years down the line – and related their ordeal. We invited them to pitch their tent between our vehicles that night, their last in the park before they headed home.

And not a drop to drink

Now the cats were asserting themselves again. Visitors who’d booked the site 500 metres from us had arrived at dusk to find a pride of adult lions had already staked their claim. Hooting yielded no response. The lions stayed put. And who could blame them? Like much of Southern Africa, the park was in the grip of heat (daytime temperatures hovered around 46 degrees) and a record-breaking drought.

Water was an ephemeral dream. The only sources were a few artificial waterholes on some of the pans and borehole-fed taps at a minority of campsites like the one the Mapaya pride occupied. The lions had even modified the plumbing so that water dripped into a convenient puddle. The humans had to retreat. Once more we found ourselves hosting refugees.

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The lions roared long into the night. Rising early, we drove across to renew our acquaintance with them. How they’d grown. Seven adults in their prime – three of them full, black-maned males – sprawled in the sparse shade of drought-diminished shrubs. Rounded bellies testified to a successful night’s hunt. Panting in the already vicious heat, the pride was unperturbed when we parked nearby. But even in their languor, when they deigned to glance at us their expressions were imperious. “This is our place,” their attitude announced. “And it’ll remain ours until the rains return.”

At the entrance to Mabua, where we signed in, we were told there had been no rain for eight months, and that they hoped we’d brought some. We tried our best. On that night of the lions, storm clouds amassed, obliterating the rising full moon. Strong gusts tore at our roof tents and flung red sand in all directions.

The scent of ozone permeated the atmosphere, announcing imminent rain. Beneath a sky that was by turns on fire or as dark as the pits of hell we waited for the clouds to break. When they did, it was begrudgingly. A miserly scattering of drops fell and then it was all over. You could sense the collective disappointment of thirst-ravaged plants and animals.

The pattern was repeated over the next several days: late afternoons brought an apocalyptic build-up of clouds. Then – nothing. Everyone, from humans to the hardiest desert dwellers like gemsbok, steenbok, springbok and ostrich, was fed up. Shade and the brackish water mattered more than anything. We humans were lucky though: we had fresh water (and beer) that was ice cold thanks to solar panels that kept our fridge batteries charged.

Rain dance

Relief eventually came. We were camping at the edge of Lesholoago Pan, one of the few pans with a functioning waterhole. In the early mornings and evenings, kudus, eland, hyenas, (brown and spotted), jackals, wildebeest, springbok, Lappetfaced- and Whitebacked Vultures were among those that took turns to drink. Paw prints in camp going in the direction of the pan, identified the night drinkers.

Enervated, we’d adopted a lion-like routine, lazing in the shade of a shepherd tree all day. Some of the region’s permanent residents – squirrels, Red-billed Francolins, yellow mongooses and Black Korhaans – kept us company as they foraged for dropped morsels. When the heat overwhelmed, we’d drape wet towels around us but this came with a sting in the tail: thirsty bees.

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Late one afternoon, clouds piled up as usual and an ozone-fragranced promise of showers hovered in the softened air. Finally, at sunset, a full-scale storm erupted and proper rain poured down for half an hour. Afterwards, a double rainbow arched in the lurid pink sky.

The celebrations began. Dining on the fringe of the pan, we watched animals emerge to drink from fresh water puddles. Jackals tumbled about in glee, and mongooses chased each other just for fun. (At home a couple of weeks later, a picture I saw of two Free State farmers dancing during a cloudburst reminded me of those frolicking animals.)

As twilight gave way to darkness, our torch beams revealed countless bright eyes on the pan. Meanwhile, a leopard appeared at the shower rig behind us moments after John had come from there. It doesn’t do to let down your guard.

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That downpour was never going to be enough. By morning the puddles were gone, the air was brittle once more, and it was business as usual at the artificial waterhole. As if to emphasise the harshness of life in the Kalahari, an emaciated kudu bull appeared in camp. He stood stock still watching us for over an hour then moved into the shade and lay down, resigned to whatever fate was to be his. How we wish we could have helped him.

Mabuasehube 30The following day – Hilary’s birthday – after Don had made the cake (add liberal doses of Amarula to a box of cake mix, pour mixture into loaf tin, place in a hole in the ground filled with glowing coals, bake as long as it takes) we headed west on the Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail to Nossob on the South African side of KTP. Deep sand and high dunes characterise the one-way, 150km route.

Other than the single track and the demarcated campsite at Mosemane Pan, there is no sign of human incursion until you reach the South African sector. Nor do you encounter other people – the two-day trail is exclusive to the party that has booked it which makes for a wonderful, solitary wilderness experience. It’s also hard going, particularly in drought conditions and searing temperatures that transform a usually beautiful region into a scorched landscape.

Exiting the trail, we spent our last night at Polentswa Camp that looks across to a starkly scenic pan 60km north of Nossob. The night was ruthlessly hot and as silent as the grave. No jackals called, no hyenas chortled, no lions roared. The only creature sound was the clacking of barking geckos.

But then came another tapping sound. Torchlight revealed a thin-pincered scorpion clutching the toe of John’s sandal while its venom-laden tail repeatedly struck the strap. That scorpion was Parabuthus granulatus, one of the most venomous scorpions in Southern Africa. It’s responsible, we later learnt from KTP staff, for about six deaths a year. Which probably makes it more lethal than a pride of Kalahari lions commandeering a campsite.

If glamping is your preference, Mabua, with all its challenges, dangers, and lack of creature comforts, probably isn’t for you. But for those who don’t mind all of the above plus heat, sand in the bed, and the most rudimentary of facilities, a trip to the park is an unforgettable adventure. Just mind the scorpions, and obey the lions.

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Handy Info

  • Mabuasehube is accessible only by 4×4 and offers only camping.
  • Most campsites have A-frames that provide shade. A few have pit toilets and shower rigs. All are sited on the rims of the pans. None is fenced and lions, hyenas, leopards commonly move through the sites.
  • Visitors must carry all water and fuel needed. Where water is available, it is brackish and suitable only for washing.
  • We travelled via Kuruman in the Northern Cape and crossed the border at McCarthy’s Rest then drove north to Tsabong, the last stop for fuel and other supplies. From there, it’s about 110km to the park gate and takes around two and a half hours. The final 40 kilometres is through deep sand. Remember to reduce tyre pressure.
  • An alternative is via Twee Rivieren at the southern tip of KTP. From there drive north to Nossob (the last stop for fuel and supplies – and you’ll need to overnight there) and take the two-way Bosbogolo Trail east to Mabua.
  • A third option is the Polentswa Wilderness Trail that, like Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail, is one way, in this case west to east, and reserved exclusively for parties booked in advance.
  • Trails and campsites must be booked through Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks. Gaborone Office: +267 318 0774, [email protected]

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Words and Photography Andrea Abbott

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