This story was updated on 11 October 2019.
🕒 10-minute read
One of the largest and driest parks in the world, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is far from lifeless
Around two years ago while on a travel assignment for SA COUNTRY LIFE, my poor backside was put into the somewhat torturous circumstance of having to sit in a saddle for almost three weeks on the trot, literally. I had joined a cavalcade of salt of the earth yet clearly demented horsey types who had banded together with a bunch of local Bushmen in order to cross Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), one of the largest, and driest, parks in the world.
It was a fantastic experience, but when finally I dismounted and said farewell to Bruce Lee, my spirited steed, I was dog tired of horses, hated the heat, and never wanted to see another tent as long as I lived. I also had the distinct feeling I hadn’t really seen much of this 900 000km² semi-desert at all. But that’s not surprising really. After all, the Kalahari is 29.48 times larger than Belgium, and, what’s more, has almost no hills from which to view its famously flat landscapes.
More than meets the eye
Once a giant inland sea, the Central Kalahari is now a seasonally dry semi-desert, lacking any permanent water but for the Okavango River. But it’s far from lifeless. Every year, torrential summer rains douse the desert and up come succulent grasses. And where there is grass, there are herbivores, and a cavalcade of teeth and claws and manes and spots. The CKGR, and indeed the greater Kalahari Basin, a staggering 2.5 million km² in size, is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. The Bushmen, those ancient people first here, call this place their home, as do the largest lions on Earth, the biggest herds of springbok and the greatest gatherings of gemsbok anyone is likely to see. But alas, because we were mostly traversing the park’s buffer zones and cut lines, locations where Bushmen communities and livestock can be found, big game was relatively scarce.
“If you want to see lots of animals,” a wizened bushman called Xego had told me, “you must go to the north of this land, where there are no people and the grasses are greener.”
Tempting. But I didn’t really fancy the idea of returning. I had slept in tents and on sand among the scorpions night after night. I had shivered in the desert darkness and sweated like a Bangkok pole dancer by day. I had even eaten grubs with the Bushmen.
It had been an adventure for sure, but the Kalahari is a harsh place, especially for softies like me. But Xego, a man full of great wisdom born from his connection to the land and his ancestral ways, had some additional words of encouragement. “There are upmarket lodges in the north. Try Googling them. I hear they have aircon there.”
Back for more
That’s how I found myself back in the imposing emptiness and swaying grasses of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, only this time I was doing it in style.
Initially, I hooked up with a mobile tented safari tour run by Wilderness Safaris, and although I had promised myself never to sleep under canvas again, I needn’t have worried. The tents had proper beds in them. There were ice cold drinks on tap, fantastic food, my own guide and game spotting vehicle, and a brigade of camp hands, chefs and wine pourers to pander to my pedantic needs. Short of having a pair of scantily clad ladies standing either side of me with fans at the ready, I couldn’t have asked for more.
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But it wasn’t only the comfort levels that were markedly different from my previous Kalahari excursion. As I’d hoped, the north was a place of prolific wildlife. It was a fantastic treat to see big herds of eland, Africa’s largest antelope, as well as zebra and wildebeest. I even encountered some elephants which I was told are extremely rare in the Kalahari due to a lack of standing water. Quelea, sparrow-like birds, were present in their tens of thousands, and hawks, eagles and Marabou Storks were there to gorge on them.
Whenever I turned my head, springbok pronked, oryx rattled their horns and ostriches did their gangly dances. I also saw cheetahs eating an ostrich, and leopards lazing in a tree. At night, on the floor of Deception Valley, a fossilised river bed that never flows, I slept beneath canvas in unfenced campsites and listened to the spine-tingling roar of lions mixed with the raucous call of zebras. Magical.
Camping out here is indeed an awesome experience. The designated sites are miles apart from one another and, despite the park’s size, just a few dozen vehicles are permitted to enter at any given time. As such, you can spend weeks without seeing another soul.
Tau Pan and Kalahari Plains are the only lodges inside the park and both are small and strategically situated in the heart of the ‘gamiest’ region of the reserve. When not being chauffeured around in an open safari vehicle, I was given the opportunity to take lessons in desert survival, from local Bushmen who live and work at the camps. I learned how to collect water from giant underground gourds, how to dig up and consume beetle larvae, how to kill my enemies with a poison dart (very useful, that) and how to strangle a guinea fowl using a few twigs and a bit of vine.
Other essential skills I mastered were how to impress a girl by making a fire with a stick (apparently you can’t get married unless you know how to do this), how to throw miniature bouncing spears, how to dance, how to capture a giraffe and how to fashion a splendid head garment using just a tortoise shell and some wildebeest sinew. The very same Bushmen also showed me how to make an excellent gin and tonic from the lodge bar, and how to use my GPS properly.
Moving with the times
“How do we stay in touch?” I asked several of my guides, all of whom were dressed in duiker skin loin cloths and very little else. “Facebook,” they replied in unison. It was nice to see that the Bushman culture was adapting to a modern world yet, at the same time keeping to an extent their ancient ways, skills and beliefs. Even if only for tourism . . .
I asked one of my guides, Tlholego, what he thought about dressing up for tourists. It was, after all, freezing in the mornings and his skimpy gear seemed to do little in fortifying him against the cold. “I am quite happy to do this,” he said through chattering teeth. “And although my people don’t usually dress this way anymore, when visitors come from all over the world to see our culture in action, well, we become happy and proud of our traditions and history.”
Bushmen are allowed by the park’s authority to live in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, but it is an extremely contentious and complex issue. They have always been there, long before borders were created or game fences erected. But in modern times, the potential for serious conflict between the interests of a modernising people and that of wildlife conservation is not a trivial matter.
Traditionally in the past, Bushmen did not keep livestock nor did they dig permanent water wells and, as such, their footprint on the environment was small. However, in modern times, goats and donkeys are kept, guns are used for hunting, wells are needed and livestock conflict with predators is not at all uncommon.
There are rules imposed by the Botswana government that strictly control hunting permits and the establishment of permanent settlements but not everyone is happy, least of all some of the Bushmen. However, tourism, and the jobs it provides, is bringing much-needed income to locals and encouraging a resurgence in traditional skills and cultural practices in young people. And at the end of the day, the CKGR is very big, and theoretically should be large enough for all.
On my very last game drive, Ongalebwe, another Bushman guide, said he had a special treat lined up for me. Roast beetle grubs? Sun-dried desert rat? Perhaps some warm tsama melon juice (that tastes horrible, by the way). But no, he had found me a small pride of lion near the camp.
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Cubs and older siblings rolled around in the soft grass like mischievous puppies. They lolled among flowers in the late golden light and tumbled playfully over a huge black-maned male who cuffed them gently. Fluffy females, fully grown and purring like oversized kittens, lay on their backs with their paws pointed to the sky. A wonderful, peaceful and tender family scene.
“Fantastic,” said Ongalebwe. I turned to look at the wonder in his eyes, and then at the lions, and in that moment, I saw a possible future for the Central Kalahari, where both wildlife and Bushmen could still live in harmony.
When To Go
The green season usually starts in November and ends around April, with January typically one of the wettest, hottest months. Thunderstorms can be fierce, but usually brief, with midday temperatures averaging at around 35°C. The dry lakes, or pans, in the north of the park will be carpeted with grasses during and just after the rains which, in turn, attract large herds of antelope and predators. The dry season (April/May to Sep/Oct) is generally cooler and can get quite chilly at night so bring warm clothing. Blue skies will be the norm.
Visiting the CKGR
You can explore the CKGR with a tour company or as an independent. Most campsites, lodges and game-viewing tracks are situated in the northern sections. Animals are attracted to the artificially pumped waterholes and grassy pans located in the north.
The CKGR gets steadily drier, and emptier, the further south you go. The jeep tracks that pass for roads in the CKGR are often very slow and sandy and the speed limit is 25mph.
If you plan on a self-drive, you’ll have to bring everything from the kitchen sink to the water you intend putting in it. Drive in a convoy because there is often no cellphone signal and no AA to rescue you if you have a breakdown. You can reserve one of 41 campsites through Bigfoot Tours.
Both Tau Camp and Kalahari Plains are upmarket resorts that provide guides, vehicles and full board and lodging as part of their packages. On a mobile safari, also fully catered, you will be accommodated in army-style dome tents. Prices change according to season. Keep an eye out for special offers.
Words and Photography Dale Morris