CONNECTING WITH THE KGALAGADI

WORDS AND IMAGES: SHIRLEY LE GUERN

The name Kgalagadi means “land of thirst” or “thirstland” which goes some way to hinting at just why a visit to this harsh but extremely beautiful part of the Northern Cape is definitely not for the faint hearted.

One of the region’s five ‘arid parks’, the Kgalagadi is characterised by massive deep red dunes clad in long blond grass that sways in the wind, open flat plains of semi-desert bushveld peppered with gnarled camelthorn trees – all offset against sweeping deep blue skies that transform into a star studded vista once the sun goes down each evening.

This series of stories about the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is dedicated to our special friend Marc de Chalain and his wife Stella. Marc, who had a special love for the Kgalagadi, organized our trip but was lost to Covid before our adventure ended. His passion for photography and love for the wild will be missed more than words can say.

Perhaps more obvious en route to this vast conservation wildness than in the park itself are the mineral rich white salt plains which fill with water when it rains.

For the most part, though, the landscape is extremely dry, framed by the dry riverbeds of the Nossob (meaning dark clay) and the Auob (meaning bitter water) rivers.

Splashes of water are dotted through the landscape in the form of small boreholes or waterholes which are visited periodically by an array of fascinating desert adapted creatures that call the Kgalagadi home – from the black and white masked gemsbok to herds of blue wildebeest and even the notorious black maned Kalahari lions that have become synonymous with the region.

 

When asked what draws one back to this magnificent wasteland, it is almost impossible to pinpoint any single thing. Is it the fact that the wide open plains are a photographer’s paradise or simply that the sheer silence and stillness of this vast territory provides a sense of unequalled peace? Could it be the unexpected sightings of bandy legged honey badgers that scramble over the tops of the dunes or the highly entertaining antics of families of yellow mongoose or energetic ground squirrels?

All and more is perhaps a good answer and certainly what saw three couples – ourselves, wildlife photographers Marc and Stella de Chalain and passionate conservationists, photographers and protea farmers Gerald and Marie Knight – plan an expedition to the Kgalagadi in 2019.

Covid put paid to our original adventure and it was only in August this year that we made our way to Twee Rivieren to take on the beautiful Kalahari.

Like so many wilderness wanderers, we found ourselves in a place that challenges and frustrates just as much as it delights and fascinates. If you are a game reserve visitor looking to tick off the big five or spot a friendly creature behind every other bush, then the Kgalagadi is not for you.

For starters, you’d be hard pressed to find the big five as this water scarce park has no elephants, rhinos or buffalo. Secondly, sightings are often few and far between and your big game hunting requires both patience and perseverance – with the assurance that there are rewards, of course.

The so-called human tale is for another day, but the bushveld excursion will be a three parter simply because there are too many fireside worthy yarns than could be captured in a single post. Not to mention the huge number of photographs …

TACKLING THE ROAD TO NOWHERE

 

Making your way to the Kgalagadi takes dedication. From Durban, it took at least three days. From Johannesburg, two. Because this wasn’t our first trip through the tatty back end of Gauteng and the dreary countryside towards Upington, we weren’t expecting a scenic road trip. Instead, we dodged trucks, tried to spot the odd donkey in the arid landscape and landed in the province’s capital on a Sunday afternoon when the Orange River winery was shut due to Covid restrictions and it was near impossible to even find a restaurant open for lunch.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the historical little dorpies featured online as part of your road trip are real – most are scruffy with potholed streets and sad looking unkempt old buildings. Do your homework before choosing a B&B to overnight and try to find places where you can enjoy the countryside or even get a peek at some rock art.

 

It is only once you leave Upington that you begin find the odd padstalletjie with homemade preserves and perhaps some biltong. But you also encounter mines  (iron and manganese), massive solar farms and, closer to the park, salt mines. Sadly, you’ll be dodging bat eared foxes which have been struck by large trucks ferrying salt at night – not a great introduction to a conservation area but a stark reminder as to why such parks are essential.

Twee Rivieren was our meeting place, entrance into the park and first stop over. It’s the place where you park your city ways and take up bush friendly practicality by deflating your tyres to navigate the often rutted and sandy roads and get issued with a permit which needs to be collected from the gate before you leave each morning and returned on your arrival back in camp.

Twee Rivieren has a busy and well equipped camping site which is very popular as well as self- catering semi-detached thatched bungalows made from the local stone. They are comfy and well equipped with everything you need for a braai, good air conditioners for the extremely hot summers and plenty of blankets to wrap up against the winter cold.

There’s also a well-equipped shop for the basics – especially water for drinking as the tap water is very salty. (Note for travellers – bring as much food with you as possible, especially picnic snacks, braai meat and good wine). 

Unlike our previous trip in June when we couldn’t shower in the morning due to frozen pipes, August was a little more tolerable but still rather chilly in the mornings.  However, all of that somehow becomes irrelevant as soon as you head out on your first trip to meet the residents.

GETTING OUT AND ABOUT

Perhaps the first and most lasting impression you get when you hear the camp gate clunk shut behind you and you scramble into your vehicle and head out is just how incredibly big the park is.

It actually covers and amazing 35 551 square kilometres. As you wind along the main road, you’ll spot ‘stones’ that mark the borders of the park, reminding you where South Africa ends and Botswana begins.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park includes both the former Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and the! Ae! Hai Kalahari Heritage Park of South Africa and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. It is the oldest transboundary protected area in Africa (dating back to 1948) even though it was only formally proclaimed in 1999 and officially opened in May 2000.

 

We spent the first three days of our excursion at Twee Rivieren, enjoying the gatherings of springbok, often found spread out lying in the morning sunlight on the plains, watching the elegant secretary birds and Corey Bustards tip toe through the tufts of grass and enjoying the antics of ostriches taking dust baths and ruffling their feathers.

The sometimes solemn gemsbok gaze out at you from the dunes as you pass by and the stunning chanting goshawks with their beautiful grey plumage and bright orange beaks and feet surge into the air from their perches on twigs close to the roadside.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a birders paradise and it was fitting that it was a very sleepy Verreaux’s Eagle Owl who welcomed us back into camp to pack for our foray to our next destination and our first encounter with the big cats of the Kalagadi.