Botswana Kalahari | Catching the cry of the Kalahari
Traversing the great expanse of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana may not be as challenging as you may have been lead to believe − if you plan and prepare carefully (and understand the booking procedure), writes Owen Middleton.
You’ve overstayed your welcome by a day, the Botswana Parks Board official insists.
“That’s impossible!” we protest in unison, blaming an entrance gate official for getting the booking wrong. On our way home, we’re in no mood for yet another booking saga.
Whether it is the unshaven, dirty rabble smelling of a week’s braais in front of him, or the experience of many a tourist becoming unhinged in the Kalahari desert, he pronounces, “It’s your lucky day” and sends us on our way − with that understanding look that comes with the territory.
This encounter punctuates the end of our week traversing the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) − from the Khutse Game Reserve in the south to Piper Pans in the north and many other places made famous by Mark and Delia Owens in their book Cry of the Kalahari. I had been dreaming of doing the south-north line through the reserve since I was 17, after reading about the Owens’ incredible wildlife experiences and seeing the images of great open spaces. The massive, 52 000 km2 reserve in central Botswana is widely regarded as the last expanse of wilderness left south of the Zambezi.
However, you would be forgiven for thinking that, being in the Kalahari, the reserve comprises red sand dunes and endless plains devoid of trees − anything but. Other than the open pans and ancient riverbeds spread out at regular intervals through the CKGR, most of the land is thick Kalahari bushveld.
Three, two, one …
We had planned to travel from Khutse to Xade (one of the main CKGR entrances) and overnight at Piper Pans. Thereafter we would head further north to the hotspots of the Deception Pan area where we would explore the Sunday’s Pan, Leopard Pan and Passarge Valley.
Khutse (the small box tagged onto the south of the big box of the CKGR), and the CKGR are joined with geometrical precision. The mapmaker obviously thought it was cool to just draw lines at right angles, but on the ground it’s an arduous, more than 260 km-long trek from Khutse to Xade – more or less in the centre of the western border of the reserve – and another 80 km to Piper Pans.
Unbeknown to us, however, someone at the Botswana Parks Board booking office believed it was possible to get from Khutse camp to Deception Pan in a day – a distance of some 400 km on sandy tracks − and had made our booking accordingly.
Unaware of this, our group of seven people in three Land Rovers started our trek in Khutse on a different schedule at the end of April this year.
Myself and partner Tamaryn were driving a Defender TDI with Tamaryn’s folks, Dave and Glenda Jupp, in a rented Defender TD5, and an immaculate ’03 Disco was filled with the Milner family of Paddy, Annette and teenager Derek.
In essence, travelling between Khutse and Xade is like riding a rodeo bull for hours on end. However, after hearing 25km-in-5-hours horror stories about this road, it was a great surprise to be cruising in high range third and fourth gear without incident practically the entire journey.
We covered the 263 km from Khutse camp 15 to Xade in 12 hours, averaging 37 km/h on very firm tracks, and taking breaks totalling 3 hours. Only 50 km of this section was in thick-ish sand, but nothing to spook the cars into low range.
We spent the first evening at the Xaxa Waterhole camp, a 15 km diversion off the main track between Khutse and Piper Pans, watching flights of doves flocking in for their evening drink before settling down to roost. Sparrow hawks and goshawks dived out of the shadows, sending the doves scurrying for cover.
We will remember the next morning for the thrill of seeing our first Kalahari lions of the trip − with cubs. The pride got to within 100 m of the camp − on the far side of the water hole, fortunately − before we saw them.
But short of a steenbok here and a gemsbok there, we saw precious little else between Khutse and Piper Pans. “Wouldn’t rush back to do that in a hurry,” Dave would later sum up the unanimous sentiment.
The lack of game and birdlife between Khutse and the Piper Pans all but changes when you finally crest the last sandy rise through thick Kalahari scrub and gaze down on the spectacular open plains of Piper Pans.
Along with Sunday’s Pan and Deception Pan, this most southern of the northern cluster of famous pans and ancient river valleys, is by far the most popular place in the reserve.
It is remarkable how the game concentrates around the pans − you so much as put a tyre on the edge of a pan and there is something to see. Herds of wildebeest, gemsbok and springbok were the most prevalent. Besides the bird life that also increases tenfold, making the flat expanse come alive, we caught sight of great herds of giraffe.
Pg 2: Booking?
Booking? What do you mean booking?
We found ourselves a great camp right on the edge of Piper Pans, dominated by a shady stand of acacia trees.
Each official campsite in the reserve has a bucket shower and long drop toilet behind a wooden screen on a spiral frame − a very comfortable setup for those not too inclined to wander into the bush armed only with a spade and a box of matches.
Although I am happiest when the track is barely visible and the only toilet facility is a spade, I accept that adding toilets and showers into campsites is as necessary as culling.
Fortunately, in the CKGR they at least have done it unobtrusively and have even left some camps without facilities.
No sooner had we pulled open the rooftop tent and settled down in our chairs and hammocks for the afternoon, than a rumbling announced the arrival of an open-top Land Cruiser with an enormous trailer. A very polite Botswana tour guide approached clutching some paperwork.
After a brief verbal exchange and perusing of paperwork, we were to learn a vital bit of information about the booking system for the reserve (and in fact all of the Botswana Parks Board) which resulted in us having to move camp.
Throughout the journey through the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Mabuasehube and Khutse we had assumed you simply find an empty campsite and it’s yours – first come, first served. No one at the Botswana Parks Board booking office had said anything about having to book specific sites.
However, we learned that afternoon every campsite in the reserve has a reference code, printed on the booking sheet. This is when we discovered we were already supposed to be at Deception Pan, some 100 km further on. Ouch!
It was a hard leason, but we had no choice but to move on. Seeing that it was already afternoon, and we had just arrived at Piper Pans, we decided to chance our luck with other empty Piper Pans campsites.
That evening we drove to the main section of Piper Pans and watched dozens of giraffe gracefully loping in to quench their thirst at the remaining pools of standing water.
On the way back to camp in the last light of day, we came across a pride of five lions – complete with a magnificent old blac
k-maned Kalahari lion. We watched them stalking a springbok herd until darkness descended.
After a blissful morning watching the same pride, we decided to chance another night. However, our luck was about to run out a second time.
“Do we have a problem here?” A voice crashed through the sleep barrier and brought me round from a blissful afternoon nap in the hammock the next day.
At the edge of the shade, shirt tightly tucked in and socks pulled up to his knees, standing with fisted hands on his hips − around which he wore tight shorts drawn up to his belly button − was a deeply frowning Englishman, looking like a teacher cross with his class.
Thus the Kalahari squatter saga continued, prompting Dave and Paddy to depart for our “official” campsite at Deception Pan.
As I wanted to spend another evening photographing the Piper Pans area, Tam and I decided to take a leisurely drive to Deception Pan and to see whether we could overnight at an empty campsite on the way to Deception Pan. (I wouldn’t recommend this tactic as it disrupts your and others’ trip. However, we were willing to take the risk because we had travelled a long way to get to this a prime photographic area. Had I known how the booking system worked, I would definitely have secured a campsite in this area.)
We made it as far as Letiahau Camp that evening, about halfway to Deception Pan, and settled into camp in the deep orange light of a setting sun.
After sitting round the fire, baking bread on leftover coals, we turned in.
Lying in bed that night, we listened as grass rustled gently on grass in the cool Kalahari breeze. Intricate night sounds played out to each other under a deep moonless night sky, each to their own tune and in their own code.
A distant jackal broke the restless air with its wailing, marking the start of another night in the deepest Kalahari.
Not an hour later, a soft padding close by broke into the night tunes. Sitting up gently in the rooftop tent, we gazed down into the darkness searching for shifting shadows. In the faint starlight glow a white-tipped, curling tail gave the game away − leopard!
In the first light of the next morning, the small pugmarks were all around the Landy – he had returned in the night.
Shortly thereafter, from the rooftop tent we watched a pair of wailing jackals on the pan near the camp. A magnificent black-maned male lion was on a mission down the length of the pan, jackals in tow. We could not have dreamed up a better start to a Kalahari day.
Pg 3: Hot spots
After driving along just about every road between Piper Pans, Passarge Valley in the west and Leopard Pan in the north, Tam and I discovered numerous alternatives to the most popular pans. Each pan and valley has its own character and charm. What’s more, in the dry season, most of the roads are easily accessible by 4×2.
On one of our forays in the area we experienced the might of a Kalahari thunderstorm − 2-3 inches of rain dumped from the heavens in less than an hour. The cracking thunder seemed threatening enough to pop the rivets out of the Landy’s bodywork.
Instantly, the roads on the pans turned into an ice-smooth surface. You quickly realise how the deep ruts were made in other wet seasons. At one point we drifted 100 m as the Landy’s rear found its way into the slots. It was the only time on the entire 6 500 km trip that low range was called on to plough out of axle-deep ruts.
With this brief experience of treacherous roads, we all but slid into the end of our dream trip. As we exited the reserve at Matswere Gate in the northeast − on a very good gravel road − we reflected on our scintillating time in this wilderness area.
The highlights were coming over the dune ridge from the south and seeing Piper Pans; lions, lions and more lions; and the thunderstorm in Deception Valley.
Which leaves the lows: the scores of tour operators in the northern section and their decimation of trees for firewood; the non-transparent booking system of Botswana National Parks − and the hired Landy.
Dave’s Landy, rented from a Cape Town firm, was a disaster. It got them there and back, but not before we discovered a missing water pipe, stuffed rear shocks and other complications. To say the rental company was defensive about the feedback would be a gross understatement.
The rest of us had mixed fortunes with our mini-fleet. Paddy’s Disco tore a sidewall on one of his low profiles, resulting in a diversion to Gaborone to pick up the right-sized tire, as low profiles are not readily available in the rest of Botswana.
Moreover, my 1995 300 Tdi ignition gave up after 13 years. After following the instructions of skilled Landy mechanic Schalk Burger (of the eponymous 4×4 firm in Somerset West) via satellite phone – we were back on the road with a duct-taped ignition assembly and a hairclip jammed into the key barrel mechanism.
Some 2 000 km later, I drove into the driveway at home in Cape Town and pulled the hairclip out for the last time.
What to pack
Take the whole lot. You need to be completely self-sufficient in terms of food and drink – the closest Woolies is in Gaborone.
Vital. Take a minimum of 5 litres of water per person per day − ten if you want to wash. A burst radiator pipe could cost you two to three days’ water.
Sheiks’ gold. If travelling from Khutse, carry fuel for at least 800 km – enough to get you through and for game drives and exploring. The last place you can fill up at is Letlhakeng, some 100 km southeast of Khutse.
Net result. Instead of buying a grass seed net, purchase a section of 80% shade cloth from a nursery or hardware store – four cable ties latter you have yourself a grass seed net.
Flamin’ hell … I had two fire extinguishers − one inside and one outside in case of either fire scenario. Ensure they are not out of date, and get them serviced before you leave. This may save your life and your vehicle.
Hitch a lift. Take a high-lift jack or exhaust jack, and ensure your vehicle has the jack points for the first-mentioned. A regular jack will not work in the sand.
SOS, over … As far as recovery kit go, take at least a snatch strap or long tow strap suitable for the weight of your vehicle.
Play doctor-doctor. Take a full medical kit. You are a long way from help so take what you are comfortable using. If no one in your group has a first-aid qualification or experience, consider taking a course. Get advice from your local pharmacist on what to carry.
Ground control to Major Tom … You may not need a satellite phone, but it may save your life. Make sure it works before leaving.
Spare a thought. Take two spare tyres; at least one on a rim, preferably both.
Holey Moly! Buy a bead breaker and puncture repair kit, and know how to use them.
Eagle One, come in Eagle One … You need a walky-talky or other two-way radio to communicate with the back marker. Also, to amuse yourselves on the long boring stretches, discuss tactics and enable you to spread out on game drives.
Observe-a-tree. Take your own firewood. Yes you ca
n collect it, but pretty soon (especially in the northern areas) there will be no trees left as unscrupulous safari operators are destroying tree upon tree along the main access routes to feed the huge fires for their foreign tourists.
Hello kitty. A rooftop tent keeps furry creatures away in the dark hours and makes for a great vantage point or hide to see over tall grass.
Es-h-one-tee happens. Carry all the vehicle spares that will keep your chariot rolling. Best ask your mechanic what you need.
Snooze you … well, snooze. A hammock is great for wiling away hot Kalahari afternoons [Just ensure it’s in your campsite.
Getafix. A GPS is handy to have. Veronica Roodt’s Shell Botswana map is probably the best map of the CKGR.
Pg 4: Lessons learnt
Be specific. Specify which campsite you want when booking with the Botswana Parks Board and don’t just let them allocate you a spot. They are apparently going to outsource the booking system, so things should improve. Tour operators book out the best campsites for the whole year.
Rules are rules. If you want peace of mind stay at the campsite that you have booked – especially in the more popular areas like Piper Pans and Deception Valley. The lesser-known spots are seldom booked, so if you like to gamble, just arrive late and if it is free, more than likely it will be for that night.
Enter here. The most sensible way of maximising your experience in the park is entering through Xade, Matswere or the new gate through the north-western fence. Xaxa Waterhole was the only worthwhile part on the trek from Khutse to Xade where there is nothing to see and the bush hardly changes.
Drivin’ down the highway. The southern section between Khutse Game Reserve and Xade Gate in the west is a lot easier than you may have been lead to believe − it is third/fourth gear, high-range most of the way, with only a short 50 km section in second gear.
There’s f@&l wrong with your f@&$g car! Although hiring a 4×4 seems like an economical and sensible thing to do in terms of having common spares and not having to buy equipment, ensure you hire through a reputable company. Also make sure you see the car before you take it. Avoid companies asking you to pay up front. Apart from spent shocks and a broken extra water tank (essential), Dave and Glenda’s truck had a different engine from the one booked. Did they get any thing back? Yes – a mouth-full of abuse!
Tie me kangaroo down, sport. Strap your kit down − the rodeo ride will send your stuff flying.
Swing low, sweet chariot. Carry the weight low. We stowed seven jerries of water and fuel inside behind the driver’s and passenger seats to keep the weight as low down as possible. On the roof, we carried the spare tyre, rooftop tent, spares and firewood.
On your knees, boy. Stop and check for grass seeds in the nooks and crannies of your vehicle’s undercarriage. Even if it doesn’t look that bad on the road, you won’t believe how much collects after 100 km – I was shocked to see what collected after only a short time.