Central Kalahari | To the centre of the most beautiful desert
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve isn’t that far away, but it’s one of the most desolate wilderness areas in Africa. It’s one of the most beautiful too. Olof Bergh spent eight days there living the slow life.
I’ve always loved the word “Kalahari”, which is actually derived from Kgalagadi. “Kgala” means “the great thirst” in Tswana, and it’s no secret why this wide, empty land got that name.
The word Kalahari simply tastes dry and dusty. If you say it out loud, you can almost feel the sand and plains on your tongue.
And it sounds like adventure. Have you ever seen the distant look in older men’s eyes when they talk about the place? It’s as if, in their mind’s eye, they can see the still-smouldering campfire while the blood-red new day breaks over the plains.
The Kalahari is a mysterious place with many stories and legends. Everyone knows the legend of the so-called Lost City and its secret treasures. Even the Bushmen refer to an old civilisation that used to live here – they call them the “old people”.
These tales have captured the imagination of many a fortune seeker and large expeditions have travelled through here in search of ruins. Some adventurers of yesteryear never made it back.
But many did return with stories of the wind exposing ruins of an ancient civilisation in the sand, just to close it up again the next day. Nobody has been able to fix the co-ordinates.
Expeditions still venture into the Kalahari annually to find the Lost City, but one suspects that for most modern-day participants it’s only an expensive excuse to have a double single malt on ice by a Kalahari campfire.
In summer the Kalahari doesn’t always look like a desert. During the rainy months it morphs into a lush green paradise with large herds of gemsbok gathering on the pans, which are a sea of waving blonde and golden grass taller than a Land Cruiser’s bonnet.
To most South Africans, the Kalahari is the savanna with red dunes that starts somewhere between Kuruman and Vryburg. However, most of this desert lies in Botswana. It also comprises the widest part of the country, from the southwest right up to the north, where the Okavango River trickles into the sand.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve, deep in the Botswana interior, is one of the world’s most desolate places, and practically the very centre of the Kalahari.
Pg. 2 | Rhino karma
After a serious bacon-and-eggs breakfast at the Buffalo B&B in Mafikeng we arrive at the Ramatlabama border post bright and early. From here it’s another 600 km to the Matswere gate. It’s late in the afternoon when we turn west off the A1 onto the A14, en route to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary where we’re spending the night.
In the 1990s Botswana was heavily targeted by rhino poachers. Twice, the country’s rhinos were almost wiped out. The Khama Rhino Sanctuary was founded at the insistence of then-president Seretse Khama to protect the animals.
The reserve spans 4 300 ha and is home to 34 white rhino and 4 black rhino under close guard of the Botswana army. It’s comforting to see that someone is doing something to protect these precious animals after the exotics market declared war on them.
We meet our fellow tour members, Marinus de Beer and Francois Boonzaaier, under a big marula tree at Camp no 5. Marinus drives a Land Rover and tows a well-equipped bush trailer that will be our kitchen for the next ten days. The rest of the group consists of Christo Giliomee and his father, Piet, in a Land Cruiser 76 station wagon with an impressive array of cameras and lenses and a few bottles of good whisky.
I’m on board with Bee de Klerk in his Land Cruiser bakkie. Bee and Christo are experienced members of the Land Cruiser Club of South Africa. They organised this tour, which focuses specifically on the Central Kalahari. We’ll spend four days in the Passarge Valley and then four days next to the Deception Pan at the Kori campsite. The idea is to have enough time to absorb the Kalahari properly and find all its hidden little secrets. It is said that the Kalahari quickly rewards a little patience.
The excitement about the tour is tangible, and our campfire blazes happily, albeit in the absence of predators.
Brakah’s brackish water
From Khama we swing northeast to pop in at Kubu Island. It’s Easter and the campsite of this lonely and singular island is fully booked.
We are welcomed with a smile by Whisky, the hip caretaker at Kubu. With his dark glasses and Metallica T-shirt, he looks like a rock star. He introduces himself as the “mobile office” and, fortunately, our booking is in his book.
The crowd almost makes it feel like a caravan park on the Vaal Dam. Nevertheless, there’s a friendly atmosphere at this beautiful place. The sound of harmonicas and guitars drift from cosy campfires burning from the early evening. From somewhere an impromptu choir of young voices give a song by the band Live a try: “Like a rollin’ thunder chasing the wind, Forces pullin’ from the center of the earth again, I can feel it…”
By 9 pm the entire island is quiet.
Pg. 3 | The Game Reserve
After two days of baobabs and sunsets we’re ready for lions. Our progress in heavy rain between Letlhakane and Rakops is slow. We decide to camp at Brakah in the Haina concession in the north of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. It has longdrops, bush showers and taps, but the water is very brackish – this must be where Brakah gets its name from.
There is also a lodge at Haina if you have wads of cash to dispense with. Foreigners have to pay $300 per person per night, drinks excluded, and South Africans pay R800 per night, drinks excluded.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve
After the rain of yesterday afternoon we slip and slide along the cut line between Haina and the Matswere gate.
We spot a big kudu bull with three turns in its horns. It takes a shy peek at us before silently disappearing into the brush. We see fresh elephant dung and broken branches in a few places on the road. Even the fence has been flattened here and there, but it looks as if they generally stick to the road.
The Tswanas on duty at the gate say we’ve just missed the elephants. The friendly staff share a piece of watermelon with us. It’s juicy, but not as sweet as supermarket melons. Over the next few days we see many of them lying in the veld. This humble fruit has saved many a lost traveller’s life.
At the gate are skulls, with identification plates, of all animal species that occur in the park. Francois and Christo take pictures of the lion skull. They joke about the massive canines, but Francois also looks a little worried. He has a lot of respect for these predators and believes “you shouldn’t be stupid”.
Botswana has had exceptionally good rains this year. Usually the interior only gets 700 mm per year, but by April it had already had 600 mm.
Yesterday’s shower turned the road from Matswere to Deception Pan into a river. We drive on a grimy mixture of sand and clay that sticks to the vehicles like cement.
It’s very challenging t
o drive this track: You are constantly see-sawing on sticky mud and it feels as if it’ll go on forever. We stop at the Deception Pan when the worst of the mud seem to be behind us.
You are allowed to get out, but you have to stay within a radius of 25m from your vehicle. No one is watching, but beware – many creatures in this reserve would turn you into a main course within seconds.
A rented Hilux comes sliding along in the mud onto the hard ground next to the pan. A worried Dutchman gets out and asks if all corners of this place look like this, because he doesn’t have much confidence in this underpowered little Hilux.
He’s also not in the least pleased with the gear on the vehicle: the jerry cans leak and the GPS doesn’t work so well. But he and his wife are amazed at the vast plains and the breathtaking scenery. We see many other European adventurers tackling Africa on their own in rental 4x4s.
Pg. 4 | On the pans
On the pans
The Central Kalahari doesn’t have as romantic a name as Savuti, Moremi or Chobe, but it has far more stories and secrets, and it is far more dangerous. The danger lies in the vast area – at 5 280 000 ha it’s the world’s second-largest reserve after Selous in Tanzania. It’s three times the size of the Kruger National Park, bigger than Denmark and almost the size of Ireland.
You drive far; very far. If you get stuck while driving alone, it could take weeks before another soul passes, if at all. It is highly recommended that you travel in a convoy of at least two, preferably three, vehicles. The vehicles should be in radio contact with one another and one should have a satellite phone.
Mac Mckenzie, of McKenzie 4×4 in Maun, is a Scotsman who has made a living by recovering vehicles that get stuck, break down or simply give up on Botswana’s desolate plains. If you’re running out of plans on your second day cemented to a godforsaken pan, call him on 00267 713 03 788 on your satellite phone. He’ll come and fetch you.
Ensure that you have at least 200 litres of fuel if you want to drive around in the reserve for a week. The places of interest are far apart and you can easily cover 100 km in a day. It’ll also probably take you all day to drive 100 km.
The roads are rough and the sand and mud thick. The thorny branches on twisty jeep tracks fight hard to reclaim the paths. It’s a constant challenge to drive around here.
Although the park’s speed limit is 40 km/h, you seldomly reach this speed. Rather take it easy and look for lion spoor in the sand.
And you also needn’t be a Bushman to track here – in the morning the soft sand of the roads report daily about the previous night’s goings-on. It’s easy to see their spoor – the roads are quiet and big predators prefer walking on the sandy roads rather than in the bush.
One night just after sunset, two male lions walk past the Passarge 3 campsite on the road. We hear them growling in muted tones, as if in conversation. It sounds as if they’re coming our way.
Tensely we sit and listen, when, suddenly, we hear a roar that sounds as if it’s right at our feet. Francois has such a fright you just hear zips whistle as he dives into his tent. The next morning we see their spoor on the road – they were less than 100 km from our camp.
Pg. 5 | Just driving through
South of Passarge the road enters a more open and classic kind of Kalahari, with bigger camel thorns spread further and further apart like giant umbrellas on the waving savanna. Later, the road twists into the Phukwi Pan, which is actually more a dry riverbed and later on runs into the huge Tau Pan.
The Tau Pan has lots of water and even more game than Passarge. Unfortunately, the Tau campsite no longer exists. There is only a luxury lodge on the bank. This is a pity, because it is a beautiful place.
If you want to do the square route from Passarge 3 to Tau Pan and back, ensure that you’re on the road before one in the afternoon in order to be back by sunset. The park staff give you half an hour after sunset to return to camp, but driving around at night and shining torches is strictly prohibited.
The staff often visit the camps in the early evening. They come to collect rubbish and to hear whather you’re happy, but if you’re sitting on a pan somewhere late at night, they’ll think you’ve run into trouble on the roadside and send a search party after you.
The stands at Passarge
The camps at Passarge (CKPAS 1-3) are 20 to 30 km apart. You wouldn’t even know if your neighbour is playing Johnny Cash at full volume on his Isuzu’s new sound system all night.
Passarge 3 is a very scenic camp with many shady trees on a high, overgrown dune. The view is slightly limited because the surrounding bush is very lush.
Passarge 2, in the middle of the Passarge Valley, is the most popular. It’s a little smaller than Passarge 3, but with a very nice view of a lot of game grazing on the pan. The camp is under a clump of trees at the foot of the pan and apparently there is a pack of wild dogs around here.
Pg. 6 | Kudu and weavers
Kudu and sociable weavers
Further south is the better-known Deception Valley. It became well-known due to the book Cry of the Kalahari by the Americans Mike and Delia Owens who lived under an island of trees on the Deception Pan for 7 years from 1974 while doing research on lions and brown hyenas.
It was on their insistence that the Botswana government agreed to remove livestock fences in the park. Read the book if you’re coming here. The Deception campsites aren’t at the Deception Pan, but a small distance into the bush.
It’s lush here; kudu country. A beautiful herd of kudu with a very big bull peek at us in the bush next to the unmanned Deception 3. The vegetation is as lush as riverine forest in the Kruger National Park.
The so-called Kori stands are near Deception. It is named after the kori bustard, which you see all the time around here. Usually grazing on the plains, they don’t fly around much. Quite often a secretary bird couple and a kori bustard couple are found close to each other.
There are thousands of sociable weavers at the campsites, with a nest somewhere in a tree. You can spend an entire day watching the soap opera of the sociable weavers’ lives. They build nests, fight wars against crows and shrikes, feed chicks and fight among themselves.
We also find a couple of crimson-breasted shrikes at every campsite, hunting in the area and raising chicks.
The camp at Deception and Kori
The campsites at Deception Pan (CKDEC1-7) are small and close together, but there’s plenty of shade. Deception 6 is good for a big group – it’s bigger than the others and is fairly secluded.
The Kori campsites (CKKOR1-4) are up against the pan and not very far apart. There are considerably more visitors than at Passarge and you might even see a mini traffic jam at lion or ch
eetah sightings. Kori 3 and 4 are the best stands, with lots of space, plenty of shade and a good view of the Deception Pan. Kori 1 is more cramped with precious little shade.
Every campsite in the reserve is equipped with a cement slab for braaiing, a nicely kept longdrop and a simple bush shower consisting of a steel bucket with a shower head and a tap. It works quite effectively and we had good showers, although we had to ration our water for the last few days.
The annual Kalahari Indaba
Late one afternoon, en route back to our stand at Kori 4, we hear on the radio that a pride of lions is headed our way. We pull over right there and wait with bated breath in the deep dusk near the Deception campsites.
Suddenly two males appear right in front of us in the road. More and more join them. Like silent explorers, they purposefully move through the bush. Adult lionesses and a few young males pass, ten of them.
Right at the back are two large males. The one looks like a Hell’s Angel with his lush beard, long, dirty hair, furious eyes and scarred face. His younger sidekick is also unusually large. These guys don’t look like they want to mess around. They disappear into the night as silently as they appeared – twelve lions.
The next morning at dawn we’re on their tracks. But we find other lions – three young males. According to the Central Kalahari research team, a group of scientists we meet on the road later in the day, this little group of lions went missing for a long time. Apparently, they haven’t been seen in the vicinity of Tau Pan for three months. And now they’re here in the territory of another large pride of lions, with two hardcore males leading them. Trouble’s coming!
We spend most of the morning with these three, see how one half-heartedly stalks a springbok, but quickly gives up. The others drink water from muddy dongas left behind by the Easter weekend traffic. The moment that the sun is fully out, they lie down under some thorn trees.
In the late afternoon, when we pass by again, they wake up. One male yawns sleepily in our direction and then they’re gone. We don’t see the previous night’s pride, but that night there’s a serious lion chorus around us. The roars come from all directions, far and near – a host of Kalahari lions…
Pg. 7 | Southwards and out
Southwards and out
We decide against exiting via the Matswere gate, but opt to drive through the southwest of the park instead and exit through the Xade gate.
From there we’ll drive all along the reserve’s western border to Kang. We’d also like to see the lesser-known south of the reserve. Little has been written about the area and nobody really knows what to expect.
At the Piper Pan we find a water point with fresh water – the water in all the other water points we’ve seen has been brackish, although this doesn’t seem to bother the animals too much. It’s beautiful and must be really popular during the dry months.
At Piper 1 jackal have dug up a previous camper’s refuse from a shallow hole and left it strewn all over the camp. Remember to leave enough room in your vehicle so you can take out all your rubbish.
The veld gets drier and drier the further we drive. We see a final herd of gemsbok, the occasional steenbok. And then nothing. We also don’t see any birds or tracks. Considering how big the Kalahari is, these lifeless stretches make sense, but such a dead silence remains a peculiar experiencing.
We fall into a rhythm of uphill, downhill over low dunes. The Land Rover is towing a trailer and due to the seesawing, you’re forced to crawl at walking speed. The rest of us barely reach 30 km/h. The sand is thick and the vehicles get hot.
We stop regularly to make sure there isn’t smoke under any of the vehicles. Dry grass collects in the chassis and around the hot exhaust pipe, and before you can grab hold of a fire extinguisher you car could be a burning wreck.
We have barely started doing this when we encounter one of these wrecks. It looks like a Jeep Wrangler. A few St Louis beer cans lie around the car and there is a molten spectacle case in the sand.
This is not a pleasant sight. The staff at the Xade gate say it happened in February. When the fire erupted there was just enough time to get everyone out the car and grab the satellite phone. Good thing they brought one – they were driving on their own and would’ve been stranded for a long time.
Don’t be too lazy to bend down and look under your car. You might just save your holiday.
When you exit through the Xade gate, you can follow the road to Ghanzi, or you can turn left along the western border and drive to Kang. There is a reasonable number of accommodations at Kang if you reach it by late afternoon, but from here you can also tackle the Trans Kalahari Highway that will bring you to Gauteng fairly quickly.
The map indicates that the area across the border is tribal land, but it’s the same as the reserve, because there are no fences keeping the animals inside – this is wild, untouched Africa stretching from here to where the Kalahari joins the Namib.
After ten days, it feels strange to drive on a tar road again. It’s also strange to see traffic and other people and buildings around you. The Kalahari’s biggest treasure is what isn’t there: The things you can’t see and also don’t want to see.
I’d much rather settle into my camp chair and spend an entire day watching a family of social weavers.
Pg. 8 | I want to go too!
I want to go too!
What can I see and do? You are in one world’s most untouched wildernesses. Despite the reserve’s size there are plenty of game – there are thousands of gemsbok and you’re guaranteed lion sightings. There are an estimated 300 lions in the Central Kalahari – along with leopard, cheetah, hyena and wild dogs.
How long should I stay? It depends how far you want to drive into the reserve. If you enter at Matswere, stay at Deception and only drive around the camp, you can do it in a long weekend. We spent eight nights in the reserve: four nights at Passarge 3 and four nights at Kori 4. This way we could drive around and experience large parts of the reserve.
On what kind of terrain will I be driving? The roads are rough: You either have to contend with thick sand or a high middelmannetjie. When it rains, there are treacherous muddy patches. Beware the thorns on the road and deep dongas, often filled with water or mud. You can easily drive 100 km per day at an average of 30km/h.
4×4 or 4×2? You’ll be able to drive most of the road in a 4×2, but the sand tracks are as unpredictable as the weather. You won’t be able to go everywhere we went in a 4×2. Rather stay in 4×4 on the “soft” parts; the sand tracks quickly turn to corrugations. It’s foolish to drive alone, even if you’re in a 4×4. If you’re in a 4×2 bakkie, it’s imperative to go with someone in a big 4×4.
What should I take along? Everything. There are no facilities. Enough water for drinking, showers and washing dishes. Buy enough firewood
and ice along the way – no supplies are available at the entrance gates, although you can get free fresh water at Xade. Also remember a seed net, fire extinguisher, satellite phone and a GPS with Tracks4Africa’s latest maps.
How much fuel should I take? At least 200 litres per vehicle for a week in the reserve. Buy fuel in Botswana – it’s made in South Africa, but not as heavily taxed and you can save up to R3 per litre.
What does it cost? At P300 per person per night it’s definitely not cheap, but you get an unspoilt bush experience second to none.
What if I don’t do camping? There are several lodges in and around the reserve. Tau Pan Lodge relies completely on solar power, with an impressive solar panel that powers all their fridges, TVs and jacuzzis.
Deception Valley Lodge offers a unique opportunity to guests to go walking in the veld with Bushmen and see traditional dances and performances.
The luxury lodges are aimed more at an overseas market, but it’s great after a week of rough roads and bush camping.