Mabenyane A Kalahari | Wilfred’s Kind of Place
Barnie Louw walked in the footsteps of big-game hunters in an unspoilt Botswana wilderness area larger than Belgium. And realised the Kruger is really just an overgrown zoo.
Have you ever wondered what the areas on a map look like where nothing is indicated, or rather, where there’s nothing to indicate? You know, those areas that have a single colour, no dotted lines, circles or place names.
For example, if you look at the part of the Sahara north of Timbuktu on a large wall map of Africa, you’ll see what I mean – it’s just a solid, light green expanse of land.
Over the next few days we’ll see for ourselves what such a monochromatic area actually looks like on the ground, and I’m somewhat nervous. We’re hunched over a map of Botswana, opened up on the dining room table of the Cornwall Ranch, just across the Molopo River from the Bray border post.
With tanned trigger fingers, Heini and Jannie Strumpher are drawing the outlines of Mabenyane a Kalahari (“Jewel of the Kalahari”), this father and son’s concession area of 4 million hectares stretching from Tshabong in the south of Botswana, right around the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and Mabuasehube almost up to the Ghanzi area and the Namibian border.
Yes, you’ve read correctly: 4 000 000 ha of mad, bad Kalahari, twice the size of the Kruger Park, larger than the Botswana side of the Kgalagadi, and as big as Switzerland – only without fences, roads and people (and yodellers and cuckoo clocks).
And it’s into the northern monochromatic part of this lion country that our group of 8 cars and 17 people will venture tomorrow …
Pg 2: The more effort …
The more effort …
On Veronica Roodt’s Botswana map the area we’re heading for is simply a patch of dark green, and on Tracks4Africa there are only one or two lonely grey dotted lines (indicating a cut line) through an empty cream-coloured area.
There’s neither road and settlement nor water hole, footpath or contour line. Not to mention an UltraCity or SuperSpar.
The only other people you may encounter, says Jannie, are a Botswana Wildlife or army patrol. Or a lost San, I think to myself.
And just to set my nerves on edge, Heini and Jannie tell us about lions pulling a blanket off a sleeping worker who was there to build a hunting camp …
Involuntarily I think of Wilfred Thesiger’s description of the Arabian desert: “… [E]mpty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the year. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease.”
Granted, Thesiger was perhaps referring to a desert of sand, and there’s nothing “desiccated” or “bitter” about the Kalahari, but the “nothing of gentleness or ease” could just as well apply to this wild part of Africa.
Not that I’m comparing myself to this legendary British adventurer, but I’m pretty sure he was also a tad nervous before venturing into the great unknown in 1946, becoming the first Westerner to cross the Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter).
The Empty Quarter, comprising most of the Arabian Peninsula’s southern third, is one of the world’s largest sand deserts. It is indeed slightly bigger than Heine and Jannie’s concession area (the combined size of the Netherlands, Belgium and France), the dunes are higher (higher than the Eiffel Tower), but the summer temperatures of up to 55 °C are about the same, and what’s more, there aren’t lions in the Rub’ al Khali.
By foot and on camelback he travelled sixty years before us, but after 800 off-road kilometres through the Kalahari wilderness we would realise, like Thesiger, that the more effort it takes to reach a destination, the more you appreciate it.
Pg 3: The human GPS
The human GPS
About a month or so ago, Piet van Heerde, our guide, had me raising my eyebrows while reading his invitation: “We won’t be following a specific route or itinerary …”
Now I understand, for how do you explore a wilderness of this extent?
Where do you start?
You can’t simply follow roads from one rest camp to the next like you would in a national park, because there aren’t any. And for the same reason you can forget about asking a ranger at which water hole the animals are to be found.
What did become clear during last night’s map session was that for the next few days we would be limiting ourselves to the part of the concession area north of the Kokotsha-Mabuasehube cut line and the Botswana side of the Kgalagadi.
In the areas where there are roads, the itinerary was clear: from Cornwall Ranch we would first drive to Werda, then north to Kokotsha where we would turn west on the cut line that runs for 110 km before reaching Mabua’s border.
The plan then became a little vaguer: from somewhere on the cut line between Kokotsha and Mabuasehube we’d turn north to a pan where we would camp.
After driving west from the pan and camping next to a different pan each night, we would at last (hopefully) reach the jeep track between Hukuntsi and Kaa in a few days’ time. So that is our itinerary.
Talking of pans, over the next few days, pans between camel thorn, black bark tree, silver cluster leaf, raisin bush and sickle bush would be our only point of reference in an otherwise flat sea of green: Pan without a Name, Jack’s Pan, Gankwe, Zonye, Peach, Towe, Name, Ghaa … too many to mention.
It doesn’t sound too challenging to drive from pan to pan, does it? If there are roads, sure, but in this concession area, roads are as patchy as cellphone reception. Here you drive through the bush.
What’s more, the rainy season has just ended and the bush is extremely overgrown in some areas: black thorn, buffalo thorn and red umbrella thorn are fighting for space, and if you lean your elbow out of the window, it gets tickled by the river Bushman grass and sour grass.
It’s a privilege to experience the Kalahari as green, overgrown and dense as it is now, but unfortunately it also means you can sometimes hardly see more than a car’s length around you.
It also means you cannot drive straight from one point to another. No, you’re going to follow a zigzag course here.
And a GPS is also useless, because all that’s visible on the screen is your position on an empty background.
What I’m really trying to say, is this: should you get lost here, you will have to get used to the taste of gemsbok cucumbers.
Thesiger had two Bedouin guides, Salim Bin Ghabaisha and Salim Bin Kabina, to lead him through the Empty Quarter; our hope of reaching the next pan, or wherever we’re heading for, rests on the shoulders of Benjamin “Mr Man” Springbok.
This human GPS, the only one who really knows where the next pan lies, drives in the guide vehicle with Piet. He indicates the way with lazy hand gestures while sitting back and dragging on a bummed Stuyvesant.
Look, Mr Man may be unable to make a camel kneel like Salim Bin Ghabaisha and Salim Bin Kabina, but apart from the fact that he’s our male Veronica Roodt, he can identify an animal by simply smelling (and tasting!) its urine, spot animal spoor on the go and is a master teller of tall stories.
I’m convinced Bin Ghabaisha and Bin Kabina never even tasted camel pee.
Pg 4: But where are …
But where are the lions?
I now feel for yachtsmen who only see water day in and day out, because after our first night next to a pan somewhere northwest of Kokotsha the days start fusing into one another.
Every day follows more or less the same routine: get up, drive, it’s hot and green, see animals, eat lunch, drive, and sleep next to a pan. Even the pans start looking the same.
However, this doesn’t mean Mabenyane a Kalahari is monotonous. Not in the least. It offers a different kind of excitement, more subtle, almost threatening.
While reading my cryptic travel notes, I realise these words on paper don’t really capture the spirit of the experience.
Day 3: It’s hot. Bush very overgrown – scratches the cars. See gemsbok, blue wildebeest, hartebeest, springbok on pans. See lots of lion spoor. Sleep next to a pan.
We’re now in the no-man’s-land north of the Kgalagadi. Earlier today we filled our water containers at Mabuasehube’s staff quarters, followed the cut line northwest around the Kgalagadi and turned off to a pan north of the cut line (that ends 200 km further in Namibia).
Here the veld opens up and the landscape changes every few minutes: one moment you’re driving over Kalahari dunes, the next you’re on the savannas again.
But beneath your wheels it’s more or less the same low-range terrain all the time – sand, and thick sand to boot, that makes the fully-loaded vehicles sweat. Prepare yourself: you may not drive very far in a day, but you’ll be driving for hours.
Apart from the constant worry about a hardworking engine overheating, I silently pray that we don’t lose the rest of the convoy in the scrub.
You can understand why one can only visit the area as part of a tour group: you’re desperately far from any form of civilisation, there are no people here and people don’t come into the area, there’s no water here, and if you do manage to get a signal for help through, how will they ever find you in this wilderness?
Day 4: It’s damn hot! Lots of springbok, blue wildebeest, gemsbok, hartebeest on the pans. Bush very thick – scratches cars. See a couple of lion spoor and sleep next to a pan.
Thesiger had to contend with the desert’s extreme heat, but if there were hip-height river Bushman grass, sour grass and thimble grass in the Empty Quarter, it wouldn’t have blocked his camels’ radiators – and caused them to overheat like a Cruiser …
I must admit, it’s an exceptional sight to see six Cruisers parked together, all with their bonnets open, and all with their owners elbow-deep into the engines busy with maintenance.
But it’s a regular scene in our convoy: the warning lights go on and we stop, open the bonnets, use a branch to remove most of
the grass seeds from the radiator and clean the seed nets, let the engines cool for a few minutes, and drive on.
And sometimes the aircon needs to be switched off to give the engine a break –
not good news in the Kalahari heat.
Black thorn and buffalo thorn also can’t scratch a camel’s paintwork like a Cruiser’s. You’ll be buffing till you’re blue in the face once you’re home (and make a booking with the valet guys before you leave – they’ll need at least two days to clean your car).
Day 5: Bush still dense. It’s @#$* hot! Blue wildebeest, hartebeest, gemsbok and springbok at the pans – and jackal! We see lion spoor again and sleep next to a pan, again.
Look, Heini and Jannie’s concession area is by no means the Kruger. Firstly, there are no water holes, so you actually never know where (and if) you’ll see animals.
The chance of coming across a pride of hungry lions or a herd of more than a thousand springbok is just as good as … well, seeing nothing at all.
Judging by all the animal tracks dotted about the place, battalions of animals should be hiding in the grass and bush, but don’t expect to see the same concentration of animals as you would in the Serengeti.
And due to the scrub you also won’t spot that hungry lion that’s watching you while you’re answering the call of nature …
The best place for seeing animals is on the pans – a series of mini-Etoshas spread out over the concession area. There are large ones, small ones, long ones, wide ones, all shapes.
It is here that the animals come to lick salt (and it’s obviously easy to see if something is sneaking up on you).
Day 6: See loads of lion spoor. Sweating like a dog. Hartebeest, gemsbok and blue wildebeest, springbok on pans. Bush dense – car very scratched. Sleep next to Gangwe pan – or is it Zonye pan?
“You have to move your tent, it’s right on an old lion spoor,” Mr Man tells me shortly after we’ve pitched our tents one evening. Lions tend to walk back on their old tracks, he says, and should they do that tonight, they won’t be too pleased to have my tent in their way.
I’m tired, hot and bothered. Should I listen to his advice, or should I just put my boots outside the tent as a deterrent?
I ignore his advice. It’s already day six and we haven’t seen a single lion – someone apparently did hear a lion roaring in the distance, but it could also have been someone snoring.
If the lions do walk back on their spoor, I think to myself, at least I’ll get to see one. In the old days, hunters paid loads of money to shoot a lion here in the concession area, but now I’ll pay anything just to see one.
For the past few days Mr Man has been telling us lion stories, scary stories. Wide-eyed, he tells us of lions that moved into a hunting camp, were chased away, but returned again and again.
He tells of poachers that simply disappeared – only their sun-bleached bones were found later.
And if I look at all the lion spoor we’ve come across, I tend to believe him; they’re all over the place. Unfortunately, the closest we will come to predators are the spoor of two cheetahs under a bush near a pan, and many lion tracks.
Well, maybe next time …
Pg 5: This is why you …
This is why you should visit Mabenyane
There’s no infrastructure here, we didn’t see lions and you can probably see more animals in any national park. So why go?
There are loads of good reasons, but Thesiger says it perfectly in Desert, Marsh and Mountain: “ … [T]o satisfy the urge to travel where others have not been.”
If you travel in this exclusive wilderness area, you know you’re one of a mere handful of people who’ve ever been here.
In Mabenyane a Kalahari you experience Africa at its wildest, the Africa of big-game hunters of old, Africa as it was in the time when Aaron still played scrumhalf for the Amalekites.
Botswana is wild, and this concession area is the heart of it, the inner circle.
If the sunrises and sunsets, the solitude and isolation aren’t enough for you, here are a few more (good) reasons:
- There’s no one else here; the generator of the guy on the stand next to yours definitely won’t keep you awake.
- There’s no infrastructure. You feel like a nomadic explorer: you have to take everything with you, make your own road, camp under the stars, wild animals can walk into your camp, and should anything go wrong, you’re on your own.
- And who knows, one night the lions may well decide to walk back on their spoor …
- I couldn’t capture the spirit of the experience adequately in my travel notes, but Thesiger nails it in Arabian Sands: “No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”
I think Wilfred would have enjoyed this trip.
Pg 6: Quick facts
I want to go too!
The best time to go?
The cooler months (March-October) are the best. You could go at any time of year, but it can become unpleasantly hot in summer.
What’s the best type of vehicle? Go in a very reliable 4×4 with low range; you don’t want mechanical problems here.
Ensure you have enough fuel to drive about 800 km through thick, difficult sand. The last reliable refuelling stop is in Bray. The next refuelling stop is in Hukuntsi.
What must I take along?
- You should be completely self-sufficient. Ensure you pack at least the following:
- loads of enthusiasm;
- at least two spare wheels (taking one is compulsory);
- your own ablution gear;
- camp shower or something similar for washing yourself;
- at least 5 litres water per person per day for washing and drinking;
- basic tools and spare parts;
- own breakfast and lunch (dinner is provided);
- camera and binoculars;
- well-equipped first-aid kit;
- a seed net; and
- sleeping gear
Remember your passport, vehicle registration documents or consent letter from the bank or owner. Botswana road tax, third party insurance and other taxes cost about R150.
How long is the tour?
Usually 7 days and 6 nights
How much does it cost?
R4 200 per person
What is included?
A guide, dinner and a tracker
Where does the tour leave from?
Cornwall Ranch, just across the Molopo River from the Bray border post. The first night’s accommodation at Cornwall Ranch isn’t included in the tour price. Camping, a three-course meal, breakfast and a food parcel for the first day cost an extra R300 pppn.
Unless you’re keen on pitching a tent in one of their three campsites before the start of the tour, ask Heather, Jannie’s wife, about the availability of one of the lodge’s two luxury en-suite tents, two en-suite rooms or one en-suite chalet.
Besides all the accommodation options, you can also use the lodge’s pool table, swimming pool, honesty bar and tennis court or photograph your hubby next to Dries, the tame blue wildebeest.
Contact the Cornwall Ranch on +267 721 06937; 072 798 5051 (Heather); 082 444 1412 (Jannie); firstname.lastname@example.org; www.cornwallsafaris.co.za
Where do I book?
You can only visit the concession area with one of a few operators. Piet van Heerde of Virosatours is one of this group.
Contact him on 073 229 5014; 073 514 3223; 086 628 4760 (fax); email@example.com; www.virosatours.com
Remember! You’re not allowed to record the route on a GPS