Polai | Slip-sliding into red dunes
Right in the corner among the Kalahari dunes between Namibia and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park lies Polai, where the lions are just across the fence. Fortunately there was a fence between them when Johan de Smidt got out of his car…
It’s no use hanging around, says Dennis Liebenberg, our young guide. Whatever has killed the ostrich on the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park’s side of the fence has obviously eaten its fill and pushed off. Dennis gets into his bakkie and drives off.
We’re about to do the same, but decide to take one more look. Just then, a lone young lion rises from the bushman grass a quick sprint from us, fortunately on the other side of the fence.
We’ve been roaring up and down the red dunes of the Polai 4×4 Trail at the similarly named 4×4 and hunting farm in the corner between Namibia in the west and the park in the north. Tracing the park’s fence, we came across a fence pole broken in two places. Feathers still attached to the barbed wire showed where the panic-stricken ostrich had crashed into it with the lion probably hot on its heels. Game over. After waiting a while and scanning the area, we couldn’t see the predator.
The lion walks to his exposed kill and starts dragging it to the shelter of a bush. The ostrich is heavy, and the autumn midday hot; he rests often before he reaches the bush and flops down under it.
That’s our lunch spot decided for the day, too.
After spending the night at Rietfontein, 13km from Namibia’s western border, we arrived at Polai via a detour – the R360 heading north from Upington to Twee Rivieren. We had planned to do the first leg of the Polai 4×4 Trail from Rietfontein, but let’s just say a logistical snafu put paid to that.
Just before Twee Rivieren we turned left and, for 43km, bounced down a badly corrugated gravel road to the turnoff to Polai. Finally, we were about to drive those red dunes.
With the diff locks and low-range engaged, we charged up dune after dune for an action-packed 43km to the Polai bush camp. Along the way we saw a small herd of skittish gemsbok making tracks into the dunes when they saw us.
Near the camp we turned off onto a track leading through some dunes. Our other guide, Adoons Cloete, pointed out the spot where he grew up. We stopped and he showed us where their huts and kraal once stood, half a century ago. All that remain are a few iron fence posts and rusted sheets of corrugated iron.
At the camp Adoons joined a group of hunters. The 4×4 route is closed from 1 May to the end of August when hunters come to “harvest” buck at Polai, but an exception has been made for us, as we wanted to do the trail as part of a visit to other parts of the Kalahari.
We settled into one of the two thatched reed buildings that each have beds, a hot shower and a flush toilet.
After the midday heat had passed, we spent the afternoon hiking up some dunes before driving up the Mother Dune at sunset where a heavy metal sand sleigh showed us how other visitors get their kicks here.
This morning, we set out from base camp to do the 48 km circular dune trail on the farm.
The red sand goes flying as we hum up and down dunes heading west to the Namibian border. We stop at the standard farm fence that separates the two countries. Nothing stirs for miles.
Next, we head north until we are boxed in by the southern fence of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. As if to warn would-be poachers, there’s a list of patrolling guard names on a stone plaque next to the sagging fence between Polai and the park. Buck sometimes jump over the fence into the park when they’re pursued by hunters, says Dennis.
His MacGyver friend, Gerhard du Toit, whips out a pocketknife and we sample some small, prickly and striped cucumbers that grow next to the fence. It’s probably the wide-spread wild cucumber doringkomkommertjie (Cucumis africanus), watery and quite edible, even if you’re not a bushman or gemsbok. The Khoisan of the Kalahari used to rely on it as a water source and the leaves are used as a cooking herb.
Watch out though, it could be poisonous. If the fruit are small, ellipsoidal and bitter they are poisonous, but when they are large, cylindrical and not bitter, they are edible when ripe.
The ones we ate must have been okay, because none of us keel over as we trace the park’s fence east for a number of kilometres until it swings south again on the home run.
It’s when we’re heading down a dune that we stumble upon the broken fence pole, the ostrich carcass and the lion. Guess we were in for a spot of good luck…
Best time: Spring and autumn, but from May to August Polai is only open to hunters
Stay at least: two days
Distance from: Cape Town: ±1119 km; Johannesburg: ± 1133 km
Know-all: The leaves of the wild cucumber are rich in calcium, iron, nicotinic acid and vitamin C. Its edible fruits have been pickled and preserved at the Cape since the late 17th century. Recipes have been published for these treats.
I want to go too!
Highlights? dune driving, game viewing
What were you driving? Toyota Fortuner 3.0 D-4D 4×4
Fuel consumption? Average 11 litre/100 km over sand, gravel road and tar
What else can I do there? Hunting, dune boarding, chill
Do I need 4×4 or diff lock? Both
How do I get there? You can access Polai either from Rietfontein, or from the R360 to Twee Rivieren. From Upington, head north on the R360 to Askham, where you can refuel, and continue to Andriesvale. Here you can either turn right, pass the Molopo Lodge and continue on the R360 to Twee Rivieren, or turn left onto the R31 to Rietfontein. The respective operators below will provide further directions.
What must I take along? Apart from hot showers and flush toilets, you have to be self-sufficient.
Where can I stay, and what are the costs?
- Klipkolk Lodge (Rietfontein): – 8 air-conditioned 2-sleeper rooms (R450 per room), 2 two-sleeper chalets (R350 per chalet), dormitory sleeps 20 (R250 per person per night). All B&B tariffs. Campsite R60 pppn. Contact Gertruida or Hendrik Bott *072 159 6726 or 073 805 9469; email@example.com
- Polai: two eight-bed reed-and-thatch bush lodges sleep 16 people (R135 pppn, R350 per vehicle per entry); camping (R35 pppn). Guide: R220 per day. Contact Joseph Minnies 074 420 4334 or 054 531 0019; firstname.lastname@example.org
Due to a change of operator of the Polai 4×4 Trail, the first 150km leg north from Rietfontein along the Namibian fence to Polai, is no longer part of the trail. Plans are afoot to run the first leg as an independent trail from Rietfontein. See contact details of the Klipkolk Lodge below.