In one of the world’s most parched regions, life seems like an impossibility. But the Kalahari has its ways.
We’ve landed in on of the world’s largest, flattest, driest, loneliest wilderness areas, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in the heart of Botswana. Other than our swashbuckling guide and host, John Barclay and James Stenner who set up their mobile tented camp just yesterday—and a passing self-drive vehicle or two—we barely see another soul in this vast 52,800sq km of land, a place larger than Switzerland.
It’s late July, and true to its name, ‘The Great Thirstland’, the Kalahari has no water at all. There are no rivers, lakes or ponds. Even the manmade waterholes are dry. The nearest water is an 11-hour drive back and forth, and the rains are not due for many months.
Even so, the desert is heart-breakingly beautiful, with its pared-down minimalism, its pure air, spectacular sunrises and magnificent night skies when the enormous moon, the Southern Cross and other stars step boldly into centre stage.
The gentle dunes, pans and fossilized rivers are covered with a patchwork of devil’s thorn bushes, silky bushman grass and golden turpentine grass that sways in the breeze, the reeds swishing musically against each other and they tug at my heartstrings. They’re tinder-dry and turn to powder underfoot, making me wonder how any living plant or creature can survive without any moisture.
The desolate and silent desert has guarded its secrets and is slowly revealing them… all across the circular horizon; we see oryx, the handsome antelope with enormous, scimitar-shaped horns.
Herds of springbok nibble around the shade of the acacia tortilis glades and we spot alert pairs of the smaller steenbok, bat-eared foxes, jackals, honey badgers, kori-bustards and korhaans. The skies abound with scaly-feathered finches, pale chanting goshawks and crimson-breasted shrikes.
‘These are all desert-adapted creatures, as only those who can manage to survive long periods of drought can survive here,’ John tells us.
‘Even though there is seemingly no moisture, the grass and shrubs are wet with dew in the early mornings, which the animals lap up avidly. They know where to dig up tsamma melons and moist tubers. And the predators, well, they get fluids from the animals they kill.’
We’d heard lions call in the night, and seen the pugmarks of leopards and cheetahs. A phone camera clip of lionesses licking the moisture condensed on the mesh window of a tent early one morning had captured my imagination. It was filmed by a couple from inside the shaking tent.
‘Many of the Kalahari’s creatures live underground where the temperatures are quite comfortable. Just 20 centimetres below, it’s a constant 20ºC in the winter and 25ºC in the summer. Aardvark, aardwolves, brown hyenas, hares and all manner of rodents, even lions, burrow down here.’
Little vignettes are unfolding constantly, keeping us riveted; a badgered badger is followed relentlessly by a jackal through the knee-high grass in the hope it will dig out rodents the jackal can snatch. John leads us to the tiny nest of a cape pendulum tit; lifting the flap and putting a finger in, I feel its lining made of the softest down of spider silk.
We’re arrested by the antics of the ‘suicide bird’. The male red-crested korhaan is out to impress his love interest. His crown fully fanned out, he dazzles her with an elaborate dance, quivering, lunging and reversing… and now he becomes truly theatrical—flying up high just above her, he folds his wings and plummets straight down to the ground, like a kamikaze pilot, only to recover seconds before he hits the ground. If this doesn’t convince her of his ardour, I’m not sure what will.
Bundled up against the cold and looking like the bandits of the Kalahari, we’re motoring along the singular dirt road past Letiahau pan near Deception Valley when we see a herd of oryx staring at a thicket of bushes. With the help of binoculars our collective voices whisper…
‘I see a lioness at 9 o’clock walking left to right, no, it has spots… it’s a cheetah… what! it’s definitely a leopard!’ We drive up close to it. The oryx have bolted, and are now staring from a greater distance.
Our slinky, spotted feline strides boldly into the open, her scapula rising and falling, her head held high. She walks straight past us, then turns and hides under a low bush. We wait and watch, but the nearest springbok is on alert a good way away. And then, we tense as her head pops out. In a trice she is striding again, then she turns and, in three athletic bounds, captures a bat-eared fox right in front of us.
It flails, and we can only imagine the agony of its mate watching the sudden and unexpected turn of events before it runs away with two other foxes. The leopard walks off with her prize in her mouth into a distant thorny thicket. The Great Sand Face, the Kalahari, has just shown us how its predators survive.
‘In November, everything changes with the rains,’ says John. ‘This entire place is a sea of green. The ground turns soft and wet and the roads get so deeply rutted, the self-drive folks often get stuck in the mud for days.
Vast herds of zebra and wildebeest make their way here. How do they know how to get here? The females follow the resources and the males follow the females,’ he smiles.
In Mark and Delia Owens’ book, The Cry of the Kalahari, I’d read that only a few decades ago, the migration here rivalled that of the plains of eastern Africa. The Botswana Government, in response to EU regulations, put up a fence that demarked the beef industry from wild animals and diseases they might bring. In a massive tragedy, over a million animals lost their lives as they followed ancient and arduous paths to water but were arrested by miles of barbed wire and perished.
I’d also read that Alec Campbell, a senior game warden in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks had set up the CKGR in 1961, expressly to protect its natural resources for the hunter-gatherer San Bushmen from these parts. I’d hoped to see them here, just as I had in a previous visit, organised by San Camp in Botswana’s Makgadikgadi pan.
But we come across no wandering bushmen on this vast land. The painful truth is that all across the southern African countries they were removed from their homelands, sequestered in shelters, encouraged to wear clothes, to attend school, farm and keep cattle. Their deep knowledge of the bush, their culture and ways are preserved in literature and memories rather than lived out. Here they’ve been shunted aside for mineral and diamond prospectors. Only around 250 Bushmen live in the CKGR and a few others are dotted in small settlements in the back of beyond.
There is, however, an extraordinary and unexpected sighting during our handful of days there. All along, James points out the moonset in the mornings as we sip coffee. What better place than the flattest, most uncluttered horizon to view an enormous globe of a deep red blood moon. It’s 27 July and we’re standing around the campfire at night, viewing the longest total lunar eclipse of the century.
None of us has been alerted to this phenomenon, we’ve stumbled upon it. That’s because we’ve been looking eagerly at everything. The Gwikwe Bushmen greet each other with a phrase, ‘Are your eyes nicely open?’. When out on a safari that is the single most rewarding element.
The arid Kalahari Desert that spans across Botswana and Namibia
How to get there: Fly to Maun, then take a private charter or drive 5+ hours to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
Best time to go: April-August for the cool, dry season; November-January for the green season and big herds.
Guides: Barclay and Stenner, who are based in Maun, Botswana, set up a mobile-tented camp complete with Persian rugs, family silver, running water and exquisite wine and food. They’ll drive you on safaris morning and eve and regale you with endless stories by the fireside.
Source: https: cntraveller.in