Northern Cape, South Africa
By Rikus Visser
Silence. A commodity that has become so scarce in the Western society, but deep in the Kalahari Desert it is so overwhelming that you can hear it and it is music to the heart.
In the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, tugged away in a thin strip of land between Namibia on the one side and Botswana on the other, lies a park that might not be world-renowned (maybe because you will obviously not see elephant in this harsh conditions), but it offers some of the hidden gems we all yearn for: solitude and peace.
It used to be called the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park but after becoming the first park to form part of an adjacent park in another country (the Gemsbok National Park of Botswana), it became known as the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and today it is one of the biggest national parks in the world measuring a mighty 38,000 square kilometres.
Kgalagadi used to be the hunting grounds of the so-called Bushmen people when they were forced into these arid lands after being defeated (often hunted) by both black and white settlers in the more lush parts of South Africa a few hundred years ago. Kgalagadi is what they called this desert but white settlers found this name too difficult to pronounce and named it Kalahari. This desert covers parts of Namibia, South Africa and 80% of Botswana. Therefore, the park is forming only a tiny part of the desert and the South African side is by far the smaller of the original two parks. The main features of the South African side are the two dry river beds of the Nossob and the Auob. Although these rivers are dry for most parts of the year, they attract huge quantities of antelope like the graceful springbok, the gemsbok, red hartebeest and also herds of blue wildebeests (gnu’s). These animals attract predators like the famous black-maned lion, leopard and the fastest creature on earth, the cheetah.
The park is not just about the big game, it is a place where you are drawn to appreciate the smaller things nature has on offer – like the cute ground squirrel with its bushy tail standing often on its hind legs nibbling on something, the bat-eared foxes with its massive ears to listen to underground movement of small rodents and insects, the whistling rat and the loveable meerkat (type of mongoose). Even for people not interested in birds, you will be astounded by the volume of raptors, like the stately secretary bird, the Kori bustard (the heaviest flying bird in the world), the martial eagle and a variety of other eagles, owls and falcons. The huge nests of the sociable weaver will leave you dumbfound at how hard these little birds work to build these massive communal nest.
The landscape changes rapidly from one area to the next – soft rolling red sand dunes, salt pans, flat grass-filled plains and the dry riverbeds covered with ancient acacia thorn trees – all working together to create a landscape that is soft on the eye and calming the soul. Every so many kilometres there are waterholes that attract herds of antelope and off course also predators. Early in the morning and late evening are the best times for game viewing as they all are most active during the cooler hours of the day.
But it is the evenings that evoke wonderful emotions. First the soft colours changing from reds to pinks to purple to blue and eventually the blackness of the night calls the end of the day. And you need only to look up to see a sky filled with millions of stars all smiling down on you. Every now and then you can hear the comical ‘cack cack cack’ laughter of the barking gecko calling for a mate. But otherwise the silence wraps around you like a soft soothing blanket. In the far distance you might hear the yelp of a jackal, the cackle of a hyena or if you are lucky, the roar of a lion. Then you know my friend, you are in the heart of the Kalahari.
The Kalahari is a semi-arid region with an average rainfall of 200mm in the southwest. The irregular rains fall mostly during dramatic thunderstorms, often accompanied by strong winds and dust-storms, between November and April. Temperatures vary greatly from -11 Degrees Celsius on cold winter nights to 42 Degrees in the shade on summer days when the ground surface reaches a sizzling 70 degree Celsius. Winter in the Kalahari is a cool, dry season from May to August, followed by a warm, dry season from September to October and then a hot, wet season from November to April.
The park’s entrance is 255 kilometres north of Upington (the biggest town close by) in the Northern Cape Province. This is also the town where you must stock up on food and drinks as in the park only one camp provides a restaurant and all the others are self-catering. The last 60km from Askham to the entrance of the park is a badly corrugated gravel road but they are in the process of tarring it. The roads in the park are all gravel but in relatively good condition although with some sandy bits towards Nossob camp.
There used to be only three camps, called Twee Rivieren (meaning ‘Where the Two Rivers Meet’), Mata-Mata (in the north-west of the park in the Auob River) and Nossob (in the north along the banks of the Nossob river bed). At these fenced-off camps you can both camp or book self-catering accommodation fully fitted with all kitchen utensils and serviced daily. South African National Parks Board (SANPark) has added six wilderness camps where you can truly appreciate the interaction of the various species as they allow the desert to enter into your camp and make you feel as if you are part of the Kalahari. Each of these beautifully designed units has its own kitchen, bathroom and bedroom and is fully equipped with cooking utensils, cutlery, linen and fridge/freezer. Solar panels provide light and gas geysers provide hot water. In order to maintain the wilderness atmosphere there are no further facilities like shops and garages as at the traditional camps. For your protection each camp has an armed ranger living on site. It is obviously recommended not to walk outside at night time. Here is an example of one of the wilderness camps.
These wilderness camps are truly magical and we can highly recommend to stay over here a few nights to get the true feel for the Kalahari. We were lucky during this last visit to see a lioness drinking at the waterhole not far from our camp while we were busy having a barbeque. The next morning some springbok were grazing not 30 metres from our unit.
If you are a foreigner and want to do a self-drive, fly in to Upington, hire a car there and drive to Kalahari. Pre-booking of accommodation is important especially during June/July when it is school holidays. We can also highly recommend to hire a tour guide as a he/she will see more and can also tell you more about the animals, their behaviour and just make your stay a richer experience.
The cost of accommodation at the traditional camps starts at R190 per person per day and at the Wilderness Camps from R315 per person on a self-catering basis.
South African residents pay a conservation levy of R30 per day (free if you have a Wild Card) , SADC members R60 per day and foreign nationals R120 per day (R60 per child).
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