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HOW TO TOUR WITHOUT A GUIDE
IN THE KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK
OF SOUTH AFRICA & BOTSWANA
I highly recommend that you visit one of my favorite South African
parks, formerly known as the Kalahari
Gemsbok National Park ,
just a day and
a half drive north of Cape Town (or fly to Upington and rent a car). It is safe and easy to drive around
the Park in
an ordinary rental car without a guide, yet it is a beautiful
and often exciting place. The
Kalahari Gemsbok N.P. is justly renowned for its predator population,
sometimes sheltering an estimated 150 lions, 60 cheetahs, 100 leopards, 50
spotted hyenas, and 200 brown or long-haired hyenas.
And in this small park, they hunt, play, and flop on the roads and waterholes close to you making this one of the best places in Africa to photograph and enjoy predators!
The smaller wild cats, bat-eared foxes,
cape foxes, and black-backed jackal can also be seen in the early morning
and late afternoons, but it is rare to see its nocturnal predators like
the aardwolf, caracal, genet, and civet.
Besides the amazingly well adapted
oryx or gemsbok, the Kalahari supports blue wildebeest, springbok,
eland, red hartebeest, kudu (rare), duiker, steenbok, and ostrich, but no
zebra, impala, rhino, or elephant. A small number of giraffe were
relocated from Etosha National Park and their offspring have recently been
released into the Park. They literally run down the sand dunes - that is
an amazing sight!
At 960,000 hectares, the original Kalahari
Gemsbok Park is half the size of Kruger Park, and is tucked like a triangular
wedge between Namibia on the west and Botswana to the east. The Nossob
River valley is unfenced between the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and
Botswana's Gemsbok National Park; these combined parks protect over 3.6 million
hectares of semi-arid desert.
As of 2000, the parks were legally joined as the first of Africa's
Transfrontier Parks to allow wildlife to move with the seasonal rainfall
As of 2000, the parks were legally joined as the first of Africa's Transfrontier Parks to allow wildlife to move with the seasonal rainfall and grasses.
The Kgalagadi is designated as a natural park, and animals are not culled or inoculated as is the case in many South African parks. The northern and southwestern boundaries of the Park are fenced however, to keep predators from attacking livestock in adjacent farms. The government pays farmers to dart and sedate roaming lions or leopards for relocation back to the Park, however, co-operation from farmers is not always forthcoming!
The Park's two main roads and
three original of six camps are concentrated on the firm soils of two dry riverbeds - the
broad Nossob valley and my favorite, the narrower Auob - which form the
Park's east and west borders respectively. The riverbeds converge at the
Park's southern tip, at Twee Rivieren. Between the two valleys is a vast,
and virtually roadless sea of low, stable, transverse (parallel) dunes
that run from north to south. The reddish orange dunes are blanketed with
an amazing variety of grasses, creepers, thickets, and even trees! Two
gravel roads and one 4x4 sand track cross the dunes, giving you a true roller coaster ride.
On the Botswana side of the Kgalagadi, there is a sand track restricted to 4x4 vehicles. You must bring all your own provisions and water which makes this a safari of the old style. To enter this area, you must make reservations in advance. Note that wildlife is usually scarce here, but the vast emptiness and scenic beauty are incredibly rewarding. (Their website: www.parks-sa.co.za )
The underground rivers rarely flow on the surface - although they did in 2000, ending a long drought that had killed off or displaced much of the Kalahari wildlife. Numerous windmills pump water from below the dry, grassy riverbeds, although most Kalahari wildlife - with the exception of wildebeest and some birds - can survive on moisture from grasses, roots, and creepers like the wild tsamma melons. Many wells are highly saline, and only attract animals for their salt and mineral content. However, when moisture-bearing native plants have failed, such as in 1985, large herds have migrated to the life-giving waterholes, from as far off as the central Kalahari.
At the end of the Nineteenth Century,
the more accessible portion of the southern Kalahari was sparsely
inhabited by Tswanas, Hottentots, and white hunters, while the San (or
Bushmen) still followed seasonal foods and water to the east. After 1897, this frontier area with German South West Africa (now known as
Namibia) became attached to the original Cape Colony, but white settlers were
reluctant to farm such an arid, hostile place. Coloureds were assigned
farms whose names still grace waterholes like Kameelsleep, Kwang, and Kij
Kij. The Gemsbok Park area
became a vital buffer when South Africa went to war against
Germany in 1914.
Eventually severe overhunting of
wildlife so alarmed the South African Minister of Lands, Piet Grobler,
that he created the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in 1931. It was hoped
that the Park would provide refuge for the small number of local San,
however, a traditional hunter-gather lifestyle within a park no longer
attracted them, and eventually they were moved out with compensation. Some
drifted away to settlements south of the Park while a few San remained on
Park staff as gifted trackers and highly adept motor mechanics. Recently
the Khomani San were granted an area of their own on the southern border of the
park and some sell their artifacts on the road to the Park.
Descendents of the coloured farmers removed from the park, known as the
Mier community, are also part of the land compensation process.
Descendents of the coloured farmers removed from the park, known as the Mier community, are also part of the land compensation process.
Every season in the Kalahari has its
advantages and disadvantages so analyze your wildlife-viewing needs and
your weather preferences accordingly.
In spring to summer, from
November through January,
it can be painfully hot,
over 40 degrees
Centigrade or 100 degrees Farenheit! Midday is siesta time for wildlife
and people, but the long period of daylight makes up for that lost time.
Nights are gloriously warm! Lightning and rainstorms break the heat
regularly - and dramatically. Another summer bonus is that the grass is short,
exposing predators to full view and wildlife clings to the waterholes. A multitude of migrating birds
from the Northern Hemisphere do thrill hardy bird-watchers.
The Park is crowded with families at Christmas holidays. Springbok usually lamb in January shortly before the rainy season so the fascinating activity keeps the predators busy.
February and March
cooler but rain - if it comes in abundance - can make driving a bit difficult.
The veld blossoms with rainbows, wildflowers, and fresh green graze,
attracting herds out of Botswana. Thousands of springbok may arrive in
one day! Magnificent raptors like the Bateleur and Martial eagles bathe in
the puddles on the road, and you may find lion cubs rolling about in wildflowers.
The Kalahari takes on a carnival air at this time to compensate for the
April and May are autumn months
with lovely days and cool to
cold nights, however, sometimes long grass can make predators harder to
spot and Easter is terribly overcrowded, even for campers. The breeding
rut of springbok can begin in May or June.
from June to September
is pleasantly warm in the daytime
temperatures often drop below freezing from May to September,
during the Southern Hemisphere's winter. Bring your warmest clothes if you
are camping or you will suffer! Strong winds may drive herds into the dunes a few days
of each week. However, the grass is cropped so low that predators are easy
to spot even though grazing herds may be reduced in size. In years of
excellent rain, a second springbok lambing can occur in August. October
can be pleasant or hot depending as it is the shoulder month between
winter and summer.
DRIVING IN THE PARK
The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park is
approximately 904 KM from Johannesburg, 385 KM
from Kuruman, 358 KM from Upington, 1200 KM from Capetown, and 798
KM from Bloemfontein. From Johannesburg, most people take the route via
Kuruman, Hotazel, and Vanzlylsrust. From Capetown, you may travel via
Springbok, Augrabies, and Upington or via Vanreysdorp, Calvinia, and
Upington. The nearest Namibian border crossing is at Aroab/Reitfontein,
approximately 145 KM southwest of Twee Rivieren.
Exploring the Kgalagadi within the former Kalahari Gemsbok National Park is relatively easy compared to the difficult conditions that beset adventurers like Laurens van der Post just 70 years ago. A standard rental car and a park map is all you need, but motorcycles and hitch-hiking are strictly prohibited. So are pets!
When heavy traffic churns the soft
sand of the roads into hummocks, known as corrugation,
fragile items like cameras should ride on pillows. If you are traveling
behind other vehicles, cover cameras with a towel or jacket, and perhaps
keep the car fan on with the windows closed or you will soon be covered
in grit. Trailers and camper homes can come apart on the corrugation!
gravel and sand roads,
vehicles lose control easily IF they are driven too fast, so keep to 70
and 90 KPH on gravel roads. Drive in loose gravel and sand as if it were
ice - don't brake - instead slightly accelerate in a skid,
turning the wheel in the direction of the skid. When approaching dense
sand, shift into a low gear and proceed steadily through it - never
entering the park at
Twee Rivieren, deflate your tires according to the advice of the petrol
If you do get stuck in sand, turn off the
engine, check that no predators are nearby, then deflate the tires as low
as 1.0 bar. Put wood under the rear wheels and have the passengers push
while you give the engine power without reving it.
You must register your movement within the Park at each camp office - so they can come searching for you if you fail to appear at your scheduled destination! In rainy weather, carry an emergency supply of water, flashlight, and basic food in your car in case you get bogged down.
Because of the distance between camps and the speed limit
of 50 KPH, allow 3-1/2 hours to reach Nossob from the other two camps and
2-1/2 hours to reach Mata Mata from Twee Rivieren - otherwise staff will
not let you depart.
The gates open daily at sunrise and
close at sunset which varies with the seasons.
Most people drive from
waterhole to waterhole, pausing only if there is wildlife to watch; I
prefer to pick a short circuit of perhaps three waterholes and wander
between them. To thoroughly scan the grassy valleys and dunes,
travel between 30 and 40 KPH, constantly looking from left to right - and
check the sand track for predator footprints!
Always fill your petrol (gas) tank long before it is a quarter-empty. Who knows when you might follow a magnificent pride lions for hours, then realize that the tank is nearly empty and you are far from camp!
This park has never attempted to offer the comfort and range of services of its big sister, Kruger, but that pleases the hardy bush lovers who revisit it year after year. The lack of adequate fresh drinking water may always limit the number and size of camps in this Park.
The Park entry fee varies with the school holiday seasons, but it is not expensive. Accommodation fees vary annually but it is not expensive by any standards. Bungalow prices vary with size and quality and camping rates are reasonable. Shade trees are scarce in some camps and the loos are basic. Silence must be observed in camps after 10 PM until 6 AM.
The petrol pump and camp store at each major restcamp can provide all necessities - gas and diesel, basic car repairs, firewood, canned, frozen, and packaged foods - along with fine South African wines, cold beer, ice, soft drinks, basic fresh vegetables and cigarettes. They can even refill cooking gas cylinders for the serious cooks. Some great guidebooks, curios, and postcards are usually available - and so are film and camera batteries if you underestimated the wildlife activity when you were packing. However, it is best to bring fresh vegetables and film from outside the park as they are cheaper and of better quality.
Declare firewood if you are bringing it
in, otherwise, wonderful camelthorn wood, briquets and chemical
fire-starters are on sale at all camps. The highly mineralized Kalahari
water is harsh on clothes and hair so bring fabric softener for your
laundry and plenty of hair conditioner!
There is a public phone at Twee Rivieren, which even takes overseas
telephone cards! The other camps communicate daily via radio-phone. It is
wise to buy postal stamps outside the park, but there is a mailbox for
outgoing mail at Twee Rivieren.
Major medical service is only found at
Upington, 250 km distant, but staff can assist you in emergencies. There
is no malaria in this arid park, but malarial mosquitoes may occasionally
frequent reed beds beside the Orange River at Upington's campground.
I prefer the
tiny Mata Mata Camp and the upper Auob Valley to the upscale Twee Rivieren
Camp and its limited wildlife sightings,
but others rate Nossob Camp as tops.
The Nossob Valley requires more driving and it is very wide so the
wildlife can quickly get far out of range of eager photographers!
Nevertheless, Nossob usually offers great wildlife sightings. Each of these upper camps deserve a
three night stay at a minimum. Lovers of remote areas will enjoy
Botswana's side of the Park.
In 2002, three new camps will open in the dunes: Mata Mata Tented Camp (open Oct.2002) high up on a red sand dune, overlooking the Mata-Mata waterhole, has 15 chalets with rustic wood, sand and canvas exteriors. The tented camp is 2 kms from Mata Mata restcamp where you can refuel and get basic supplies. Grootkolk 20 km from Union's End at the far north end of the Park with 4 2-bed chalets of sandbags and canvas. Bitterpan (Open March 2002) in the center of the dunes opening up a new 4x4 ONE-WAY route from Nossob to Bitterpan, approximately a 3-hour drive. From Bitterpan to Craig Lockhart in the Auob takes another 3 hours, and thereafter 30 minutes to Mata Mata, or a 2 hour drive to Twee Rivieren. This all depends on the driver's skill through SAND!!! Only 4x4 vehicles allowed. Bitterpan has canvas, reed and tin-roofed 2-bed chalets built on stilts linked by a walkway to the communal entertainment/braai/kitchen area. A six-metre high tower has exceptional views over the pan and across the dunes, and also overlooks the waterhole.
For details and reservations, contact South African Parks at www.parks-sa.co.za
Make the Kalahari a priority destination & create superb memories
to last your lifetime!