What you can experience in the Kgalagadi
Encounters in the Kalahari wilderness
In the middle of the night a tremor through our inflatable mattress woke me. The thin walls of our tent echoed the same vibration. It wasn’t just the vibration that woke us up. There was an almighty plaintive roar. Even my innards were quivering. Hubby nudged me. “Did you hear that?” I replied, “I didn’t just hear that, I felt it.” I’d listened to lions roar before, but this was the closest I had ever heard. It came from the depth of his bowels. If you’ve ever experienced one roaring, you’ll know what I mean.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Entering through Twee Rivieren Gate
We’d driven from Augrabies Falls National Park where we had spent two nights, via Upington and then towards Ashkam and the gate at Twee Rivieren. We had a quick glance at the camp then headed towards Mata Mata where we would be spending our first night.
The South African side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is part of Sanparks. If you’ve been to Kruger National Park, you’d think it would be the same. You’ll be disappointed, because it’s nothing like that. But it’s a wilderness that could shudder its way into your heart. One thing is certain, the Kalahari sand will cling to you and never quite let go.
The climate is extreme. When is the best time to visit the Kalahari? The weather is never mild. Summer is hot. Let me repeat, it is scorching. It punches the air out of your lungs. Winter can be just as brutal, especially at night. When you read about dishwashing liquid detergent freezing, then you realise how cold it can get. Which is the best time YOU would be able to cope with?
From the time we entered the park it felt like our fillings in our teeth would pop out. Even our car radio gave up the pretence of staying in the dashboard. We shuddered along at less than the 50 km per hour speed limit. Although the park was full, we didn’t see many people driving around, as it is so vast.
Along the way we stopped at the Auchterlonie Museum and had a quick look around. We could stop at picnic spots for a quick snack and comfort stop, but we had to be vigilant and be on the lookout for lions. They often decide they’d like a picnic too and you might be on the snack menu for the day. We didn’t see much along the way, maybe because we needed to get to Mata Mata and didn’t want to be stuck at the south end of the park.
Mata Mata Restcamp
We’d booked a chalet for accommodation for the first night at Mata Mata, as there were no campsites available. The rest of our stay would be in our tent. The following morning when the other campers left we found a spot under the shade of the big tree where we could pitch our tent.
At our chalet, we had a visitor. I swear I heard a knock on the door. Not really, but the door was open and as I looked down there was the cutest little ground squirrel looking up at me. I’m sure he wanted an invitation to come in. On second thoughts, he would have entered without any encouragement and helped himself to some of our food and with a full belly, snuggle into a soft pillow on the bed. Not a good idea to feed animals.
The night that the lion roared so close to us was indeed a highlight. We were camping close to the fence. The following morning other campers all shared their tales about the magnificent roar. They also mentioned that they were extremely pleased to have the fence as well as us between them and the lion. We’d discovered the spoor just fifty meters away on the other side of a measly barricade. I don’t think the fence kept him out – more than likely the effort to jump the two meters put him off. Come to think of it, how high does a lion jump? Remember those pics you've seen with lions in trees?
This brings to mind the talk about ethical behaviour with animals. This is a topic that is covered ad nauseum and yet so many people still disregard good sound principals. At Nossob we were told (quite happily) by a photographer that he throws his chop bones over the fence at night, so he can lure the jackal and get good photographs. That to me is just not on! Do they know what they are doing?
Kgalagadi is the place for big and small birds, from sandgrouse to ostriches and everything in between. On one occasion we watched cheetah stalking ostriches and their little chicks. Within seconds there was a streak of amber fur and a flurry of feathers.
Twee Rivieren Restcamp
The camp at Twee Rivieren was packed when we arrived for our last night. We squeezed in to a site and were glad we didn’t spend our entire week there. The drives around the camp would have been interesting but we were pleased to be deeper into the park. Besides, we might not have experienced the lion roaring.
We did see a delightful camping ensemble. An average vehicle with a simple tent on top, yet with everything the owners needed to get around. Just goes to show, you don’t need all the mod cons and luxury to enjoy yourself. It also gave a new meaning to the words rooftop tent.
One of the things we wanted to see was the red sand dunes. The Kalahari had exceptional rain earlier in the year, and the dunes were covered in grass with just a few bits of sand sticking out.
12 Essentials to pack for the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park:
1. For the ladies: Wear a sports bra or even better a corset. Only kidding, but really, at times with all the vibrations on the corrugations your bones will rattle and things will jiggle, so make sure you’re comfy or you could get slapped in the face...
2. Lip balm. This is essential unless you want to kiss your partner with scaly lips. The dust and dry air can be brutal and your lips crack at any opportunity.
3. A good body lotion. Unless you want to be as dry as the Nossob riverbed.
4. Sunscreen. You won’t be sitting in your vehicle the whole day, so protect your skin. And trust me on that one, the sun is harsh. You don’t want to get third degree sunburn.
5. Sun hat. Ditto. But don’t bother to pack your high heels. It’s sandy. Full Stop.
6. Something to keep you cool in summer such as a wet buff or a small wet towel. A good idea to put around your neck if you suffer in the heat. We were there in April and the temperature rose to 35 degrees Celsius. You may laugh, but it’s a great idea to keep your core temperature down. Sunstroke can be serious.
7. Eyedrops. You’ll want to relieve your bloodshot eyes to look at the animals. The strain and dust will hinder and tire your eyes and eyedrops will relieve some of the irritation.
8. Binoculars. The area is vast and not all the animals are close to the roads. We often spotted lion… way over thee-re on the third dune past the grassy plains (just in case they don’t walk right past you on the road).
Spot the lion
That's why you need binoculars
9. Bird or animal books. I sound like a school teacher, but presumably most people visiting the park are there for the birds and animals and it’s great to read up or identify them, if you’re like me and aren’t all that knowledgeable.
10. A water container filled with water. It’s thirsty work and worth having plenty in the car with you. There are no kiosks selling ice cold drinks behind every bush.
11. Bug spray. Although there is no malaria in this area, there are still pesky bugs that you would be inclined to swat while looking for that elusive leopard.
12. A grass net for your radiator can be handy if you are driving on a 4 x 4 trail. Strange item? Not if you drive through tufts of grass and they get stuck in the front of your car. It’s also a good idea when you get back to camp to check if any grass has attached itself to the bottom of your vehicle. Dry grass is a great ignitor when it’s stuck to a hot engine.
These are just a few suggestions. Naturally you’ll add more to your own list.
In my previous blog What you need to know about Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park I added a list of tips. Here are a few more to add to my list:
It’s snake territory. Make sure to shake out your ground sheet. There are snakes aplenty and many a person has found a snake under their tent or ground sheet.
Don’t drive through the poo! Although it’s difficult to avoid at times, it’s best to avoid it where you can. Little creatures wriggle in there, creating their own little ecosystem. Furthermore, if you get anywhere near lion poo and just a small amount sticks to the side of your tire, like it happened to us, the stench is awful. You wouldn’t want to get back in your car, as the pong follows you around. Once again you can trust me; it’s not pleasant. AT. ALL.
If you get tired of watching animals, you can always amuse yourself by watching the photographers, with their thousands of lenses and hordes of contraptions to stabilise their cameras. We had fun peering at them. Yeah, yeah, I know. We only have point and shoot cameras and we shouldn’t laugh at these serious photographers. They spend hours in the heat, waiting for that special capture. I salute them.
Keep your eyes open. With the wide open spaces, you’d think animals would make themselves visible but we experienced a lion hiding in 20 cm of grass and we missed him a few times when we drove past.
Be on the lookout constantly. Observe the behaviour of the animals and you may be lucky and pick up some clues if something interesting is about to happen.
When driving, arms get tired with all the jarring and rattling. Deflate your tyres. It will be easier when driving on the corrugated roads. Go down to at least 1.8 bar and if you are going in sandy areas you can even go down to 1.5 bar.
Fuel is only available in the main camps so keep an eye on distances and your fuel gauge.
Take a look at animal sighting boards or books. The boards are at the three main camps (Twee Rivieren, Mata Mata and Nossob.) It might save you some time, driving around aimlessly.
Before you put on your shoes, turn them upside down and shake them out. You wouldn’t want to stick your toes in there and have a scorpion nip you. Do not leave your shoes outside. They may be missing in the morning – they may have been dragged away by jackal that do enter the fenced camps from time to time.
Don’t just look for the Big Five. In fact, you won’t see all of them anyway, because there are only two of them residing there - lion and leopard. Enjoy the small creatures such as whistling rats and barking geckos. We were fortunate to spot two porcupines on one of our drives. Unfortunately we couldn't take a photo of them.
The rules stipulate that you may only get out of your vehicle in designated areas. There is a reason for that: there are dangerous animals lurking with far greater survival instincts than you. Doors should remain closed and no part of your body may protrude from a window or sunroof.
It's a great idea to spend some time in the hides at the restcamps even though its often full of people. At Mata Mata and Nossob they have a view over the waterhole where you may be lucky to get some good sightings of game and birds.
The Kgalagadi is definitely worth a visit and will be a unique experience to view wild animals.