How to be on high alert for predators at Polentswa Kgalagadi
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park - South Africa – Botswana
Polentswa is an unfenced camp in Botswana and is situated just across the border from South Africa and on the other side of Nossob’s dry riverbed in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. It is approximately an hour away from Nossob Rest Camp, which is fenced and is about three and a half hours drive from Twee Rivieren gate at the south of the park.
We spent a week at Polentswa. Camping in an unfenced camp means you have to be on high alert for predators. Before arriving at Polentswa we’d spent three nights at Rooiputs. This is another unfenced camp, about half an hour from Twee Rivieren.
Although we hadn’t experienced predators walking through the camp at night at Rooiputs, we’d seen high jinks of some jackal that caused some havoc, not only when we were there but with other campers too. The last morning before we left we saw a lion walking near to our camp.
This made us wonder what we were going to experience at Polentswa.
What is Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, what does it mean and when is it the best time to visit?
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a massive conservation area in Botswana and South Africa. The name means "Land of the thirst" and although not a desert, it is arid with rainfall in summer, between January and April, and less than 200mm per year. It is extremely hot in summer and freezing night-time temperatures in winter but is an ideal park to visit throughout the year.
If you ask anyone what they would like to see in the Kgalagadi, I’m sure the answer would be predators. The big attraction of sightings of cheetah, leopard, brown or spotted hyena, jackal or wild cats and of course the black maned Kgalagadi lions brings visitors to the park. So do birds of prey such as vultures, falcons, eagles, buzzards, as well as many species of mammals and antelope such as gemsbok, springbok, red hartebeest, blue wildebeest. The world’s largest antelope, the eland reside in this park.
Polentswa is a lovely quiet camp with only three campsites. They each have their own pit toilet and shower cubicle. Our pit toilet (long drop) was quite decent, for a latrine of this nature. In the middle of the day though, it could be a ‘hot seat’ with the sun baking down on it. There is an overflow campsite which is only an opening in the bush without any facilities. Polentswa has no water. If you plan to camp there and are fortunate enough to get a spot, because you have to book well in advance, you would need to bring your own.
For the first four nights we were four couples and for the last three nights we were down to two. No, fortunately the predators didn’t devour two of the couples – they had to leave early. Did I get your adrenaline going? Gotcha!
Our campsite had a slight slope. It overlooked a large pan and was surrounded with low grass and herbaceous shrubs. A great place for animals to lurk behind. Because we could fit under it (only just!), we were allocated a level spot under a tree.
At first light and after 7 am we would leave camp with our coffee and rusks and drive to the waterhole a few kilometres away and wait in anticipation for animals to arrive. We weren’t disappointed. Here’s why it is worth spending time at Polentswa waterhole.
Our ritual in the afternoon would be to light a fire, fill a metal bucket with approximately 5 litres of water per person and heat it over the flames. One of our friends had a shower bucket which he rigged up in the shower cubicle. We would decant the water into that and could each take a turn to have a short but gloriously warm shower every day.
We would eat early in the evening as it is not wise to linger around in the dark.
A few tips on how to be on high alert for predators
It is very easy to be lulled into a relaxed feeling of peaceful existence when sitting around at the campsite, during the day or at night, chatting and having a great time with friends or family. As much as we wanted to see wild animals and especially predators, we could only sit for so long looking through binoculars or gaze into the distance trying to spot them. Your eyes do get tired and you get lazy.
Still, you cannot drop your guard for too long and it is a good idea to be on high alert.
1. Be aware that ANY game can walk through the campsites at any given time.
2. Have a plan of action in case you are surprised by a sudden appearance of a predator.
3. Park your vehicle near your tent and leave it unlocked, in case you need to run…er…let’s rephrase that - walk for cover. Don’t turn your back on a predator. As much as you would want to run, it is not a great idea.
4. Don’t leave food lying around.
5. Don’t leave water in an easily accessible spot.
6. Don’t leave dirty dishes lying around – this will attract animals.
7. Keep litter to a minimum by planning and preparing ahead of your trip for off the grid camping in Kgalagadi.
8. Don’t litter and hang your refuse bags high to avoid animals reaching it; tie it up or find a secure spot for storing it. There were no bins at Polentswa so we took ours with us.
9. Pack everything away including shoes, sandals, chairs, socks … and torches. (our torch was left out in error one night – it has teeth marks!)
10. Avoid walking further than the edge of your campsite during the day.
11. Avoid walking around in the dark on your own. Go in twos to the loo if you haven’t brought a portable toilet.
12. Make sure you have a bright torch, but it is not necessary to light up the campsite as if it is a sports stadium.
13. If you bring young children to an unfenced camp (which I personally feel is not such a great idea), make sure they don’t run around and keep them in the inner circle of the group. They are easy targets for predators because of their size.
14. If you hear animals at night outside your tent, don’t step outside to see what they are doing.
NB: These might not be the only tips to keep you safe from predators. If you have any to add, I would love it if you shared them. I urge you to respect the animals and their territory so that other campers can enjoy the experience just like we did.
Night-time in an unfenced camp.
Throughout the night we could hear the tree mice above us. Did you know a group of mice is called a mischief? They certainly were that. At first they gnawed the bark like a dog would chew a bone. I wonder how much glucose is in bark because soon after we’d hear the pitter patter of their feet as they leapt from the branch, dashed across the roof of our tent and played games on their canvas jungle gym. I’m extremely thankful they didn’t gnaw our tent – I was waiting for one to find its way inside and cuddle up next to me on my pillow.
Hyaenas aren’t dangerous are they? They’re not like a lion or a leopard, predators that I thought I’d be more concerned about in the Kgalagadi. It turns out hyaenas are the ones to watch out for because they were very active most nights. We even saw them on two occasions before we went to bed – once a spotted hyaena and once a brown hyaena.
The first night after listening to mouse escapades, shortly after falling asleep, we woke up to a loud clang and something being crushed. We of course didn’t go out to investigate, but knew it was the metal water bucket. The following morning we found hyaena paw prints around our camp. The bucket was lying on its side and a 5-litre water bottle that was almost empty and had been left on the ground in error, was squashed with evidence of teeth marks. Predators are known for looking for water at the campsites.
We were fortunate with the weather as the days were still hot for May, generally just above 30 degrees C. At night it was cool, but not icy.
Other activities while we were at Polentswa
Apart from spending time at waterholes looking for animals or following spoor to see if we could find predators, we drove to Lijersdraai picnic site and stopped for a comfort stop or a brunch. Picnic spots, rest camps and campsites are the only places you are allowed to exit your vehicle. It is still a good idea to have a good look around at the unfenced campsites and picnic spots before getting out, in case there is a lion lying under the shade of the building where the toilet is.
One day we drove past Grootkolk to Unions end. The Kgalagadi is dry in patches and yet in other places it looks like a bowling green. We found more game at Unions end and yet it is the furthest point in the park on the South African side. On the way we were fortunate to see an African wild cat that another couple from Australia pointed out. Much too far away for us to take a photo.
Not bad for a bread that tried to get away…very tasty too!
In all the time we spent at Polentswa (a full week) we heard lion once at night, but far from camp. We saw plenty of evidence that they were strolling around, but not once did we see them.
Just before you enter Polentswa campsite there is a grave with a sign and a kettle hanging in a tree. This is in memory of Hans Schwabe, a German geologist from Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa).
This is his story:
Sociable weaver’s nest in tree with weavers being sociable. Click to enlarge photos.
Nossob Rest Camp
After a week at Polentswa, we spent two nights at Nossob Rest Camp. This camp is well equipped but also busy with many campers. There is a shop where we stocked up on a few items for the next week.
We chose to stay in camp and not drive around as we’d have a long journey on the Sunday. Instead it was time for a bit of pampering with running hot water (not that we could complain about our showers at Polentswa), flushing loos, washing of clothes and fixing anything that was broken from the corrugated roads – such as the bracket for our auxiliary battery for our freezer.
While we were there we heard lion close by at about 5 am. Around 8 am we heard them again, much closer. They were walking towards the waterhole in front of Nossob camp. We sat in the hide which looks out onto the waterhole with our early morning coffee (along with just about everyone else from camp) and caught a vague glimpse of two heads hiding behind the dunes and bushes about 500 meters away. One is never sure how long they will lie there, so we left them to their snooze and continued with our maintenance.
We were preparing for the next bit of adventure to Mabuasehube. More about that next time!
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