Around four years ago whilst on a travel assignment, my poor backside was put into the somewhat torturous circumstance of having to sit in a saddle for almost three weeks on the trot (literally)
I had joined a cavalcade of “salt of the earth” yet clearly demented horsy types who had banded together with a bunch of local bushmen in order to cross Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) one of the largest (and driest) National Parks in all the world.
It was a fantastic experience, there can be no denying that, but when finally I dismounted and said farewell to Bruce Lee (my spirited steed) I was dog tired of horses, hated the heat, and never wanted to see another tent as long as I lived.
I also had the distinct feeling that I hadn’t really seen much of this 900,000 square kilometer semi desert at all.
But that’s not surprising really. After all, the Kalahari is 29.48 times larger the Belgium, and what’s more, it has almost no hills from which to view its famously flat landscapes.
Once a giant inland sea, the Central Kalahari is now a seasonally dry semi desert, lacking any permanent water but for the Okavango River. But that’s not to say its lifeless. Far from it.
Every year, torrential summer rains douse the desert sands with life giving water which in turn promotes the growth of succulent grasses. And where there is grass, there will be herbivores, and of course, a cavalcade of teeth and claws and manes and spots.
The CKGR, and indeed the greater Kalahari Basin (which is a staggering 2.5 million square kilometers in size.) is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.
The Bushmen, those ancient first people, call this place their home, as do the largest lions on earth, the biggest herds of Springbok and the greatest aggregations of gemsbok anyone is ever likely to see.
But alas, because we were mostly traversing the park’s buffer zones and cut lines; (locations where bushmen communities and livestock can be found) big game was relatively scarce.
“If you want to see lots of animals” Xego, a wise and wizened bushman had told me “You must go to the north of this land; to where there are no people and the grasses are greener”
Tempting. But I didn’t really fancy the idea of returning. I had slept in tents and on sand amongst the scorpions night after night. I had shivered in the desert darkness and sweated like a Bangkok pole dancer by day.
I had even eaten grubs with the bushmen.
It had been an adventure for sure, but the Kalahari is a harsh place (especially for softies like me) But Xego, a sage a man full of ageless wisdom born from his connection to the land and though the spirits of his ancient ancestors, had some additional words of encouragement to offer.
“There are up market lodges in the north” He said “Try googling them. I hear they have aircon there”
And so, that is how I found myself for a 2nd time back amongst the imposing emptiness and swaying grasses of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, only this time I wasn’t roughing it. I was stylin’.
Initially I hooked up with a mobile tented safari tour run by Wilderness Safaris, and although I had promised myself never to sleep under canvas again, I needn’t have worried.
The tents had proper beds in them. There were ice cold drinks on tap, fantastic food, plus my own personal guide and game spotting vehicle.
An entire brigade of camp hands and chefs and wine pourers where there to pander to my pedantic needs, and short of having a pair of scantily clad ladies standing either side of me with grapes and fans at the ready, I couldn’t have asked for more.
But it wasn’t only the comfort levels that were markedly different from my previous Kalahari excursion, the north was, as I had hoped for, a place of prolific wildlife.
It was a fantastic treat to see big herds of eland (Africa’s largest antelope) as well as zebra and wildebeest too. I even encountered some elephants which I was told are extremely rare in the Kalahari due to a lack of standing water.
Quelea (sparrow like birds) were present in their tens of thousands; and hawks, eagles and marabou storks were all there to gorge on them.
Where ever I turned my head springbok ‘pronked’, oryx rattled their horns and ostriches did their gangly dances.
I also saw cheetahs eating an ostrich, and a leopard lazing in a tree.
At night, on the floor of deception valley (a fossilised river bed which never flows)
I slept beneath canvas in unfenced camp sites and listened to the spine tingling roar of lions mixed with the raucous call of zebras.
It was magical.
To camp out in the CKGR is indeed an awesome experience. The designated sites are miles apart from one another and despite the park’s enormous size, just a few dozen vehicles are permitted to enter at any given time. As such, you can spend weeks in there and never see another soul.
‘Tau Pan’ and ‘Kalahari Plains’ are the only lodges inside the park and both are small and strategically situated right at the heart of the ‘gamiest’ region of the reserve.
When not being chauffeured around in an open safari vehicle, I was given the opportunity to take lessons in desert survival from the local bushmen who live and work at the camps. I learned how to collect water from giant underground gourds, how to dig up and consume beetle larvae, how to kill my enemies with a poison dart (very useful that one) and how to strangle a guinea fowl using a few twigs and a bit of vine.
Other essential skills I learned to master are how to impress a girl by making a fire with a stick (apparently you cant get married unless you know how to do this), how to throw miniature bouncing spears, how to dance, how to capture a giraffe and how to fashion a splendid head garment using just a tortoise shell and some wildebeest sinew.
The very same bushmen then went on to show me how to make an excellent gin and tonic from the lodge bar and how to properly use my GPS.
“How do we stay in touch?” I asked several of my guides, all of whom were dressed in duiker skin loin cloths and very little else
“Facebook” they all replied in unison
It was nice to see that the bushman culture is adapting to a modern world yet at the same time, their ancient ways, skills and belief systems are, to an extent, still being retained and practiced. Even if only for tourism….
I asked one of my guides Tlholego what he thought about dressing up for tourists, It was, after all freezing in the mornings and those little pants he wore did not seem to be fortifying him against the cold.
“I am quite happy to do this” he said through chattering teeth “And although my people don’t usually dress this way anymore, when visitors come from all over the world to see our culture in action; well, we become happy and proud of our traditions and history”
Bushmen are allowed by the park’s authority to live in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, but it is an extremely contentious and complex issue. They have always been there; long before borders were created or game fences erected. But in modern times, the potential for serious conflict between the interests of a modernizing people and that of wildlife conservation is not a trivial matter.
Traditionally in the past, bushmen did not keep livestock nor did they dig permanent water wells, and as such, their ‘footprint’ on the environment was small. However, in modern times, goats and donkeys are kept, guns are used for hunting, wells are needed and livestock conflict with predators is not at all uncommon.
There are rules imposed by the Botswana government which strictly control hunting permits and the establishment of permanent settlements but not everyone is happy, least of all some of the bushmen.
However, tourism (and the jobs it provides) is bringing much needed income to locals as well as encouraging a resurgence in traditional skills and cultural practices amongst young people. And at the end of the day, the CKGR very big, and theoretically should be large enough for everybody. Bushman and animal alike.
On my very last evening game drive in the Kalahari, Ongalebwe (another bushman guide) told me that he had a special treat lined up for me.
Roast beetle grubs? Sun dried desert rat? Perhaps some warm tsamma melon juice (which tastes horrible by the way) But no, he had found me a small pride of Lions nearby the camp.
Cubs and older siblings rolled around in the soft grass like mischievous puppies. They lolled in the soft golden light of late afternoon amongst flowers and they tumbled playfully over a huge black maned male who in turn, cuffed at them gently.
Fluffy females, fully grown and purring like oversized kittens lay on their backs with their paws pointed to the sky.
It was a wonderful, peaceful and tender family scene, full of gentleness and love.
“Aren’t they fantastic” said Ongalebwe; a rhetorical question of course.
And I turned to look at the wonder in his eyes and then at the lovely Lions, and in that moment I saw a possible future for the Central Kalahari, where both wildlife and bushmen could still live in harmony.
I prayed then that perhaps it would be that way, for ever and a day.
When To Go:
The green season usually starts in November and ends around April (with January typically being one of the wettest and hottest months) Thunderstorms can be fierce (but usually brief) with midday temperatures averaging at around 35°
The dry lakes (or pans) in the north of the park will be carpeted with grasses during and just after the rains which in turn will attract large herds of antelope and predators.
The dry season (April/May to Sep/Oct) is generally cooler and can get quite chilly at night so bring warm clothing. Blue skies will be the norm.
Visiting the CKGR
You can explore the CKGR with a tour company or as an independent.
Most camp sites, lodges and game viewing tracks are situated in the northern sections.
Animals are attracted to the artificially pumped waterholes and grassy pans that are located in the North.
The CKGR gets steadily drier (and emptier) the further South you go.
The Jeep tracks that pass for roads in the CKGR are often very slow and sandy and the speed limit is 25mph.
If you plan on doing a self drive, you’ll have to bring everything from the kitchen sink to the water that you intend putting in it.
Drive in a convoy because there is often no phone signal and no AA to rescue you if you have a breakdown.
You can reserve one of 41 camp sites by visiting Big foot Tours http://www.bigfoottours.co.bw/campsites.html
Both Tau Camp and Kalahari Plains are up market resorts which provide guides, vehicles and full board and lodge as part of their packages.
If participating in a mobile Safari (also fully catered) you will be accommodated in army style dome tents.
Prices change according to season. Keep an eye on their pages for special offers.
To find out more, visit
Bigfoot safaris will assist you to book a camp site