As you track eland, mongoose and oryx through the scrub of the Kalahari Desert you can almost hear a David Attenborough voiceover. Our loin-clothed bushman guide, equipped with a worryingly flimsy-bow-and-arrow, stops to point out lion paw-prints.
Even though the Bushmen describe the desert as "the land the Devil made in anger" – usually just a meagre 6 to 12 inches of rainfall in an entire year – there is enough life in this dry landscape to inspire an entire Attenborough series of wildlife documentaries.
Of all the wildlife, only the giraffes require water from the man-made boreholes. The Springboks seek out overnight dew on the vegetation whilst the Hemsbok forever paws the red sand in search of spiked succulent cucumbers. The lions drink every drop of blood from their prey. And the Acacia trees send rap roots down over 100 yards to the water-table.
Although the Kgalagadi is known to the bushmen as "the place of thirst", incredibly there are over 220 species of birds. These include eagles, vultures, bizarrely hat-pinned Secretary birds and the hefty Kori Bustard – Africa's heaviest flying bird weighing in at around three stone.
After rare rains the desert is soon carpeted with the yellow Devil's Thorn Flowers and the taller purple Thunder Flowers. The park's rivers only "run" when there's been exceptionally heavy rains, on average just once or twice a century. Usually all that defines a river bed are herds of oryx, springboks and wildebeest grazing on a flat-bed with a faint tinge of green.
The Kgalagadi Nature Park, straddling the Botswana and South Africa border, offers vast wide-angle blue-sky panoramas with few visitors jostling to see the wildlife. Even though South Africa achieves a very high percentage of returning visitors it is only recently that adventurers have been putting together City plus Kalahari Holidays. Take a flight from Cape Town or Johannesburg to Upington then explore the quiet, astounding beauty of the Kalahari. Stop over at the peaceful Moloplo Lodge for a night or two, before entering the Park, so that Vinkie’s Kalahari Experience with bush lore, tracking and stories prepares you for full immersion in the Kalahari.
Sure, the Kruger Park has more animals but the Kgalagadi has the charm of less people. Find a trio of purring lions breakfasting on an unfortunate oryx and you'll be the only safari vehicle for miles.
Astoundingly, 25 miles off the last tarmac road, over a red-sand jolting track, you arrive at a luxurious Safari Lodge overlooking a heart-shaped salt-pan in the heart of the Kalahari. The address of !Xaus Safari Lodge is Sand Dune 91. With views of hyena, leopards, lions and oryx visiting the salt-pan the exclamation mark is more than justified.
!Xaus is well and truly off-grid, the ultimate digital detox. Salty shower-water is from a borehole. As electricity is restricted to generator hours during the day, night-time air-conditioning is opening your windows and welcoming the chill night winds of the desert. Yet luxury comes from a silver-service dinner served out in the dunes as the sun sets.
Taking a morning trekking walk with John, a guide with more than two decades experience, he shows us the remarkable Social Weaver Birds’ nest, overwhelming a tree. Generations of flitting birds fetch grass for a nest that is waterproof, maintaining a temperature between 18 and 25 centigrade, even in winter when night temperatures plummet to – 10. With shrewd symbiosis the Weaver Birds leave a chamber free for the Pygmy Falcon who gobbles up snakes before they can snatch eggs and chicks. Yet, the birds do not know when to stop. Ultimately the nest collapses and 200 or 300 birds have to start building from scratch.
Make no mistake this unforgiving land is only for the most resolute of people and they come no tougher than Professor Anne Rasa, who runs dune tours, originally from the Rhonda Valley. After a lifetime in academia, discovering that Mongoose societies were run by the females, she retired to 3,500 acres of land, just outside the Kgalagadi Park, to battle soil erosion whilst raising animal stock numbers, aiming to restore the land to its original natural state. Now the indomitable 78 year-old runs a Meerkat Sanctuary too. "When a Meerkat bites you, he will not let go," she points to the scars on her forearm as evidence, "Unless you pour water over him. Meerkats hate water."
In the 1930s the Khomani San tribe were evicted from the park. Today's more liberal South African government is attempting to preserve the tribe's language and traditions. We watched a frenzied traditional dance that dug a furrow in the red-sand as the dancers circled a fire – and visited a craft village. Skilled artists created jewellery by etching intricate designs, using a stick heated in the fire, onto fragments of ostrich shell.
In a world of increasing light pollution the remote Kgalagadi is applying for Dark Skies status. Already the astoundingly bright comets and constellations of the night sky are a major attraction: !Xaus plans to build an observatory to capitalise on this.
The Kalahari is a land of surprises: a 78 year old Welshwomen breeding Meerkats, foxes digging for nutty flavoured truffles, the spiky Devil's Claw plant sticking to a Springbok’s leg so that it's seed spreads, one-ton Social Weaver birds’ nests and subtle Die Mas Gin distilled from Kalahari Botanicals.
Visit www.imagineafrica.co.uk or call 020 3131 5034 top design your own individual tour of South Africa’s Northern Cape.
Molopo Kalahari Lodge
Single occupancy self-catering chalets start from R600pn (£35), double occupancy self-catering chalets start from R900pn (£52).
Prices start from R4975 pppn (£299) based on two people sharing. This includes all meals, game drives, wilderness walks, star gazing, a visit to the Bushman craft village and return transfers to the Kamqua picnic site. Excludes SANParks entry fees, beverages, craft purchases and gratuities.
Vinkie’s Kalahari Experience
Vinkie’s Tourism Enterprise is an eco-tourism venture that offers an authentic and unique “Bush” experience on the Khomani farm Witdraai in the beautiful Southern Kalahari dune belt for individuals and for groups. They specialise in tailor made tours, offering individual attention and first-hand experience in the traditional arts of tracking, bush craft, craft making, tasting traditional foods and hunting with bow and arrow, and San stories from elders.
Prices begin around R1150pp (£68).
Dune experience with Professor Anne Rasa
2-3 hour guided walks with an expert biologist or tracker start from R150pp (£9).
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Park entry fees start from R328 (£20) per adult per day for international visitors.
Flights with South African Airways
London Heathrow/Johannesburg return
GBP 721.01 long term fare
London Heathrow/Johannesburg/Upington return (domestic flights operated by Airlink)
GBP 978.01 long term fare
Johannesburg/Upington return (domestic flights operated by Airlink)
For more information please visit www.southafrica.netLast modified: June 10, 2021