Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (Kgalagadi) is a result of a treaty in 1999 between Botswana and South Africa to link Botswanas Gemsbok National Park and South Africas Kalahari Gemsbok National Park under a unified name, creating the first transfrontier protected area in Africa. While the Botswana side of Kgalagadi is flat and bears resemblances to Botswanas Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the South Africa side of Kgalagadi is endowed with unique, spectacular dunes, which run roughly parallel northwest to southeast, appearing as ocean ripples when viewed from the sky, as well as two fossilized rivers with rich grazing (the Auob in the west and the Nossob in the east) where animals concentrate during the rains.
If Kruger is about the Big Five, Kgalagadi is about the All Thousands. Every creature or plant has a story to tell here. Fascinating survival strategies play out during elongated dry stretches in this desert; and frenetic flowering, germinating, seeding, mating and calving play out during the fleeting rains. It is a place where learning about the life-giving tsama melon or listening to the sounds of barking geckos at dusk can be just as rewarding as seeing the famous Kgalagadi black-maned lion. For the true nature lover, if Kruger is beloved, Kgalagadi is beloved fiercely.
Not that weather is ever predictable in Kgalagadi, I come to Kgalgadi in a very unusual year (my first visit in April 2008 was during a normal year). The rains, which fall mostly between December and April, started the season okay, but then stopped entirely. Virtually no rains were recorded from mid-January through late March, just the time when all creatures and plants rely on the ephemeral moisture to recover and propagate. Just when it looked like a drought disaster (inherent and periodic in Kgalagadi) was looming, heavens opened up at the end of March for a 4-5 day stretch. More rains than the entire annual precipitation average doused Kgalagadi during those few days.
Benson and I are picked up at the modern Upington Airport by Natasha Iles of Afrifriends, a Johannesburg-based tour operator. Natasha has already purchased the necessary provisions for the next several days and has packed much of them on the roof rack of the 4x4, my real home of the next week. We arrive into Twee Rivieren (the park headquarters and the point at which the two riverbeds meet), where one must register (the process is somewhat more complicated than simply purchasing gate tickets), in time for a short game run, but the real thing would begin the next morning on our 100 km trek northwest up the Auob riverbed.
The Auob Riverbed
Note: for reference, here is the official map of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park - http://www.sanparks....l_parkmap08.jpg
The Auob riverbed is a place of sensual orange-hued sand dunes (orange-hued due to the presence of iron oxide). The dune crests are accentuated by wispy bushman grass, not only characteristic of Kgalagadi but also efficient binders of the otherwise loose orange soil. The riverbed itself bisects these rises and is very narrow in places, creating an intimate amphitheater feel. Many camelthorn trees, live and dead, accommodate huge sociable weaver nests, some of which cloak nearly all the branches.
Dunes on the Auob
The first stretch of several kilometers from Twee Rivieren is thick with driedoring bushes (springboks are fond of driedoring usually only when flowering). Then the riverbed begins to open up, and herds of springboks and wildebeests begin to appear. Small groups of gemsboks are joined by even smaller groups of red hartebeests (gemsboks are more numerous on the Nossob as they are thought to favor the more mineralized water found there; red hartebeests are also more numerous on the Nossob). These four major antelope species (springbok, wildebeest, gemsbok and red hartebeest) prefer to feed on the nutritious riverbed grass during the rains and disperse into the dunes in search of food when the riverbed graze is exhausted (though wildebeests tend to remain close to the artificial watering points on the riverbeds). There are very few calves around, and most of the antelopes are noticeably thin, with protruding ribs. Though torrential rains three weeks ago have greened Kgalagadi up, the vegetation appears drier and sparser than it was during my previous visit in April 2008. Having just survived a stressful period, the antelopes have only a few more weeks to fatten up before the arrival of frost, which retards grass growth. There is a sense of urgency in their frantic grazing.
North of Kamqua all the way up to Mata-Mata, the game density grows, and the dunes become even more spectacularly orange. Springbok herds are now sizeable. Springbok rams hold territories all along the Auob. They are spaced out about a kilometer apart, corralling as many passing-through females as they can and jealously guarding their ranges against male intruders. Before the heat of the day, one can count on seeing springboks pronking. The latter part of Antidorcas marsupialis
becomes self-explanatory as they display their pouchy white dorsal plume while pronking. The narrow riverbed with irresistible grazing for the springboks and dune rises offering a hunters eye view provide for a perfect cheetah habitat. In fact, the Auob riverbed is reputed to be one of the best places in Africa to observe cheetahs. One afternoon near Sitsas, Benson does his typical eagle-eye thing and spots a cheetah mother and three large cubs several hundred meters away on a dune on the opposite side of the riverbed. There are a few springboks on the riverbed below grazing, but the cheetah mother is locked in on something else on the dune. We wait patiently for what seems like days, and our patience is rewarded sort of. The hunt is successful as the mother sprints and pounces on something
. But that something
kill takes place at a bend of the dune obscured by heavy vegetation: dust, shadowy shapes flying, then the springboks on the riverbed below all looking in the direction of the kill and alarm-calling with disdain all happening in a flash. The now dead something
is dragged away into even thicker bush and consumed in private.
Springboks at sunset
Mother cheetah locked in on its prey
One of the cubs following her
The start of her hunt
Kalahari Tented Camp is our home on the Auob. Only a 5-minute drive from the more conventional rest camp, Mata-Mata, Kalahari Tented Camp is a gem. The camp is perched atop a dune, allowing for a panoramic view of the riverbed. Tents are moderately smart (all you need), and each unit is equipped with a braai (of course!), an outdoor garage shed, and a separate, detached kitchen unit (DIY!). Hyenas and jackals are frequent visitors (mostly looking for rubbish), and each unit is gated for protection. It being one of the smaller camps, night light pollution is no issue: stargazing is superb.
A bird's eye view of Kalahari Tented Camp
A starlit night at Kalahari Tented Camp
Back on the Auob riverbed, several giraffes browse near Mata-Mata. They are a result of a successful reintroduction effort. Giraffes disappeared from Kgalagadi in the 1930s due to overhunting. The last giraffe was supposedly shot and dragged across to Botswana (a waterhole on the Nossob side named Kameelsleep, which means giraffe drag in Afrikaans, commemorates this supposed event). Black-backed jackals are easily the most commonly seen predator, but the rarely seen African wildcat makes an appearance sitting nonchalantly on a camelthorn branch.
Giraffes at sunset
Our final morning on the Auob turns out to be our lion day. A lone lioness wanders by Craig Lockhart (yes, a Scottish name for a waterhole), only to find it dry. And near Veertiende Boorgat, five lions are on a fresh wildebeest kill right on the road. They have already had their fill and begin heading for water, but several jackals appear out of nowhere. A couple of the lions make a U-turn to guard their kill against any mischief.
Spending only two nights on the Auob is almost criminally too short. Its just as bad to leave behind the lion-jackal interaction, but the Nossob beckons and a long trip through the dunes is required. We begin climbing the dunes in our 4x4 to check out the other side.
Early evening on the Auob
Moonrise at Kalahari Tented Camp