The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a huge semi-desert wilderness in the north of South Africa – an immense stretch of red sand dunes and wide open sky, the dry river beds of the Nossob and Auob Rivers (said to flow but once every 100 years) and the odd solitary camelthorn, raisin bush or shepherd tree to break the horizon.
It is Africa’s first Peace Park; an amalgamation of South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park (no rewards for correctly guessing the dominant antelope in the reserve) in the midst of the Kalahari Desert.
The semi-desert wilderness is huge – 37 000 km², its vastness one of few remaining extensive conservation areas in the world.
Perhaps it is because it lies so far north, or that the bulk of it is in Botswana, that the Kgalagadi is largely disregarded by visitors to South Africa?
Maybe it is the idea of the desert as ‘banal’, or the recent misfortune that befell half of the Botswana side of the park, when it was sold for gas-fracking in 2014? Whatever the reason, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park remains the best-kept secret reserve in the country.
We reveal the Secrets of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park…
The Kgalagadi is remote and such a surreal landscape that you wax lyrical within minutes of arrival. It is not unusual to find yourself either at a complete loss for words, or prone to great outpourings of lyric, poetic language when faced with the wide skies and rolling red sand dunes (fixed, as opposed to the shifting sands of typical desert terrain).
Did we mention that there are virtually no tourists in Kgalagadi (although be warned that the school holidays are usually popular and the camps booked way in advance)?
The Kgalagadi (another word for Kalahari) is almost twice the size of Kruger. But on the other side of the country.
The chances of sighting Kalahari lions; lions with incredible black manes – also known as roaring Kalahari lions for their regular dawn or sunset riverbed throaty calls – is a major highlight (and very likely). Best times to sight them are dawn or as the sun sets, and they tend to opt for the tops of dunes as vantage points. Shawn Combrink, who visited last December, wrote to share his tip for lions in Kgalagadi: ‘Be careful at the Melkvlei picnic spot because the lions like to lie in the shade of the toilets. Before getting out of your vehicle drive around the area and check that they are not lurking close to the picnic spot.’
There is nothing like the Kgalagadi when it rains. Normally a parched earth devoid of flowing rivers and pools of water, when either river is in flow (January 2016 was the first time in 15 years that the Auob was in flow) or even when pools of rainwater collect in the river bed, there is a transformation as lilies come into flower and patches of green grass emerge along river banks.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is far. Very far – a good ten hours’ from Cape Town and Johannesburg. But worth every minute of the tedium for the beauty of the park. The road between Upington and the park gate is tarred (conversely, you can catch a flight from Cape Town to Upington in 90 minutes), whilst the roads within the park are all gravel. But the roads on the South African side of the park are navigable in a two-wheel vehicle.
Big game is not confined to lions. There are 19 species of predator that include leopard, cheetah, hyena, jackal and fox but there are also plenty of gemsbok (oryx), huge herds of blue wildebeest, giraffe, hartebeest, eland and springbok (you won’t see elephant, rhino or buffalo). There is also no shortage of smaller animals, insects, 300 species of bird, 20 of them large raptors, and an unusual assortment of plant species to add interest to the visit.
The unusual include: the mongoose, porcupine, ground squirrel, whistling rat, blue-headed agama, barking gecko and honey badger as well as thousands of sociable weavers who collectively build huge thatched ‘apartments’.
For wildlife action head to either the Polentswa or Kij Kij waterholes (the saying, as far as waterholes in the Kgalagadi are concerned, is that it’s not about spending hours at a waterhole so much as it’s being at the ‘right’ waterhole that is important). All predators, but particularly jackal and lion, come to Polentswa or Kij Kij to drink and hunt.
Sunrise is said to be brilliant for photographs! Cubitje Quap, 10 km north of Nossob, sees hundreds of birds arrive to drink throughout the day (lions, kudu and springbok frequent the hole too), and Craig Lockhart, Samevloeiing, Grootkolk and Marie se Draai are also good.
Don’t just sit there. Unlike waterhole advice in other reserves, it doesn’t pay to sit tight at only one. Check as many waterholes as possible, particularly early mornings.
Scan beyond the river beds. Yes, the dry Auob and Nossob beds are good for game, but it’s the dunes that predators use as outlooks. And the calcrete ridges are excellent for spotting leopards early in the mornings (or the small cliff just south of Leeudril waterhole).
Staying in camp can sometimes be as beneficial as driving through the reserve. Ground squirrels, mongooses, and birds of all kind, will seek water, sometimes as brave as to drink from the pools collecting below taps. Owls and geckos, if you sit quietly and long enough, will make their presence known and at Nossob and Grootkolk just about every animal will come to drink at the camp’s waterhole.
!Xaus Lodge is worth every penny. Owned by the local Khomani San and Mier communities in the reserve (traditionally there were only three lodges – Twee, Nossob and Mata-Mata) !Xaus is a luxury option that opened in 2007. But there are also 6 upmarket unfenced wilderness camps considered fantastic by visitors.
Take your own water particularly if you’re self-catering as the water is treated and not to everyone’s taste. If you are heat-averse then don’t go between November and March (cooler months are between June and August). Book in advance to stay in the camps as they are often fully booked. And you don’t need a 4X4 to visit Kgalagadi. You only need one if you intend staying at camps other than Twee Rivieren.