Text: Malini, Photos: Patrick, Malini
It can only be described as one of the most exhilarating wilderness experiences in the world- watching a lion from a vehicle that you are driving yourself and making the decisions that lead to meeting this lion. The Kalahari is one of the magical places one could ever visit and the place where you can make this dream come true. But before creating this unique face-to-face encounter with the biggest land predator in Africa, there is a great deal of organisation. After all, you are about to embark on a journey in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park: a protected area stretching across 37,000 km2 and punctuated by deep red dunes, shimmering white pans, fanning acacias and home to the black-maned lions and countless other desert species. From securing transportation into the country, within the country (we hire fully equipped camping vehicles), accommodation (in this case campsites), and organising logistics (food, water, and firewood), there is a lot to do before you can be let loose in the park.
Upington can be described as a gateway to the KTP. This little town is as remote as they come but it is the best place to get kitted up for the trip. From fresh food, pantry items to useful household articles all of which are carefully listed in an excel spreadsheet to ensure nothing gets forgotten. Experience from previous trips come in handy when building the list. Food comes in three types, those that must be stored in the fridge like fresh vegetables, fruits, milk, yoghurt, etc., frozen meat which is pre-packed by the butcher into daily portions and must be stored in the freezer and finally pantry items like sugar, spices and dry items that don’t need to be stored in a special way. We also have separate cooler boxes for all the drinks and pack them with ice regularly to keep the drinks cool. The vehicles are equipped with one fridge/freezer each and the way we organise it, is to have one vehicle with the freezer and the other with the fridge. We also like to get large shallow plastic boxes which we then fill with water and put out in the campsites for the animals especially in areas where there are no waterholes or easy access to water. A fleece blanket can sometimes come in handy: in 2017 we experience a cold front from the Antarctic with temperatures as cold as six degrees in the morning. It lasted a few days before going back to the 30 deg normal. Although the vehicle comes equipped with kitchen and cooking accessories, we like to add to them with more sturdy items and they inevitably get handed over to our travel organiser in Upington. That spreadsheet becomes significant when you reach the last days out in the desert, and you realise how important it is to detail your food and water consumption per day. The spreadsheet not only lists exact amounts of fresh foods and pantry items. We have had trips where we reach the last day without any food or water and just warm beer. Practise makes perfect!
Packing the vehicle is a veritable game of Tetris. Each item has a specific spot and if it’s put in the different place, things no longer fit. The Bushlore vehicles are roomy and have space for personal luggage, bedding material, a table and chairs, kitchen utensils, as well as all the food and drinks. Once in the park, the camping equipment can be removed from the vehicle and set up in the camping spot while personal luggage can be put in the hutch, making the cabin free of any encumbrance. The four-seater cabin is ideal for two photographers where one drives/spots/photographs and the other photographs/spots from the back seat. This means both photographers can photograph on both sides of the car without being encumbered by the other.
The drive from Upington to the KTP is your first taste of the Kalahari desert environment with the sands getting redder by the kilometre and the feeling of being lost in the wilderness grows with every passing dune. The drive is of course interrupted with the obligatory stop at Askom for a springbok pie and melk tart (for those who delight in these treats). As the large gate and administrative building looms into sight, it becomes difficult to curb one’s excitement. Although processing the admin papers can take a bit of time, it is conspicuous that there is only a gate separating you from the outside world and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
The whole point of travelling to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is to camp. A roof-top tent is one of the highlights of camping in the bush is placed on the back of the hutch. The first thing to do when reaching a camp site is to check if there are any large heads popping out from between the grasses lining the camp, i.e. lions. Once you are sure that the coast is clear, you can start getting organised. The A-Frame is ideal to set up the table and chairs. One table is the “work table” and can be used to store boxes with utensils and foods that can be easily accessible. The other table is the dining one and used for reading and entertainment. Once everything is set-up, we place the water buckets for the birds, mongoose, and other thirsty animals to use. The roof-top tent is only unfolded once the last drive of the day is complete. We like to bring a camera and torchlight into the tent just in case there is wildlife moving around camp at night. This way we can photograph them from the safety of the roof and have sufficient light for sharp pictures.
Many campsites in the park are unfenced; this means there are some general safety rules to follow to the letter if one wants to leave the park alive. The most important one is to move in groups after dark. Wild animals are naturally curious and tend to hang around campsites sometimes just to observe what’s going on and more often to scavenge any food that may have strayed. In the evenings, all food boxes containing cooked or uncooked foods are stored inside the vehicles to prevent any damage. On one of our previous trips, a black-backed jackal gorged itself on my box of Indian flat rice that I had left outside. Honestly, I didn’t think any animal would go for it, but lesson learnt! All food without exception must be stored in the vehicle or hung from the A-frame, high enough that they can’t be reached. Over the years, we have had lions, leopards, jackals, hyenas, mice, birds, and snakes in camp. By day, all these animals with the exception of the yellow cobra, are relaxed and there is no need to be afraid of them (provided you behave with the right amount of common sense). By night, there are no exceptions, it is not a zoo and wildlife behave instinctively: where lions and leopards are concerned, stupidity is not an excuse. It only takes a few seconds to make the difference between going home alive or in a body bag. There have been sufficient incidents in the park for travellers to follow this rule instinctively.
Each day begins with a cup of coffee or tea brewed with water heated the previous night and kept in a thermos. We like to leave camp early and experience sunrise in the field giving us the best photographic light for any animal we may encounter along the way.Depending on where you are in the park, your first wildlife sighting of the day may be giraffes (Mata-Mata), steenbok (Mabua), cape foxes (Rooiputs), lions (Nossob). By 10am, the sun is high, and the heat is blistering. Most animals have already retired in burrows or taking the shade under trees. It is the perfect time to find a campsite or rest area to whip up a delicious brunch. Fried eggs, accompanied by bacon strips (fried to a crisp for me) and often flat rice or leftovers from the previous night fill our plates. Coffee and water help wash this down. As we digest, we drive slowly back to camp in hopes of seeing an animal brave the heat.
Once back at camp, it is the hottest time of the day and perfect for an apero (a delightfully chilled glass of wine or beer) followed by a few hours of reading or a nap. It is also at this time when we decide the menu for the evening and which meat needs to be defreezed. As the day progresses and the temperatures become more manageable, we get our sundowners ready (gin & tonic) and head out in search of wildlife. Sometimes the best option is to just wait at a waterhole and see who comes to drink. It could be birds, or a herd of kudu or wildebeest or springbok and if you’re lucky it could even be a predator. Evenings and mornings are the best time to spot African wildcats and caracals as they move around in search of prey. On other occasions, driving around slowly is the best solution to finding animals and birds. As the sunsets, it is time to make our way back to the campsite and begin cooking dinner. Once the fire is started, we have to wait until the embers are ready to cook on. The South Africans have a precise way to determine this: it’s a one or a two-beer fire, meaning you can drink one or two beers before the fire is ready. Once the embers are just right, it’s time to put on the steaks and chicken or begin the poitje depending on the evening’s menu. We’ve had fairly simple meals on some trips and more elaborate ones on others extending even to Indian dosas, Thai curries, Moroccan stews. But in all fairness, the perfect end to a great day in the Kalahari is a glass of chilled wine and a braai.
The unpredictability of wildlife is what makes the whole experience so fulfilling. We have visited the Kgalagadi several times and each time has been a completely different experience. The first time we visited the park in 2016, it was during the spring season, and there was an abundance of herbivores, incredible birdlife, but very few predators. It was during this visit that we had a leopard and her cub come into camp to drink water and also when we saw some of the more spectacular species of birds in breeding plumage: pin-tailed whydah. In 2017, we visited during the month of November when the grass was yellow and the animals had just had their young. We even saw a springbok give birth to a fawn in the safety of an acacia grove. Baby meerkats, mongooses and Cape fox kits were an absolute delight at camp.
In October 2019, we visited the park during a terrible drought and the herbivores were looking quite frail. The lions on the other hand were thriving and we were easily seeing up to 40 lions each day. Waterholes were stages of dramatic life and death scenes with lions lying in wait as kudu and wildebeest on their last reserves braved their way for a much-needed sip of water. We also had the greatest number of sightings of African wild cats during this drought, as this secretive little predator was forced out of hiding in search of prey. As one would expect, the large number of lions roaming around meant that we would have little chance to see leopards or cheetahs.
Our most recent visit in November 2022 came at the tail end of a drought; several bushfires had ravaged the park leaving little for the herbivores to feed on and therefore the predators were few and far between. As we drove through the park, we saw fires smouldering and the air reeked with the acrid smell of smoke. Striped mice and owls were spotted in such an abundance that we have never experienced before. Similarly, we have never seen such incredibly large flocks of quelea and sandgrouse milling in the grass and at waterholes before. It was quite astonishing to see the fresh green shoots emerging from between the burnt stumps of bushes and trees.
There are some memorable incidents that take centre-stage when anyone mentions the KTP. In 2017, we watched a cheetah, and her cubs stalk a herd of springbok for over an hour. It was a thrilling experience but cut short as we had to drive the long 200km to the Mabua side of the park. In 2019 just after exiting the Nossob Camp, we watched as a hungry lion tried to climb up a tree where a leopard had stashed a kill. Although this massive male made it to the lower branches, it could not reach high enough. By now, a small congregation of vehicles had gathered and were watching as this lion was deciding how to make its descent. The episode ended with the lion crashing in a heap on the ground, looking embarrassed and without having had a single taste of the kill that was still perched firmly in the higher reaches of the tree. Later during the trip, while we were camping in the Mabua side of the park, we had a pride of lions close-by who were desperate for water. They roared all night and, in the morning, as we were breaking camp to head to the Okavango, two lionesses wandered into camp and started drinking water in the buckets we had set up for them. The buckets clearly did not suffice and one of the lionesses walked off with one of our 5-L water bottles. There was a night where a spotted eagle-owl decided to use our tent as a base and every time it lifted off, you could hear its soft wings. It would land a few minutes later with a thump. It went on all night. On our last visit, I spotted a black-backed jackal with a humongous yellow cobra in its mouth. Sadly, this rare encounter ended in a fender-bender and the jackal got away with its prize without being photographed even once.
Before I conclude, it is worthy to note that the KTP is one of the best places to spot African raptors, both nocturnal and diurnal. Martial eagles, secretary birds, Bateleur eagles, pale chanting goshawk, kestrels, Verreaux’s giant eagle owls are common sights in the park with pygmy falcons and other smaller raptors also spotted with relative ease.
Every visit is different, and this is what makes the KTP a thrilling place to visit. Each of our visits was dominated by one group or type of animal depending on the season and the weather patterns. We jokingly renamed the park based on this during each of our visit. In 2016, it was the Kalahari Springbok Park; in 2017, it was the Kalahari Mongoose Park; in 2019, it was the Kalahari Lion Park and in 2022, it was the Kalahari Owl Park! One can never go into the wild loaded with expectations because it will inevitably end in disappointment. Which is what makes the KTP so great- even when you see nothing, you are in one of the most beautiful and compelling places on Earth. So pack your bags and head to this special corner of the world where the black-maned lions are still roaming the land.
Disclaimer: Although it may seem like a silly thing to write, it is important for travellers to read up about their travel destination before they go. Being well-informed not only makes the experience more enjoyable but also prepares you for unexpected changes brought on by weather or uncharacteristic occurrences such as bushfires for example. This will make your experience the best possible version. As I always say: “Google is for free”!