On Safari in the Kalahari
“This must not be your last time.”
So said our safari guide near the end of our time in the Kalahari and near the end of our safari ― my first ever. Never, in all my travels, did I think I would ever get the chance to go to Africa. Never, in all my dreams, did I think I would ever go on safari.
But when a friend who just happened to be travelling to South Africa invited me to meet up with her, I jumped at the opportunity. After I had worked out the details of how and where we would meet, my next step was to arrange a safari for us.
And here’s the first thing I learned: when you type the keywords “South Africa” and “safari,” the destination at the top of the list is the Kruger. Safari-goers like to talk about checking the Big Five off their list (Big Five = lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo) and Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in South Africa, has all of these and more. Plus, it’s conveniently located near Johannesburg. Which makes the Kruger a popular safari destination.
But with a little more digging, other choices are discovered. I began reading about the Kalahari in the northwest part of South Africa, near the Botswana and Namibia borders. It’s more remote, so it takes a lot more schlepping to get there, but I was intrigued by the descriptions of its landscape.
My friend said the choice was up to me. I went all pragmatic and made a list of pros and cons. The two options came out dead even, so I was right back where I started.
I then sought the advice of a co-worker who had grown up in Zimbabwe and had spent a lot of time in South Africa. In the end, my choice came down to her warning that, because we were going to be there in February, at the height of the rainy season, the foliage in the Kruger might be so lush and full we ran a fair chance of not seeing any game at all.
That settled it. We were going to the Kalahari.
Following a recommendation from my trusted Lonely Planet, and after several emails back and forth to South Africa, I booked us on a six-day camping safari with a small family-run operation out of Upington in the Northern Cape, the largest and least populated province in South Africa. Our safari would take us to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a game reserve that straddles the border of South Africa and Botswana.
And so, on the appointed morning, our guide picked us up at our guest house in Upington. Introductions were made all around. There were only four of us on this safari and our companions were the best we could hope for: two Germans who never stopped laughing or joking around and destroyed every stereotype I ever had about Germans. By lunchtime on our first day, my friend and I realized they were going to be a lot of fun. (What was almost unbelievable, given how well they got on, is that this couple had never met before our safari.)
And our South African guide not only took very good care of us, he was a gifted tracker and a wise man. I enjoyed his stories immensely ― and I am pretty sure he enjoyed ours.
Upington to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a bit of a trek and it took us most of a day to get to our first campsite. The roads inside the park are unpaved and covered in sand (which we soon learned makes them an excellent surface for tracking!).
We also soon learned that these roads were prone to flooding because (1) it was the rainy season and (2) they follow dry river beds. Flanking the edges of these river beds were dunes. The day we drove cross country from the Nossob River bed to the Auob River bed gave us a marvellous roller-coaster ride over waves of dunes that rippled the landscape before us.
We spent three nights camping in Botswana, in basic, unfenced campgrounds. (Basic = pit toilets and no running water. Unfenced = absolutely no leaving the tent at night without waking our guide.) There were two tents for the four of us paying customers that we quickly learned how to put up and take down ourselves. Our guide slept in a smaller tent or, when it was too windy, the back of the SUV.
The other two nights we camped in South Africa, in full-service campgrounds that included a gas station, small store, showers and flush toilets, and a high fence encircling the entire campground. The gates were closed from dusk to dawn, but by 6 a.m. each morning there was always a line-up of SUVs eager to start their game drives.
Our daily routine was rather basic. At 6:00 a.m. sharp, our guide gently woke us by calling out “morning, morning, morning.” At that hour it was scarcely light enough to see without a flashlight, but mornings were the best time to see game, so we wanted an early start.
Once we were on the road, we stopped anytime we saw game. On the days we moved camp, we’d reach the next campsite by early afternoon. On days we weren’t moving camp, we still went back to the campsite for the height of the afternoon as there was little to see in the way of wildlife at that time of day. There would be another game drive in the late afternoon/early evening, and then back to camp for our sundowners (gin & tonic were our drink of choice) and dinner: always a braai (Afrikaans for “grill”) prepared and served by our guide.
My safari experience, to put it simply, far exceeded my expectations and then some. I loved the landscape ― I blame my love of flat horizons on my Prairie upbringing ― and I loved the early mornings at dawn when the world was cool and soft. Although the Kalahari is a desert, the daytime temperatures never seemed overwhelming ― again, my Prairie temperament loves a dry heat.
As far as the main attraction of the safari went, my expectations were exceeded and then some as well: two cheetahs, 14 lions (three of them cubs), and springbok, gemsbok, blue wildebeest, and red hartebeest, including fawns and calves, by the herdful. Lots of birds as well. A handful of giraffes. A couple of jackals. And of course the barking geckos who serenaded us every single night.
As we were driving back to Upington on our last day together, we teased our guide about the stories he would tell his next group about all our antics. He laughed along with us, but then turned serious for a moment and looked right at me and my friend. “This must not be your last time,” he said earnestly.
Never, in all my travels, did I think I would ever get the chance to go to Africa. Never, in all my dreams, did I think I would ever go on safari.
I can only hope and dream that I will get the chance again.