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A visit to the Kalahari Desert

Saturday 23 July 2005

Jacques and I depart Bronhorstspruit on Saturday at 16:00 sharp. (Well, actually we finished our coffee before leaving.) I see Jacques off at the Johannesburg International airport. He is on his way to the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Fortunately he flies Air France rather than SAA, so the pilots' strike does not affect him. I then drive on into the night around Johannesburg to get on the N14 westward at Roodepoort. I stop for fuel outside Ventersdorp, then on past Coligny, Biesiesvlei, Sannieshof and Delareyville to Vryburg, arriving at about 23:30 at Die Herberg B&B. Went to sleep after a shower in a cosily furnished room, decorated in maroon.

Sunday 24 July 2005

Sunday morning see me getting up at about 07:30, for breakfast at 08:00. It is now obvious that the blocked nose and dry lips of the yesterday is the start of a cold. Breakfast is served by my hostess, Ria Kennedy. A full English breakfast; scrambled eggs, a rasher of bacon, a thin sausage and a slice of toast. Sit talking with Ria and her husband Shaun about the weather and the road over coffee until about 09:00, pay the bill and get on my way. It's a long road, a straight strip of tar surrounded by miles and miles of yellow grass dotted with trees. At some point the grass turns to shrubs, and suddenly bare red soil is visible between plants. The first stop is at Kuruman, for petrol, and a look at the Eye. This is a natural spring that fills a large pool with crystal-clear water. Schools of fish and some crabs inhabit the pool. After some take-away coffee and rusks, on the road again to Kathu, a small town next to the huge iron-ore mine at Sishen. Here I pick up a hitchhiker; traffic in these parts is very light, and my passenger had been waiting for three hours. He's young, unemployed, soccer mad, and waiting to hear the results of his job interview at a lime mine at Danielskuil. Turn off the plain towards some hills and Olifantshoek, where I drop my passenger, over the hills and down to the plains again. This repeats a few times; a long, straight road, rising across a ridge or two, then down to the plain and the long straight road again.
A long road disappearing in the distance.
The nests of sociable weavers on telephone poles tells me clearly that I'm in a dry part of the country now.
The nest of the sociable weaver on a telephone pole. Then suddenly, trees; I've reached the outer limits of the irrigated area around the Orange River, the "Green Kalahari". Four o'clock find me at Upington; Sunday afternoon, time for coffee and cake, but I make do with coffee and waffle at the Wimpy. Fill up with petrol again, and take the road north. Again, a long straight road, speed limit 250 km/h! (Unfortunately only for vehicles under test and with government permission.) By around 17:00 I arrive at my destination for the night: Kalahari Farm Kitchen and Guest House on the farm Uitkyk. Here I have booked a camping site, but with my cold I feel I should not sleep outside, so I ask if there is any room inside. Unfortunately the bathroom in the house is under reconstruction, but I accept the offer of a Bush Camp, apparently not a proper house, but at least a better shelter than I could make for myself. Paul Loots and son guide me to the bush camp on their quad bike; what a surprise! As we come round a bend in the road I am confronted with a body of open water, filled with waterfowl of all descriptions. Next to this pond is a little thatch-roofed hut, with a fireplace in a lapa next to it. The little hut has a floor of terra cotta tiles, walls of brushwood, a shower in canvas and a white basin and toilet. The brushwood walls allow the free circulation of air, which should be lovely in the hot summer. Now it is winter, and there are some canvas screens to keep the worst of the chill out.
Bush camp next to a pond. Soon after arrival I'm sitting in a chair, writing my diary and watching the sunset.
Sunset over a pond in the Kalahari.
In the dusk I unpack the car and lay the fire; a dog from the farmyard came snuffling around. The next moment there is a pretty girl between me and my fire. This turns out to be an Italian lady from Cape Town, who is staying at the guest house, out for a stroll around the water after sunset. She had come here with some friends, but they had gone on to do the Garden Route. She stayed behind because she enjoyed the quiet. It turned out that she too had intended to visit the park, but that things were difficult without a car. I offer to take her to the park with me, but I cannot not promise to bring her back by Thursday, when she have to catch the bus from Upington to be back in Cape Town on Friday. I promise to pick her up in the morning, should she decide to go. I light my fire, and soon a piece or wors is on the coals. I'm grateful for the solar-powered electric light; my gas lamp only glows feebly, and changing the cartridge makes no difference. I dine on bread and sausage, followed by coffee. A shower, and then I thankfully crawl into the bed stacked high with bedding.

Monday 25 July 2005

On Monday morning I am moving at 07:00, putting water on to boil for coffee and rusks. Wash, dress, eat, drink, put down the rear seat on the Ford Escort hatchback car, repack things in a way suitable for camping. All of this takes much more time than I expected, compounded by a lassitude brought on by my cold, and it is only at 09:00 that I pull into the farmyard. Federica, alas, decided not to come to the park. Northwards again on the straight road, then suddenly the empty road starts climbing, falling, gently twisting and turning; I had arrived among the dunes of the Kalahari.
Sand dunes covered with grass and shrubs.
Here and there are pans, flat water-holding hollows, dry in this season. Frequent signs warn about owls and bat-eared foxes; there many carcases of foxes killed on the road. On Saturday night I had avoided two owls; it takes sharp braking to allow the owl enough time to take off. At Askham the way to the park turns off onto a gravel road. The first few kilometers is under construction, being upgraded to tarmac. The rest of the road is gravel and badly corrugated. I'm shocked at the violence and noise of driving on the corrugated road, but there's nothing to do but carry on. Fortunately Paul Loots had given me a tip; in some places there are tracks that runs among the shrub next to the road; here the driving is much smoother and much more fun. Here and there red dunes are visible next to the road; one guest farm offers "dune surfing". And so, at about noon, I pull up at the gate to Twee Rivieren, the biggest camp and administrative centre of the South African side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. At the gate I get my permit, and I have to sign that I understand the rules; no speeding, no driving off the road, no bothering of animals. Then to reception to confirm my booking and pay the fees. I pick a campsite, and pull out the coffee and rusks. I am obviously, but not seriously, ill from the cold now, and just sitting in the shade and watching the sparrows and sociable weavers and naughtily feeding the curious and tame ground squirrels is a relaxing relief.
A ground squirrel next to the wheel of a car.
A little nap in the chair, and then a walk around the camp to get to know it. There's a nice exhibition in one building, explaining the ecology of the arid areas of South Africa. The Kalahari is of the type known as arid savannah, fields of grass and shrub dotted with trees. At around 16:00, off for a drive before the gates close; in this park visitor safety is quite important, and everybody has to book out at reception, and book back in on arrival. I also deflate my tyres to 1.6 bar as the man at the requested: high tyre pressure leads to corrugation of the park's roads. Not far from the gate I see my first oryx, the animal that was to be protected by the creation of the park.
Gemsbok in front of grassy dune
The drive is towards the Mata-Mata camp, running up and down the dunes. I see the bottoms of the "streets" between the dunes is riddled with suricate burrows. I get some pictures of ostrich, and see my first Kori bustard. This ground-walking bird has an oddly-thick neck, and is the world's heaviest flying bird.
Kori bustard
At sunset I light my fire; by 20:30 I'm dispirited and hungry, and still without a proper fire. The wood I had brought with me is not properly dry, and by the handful of coals I scrape together from the smoky mess I grill a piece of wors, and eat it with bread. My only means of cooking is my wood fire, and it has not worked out. In the meantime I had figured out my shelter, and rigged it and rolled out my bedding. It is in pretty low spirits that I go to bed.
First camp. Too low, and not tight.

Tuesday 26 July 2005

Wake-up on Tuesday is with the sunrise. Slowly I come to life, enjoying the sight of the sociable weavers and sparrows hopping around my campsite, pecking at crumbs; some of them come under my shelter. On getting up I see the tracks of a squirrel or suricate running across my footprints. Scrub the dishes, pack up, and go to the shop to prepare for tonight; get a bag of bone-dry Kalahari wood. Off on the road to Mata-Mata again, covering the same ground as yesterday afternoon, but then carrying on beyond the dunes until I get to the valley of the Auob river, along which the road runs most of the way.
Valley of the Auob river
"River" is of course a technical term; here in the Kalahari there is no natural surface water during winter, and the rivers flows very infrequently, once every hundred years in the case of the the Auob. The last time was in 1963. (At this time my father was working as technician at the SABC. He accompanied a reporter who interviewed chief ranger Joep le Riche on this rare occurrence.) The oryx does not need water to survive in the desert; for the other animals that would naturally migrate to the Orange river, there are frequent water holes, fed by boreholes in the riverbed. The water is pumped by windmill and, increasingly, solar-powered electric pumps. I drive on northwards. Viewing game alone has its problems and its advantages; problems includes driving on the sandy road and looking for animals at the same time; advantages include being free to sit still for a quarter of an hour and watch a mouse devour a twig. The main big mammals in the park are the oryx and the gnu; I see plenty of them. At around 14:00 I'm at a waterhole called Auchterlonie. To my surprise there's a building and a kraal on the opposite riverbank, and a sign to a picnic spot. The building turns out to be a museum, and is a reconstruction of a farmhouse from the time before 1931 when farming was still attempted here. I also learn that the Auob was considered as an invasion route of German West Africa (Namibia) in 1913, and that the boreholes were made by the military in preparation. A lunch of bread and cheese washed down with Ceres grape juice is followed by a nap in the shade of the picnic shelter. In the heat of the afternoon I drive back to Twee Rivieren; among the dunes I see the secretary bird, symbolic on the country's new coat of arms because of its ability to kill snakes. For a long time I sit and watch a suricate family at the mouth of their burrow. Dad watches all the time, and if all is quiet mom comes out and joins him. After a while the two little ones come out and play at their feet. The smallest disturbance sends them into cover.
Two adult suricate in the mouth of their burrow.
I'm back in camp an hour before closing time; this allows me to get a better campsite than last night. The wood is dry, and when the sun sets I light my fire. While the pap is cooking, in the gathering twilight, I take out my toolbox and dismantle my gas lamp, having diagnosed a possibly blocked jet. After sucking and blowing at the tiny pieces and checking that the jet is open, I reassemble and is rewarded by the warm white glow. I discover that the open tailgate of the car makes a very useful spot to hang my lamp. Using the picnic table as an anchor for my shelter give a useful lift in the height of its roof.
Second camp. Anchored to the picnic table. When the coals of my brightly-burning fire is ready, I slap some "wagon wheels" on the grill; strips of deboned pork rib, rolled up and put on a stick, smoked and flavoured. Tonight I eat like a king. Scrubbing the dishes is followed by a shower, and my shelter is a bit more comfortable. It is my last day with a telephone, so I make a call home, and a call to Uitkyk to reserve the bush camp for Friday night.

Wednesday 27 July 2005

I pull myself out of bed on Wednesday morning at 07:00; I have a long drive ahead and I want to start early. But breakfast and packing up takes longer than anticipated, so that it is only at 09:30 or so that I get on the road. This time I do not take the turn-off to Mata-Mata, but carry on up the valley of the Nossob river to the Nossob camp. The Nossob valley is much wider than that of the Auob, and much more sandy. It flows fairly frequently, about once every twenty years. I learn from my guidebook that the red dunes associated with the Kalahari is found only where overgrazing takes place. The park is well managed of course, and therefore the sand dunes are stabilized by the specialized grasses and shrubs that cover them. A general rule for game viewing is "the slower you go the more you see". On this morning I find the truth in that. I see an eagle attacking a suricate. Not much later I'm watching two eagles in the air, when I realize that the one has some kind of prey in its claws; the second one is harassing it to get part of the feed. When the first one drops its prey, I follow it falling down with the binoculars, trying to identify it. The next moment, it sprouts wings and flies for the safety of the nearest tree. The prey was a small bird that was taken alive, and escaped while the eagles quarreled! I have a lunch of leftover pap and wagon wheel at the Melkvlei picnic site. This is the downside of going slowly; I'm only halfway as far as I wanted to be at lunchtime. So now I have to put on more speed, keeping closer to the 50 km/h speed limit. As I get closer to Nossob camp, the road gets sandier. When I arrive at Nossob camp at half an hour before gate-closing time, the person checking me in is relieved to hear from me; she knows I'm travelling alone, and was concerned about who would help me if I happened to get stuck. This makes me realize how seriously safety is taken in this park. She tells me that jackals are a problem in camp, and that I should keep everything inside. They will carry off any kind of food they can find, and even shoes and other loose items. In Nossob campers are assigned numbered campsites. I get campsite number seven, with a fairly scrawny grey camelthorn tree. Across the road the Germans have a towering camelthorn. Now in winter it doesn't matter much; in summer every bit of shade would be welcome. Once again sunset gives the signal to light the fire, and supper is pap and wors. Rigging shelter is a doddle with the "hitching rail" fence that marks the boundaries of the campsite.
Third camp. Shelter open at the side. After washing up in the scullery I return to my campsite to find it crawling with jackal. Five or six of them run away when I approach. Determined flashing with my torch drive them to the next campsite. Nothing seems to be disturbed, but I find a small damp spot on my bedding and later realize a small plastic container with pap is missing. I pack away everything and go sit for an hour in the hide; this is an elevated structure outside camp, overlooking a small waterhole lit by floodlight. It is very quiet, and cold. My more experienced companions sit wrapped in blankets. Nothing stirs for a long time, and then a black-backed jackal come trotting up for a drink. Nothing else. I give up and go have a hot shower, a blessing after a very cold experience. In Nossob electricity is supplied by generator and it is switched off at 23:00. By this time I'm in dreamland.

Thursday 28 July 2005

I did not sleep well. It was bloody cold, more through bad management than through lack of bedding. I added more layers through the night, but there was always a cold spot somewhere. The shelter was probably too open, for I could feel the very slight breeze that blew through the night. I wake up slowly as the sun rise. Sadly, my bed is in the shadow of my car. I crawl out at 08:00 and stand in the growing sunshine, talking to the birds and the squirrels. I light a small fire for my breakfast coffee using newspaper as kindling; the neighbouring campers see my "plight" and bring me some firelighter. I got rather concerned with the car's fuel consumption on the sandy roads, so I fill the tank. One can pay by petro-card, even though there is no telephone in camp. It is early afternoon when I leave camp. I drive to the next waterhole, where a herd of red hartebeest stand nodding in the shade of some camelthorn trees. A jackal come trotting up and have a drink. I turn my car so that I'm in the shade, and sit and sleep for a while. An oryx had moved closer to the water, but there is no other change of scenery. I then carry on to the next waterhole, where a red hartebeest and a whitebacked vulture is doing a strange, slow dance. Whatever move the vulture make is countered by the red hartebeest. I can't see what causes this behaviour. On the way back to camp I spot the carcase of an ostrich, killed the previous day by a cheetah. Now it is surrounded by three black-backed jackal feasting away. Not far away the vultures sit huddled, awaiting their turn. Back at the first waterhole I am treated to the sight of a bateleur drinking. Unfortunately it is disturbed by the sound of another car before I can get a good picture. The red hartebeest are on their way downriver. Back at camp I go straight to the hide, to see if there are any animals coming to drink at dusk. There are no mammals when I get there, but the biggest swarms of Cape turtle dove I've ever seen. They collect at the water in huge numbers, flapping and shoving, and then suddenly disappear when some kind of falcon sweeps through. I see one attack by the falcon clearly; its approach is a textbook "fast and low", but not successful. A jackal also come to drink, snapping at the doves, but not determinedly. The doves cleverly keep to the opposite side of the water. Tonight it is dark by the time I light my fire. Supper is pasta and sauce from a packet (ham flavour, I think), with bullybeef. Quick and easy, and very filling. I've built a good shelter tonight; reaches to the ground along the edge away from the car, but it is high enough to crawl into easily. I've tried a deadman (piece of firewood buried in the sand) as a ground-level anchor, and it works well. Unfortunately I forget to take in photo. I spend some time looking at the sky. The stars are incredibly bright, but most impressive to me is that I can clearly see the dark centre of the galaxy overhead.

Friday 29 July 2005

My last day in the park. I slept well, never feeling cold. To get away as early as possible I do not have breakfast in camp, just wash, pack, collect my permit and leave. I'm on the road about fifteen minutes after the gates opened. It is good to be on the road early, even though I do not get more lucky in spotting animals. It is pleasant driving in the cool of the morning, watching the animals start their day. Suddenly the car is stuck in the sand. This is a rather disconcerting experience, just stopping to look at something, and then being unable to move again. I've not had any experience of driving on sand before, but I know that it is easy to make a bad situation worse. I gingerly try reversing, and then forward again, but no luck. Reluctantly I decide to break the rules, and get out of my car to look at the situation. It is dead quiet, of course. Not far away a lone springbok is grazing, but nothing else moves. The situation was not too bad: the wheels are still in full contact with the sand, and no part of the body is touching. The front (driving) wheels were simply dug into a ridge of sand running along the direction of driving. I dig some of the sand away, put some pieces of firewood under the wheels, and try again. Very little progress, but at least the the nearside wheel is now fairly free. A little bit more digging, another attempt at forward, but then stuck again. Try reverse again, and hoorah! we were running backwards at a fair pace, on to a firm patch. Forward again at high speed, attack the sand and keep the wheels rolling, and along we go. I was relieved to be safely inside the car again: something fairly big had startled the springbok while I was outside the car. A bit further on I see a place where someone else had to dig themselves out, and I feel a little less foolish. Breakfast at the Dikbaardskolk picnic site, in the company of some French people and a yellow mongoose. On again southward, at a gentle speed. A glass of grape juice at the Melkvlei picnic site for lunch. Coming round a corner the noise of the car startles a Kori bustard into flight; it gains height with a few quick wingstrokes and then glides to a safe distance. I get good pictures of herds of springbok, oryx and ostrich.
A herd of ostrich
A herd of springbuck
The last animal I spot before I get to the gate at Twee Rivieren is the black-chested snake eagle. It is around 15:00 when I leave the park at the Twee Rivieren gate. Once again I follow the tracks next to the road, having fun with its winding way and variable surface while doing as good a speed as I would on the corrugated road. A great part of the way the road follows the South Africa/Botswana border fence. It twists and turns a bit as it would, because it is still following a riverbed. Inside the park the border is also marked, but the road merrily meanders between the border markers, a happy reminder that countries' borders can be merely symbolic. Back on the tarred road, it is once again a smooth run towards Upington. I reach Uitsig just before six. I'm out of fresh meat, so I buy some from the Kitchen. Once again I'm installed in the little hut by sunset, and with the firewood I have left I make my final fire. Supper is a chop and some wors fresh from the kitchen, and a large potato.

Saturday 30 July 2005

Saturday start with a fairly leisurely breakfast and a stroll around the dam, inpecting the camping facilities I never used. By 11:00 I'm in Upington, refuelled and ready for the long road. Although the journey is long it is uneventful.
A section of road between Upington and Olifantshoek.
At Olifantshoek I inflate the tyres again, and pick up a hitchhiker, dropping him off on the turnoff to Postmasburg, and there getting another on his way to Kathu. This give me an opportunity to get to know this little town, delightfully prosperous because of the iron ore mines. A brief stop in Kuruman for coffee at the Spur, then onward again. Pass through Vryburg in the late afternoon, refuel outside Ventersdorp in the dark again. I enter the smoke of Gauteng at around 20:00, and get home at 21:15. An hour later the car is unpacked, laundry in the basket, dishes in the dishwasher, rubbish in the bin, camp gear ready for cleaning, my feet are up and I'm telling all my stories.