The Kruger National Park may be more famous internationally, but for many people the semi-arid Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is the premier protected area in SA. This cross-border park covers more than 38 000 square kilometres (almost double the size of Kruger), and is one of the last true wilderness areas on the continent. Scott Ramsay recently spent three weeks there. In the first article in a two-part series, he explores the South African side of the park. Next month he will go into the Botswana section
There are few protected areas in southern Africa that can match the Kgalagadi’s impressive sense of space. Located in one of the least inhabited areas of Africa, the park is perfect if you want to get away from city life. The South African side (about 9 500 square kilometres) is smaller than the Botswana side (about 28 000 square kilometres) but together they form the second largest protected area in Africa, after the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
The western boundaries adjacent to Namibia extend for about 300km and are fenced, while the eastern boundaries on the Botswana side are roughly 500km long, but only 100km in the south-east is fenced.
So-called “game management” or hunting areas surround the park on the Botswana side, and cattle ranching does occur in places, leading to conflict between lions and local communities.
There are no fences between the Botswana and South African sides of the park, and visitors from either country can drive in both sections without their passports, as long as you don’t try to leave the park at a different point to your entry. So there’s a palpable sense of freedom, although you do need a proper 4×4 and a permit to drive on the sandy tracks on the Botswana side.
Along with the immense size of the place, there are far fewer roads than there are in most game reserves. The two main gravel roads, which can be driven in any sedan, follow the dry river beds of the Nossob and Auob Rivers. The Nossob forms the eastern boundary between the South African and Botswana sections, while the Auob to the west runs from Namibia into the park.
The two main roads and their subterranean water courses converge near Twee Rivieren, which is the main entrance to the park in the south.
The riverbeds are an anomaly in this ancient landscape, because 99% of the park comprises sand dune fields covered in grass and camel thorn trees, interspersed here and there with large natural pans.
The Kgalagadi is situated at the southern end of the truly immense Kalahari sand basin (almost two million square kilometres) – the largest collection of sand deposits in the world, extending from the northern Congo rain forests all the way down to Upington and Kimberley in the Northern Cape.
Despite the illusion of a desert – Kgalagadi means roughly “always dry” in Setswana – there is a lot of wildlife. Numbers may be limited by the semi-arid climate (with an average, highly variable rainfall of 150mm), but the wide open spaces and lack of vegetation make spotting animals much easier than in bushveld or savannah habitat.
The park is famous for its black-maned lions and cheetahs, but it’s also arguably the best place to see brown hyenas. There are several hundred in the park, but you’ll have to get up early to see them, or do a night drive with a SANParks guide as they are decidedly nocturnal in behaviour.
The Kgalagadi offers good opportunities to see species such as the cute meerkat, the tenacious honey-badger, the elusive aardvark, the scampering bat-eared fox and the cuddly-looking Cape fox. There are no buffalo, elephant or rhino here, because the conditions are too dry.
Most of the park comprises longitudinal, vegetated dunes. They are generally devoid of wildlife, but the two dry riverbeds attract large numbers of antelope and other hoofed animals. In rare times of extremely heavy rain, the broad Nossob River can flow once or twice a century, and the narrow Auob once a decade. But while the riverbeds are usually dry, the extensive grass attracts large herds of springbok, wildebeest and gemsbok. Furthermore, there are numerous boreholes which pump up the groundwater. These boreholes were first drilled by South African armed forces just before the First World War, in case Germany invaded from what is today Namibia.
The waterholes are the only permanent sources of surface water in the park, and but for them there would be far fewer animals to see, especially during dry season. Water-dependent species like giraffe and wildebeest, both of which have to drink every day, have become sedentary, whereas in the past they would have migrated with the rains.
Because of the concentration of potential prey in the riverbeds, it is relatively easy to see lions, leopards, cheetahs, spotted hyenas and brown hyenas.
The Kgalagadi is famous for predator sightings. Gus Mills, long-time researcher in the park, says the Auob riverbed is one of the best places in Africa to see cheetahs hunting. The southern end is also a good place to spot leopards, especially between Urikaruus Wilderness Camp and Monro waterhole.
It’s the lions, however, that get visitors hitting the brakes of their 4x4s. Although black-maned lions do occur elsewhere in Africa, the Kgalagadi’s adult males all seem to carry impressively large and dark manes. They are not a sub-species, as some people suggest. They look larger than other African lions, but their dimensions are no different.
Next month I’ll write about two research projects on lions and leopards in the Kgalagadi.
Three main camps
There is a variety of accommodation and camping in the park, with something for everyone. Most of the accommodation occurs on the South African side of the park, but there are two new private lodges on the Botswana side, along with several campsites. (For Botswana camping and accommodation, check out part 2 of this series next month).
The three main SANParks camps are Twee Rivieren, near the southern main gate, Mata-Mata in the north-west, on the border with Namibia, and Nossob, halfway up the riverbed in the middle of the park. These fenced camps are typical of the old-style national parks camps, with chalets, campsites, swimming pools, shops – and a restaurant at Twee Rivieren.
The camps can become congested and noisy. Twee Rivieren at the southern end of the park is the biggest camp and serves as administrative headquarters, so it lacks a wilderness atmosphere and is best avoided, except for spending a night there to restock your supplies and gain your bearings.
Mata-Mata and Nossob are more pleasant, and smaller. But Mata-Mata is right on the fence-line with Namibia, so again there’s a lack of “wildness” about it.
Nossob is my favourite of the larger camps, located in the middle of the park, so you’re likely to hear lions roaring at night, or see spotted hyenas patrolling nearby. But the camp is in a rather dilapidated state, and many of the chalets are in dire need of maintenance. And in summer they are unbearably hot.
The septic tank system is old and too small for the camp, so sewerage has to be pumped out into a large truck every few days, leaving an unpleasant smell. There are plans, however, to upgrade Nossob and the other camps, which would be most welcome.
One of the best ways to experience the Kgalagadi is to stay at the Wilderness camps. These are small, self-catering, unfenced camps located in more remote places. There are no shops or reception areas, and generally there are no more than four two-bed chalets at each camp.
Grootkolk and Gharagab are in the far north-west, near the end of the Nossob road. Gharagab can be reached only by 4×4, and the same applies to Bitterpan, which is in the middle of the dunes south-west of Nossob.
Kalahari Tented Camp has 15 units (and a swimming pool!) and is close to Mata-Mata on the Auob road. But my favourites are Kielie Krankie, towards the south, perched on top of a dune with great views, and Urikaruus, located on the Auob close to a waterhole.
The best reason to stay at the wilderness camps is that you are likely to have more time with the animals, especially predators. Generally, the wilderness camps are located in predator-dense areas. You will certainly see the predators more often than guests at the main camps, and you can spend longer with them. This is because, if you’re staying at one of the main camps, you have to make the long drive back to camp before the gates close at sunset – very frustrating if you’re watching a pride of lions or a leopard.
The area around Urikaruus is well-known for its leopards, and because it’s half-way up the Auob between Mata-Mata and Twee Rivieren, guests can explore this area earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon than guests staying at the main camps.
Nossob, however, can be excellent for predator sightings, and the waterhole hide can be very productive for brown hyena and lion sightings.
The private !Xaus lodge is located in the south-west of the park, on land which was given back to the Mier and Khomani San communities, and consists of a 24-bed thatched semi-luxury lodge. Because it’s situated in the dune field, above a pan, wildlife viewing can be challenging at !Xaus, so don’t expect to see loads of game.
Most people tend to visit Kgalagadi during the cooler winter months, between April and September. I prefer to visit in summer time. Although day temperatures can go above 45ºC between November and March, there are, unsurprisingly, far fewer visitors.
The thunderstorms are spectacular, and heavy downpours bring life to the thirsty land. Immediately after the rains, new grass springs up everywhere, attracting the springbok, wildebeest and gemsbok to the riverbeds. The antelope and other animals give birth, and the bird life also prospers in summer, with many more raptors soaring in the sky. The most common are eagles – martial, brown snake and black-chested snake eagles.
You could also encounter huge flocks of yellow-billed kites, which congregate in their hundreds during summer. Owls also thrive, so look out for the white-faced owls and giant eagle owls, notably in the trees at Nossob camp.
While winter temperatures are certainly more comfortable during the day, they can drop below freezing at night. I find the cooler months at Kgalagadi lacking in vitality and colour. It’s also a much windier and dustier time of year. So if you can stand the heat, visit in summer time!
Fracking in Kgalagadi’s wilderness?
Wilderness areas across Africa are continually threatened by mining, agriculture and encroachment by people, and the Kgalagadi is no different. The whole of the Botswana side of the park has been declared a prospecting area for the extraction of coal bed methane gas.
Although it remains to be seen whether actual fracking will take place, several energy companies have been awarded prospecting licences. It is therefore possible that at some point in the future, instead of being a semi-arid wonderland of grassy dunes, camelthorn trees and wild animals, the Botswana side of Kgalagadi will be criss-crossed with roads, dotted with drill towers and polluted by the exhaust fumes of noisy trucks.
How to book
To book accommodation and camping on the South African side of the park, contact www.sanparks.co.za or e-mail [email protected].
To book at the private !Xaus Lodge, contact www.xauslodge.co.za or e-mail [email protected]
Important GPS points
Twee Rivieren main entrance gate – S26 28.540 E20 36.839
Mata Mata – S25 46.160 E20 00.090
Nossob – S25 25.262 E20 35.836
Gharagab wilderness camp – S25 02.578 E20 05.042
Grootkolk wilderness camp – S24 53.444 E20 08.699
Bitterpan wilderness camp – S25 42.979 E20 24.205
Kalahari tented camp – S25 47.136 E20 01.082
Urikaruus wilderness camp – S26 00.641 E20 21.012
Kieliekrankie wilderness camp – S26 11.015 E20 35.538
Year in the Wild 2013-14
Following on from his first Year in the Wild, photojournalist Scott Ramsay is travelling from July 2013 to October 2014 to some of the same parks, but in different seasons, as well as to many new parks and nature reserves in SA. He is also visiting the transfrontier parks. Again, his goal is to create awareness about protected areas, and to inspire others to travel themselves to see these natural wonders.
Partners in the venture include Cape Union Mart, Ford Everest, Goodyear and K-Way, with support from WildCard, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Globecomm, National Luna, Outdoor Photo, Safari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom. For more information, go to www.yearinthewild.com.