Being away for two weeks can improve your life. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a perfect escape for those who want to feel close to nature again and get away from any cellphone reception and the rush of the city.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is the first formally declared transfrontier park in Africa, its 9 591 km² have linked the South African Kalahari Gemsbok Park and the Botswana Gemsbok National Park since May 2000 and is now one of the biggest national park worldwide.
We arrived from Cape Town on a warm Sunday evening and after registering and filling out the paperwork, we unpacked our car at the main camp in Twee Rivieren. The campsite was beautiful, with a nice ablution block, little braai pans for every spot, ground squirrels scurrying between our legs and yellow-billed hornbills trying to steal whatever they could get into their enormous beaks. After a fascinating night drive with a lot of nocturnal animals running around our game drive truck (bat-eared foxes chasing a little cape fox, bouncing spring hares trying to escape the rays of our spotlights and many wild cats watching us suspiciously while we drove by), we headed to bed very early to be well rested for the next four days – the Nossob 4×4 Trail.
9am the next morning (and -4°C) we met Graham, our guide for the next few days. After some welcoming first words, we headed off to the starting point of our trail, 40km down the main road towards Nossob, where we got our instructions and rules for the next days (how the radios work, not to get out of the car when a lion stands next to it, etc.). Normally this particular trail is booked out many weeks in advance, but luckily we were the only ones who had booked. After lowering the tire pressure we left solid ground and stepped into the wild.
On a small winding beaten track we drove into valleys of the dunevelt and its unique semi desert vegetation. The ground was covered with millions of hassocks, their yellow blades weaving in the wind. It was dry, but it looked like a paradise for animals. We stopped a couple of times at points of interest and Graham told us stories about the vegetation, animals, geology and also brightened our glorified minds about the beautiful grass. It’s not called “sour grass” for no reason. It is so toxic, that no animal touches it, even walking through it could burn their skin and injure them permanently.
But before we reached our camp for the day, there were some barriers to defeat on our way : The dunes. Graham told us, that they shouldn’t be a problem, even for greenhorns like ourselves. First dune…we got stuck! But after a couple of attempts we made it. It took us quite a while to realize, that we could not make it up in 3rd gear at 20 km/h. Racing up a steep, sandy hill with your brand new car, bouncing from side to side while the sand is flying to the howling sound of your tortured engine is quite a nerve-wrecking venture (for the first couple of times!)
50 kilometers, some huge aardvark holes in the middle of the track, honey badgers followed by black backed jackals or pale chanting goshawks and many interesting stories later, we arrived at Witgat late in the afternoon. Our first camp was located in 300 meters distance from a waterhole with a picturesque windmill.
After Graham had a quick walk, with his weapon at the ready, to secure the area, we pitched our tents and started a fire. Shortly before the sun set we discovered a brown hyena, satisfying its thirst at the waterhole, and afterwards blatantly walking straight towards us.
It stopped 30 meters in front of us, investigated us suspiciously, turned and slowly walked off into the high grass. This was quite exciting, but if we were thinking that would be our last thrill of the night, we were proven wrong. Short after sunset we heard the roar. Not just any roar that occurs at nighttime in nature – no – it was the deep, vibrating sound of the king of the area. A male lion marking his territory. We put up another fire on the main track to give us the security to draw back to our cars if necessary. The roaring became louder and louder and after half an hour, we saw his glowing eyes glaring from the waterhole. Then he drew a close circle around our camp. Staring at each other, dimly lit by the rays of our spotlights, he walked by, barely a 100 meters away from us on the dune. Absolutely satisfied, shaking with excitement and a little bit of fear we retired to our rooftop tent in our warm sleeping bags.
(click to open panorama)
As curious as cats are, the lion came back, sneaking through our camp in the middle of the night, investigating the intruders. Dead silent and unnoticed, yet leaving some huge footprints next to our car as proof of his presence.
After a strengthening breakfast and a big cup of coffee we were back on the track. The red sand of the dunes peeked out here and there through the thicket of the omnipresent sour grass. The color is a process of aging. As time passes, the iron in the sand oxidizes like rusted metal and becomes red. The perfect spot for a huge male lion, that was resting in the morning sun, overlooking his territory, and posing for us while we were clicking away wildly with our cameras.
Kgalagadi, the place of great thirst. In wintertime there is hardly any rain and the land suffers from the lack of water. But the clouds in the sky told another story. As we passed the saltpans, some eagles, genets and meerkats, a storm was brewing up. The sky became darker and darker with every step and finally the first thunderbolts lit up the horizon. As we arrived in Rosyntjebos the storm had surrounded us. But as ordered, no rain in our camp, while the rest of the park was drowning in the downpour.
It rained a little bit during the night, but stopped in the early morning hours. As we drove off, the sky was cloudy and it rained again every now and then, but it was overwhelming to see how the dry land greedily gathered every drop of water.
Thorns. It seemed like every plant in the park had thorns that made walking around quite challenging sometimes. But nearly every thorn has a story. The candle pod acacia, for example, is just a very spiky bush when it is young, home to birds and whistling mice. But when the plant grows, it spreads centrifugally, creating a round thorny wall with a nice little courtyard in the middle. Most of the big bushes have one entrance to the inside, giving shelter to small herds of antelope like gemsbok. The leader sits in the entrance, pointing its horns towards the outside, making the bush an invulnerable fortress that even lions would not dare to attack.
We would not advise to do this trip with a new black car: the unavoidable thorns quite frequently caused an annoying, loud, squeaking noise on the vehicle’s body, making our heart stand still for a couple of seconds every time it happened.
Swartbas – camp number tree is the most beautiful of all camps. We parked our cars under the three huge camel thorn trees (again the thorns!!!), started a nice and cozy fire for our braai and watched the thunderstorms pass by on the horizon. That night we stood at the fireplace for hours, listening to exciting ranger stories, pricking up our ears to the distant roaring of a lion, talking about stars, nature, animals, life, the universe and everything.
In the middle of the night we were awakened by the rolling thunder of a huge storm passing over our camp. No rain, no wind. Just an enormous loud rumble of thunder, crawling over the horizon for endless seconds from one direction to another.
Fog! It was everywhere. The whole landscape was bedded in the silent sheet of the humid mist. Everything was grey, and the scattered trees stood out like black wardens of the land. A herd of gemsbok moved quietly through the thicket of white. As we drove off, the sun burst through the fog creating a new surreal picture of the Kalahari with lights and shadows playing in the leaves and blades.
No dunes for the day but instead the track was lined with three thorns bushes. The San bushmen liked that plant a lot, because they used their three forked branches as a whisk to beat – lets say – eggs…They did not have to worry about any paint job. Another very common bush here is, let’s guess, the black thorn, which in Afrikaans is also known as “Wag ‘n Bietjie” and means “Wait a bit”. If you ever get caught in the bush with its mean barbed thorns, don’t try to escape quickly. Just wait a bit! And it really works! Be patient, step forward, then back and you are free. Unluckily the kori bustard did not know this when the Bushmen was after the poor Gompou – the glue peacock. They climbed into the bush and broke some branches in order for the smelly and nutritious resin to leak. The kori bustard was attracted by the smell and curiously climbed into the bush. The Bushmen then jumped out of their hiding, the bird panicked, got entangled in the thorns and became a delightful meal for the hunters.
Around noon we arrived back on the main road, 60 kilometers north of Nossob, said good-bye to Graham and thanked him for the wonderful experience. Then we headed down to Nossob Rest Camp. It was the first time in days we used 4th gear which gave us quite a speed rush.
Nossob to Mata Mata
There was quite a racket going on next to our tent that night. Some lions were making a big haul some meters away from us in the darkness, proclaiming their victory over a wildebeest with their deafening roars, letting the canvas of our housing shake. But well hidden, we couldn’t see them in the black of the night, freezing in the lookout at 1 am. We only could see the vultures feasting on the rest of the prey the next morning.
On the 50 kilometer stretch from Nossob Rest Camp to the turn-off leading through the dunes to Mata Mata we were very blessed with several amazing animal sightings: a cheetah roaming around in the distance scaring off some skittish ostriches, wildebeest, gemsbok, hartebeest and springbok peacefully crossing the road, bat-eared foxes raising their huge ears at the ground in search for food and finally a beautiful bateleur eagle sitting in the middle of the road in a big puddle, letting us slowly approach him closely up to a few meters before taking off into the sky.
After crossing the dunes between the two rivers we reached the riverbed of the Auob and were absolutely stunned by the scenery. The gentle rolling hills nestling up to the droughty valley of the dried up river. The small gravel road lead us through the picturesque scenery, with giant trees concealing the well-hidden leopards and only letting us guess their presence. A herd of giraffes passed our way slowly, leaving the remains of one of their own kin as the dinner for the brown hyena who approached from behind. Next to the roadside, a proud lioness lay in front of her prey, pigged out, resting in the last beams of the setting sun. A chestnut brown slender mongoose observed the scene from its safe position in the tree while grey hornbills and African hoopoes fluttered through the branches.
With these impressions we reached Mata Mata. Our campsite lay next to a waterhole, allowing us to watch the passing wildebeest and gemsbok till late into the night, the Namibian border, where we were bound to head to the next morning, just a stone’s throw away.