Khutse Is King

Words by Stephen Cunliffe. Words by Stephen Cunliffe. Pictures by Stephen Cunliffe and Jean-Marc Gaudin.

The Kalahari is a place of legend, characterised by the wideopen spaces and big skies of central Botswana’s seemingly endless desertscape. Stephen Cunliffe took his brother-in-law and a Steed 5 DC to explore Khutse, an often-overlooked wild corner of this sprawling Kalahari. What he discovered was the ultimate escape for any nature-loving 4x4 enthusiast.

Situated a stone’s throw off the gravel road to Khutse entrance gate, Khutse Kalahari Lodge offers the only real accommodation in the entire Khutse region. After a long drive from Gauteng, we were thankful that we’d opted for the sensible plan of overnighting at the lodge located conveniently just outside the reserve.

Nudging our bakkie through a herd of obstinate cattle, we entered the parking lot, and were warmly greeted by Irene Phetlhadipuo (chef) and Keabetswe Ngwaga (waitress). They led us through their airy restaurant, past an inviting swimming pool, and down to an attractively-furnished en-suite rondavel. I didn’t waste any time before cracking open a cold beer, and the warm shower that followed rinsed away all the dust from the long journey, instantly bringing me back to life.

Although the sun-bleached thatched buildings appeared a little shabby from the outside, the linens were crisp and clean, ensuring a good night’s rest. The place could use a little TLC, but the friendly staff and handy location more than made up for the lack. I would strongly encourage every Khutse visitor attempting the long haul from Joburg to make use of this welllocated gateway establishment as an overnight stop before entering Khutse refreshed the next morning.

Although only a short hop from Gaborone, Khutse Game Reserve remains surprisingly remote and uncrowded, especially outside school holidays and the peak safari season. One of a chain of parks that together protect vast swathes of the Kalahari, Khutse is a small reserve by Botswana standards, yet it embodies everything that makes the Kalahari so special: expansive landscapes, desert-adapted wildlife, secluded wild camping spots and a potent sense of wilderness. An exploration of this small southern extension of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve known as Khutse had been on my bucket list for years; so, when we drove through the park entrance gate, I was as excited as my son on a Christmas morning.

The name Khutse, which means ‘where one kneels to drink’ in Sekwena (the local dialect of Setswana) reveals that the area was once part of Africa’s largest inland lake. Today, however, the sun-baked reserve experiences drought-like conditions for most of the year, giving rise to a distinctive terrain of low dunes, sparse grasslands, thorny scrub and the occasional scraggly tree; and peppered with more than 60 shimmering saltpans.

Upon reaching the large Khutse Pan, from which the park takes its name, we swung south on the first leg of a 120 km clockwise loop through the reserve. Savannah scrubland dominated a landscape of deep, sandy soils interspersed with the occasional rocky patch. The sand varied in colour from a burnt orange – reminiscent of the Kgalagadi – to glaring white. With our progress being monitored by a stretch of curious giraffe and the occasional steenbok, the dusty route took us along the edge of Gwia Pan and past a couple of smaller unnamed saltpans before terminating, three hours later, at the spectacular Moreswe Pan.

Moreswe Pan, in the far south-west of the reserve, felt a million miles from civilisation – and we had the idyllic place all to ourselves. In fact, the friendly DWNP staff at the gate had informed us earlier in the morning that we were currently the only visitors in the entire Khutse Game Reserve, making it our own private park for at least a day!

We proceeded to the waterhole – one of only three permanent water points in Khutse –where a herd of springbok and a few skittish gemsbok loitered nearby on the sun-baked pan. As we sat, drinking in the wild and desolate scene, Jean Marc suddenly raised his binoculars and yelped, “Hey, what’s that over there?”

Barely fifteen metres from the water’s edge, a young female leopard lay dead-still out in the open, under a roasting midday sun. But something was wrong; this was not normal behaviour for a secretive, nocturnal feline. Closer inspection revealed that lions had ambushed the unfortunate cat: the bite marks on its neck and spine hinting at the brutal cause of death and a violent end. In a harsh wilderness where food is scarce, competition between large carnivores can be fierce.

With the potent sun approaching its zenith, and the temperature soaring, we decided to head off in search of our designated campsite and some shady respite. We had been assigned Moreswe No. 2, and this proved a fine place to put one’s feet up, relax – cold beer in hand – and enjoy the site’s fabulous vista over the pan.

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