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Kalahari Curveball


Words by Stephe n Cunliffe. Pictures by Stephe n Cunli ffe & Jean-Marc Gaudin.

The Central Kalahari, ‘land of thirst’, is a parched wilderness and primeval landscape of sand, stone, grasslands and thorn-scrub. Peppered with the ubiquitous oryx, and echoing nightly with the primordial roars of the blackmaned king of the African savannah, this iconic desert dreamscape is like no other place on earth. Similar in size to Denmark, the wide-open arid expanses of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) are epic in scale − and a favourite haunt of Stephen Cunliffe, who deems it ‘the ultimate playground of nature-loving and adventure-seeking 4×4 enthusiasts.’

Encompassing the lion’s share of central Botswana, the 52 800 km2 Central Kalahari is one of Africa’s largest and most remote game reserves. Set beneath gigantic desert skies, this seemingly endless arid expanse is home to wildlife, wilderness, and the last few remaining clans of indigenous San on earth. Although the area was opened to tourism back in the 1990s, its off-the-beaten-track location, unforgiving environment and limited infrastructure have preserved a genuine wilderness feel. With the exception of a couple of tourist camps in and around Deception Valley, the park remains the undisputed realm of the adventurous overlander and can be explored only in fully kitted 4x4s.

Having spent a week exploring little-known Khutse Game Reserve, (see our March ‘14 issue), my brother-in-law and I turn our attention to the neighbouring Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Approaching the sprawling Kalahari wilderness from the south, along the Khankhe-Bape- Xaka-Xade route, is an exciting (and at times, challenging) driving experience – not recommended for the inexperienced or the faint of heart!

The road stretches north before us as far as the eye can see: two parallel tracks in the soft sand which steadily narrow before disappearing into a shimmering haze on a distant horizon. The early stages of the drive prove uneventful; there is only the occasional hartebeest or oryx to break the monotony of bouncing along this dead straight cutline through a scrubby and increasingly lifeless landscape. Suddenly we spot a large herd on the road ahead and our excitement mounts − until we realise it’s a herd of goats and cattle: the first of a series of livestock herds that graze along a string of San villages in this southern sector of the CKGR.

In the wake of the landmark First People of the Kalahari court case in 2006, the high court ruled that the eviction of the San from their ancestral lands was both unlawful and unconstitutional. The court demanded that the Botswana government restore the San to their traditional lands within the game reserve. Recognising the potentially disastrous impact that this move could have on wildlife tourism, the government continues to drag its heels on implementing the court ruling: thus far, only a minority of the Bushmen have been repatriated to villages within the park.