Words by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen and Wayne Reiche
Why do we go to the bush? To get away from it all? To see something we haven’t seen before? To drink cold beer? Right now I’m doing all three. I’ve been comfortably plonked on my camping chair on the edge of Jack’s Pan for the last hour or two. Somewhere between my second and third beer, the sun fell off the edge of the pan. Between the steady stream of springbok and oryx which have been strolling past us, I didn’t notice the sunset.
Suddenly, I notice an odd-looking camel appear on the edge of the pan. But hang on, it can’t be a camel… I grab the binoculars to take a proper look – it’s a massive eland. And there’s not just one of them. I scan the edge of the pan to left and can’t believe what I’m seeing: an impossibly long stripe of eland in a straight line.
There’re so many of them that they stretch from one side of the massive pan to the other. Even though we’re seated at least a kilometre away we’re still getting whiffs of that musty antelope smell. Dust rises and there’s a low droning sound as they communicate with one another. We just sit and stare in wonder. About half an hour later, when the last eland has left the pan, we look at each other in amazement – they’ll never believe us back home. With the sun long gone it was impossible to take a photo, but I have witnesses!
The Kalahari measures up at almost a million square kilometres, stretching over South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Despite its sheer size, it’s still possible to visit Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve or even our own Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and still feel like you’re surrounded by humanity.
Over the years I’ve had a couple of tour operators invite me to a section of the Kalahari that lies within a private concession area, just north of the Botswanan side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. “Four million hectares of private Kalahari”, they tell me, in an attempt to entice me on a trip. They add that when you get to a pan or campsite in this concession you won’t find it occupied by other people even though you booked it years in advance, something that’s becoming ever more common in Botswana’s national parks.
There’s only one downside to the concession area: it’s guided-only. Some people love this option as it helps at border crossings and gives one peace-of-mind, but I’ve become accustomed to being the master of my own destiny. Still, it was the only option available to me and now I’m the first to admit that my guide, Neville Reiche, from Africa Bushcraft and Survival Adventures, is the kind of guy I’d travel anywhere with. His preparation was thorough, his bush ethics spot on, and he’s generally just a rock solid bloke.
As this was a recce for future guided trips in the area, we were going to try and see as much of it as possible so that Neville could draw up his final route once we returned to SA. But Neville had been in the area several times prior and had a very good idea of what the route would entail.
The three vehicles in our convoy met north-west of the Bray border post at a place called Cornwall Lodge. We’d come up from Cape Town in our long-term Discovery 4, which is now equipped with proper off-road tyres, Goodyear MT/Rs. The other two vehicles in the convoy were Land Cruisers, which made for an interesting mix.
Not long after deflating tyres and leaving the lodge we came across a few more Cruisers going the opposite direction along a narrow sandy track. They pulled off to let our little convoy of three through; as I passed, one of the guys looked at my vehicle and asked me whether I thought I’d make it. My reply of “I’ve only come along to act as the recovery vehicle for the two Cruisers” raised a good chuckle.
We were supposed to get a local guide Benjamin aka Mr Man Springbok, the expert Bushman trekker, to go with us, but unfortunately due to a misunderstanding he had been double booked and was out with another group. So we had to rely on our own trekking skills and some luck to locate animals.
It took us around seven hours to drive to Jack’s Pan, which lies near the north-eastern corner of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. After setting up camp we headed to the edge of the pan, set up our chairs and tuned into Kalahari TV. It was here where we saw the massive herd of eland.
I was travelling with my friend Jan van Eck and his two kids, Kelsy (12) and Matthew (8). After a long day in the car, the kids grab the football and play on the pan while the adults watch ’TV’. This, for me, is what Kalahari trips are all about – just staring at a pan and watching the animal kingdom go by.
From Jack’s Pan we head further north to a town called Hukuntsi, which is about four hours’ drive away without any stops. But who doesn’t stop when there are so many animal tracks about? So it takes us a little longer as we search en route for those ever elusive Kalahari lion. We find some lion spoor on the road we’re driving, but they soon disappear into the bush. Rounding a corner I see a leopard tortoise in the middle of the road. The Discovery stops nicely and I jump out to get a few pictures of our slow friend. We refuel at Hukuntsi and take on some fresh supplies; driving through the hot Kalahari in October is thirsty work and the well-stocked trading store next to the garage has everything you need.
An hour after leaving Hukuntsi we reach the little Bushman village of Zutswa. To the south is another massive pan. It’s the middle of the day and a herd of cattle slowly make their way across the expanse. The heat seems to stifle e their movement. We find a tree next to the pan and stop for lunch; it’s so hot that by the time I get to my third sandwich it’s almost toast. Soon enough we’re on our comfortable way once again.
Our second night is spent at an old hunting camp near the Kaa Pan, which is a few kilometres from one of the entrances to the national park. As we’d arrived at our campsite in the early afternoon, there was time for a game drive around the edges of the pan. A couple of meerkats come out from under the ground to greet us as we slowly pass. We’re not as lucky as the night before, and although we see loads of antelope, jackal and ground squirrels, we don’t see anything as spectacular as the eland of the night before. Topping that is going to be difficult, if not impossible.
One is able to top up with water at the nearby Kaa entrance gate, but as we were carrying sufficient supplies we hit the trail again after breakfast. After about two hours we reach Towe Pan and probably one of the biggest sand dunes in the area. All three vehicles easily make the summit. “One can see the curvature of the earth here,” comments Neville. It makes me think of other places with views like this, such as Botswana’s Kubu Island or that road just outside Kenya’s Naivasha looking out over the Rift Valley; these are views where it seems you can see to the ends of the earth and your eyes become like a fisheye lens.
Normally the third night is spent at Peach Pan under some shady trees, but a fire had swept through the area only days before so Neville decides to push on as there was still a lot of sunlight left. After compressing two days’ driving into one (Neville assured me it’s normally more relaxed) our little convoy enters Heinies Camp just before sunset.
While staying at Cornwall Lodge the night before we started the trip, our hostess, Heather, had shown me some pictures taken by guests of a large pride of lions at Heinies Camp. They looked magnificent. One of the males had a thick black mane which the wind blew around like a piece of candy floss. There were several other lions in the pride including some young males and a few females to hunt and entertain for them. In the pictures they lazed about on the stoep of the accommodation, trying to stay out of the sun.
At Heinies Camp we find some fresh lion spoor, but yet again no actual lion. I wish we had more time to spend here, because I’m sure that if we did we’d be rewarded with a sighting. My visits to the Kalahari have taught me that that’s just how this place works – the first few days you might see nothing, but as you get to know the place and the animals, you see much more.
When leaving the next morning to return to Cornwall Lodge, we encountered the legendary bushman trekker Benjamin, aka Mr Man Springbok, who was walking around in the middle of nowhere all on his own. “I know what to do and how to act when I see a lion in the bush. I’m not scared and will throw something at them to frighten them away,” he says when we ask him about lions and whether he’s comfortable walking about in their territory. The bush around him is so thick that he’d practically walk into a lion’s mouth before noticing it.
The campsite is a little way off from the pan and so we take a short game drive on our last evening. Once again the big cats avoid us. Such is the nature of nature – there are no guaranteed sightings. But hey, if there were, it’d be dead boring.
The final day’s trek back to Cornwall Lodge is almost 200 kilometres and takes about four hours. So, if you’re returning on a Saturday, you’ll make it back to the lodge in time to watch the rugby.
We’ve been in the real Kalahari, unlike a park like Kgalagadi where the routes go along dry river beds and to manmade waterholes. Here it’s virgin bush and the only chance you have of seeing animals is along the roadside or on the pans.
The underlying charm of this place is that you pretty much have a massive slice of the Kalahari all to yourself. The only time you see other people is when on the main public routes or when refuelling in Hukuntsi. That alone is enough to get my vote.
WHERE WE STAYED
Kakamas – Khamkirri
A long-time favourite of SA4x4 and an adventure seeker’s dream, this is where you come to play. Try your hand at rafting, abseiling, quad biking, horse riding and fishing. Then, when you have no energy left, go for a game drive in their private nature reserve; you will see more animals than in the nearby Augrabies National Park. For more details got to www.khamkirri.co.za or call 082 821 6649.
Just west of the Bray border post This is where your trip will start and finish. Heather Strumpher is indisputably the most hospitable person in all of the Kalahari. She offers good food, an atmospheric bushveld bar, a swimming pool, comfy beds and hot showers – all the things you need before heading out to or coming back from the bush. They even have a tennis court complete with lights for night games! Those who prefer camping can head to the secluded campsite.
For more details see www.cornwallsafaris.co.za or call 072 798 5051.
Africa Bushcraft and Survival Adventures are one of only two operators who have access to this area. The trip costs R5 200 per person and this includes all concession fees, a qualified guide and tracker, use of a satellite phone in an emergency, camping fees, meals and accommodation at Cornwall Lodge. It excludes fuel, food and beverages. For more details see www.africa-bushcraft.co.za or call 082 579 2796 or 082 561 2613.
As you’ll be travelling in a concession area with a guide, route details are not of importance. However, you do need to know how to get to the start of the trip. For those coming from Cape Town, head north from Upington and enter Botswana at the Bokspits border post. From there go east towards Middelputs and then on to Tsabong. It’s all lovely new tar. You don’t have to go via McCarthy’s Rest or the Bray border post. For my friends from Gauteng the Bray Border post is the quickest way to get to Cornwall Lodge, where you’ll meet your guide.
This is not technical thick sand, so trailers are fine. There is one small section where the convoy goes to the crest of a dune to look at Towe Pan; here trailers will have to be unhitched, or you can catch a short ride in a vehicle with some extra space.
Arrive at Cornwall with as much fuel as possible in your tank. The whole trip is roughly 850 km on sand, a known fuel-eater. There’s a fuel stop about halfway into the trip in the town of Hukuntsi. The trading store next to the fuel stop is about as stocked as a South African Makro, just in case you forgot something. The store has an FNB ATM. If passing through Tsabong, note that the main fuel station opens at 06h00 and closes at 22h00.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
Once the trip begins, the only place to top up is Hukuntsi, which you’ll reach at around midday on the second day. As for the rest of the trip, you have to be self-sufficient, so make sure that you have enough of what you might need. Try and get pula from your local bank before you leave for Botswana. In Tsabong they’ll exchange rands to pula at the local FNB, but they only operate during office hours and you should expect to stand in a queue.
Tyres will be deflated for the sandy tracks, so carry a good tyre pressure gauge and a compressor. Tsabong has a garage that does basic repairs, but as you’re in the bundus, you should take along some basic spares.
CONVOY OR SOLO
The route is in a private concession area and is guided-only, so you’ll be travelling in a convoy.
The sand tracks are not technically challenging. Roads in the concession area are in a relatively good condition. The tar roads in this part of Botswana are very good.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
My favourite Botswana map is the Tracks4Africa one. Once again, as the route is guided, all you have to do is follow your leader.
I never had to engage low-range in our Discovery 4, which means that just about every other 4×4 should be able to comfortably do this route.
The only risk I can think of is sunburn, so take along good sunblock. Remember that this is lion country, so be alert. Watch out for the snakes and scorpions too!
MapStudio’s Drive Southern Africa (ISBN 978 1 77026 008 5), a great map book for the adventurous traveller. For more information, visit their website on www.mapstudio.co.za