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The other kgalagadi

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Words and pictures by Adam Cruise.

The other kgalagadi

In a quest to feel more a part of nature and less apart from it, Adam Cruise visits the Botswanan section of the Kgalagadi Transfontier Park, a place which doesn’t feature on too many itineraries. It’s an area that personifies wilderness, where you don’t need a passport, just a reliable 4×4. Us humans seem to be becoming less and less part of the natural world, and conversely, nature has is being forced into a place where it’s part of our world, almost like a shopping mall or an amusement park. We visit it from time to time, to marvel at its ‘naturalness’ which is ‘unnatural’ to most of us. So visiting a game reserve can be somewhat like watching a documentary on TV, only it’s not as dramatic, the experience is more drawn-out. On the South African side of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, nature is a distant phenomenon. From the cool airconditioned comfort of a vehicle, the windscreen functions like a television screen as we nibble on packaged snacks and drink coffee grown in Colombia and packaged in India.
The closest one gets to bonding with nature is back at a rest camp like Nossob, where nature takes the form of the heat, the wind, the hard ground and the ground squirrels which have become humanised because of their constant and close proximity to the campers. The squirrels have joined our world, not the other way around.

When I’m in these situations, I get the feeling that I’m doing it wrong. Surely the point of visiting a park like the Kgalagadi is to immerse myself in nature, to enjoy it up close? So for this visit, I decided that I didn’t want to be distanced from nature anymore.
I wanted to get out of the car and be among the animals, feel the dust and the heat, endure the thunderstorms and the wind. I wanted to become a part of nature again, not apart from it. But as a camper, the South African National Parks’ rules strictly forbade me from doing this.
The rules are clear: do not exit your vehicle while in the park; do not even stick your head out the window or else you’ll get fined. You might even be asked to leave the park or, worse, some concerned citizen could photograph you and have your offence pinned up on the ‘Mug of the Month’ board back at camp so your shame can be made public.

Thankfully, there’s the other Kgalagadi. This is a transfrontier park after all, the oldest of its kind and a transfrontier park long before the notion of modern transfrontier parks was even contemplated. The other Kgalagadi is the bigger and oft ignored sister of the South African park. She takes up more than three quarters of the 38 000 square kilometres of the park’s total area and she’s completely wild.

This entire section belongs to Botswana and even though the park was proclaimed way back in 1931 it remains almost as undeveloped today as it was then. Here you can climb out of your vehicle and even camp in the wilderness at a designated ‘campsite’ – there’s no fence.

This other Kgalagadi is the personification of wilderness – so wild that even though this vast section of the park is part of another country, as a South African you don’t need a passport to enter it (provided you enter from SA). What official wants to patrol a whole lot of nothing for potential border hoppers? While no passport is required, you will need is a reliable 4×4. In fact, this park has become the exclusive domain of an elite group of off-roaders. Here you don’t have to jostle with platkars to see lion kills or stalking cheetah; their 2WD and low-slung chassis won’t allow them to follow us across the Nossob. On the other side all the tracks cross over deep sand and are rarely graded, if at all. Not that there are many tracks to begin with. Simply put, there isn’t much traffic on the other side…

This immense section of Kalahari scrub has half a dozen routes, some designated as “wilderness trails”, that you need to book for in advance, they can only be travelled in one direction, like the 150 km Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail that originates in the Mabuasehube section of the park, or the 250 km Gemsbok Wilderness Trail that begins and ends at Polentswa Pan just off the Nossob Valley. These are wonderful wilderness trails for serious off-roaders but in truth there are others – ‘public roads’, according to Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, that are hardly public. They’re as good, if not better, than the designated wilderness trails.

I had already done one of these public trails before, from Polentswa to Mabua. My wife and I overnighted halfway at a ‘camp’ called Matopi 1, a site that’s nothing more than a patch of ochre sand beneath a tall Shepherd’s Tree. There’s a second ‘campsite’ a few kilometres on called Matopi 2, which is exactly the same except a Camelthorn dominates the red earth. That night at Matopi 1 was one of the highlights of our extended six-month journey through southern Africa. My journal entry about that night read: “Enjoyed chilled glass of wine and toasted to possibly the remotest spot on our journey – 300 km from the nearest village, 500 km from the nearest town, 1 000 km from the nearest city. Full moon rising, lions roaring in distance. Bliss.” Finally, I thought, I had discovered that freedom which comes with a place from which human a ctivity is absent. Instead of being distant from nature, I was distancing myself from people. In other words, I was fronting up with the true definition of solitude.

Now, almost a year later, I was keen to relive that experience. It was like a drug I wanted more of, so I rummaged through my box of worn and well-used maps and located the one that I picked up the last time I was here, the Shell Map of the Kgalagadi – an indispensable document in that it’s the only map of its kind that reveals the other ‘public roads’ within the Botswanan section of the park, including designated campsites complete with GPS co-ordinates.

Browsing over the Botswanan section of the park my gaze passed over Rooiputs and Polentswa, both on the other side of Nossob River. Although unfenced, these campsites include an A-frame structure, a place to shower and pit-latrines, just like those of Mabua. It’s nice but not as basic (read natural) as the Matopis. Besides both Polentswa and Rooiputs are close to the South African side, close enough to have to use the corrugated sedan-plagued roads of the South African side.

What’s more I was going over Easter, possibly the worst time to go if it was solitude I was after, but then I reckoned that the best place to find quiet remoteness when the whole world was on holiday was a Matopi-style campsite in the middle of the Botswana side of the park. So, my gaze continued on from Polentswa where about 40 km north of Polentswa the unmistakable thin-red line of a ‘public road’ broke north perpendicularly from the Nossob Valley and wound its way all the way to Kaa Gate, the remote northern entrance of the park. Just before the entrance another track peeled west where the road did a 150 km loop that brushed Namibia at Swartpan.

I was delighted – a total of about 250 kilometres of raw off-roading which with a normal travelling pace of 15 to 20 km/h would mean three days of driving, plus a day or two at the various campsites. In all, it would be just under a week in the wilderness, and very far from the Easter crowd.

I knew I ought to book in advance, but the thought of having to phone Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Gabarone was too daunting. They are notoriously bad at answering calls and when they do it’s a nightmare to get through the deep layers of bureaucratic red tape.

Experience taught me it’s easier to just pitch up at the Botswana desk at Twee Rivieren and book there and then. The campsites are so remote and unknown that there’s bound to be a few spots available even if it’s school holidays. Naturally I wasn’t the only one with that idea. I came across a couple from PE with the exact same plan – they were keen on Matopi, Rooiputs and Polentswa though, so I quickly booked a night each at Gnu-gnus pan, Swartpan and Kandu Pan on the Swartpan loop. I also had to book two nights at Polentswa – one for the trip in and another for my exit as the distance from Twee Rivieren to the loop was too great to travel in a day.

The bottom line is both the couple and I managed to find available space over this manic period. The South African camps had been fully booked for months in advance.

The best part of the booking was that five days’ camping came to a mere R270! Thanks to the lack of development, camping in Botswana side is ridiculously cheap, despite it being a country renowned for over-charging. Spending the holiday on this side gives us diesel-heads a little extra cash to contribute to some extra jerrycans or that rooftop tent you’ve been coveting since your neighbour bought one. But travelling alone on the Botswana side means that must be equipped to be completely self-sufficient. Most importantly, one needs to make provision for extra fuel, a lot of it, as the deep sand plays havoc with fuel consumption and with Nossob being the only semi-reliable fuel depot, take at least twice the capacity of a normal fuel tank. I have a long-range tank fitted to my Cruiser but I added four jerries just in case. Of equal importance is water.

It’s amazing how much we consume for cooking, cleaning, showering and of course drinking, especially in summer when the Kgalagadi lives up to its name as the ‘Land of Thirst’.

Then there’s food, fridge / freezers, tents and whatever other accessories you need. I was travelling on my own for a week and my Cruiser was loaded to the rafters with gear and provisions. Remember that whatever you take in, you must also take out again. Garbage should not be buried, toilet paper should be burnt and coals should be buried deep enough in ash pits of your own making. Gas is better than wood, especially since firewood needs to be trucked in with you as it’s illegal to collect firewood within the park.

Essentially what the Department of Wildlife expects of you (even though they don’t tell you) is for you to go out and enjoy the wilderness, but to leave it the way you found it. This also means that 4x4s should stick to designated tracks – along the route I often found chameleons, tortoises, meerkat burrows and even newborn and young gemsbok calves lying perfectly hidden and ramrod still in the long grass next to the track while their mothers grazed elsewhere in the vicinity.

One of the arguments I heard from one of the South African parks officials against the Botswana side is that the wildlife sightings aren’t as good. He had a point. On the South African side the Nossob and Auob River valleys are punctuated at regular intervals with artificial waterholes, which means the wildlife tends to congregate around them, especially during the winter months.

There are no boreholes anywhere along the Swartpan loop, but then I felt that since it was pure wilderness I was after, I was content to simply enjoy the solitude and cruise along in my Cruiser, wildlife or not. Even so, I was amazed at the sights and sounds I witnessed, especially of lions, which I was treated to almost every night and day that I was there. My camp at Gnugnus Pan had the unmistakable track of lion run right through it. It must have walked through sometime during the night – I heard that booming roar just before dawn about two hundred metres away. Later I followed the spoor down the road in the Cruiser and eventually saw a lioness quenching her thirst in a puddle in a slight depression in the road.

Another time a saw a young lioness lying in the grass of a pan a stone’s throw from me. I only noticed her after I had made camp as I was enjoying a beer at sunset. Often I tracked hyena in the vehicle – they like to use the 4×4 tracks as there are fewer bushes and trees to impede their progress. On another occasion I saw a leopard on the prowl on the other side of a pan and witnessed a herd of gemsbok flush a pair of cheetahs from the shade of a camelthorn and march them out of their territory like a pair of errant schoolboys.

The rains, like the Easter holidays this year, lingering late into April and voluminous thunderstorms complemented the scenery and the sunsets. All the avian summer visitors were still there in abundance, as were the resident raptors like the ubiquitous Goshawks, Falcons and Snake Eagles who were all still enjoying the bounty of a particularly wet summer. The rain brought out the Tsama and Gemsbok melons, which were numerous along the side of the road – a great source of nourishment for the abundant herds that roamed the depths of the park. After I had one particularly good sighting of a hundred-strong herd of eland, I wondered if that South African parks official was just envious.

Despite the lack of artificial waterholes the game viewing on the Botswana side is remarkable – I suppose the rains have a lot to do with it, so its best to visit during summer. That is if one is prepared to face the odd shower from a passing thunderstorm when the wind can pick up the dust or blow your tent away, like Dorothy, to the Land of Oz.

Then again, if one isn’t prepared for thunderstorms or dust one probably isn’t prepared for a life of living in the wild. Perhaps the roars of lions that pierce the night air then walk through your camp will be equally unpalatable to you. So if you are that sort of person it’s best to stay within the confines of the South African fenced-in rest camps.

But if you are not that sort of person and you are fortunate enough to own a 4×4, you would be crazy not to visit this section of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, before it too loses its wild status and becomes another animal theme park with corrugated, sedan-choked roads.

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