Words by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen and Ali Cole
This trip hasn’t had the best of starts. Trying to get hold of Botswana Parks is an exercise in futility. When they eventually do answer their phone it’s only to tell you that they don’t do bookings by phone. So you send a fax, which they don’t bother to reply to. As a last resort you send an email which promptly bounces back because their inbox is full. How can a country with such a strong tourism industry have such a shambolic booking system for their national parks? So we set off without a booking – luck and charm would have to do the trick.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was formed with the signing of a treaty between South Africa and Botswana on 7 April ’99. South Africa’s Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park combined to become the first ever transfrontier park in Africa. If you look at a map of South Africa, the South African side of the park lies in our country’s most north-westerly ‘finger’. To get to Twee Rivieren, the main park gate on the SA side, Cape Town residents have to travel through Upington, while Pretoria and Joburg residents would drive via Kuruman and Van Zylsrus.
Our mission was to drive the Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail (which can only be driven east to west) on the Botswana side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, so we entered Botswana at McCarthy’s Rest border post.
On our arrival we found that the park was full (it was the end of the school holidays), but we managed to secure a spot at an overflow campsite which is used for times like these. When I asked about driving the Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail I was told they would first have to find out if it was booked for the following day. Happily, HQ in Gaborone confirmed that there were no bookings, so our drive was on. The road to the overflow campsite had been recently graded; we stopped at a tree looking out over the Mpayathutlwa Pan, an area famous for lion encounters. In the local dialect, the name means “giraffe’s stomach” – apparently years ago a large number of giraffe died here. The night before at Springbokpan Guest Farm I met a group who’d stayed at this very same campsite for a couple of days; they told me that a large pride of lions with cubs had been very active around these trees the past few days – earlier they had killed a gemsbok on the same pan we were now looking down on.
Mabuasehube isn’t a place that you fall in love with instantly – it demands a couple of days of your time. We met a few people who were staying for one night before moving on, the kind of folk who complain that the park is dry, dusty and waterless before heading back to the republic. Well, you’ve got to look at it a little differently. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park covers some 3.6 million hectares – it’s pretty much the same size as the Netherlands. There aren’t many tracks through it, and there are only about 450 lion, so seeing one is rare. If you’re keen for spotting big game, go somewhere else – this park doesn’t have elephant, hippo, rhino or buffalo.
You need to slow down and appreciate the little things in Mabuasehube like the sunset chorus of barking geckos or the ground squirrels that are always on the scrounge. Once you appreciate the little things, the big things will present themselves. You need to operate in bushman mode: look for animal spoor, listen for sounds and go check out the waterholes. Then this place will come alive for you.
While we were there, only one waterhole had water; the pump which feeds the others had broken. This also meant that some of the campsites were dry, so people had to drive to the main gate to fetch water. This didn’t affect us as we were carrying enough of our own. Keep this in mind when planning a trip here – don’t expect too much support from the park’s staff.
Phologolo Tumelo, the park’s borehole mechanic, was waiting for some parts to arrive. He came to visit us on a tractor, with a warning that lion were recently seen sleeping under the very same tree we’ve set our tents under. “Sleep with one ear and one eye open. You never know when the king of the jungle will come and visit,” he chuckles before fi ring up his tractor and heading off.
Booking problems and staff lassitude aside, Mabuasehube is a special place as it’s a proper untamed wilderness. Although we camped under a tree the most formal facilities take the form of a wooden A-frame, shower and long drop. Nothing beats sitting on top of the elevated koppie overlooking Mabuasehube Pan at sunset while watching hyena, black backed jackal, springbok, gemsbok and if you are lucky a lion, come to drink before darkness settles. This is when the fun starts – the night offers up a host of interesting sounds and creatures. The barking geckos are still going for gold at this point and I conclude that they must be female as they never seem to shut up.
I prepare my swag on the back of the Hilux and then sit down in front of the fi re. One by one the rest of my party go to bed. Soon it’s just me in front of the flames. I hear a sound in the bush nearby. I flick on my spotlight and catch the culprit; it’s a spotted hyena who’s come to investigate our camp. We’ve packed away anything remotely edible but I’m sure he can still smell our potjie. He sniff s about, marks his territory and moves on. I feel slightly exposed sitting on my own, knowing that for the last couple of nights the lions have come to visit this campsite, so I head for the relative safety of my swag on the back of the Hilux.
I’m startled awake a few hours later. I sit up and take a look around. Something scurries past – it’s a black backed jackal. Then I see eyes in the bush. Are the lions back? My Petzl light reveals that it’s the hyena. I flop back into my swag and go back to sleep. A few hours later the birds’ morning song wake me. Th e sun is about to make its appearance on the horizon so I put the kettle on. While the water heats up I stroll around the campsite trying to identify the spoor of our night-time visitors.
The Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail begins near Malatso Pan and runs from east to west; it spits you out at Nossob Rest Camp some 150 kilometres later on, on the South African side of the park. There’s also a track to the south which runs parallel to the trail, which also ends at Nossob. In contrast to the Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail, this track won’t cost you anything, you can drive it both ways and trailers are permitted. But the great thing about the Wilderness Trail is that once you’ve booked, no-one else is allowed on it, so you literally have the trail all to yourself.
Some of the reviews I’ve read about the Wilderness Trail bemoan the lack of wildlife. Happily for us we had great animal sightings from the outset, including springbok, eland, kudu, gemsbok, red hartebeest and steenbok.
I keep the Hilux in high-range, keeping to second or third gear most of the time. Our rev counter barely goes above 2 000 rpm and over the flat sections we average about 40 km/h. There are one or two dunes which require a little speed but for the most part it’s fairly easy going so long as you deflate your tyres to around 1.6 bar. We leave Mabuasehube at around 09h00 and by midday have reached the lovely Mosomane Pan campsite for our lunch stop.
The weather gods have smiled on us. Normally at this time of the year there’s lots of dust and moisture in the air, giving the sky a hazy look. Not today – we have perfect blue skies littered with quiet explosions of white cloud. Normally when you book the trail you can camp here for the night but as tomorrow is the Rugby World Cup quarter final with South Africa playing Australia, we decide to push on to Nossob where we’ll be able to watch it.
I decide to drive around the pan; it proves to be a great decision. Not far from where we stop for lunch we spot two massive male lions lazing in the shade of a tree. I get out the long lens and notice that hundreds of flies have applied for asylum in the mane of the bigger of the two. I zoom in on a massive paw; its size startles me – that could really do some damage. After about half an hour of hanging with the lions we head west again.
The second half of the trail is ever so slightly more technical. Some of the dunes are higher and longer, requiring more momentum, and some of these longer dunes feature holes in the track, making for a bumpier ride. The trail ends as one enters the dry and dusty Nossob River, which they say flows about twice every 100 years. The river is the border between South Africa and Botswana; if you take a careful look down it you will see the cement border markers.
A majestic Bateleur glides above us, welcoming us back into South Africa as it scans the riverbed for prey. It’s about 16h00 and close to 40° C so we head straight for Nossob rest camp’s pool. It feels a little strange to be in a fenced-in campsite with its own well-stocked shop. So very different from the Botswana side. It’s worth noting at this point that if you entered the park in Botswana and are exiting on the South African side of the park at Twee Rivieren, you have to through the immigration process and get stamped back into the republic.
I’d arranged that we overnight at !Xerry bush camp, which lies about 12 kilometres west of Nossob. Once again we were on our own, only a long drop, bucket shower and a fence for company. Oh, and a massive camelthorn tree which looked like it was about to topple over at any moment. It housed several sociable weavers’ nests which would serve as our alarm clock in the morning. Between April and October, from Wednesday to Friday, this bush camp is filled with hikers. Their vehicles are left at Nossob and from !Xerry they do four hikes over three days, the length depending on the fitness of the groups.
Our guide is the likeable Melissa du Toit who enjoys nothing more than hiking or being on the multi-day 4×4 trail in the park. This is her playground and she wants to show it off to people. “There’s nothing better than being on foot and seeing a lion in the Kalahari. If lions knew we were scared they would hunt us, but luckily for us they don’t. Just don’t run or look away because then they see you as food. It’s fun walking into lions – I’ve done it many times before,” she says with a naughty laugh before we head out for a walk in the Nossob riverbed.
After doing a walking safari in Mana Pools a few years back I promised myself never again. Well, here we go again, but this time it’s different. Melissa, carrying an old army issue R1, is joined by Jan Kriel, manager of activities on the South African side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, who also has a rifle. It’s rather hot when we set off so if you’re keen be sure to pack good shoes, a hat and a water bottle. “Some people tell us they’re fi t but after a few hundred metres we have to turn back because they cannot handle the sand and heat,” chuckles Jan as we head up a dune after crossing the dry river.
Soil temperatures here can reach as high as 75° C so one often find animals resting under a Shepherds Tree where it’s a much cooler 25° C, which makes it a good place for a lion encounter. As we approach the crest of the dune Melissa hangs back with us while Jan moves forward to look for any potential danger. Later, Jan picks up a handful of white poo and asks us what it is. I haven’t a clue. “Hyena,” he declares. “The white is from the calcium content. Some sangomas give this to mentally ill patients to sniff.”
Later on Jan shows us some lion poo – it looks like the twirly whirly ice-cream you buy at KFC for two bucks. Along the walk Jan highlights the small things we wouldn’t normally see from our 4x4s. He identifies antelope spoor and explains how to work out their direction of travel. I begin to see the Kalahari in a whole new light.
We don’t have time to do all the hikes so after one night we head south to !Xaus, the only private lodge in the park. To get there we meet our guides at the Kamqua picnic site which lies along the Auob River. The drive along this river is one of the most popular in the park and usually delivers great sightings. We see a huge herd of wildebeest around a roadside waterhole at sunrise. It gets better when I spot the tiny ears of the only true fox found in South Africa, the Cape Fox. It’s breeding season and mom keeps a caring eye on the two young ones as they gingerly climb out of their holes. Soon something startles mom and they disappear down again.
The drive to the lodge is an adventurous one over 91 dunes; it takes us just over an hour in our Hilux. The !Xaus Lodge is built on land that was returned to the Mier and Khomani communities, who now lease the land back to SANParks. The lodge lies in a dune belt near the western fence of the park so one doesn’t see as much game as one would along the Auob and Nossob Rivers, which are both littered with waterholes.
A resident barn owl greets us upon arrival, flying just above us while giving out a piercing screech. The view from the deck over the Klein Skrij Pan is what makes this lodge special. During the building of the lodge one of the workers stood at this very spot and declared that the pan was heart shaped, so it was decided that the lodge would be called !Xaus, which means heart.
One of the highlights of our visit is the walk down to the pan and on to a specially-recreated Bushman village where we can partake in activities like jewellery making and bow-and-arrow shooting. With the latter the idea was to shoot the arrow through a Tsamma melon; the melon easily survived our attempts – no-one recorded a hit, not even the Bushmen!
During the 1 000-kilometre drive back to Cape Town I had loads of time to think about the Wilderness Trail and the two sides of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Which was the best side to visit? You’d probably have a better chance of seeing animals on the South African side due to the two rivers and manmade waterholes. Having visited Mabuasehube several times I have a great affection for the place notwithstanding the inadequacies of the Botswana Parks booking system.
On the South African side I’m proud to say that the staff , the setup, the 4×4 trails and the activities on offer are most impressive. But I still wouldn’t say that one side is better than the other – wilder maybe, but not better. But why don’t you decide? Go and drive the Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail and see for yourself!
Toyota Hilux 3.0-litre D-4D Raider – R412 500
When Toyota recently launched this latest version of the Hilux, journalists got to meet the legendary Os du Randt, the only man in South Africa to have earned two Rugby World Cup winners’ medals. Os drives a Hilux of course. When still playing, Os was seen as the anchor of the Bok scrum, the front ranker that opponents respected and feared. In many ways he’s a little like the Hilux bakkie: strong, tough and never say die. Just what you need to drive the sands of the Kalahari.
The first thing I’m going to comment on is ride comfort. When driving the Wilderness Trail we had another vehicle with us. The Hilux glided effortlessly over the sand while the second vehicle looked like it was auditioning for a rodeo. The Hilux is one smooth operator when it comes to sand challenges and its suspension makes for a most comfortable ride.
We were the packhorse of this trip. All the gear was loaded onto the back of the bakkie along with the extra fuel, water, wood and my massive swag. You’ll be surprised by how much you can fit on the back of a Hilux bakkie. This weight made the Hilux handle the dirt roads even better as the back now sat firmly on the gravel. Its loadability is a comfort when doing these types of trips, and it isn’t something which negatively influences ride or comfort.
Then there are the little things like cruise control, which is useful when doing long tar stretches in convoy. The sound system controls also appear on the steering wheel so you can select your tune while keeping your hands on the wheel.
The Hilux is a very easy, safe choice if you’re in the market for a bakkie. That doesn’t mean it’s average – it just doesn’t have any weak spots.
GPS POINTS (WGS 84)
Start of Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail
WHERE WE STAYED
Springbokpan Guesthouse, McCarthy’s Rest
A very popular stopover for those crossing into Botswana at McCarthy’s Rest as the border post is only a few minutes away. They have campsites and chalets, both with electricity, hot water, wood and everything else you might need. There’s a tennis court and swimming pool for the kids. For more details go to www.springbokpan.co.za or call 072 323 4969. This is a good place to stock up on wood as you can’t gather any in the park.
Mabuasehube, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Botswana
Booking for Botswana parks is a nightmare. Try and call book on 00267 318 0774 or 00267 686 1265 or fax 00267 318 0774 or email email@example.com. Park fees are 20 pula pppd while camping is 30 pula pppn. Bring in everything you might need including water.
Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Botswana
This has to be booked in advance and can only be done with more than one vehicle (but less than five). The trail runs from east to west only (from the Botswana side of the park to Nossob in the South African side of the park). Park fees are once again 20 pula pppd while the cost of the trail is 200 pula per person which includes camping at the Mosomane campsite which is less than 50 km into the trail. Don’t expect too much of the campsite except some lovely trees and great views over the pan. The rest you have to bring yourself, and leave the place as you found it please. The trail is just over 150 km in length and takes the best part of a day to drive so one should definitely camp if you have the time.
!Xaus Lodge, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South African side
This is the only privately owned luxury lodge in the park. They’re currently running a special (until the end of February 2012) for SADC citizens; for R1 600 pppn (min of 2 night stay), this includes all game drives, activities, meals and transfers. For more details see www.xauslodge.co.za or call (021) 701 7860.
Nossob, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South African
No cell signal but this fenced-in campsite and chalet area has just about everything else from a pretty well-stocked shop to fuel to a swimming pool. The hide is very popular at sunrise and sunset. Camping costs between R165 and R180 for a site while everyone has to pay a daily conservation fee of R45 (these rates are for South Africans.) The two-night / three-day !Xerry hiking trail is R935 per person. For more info see www.sanparks.com or call (012) 428 9111 for bookings.
From McCarthy’s Rest border post head for Tsabong and then take the sandy track to Mabuasehube. Once you are ready to do the Wilderness Trail head for Khiding Pan first and then onto Malatso Pan, where the trail starts. From here there’s only one track to Nossob.
Fill up in Tsabong. If you are going to be doing loads of game drives in Mabuasehube before doing the Wilderness Trail then maybe take along some extra fuel as the next fuel stop is Nossob. When we arrived at Nossob we heard that they’d been without diesel for a day or two, but they normally do have fuel.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
There’s a massive mall at Kathu, west of Kuruman on the N14, and you can pick up some odds and ends at Hotazel. In Botswana, Tsabong is a fairly big town with a supermarket, bank and fuel. Nossob and Twee Rivieren have both fuel and shops.
For this type of terrain and trail take a hat, sunblock and loads of spare water. As you’ll be cut off from civilisation take a tyre repair kit and compressor. Take bags with you for your rubbish as there are no bins at the campsites. Take along recovery gear just in case, including a tow and snatch rope.
4×4 MegaWorld supply quality 4×4 equipment. For our trip they provided jerrycans (fuel and water), an inverter to charge our camera batteries and a T-Max Compressor to inflate our tyres. For more details go to www.4x4megaworld.co.za or call (011) 454 2875.
Makers of quality, durable camping gear. For our trip they provided a Safari bow tent, fishing chair, steel stretcher, picnic cooler bag, waterbag and camping table. For more details go to www.bushtecadventure.co.za or call (036) 634 1902.
CONVOY OR SOLO
Solo vehicles may visit both sides of the park but you may not drive the Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail solo.
The Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail is in fairly good condition though a few of the steep dune inclines have a few holes in them. The tracks in Mabuasehube are in good condition but the roads on the South African side are somewhat corrugated.
The Cooper Discoverer ATR is ideally suited to this kind of all-road terrain. It provides excellent on-road performance and the extensive zig-zag siping increases water evacuation and provides excellent traction in the wet. The tyre is also solid in off-road conditions with its 5-rib tread design and enhanced cut and chip resistance. Call 0800 335 722 (toll-free) for your nearest dealer.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
Both sides of the park are relatively well signposted. I made use of the T4A Botswana map and bought a Kgalagadi Transfrontier Official Information Guide from the office at Nossob for R60.
The Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail is 4×4 only; I didn’t engage low-range once as it’s fairly easygoing. You will make it difficult for yourself if you don’t deflate tyres. The road from Tsabong to the Mabuasehube gate is thick sand and one comes across people who are towing and have got stuck here. So keep the momentum up when you hit this section.
If you don’t have a sat phone then let people know you’re doing the Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail and call them once you’ve finished. You’re in a wilderness area, so at night don’t go pee behind a bush. Lions roam free here.
The toughest part of the border crossing into Botswana at McCarthy’s Rest is how to spell Mabuasehube on your visitor’s form – the long-suffering officials have put up a little sign to assist visitors in this regard. We paid R160 to get our vehicle across the border; they accept rands.
The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post,
Van der Post recounts his rediscovery of the Bushmen, survivors of Stone Age Africa. Under constant outside threat the Bushmen retreat into the Kalahari, one of the most inhospitable parts of the planet, but even here they are not safe. After a tough trek it is here that Van Der Post finds them unspoilt and clinging onto their customs and cultures.
The Arid Parks Captured Experiences,
We’ve all done it before: when we’re not happy with our images from a place we buy a coffee table book which we show to others upon our return. This book is the brilliant result of a photographic competition that was run by SANParks which featured the six arid parks, including the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park of course. One can purchase this book at the Twee Rivieren and Nossob receptions.