The Kgalagadi is made of a rougher kind of beauty – a far cry from the Kruger’s more palatable riverside abundance – yet this place of thirst, requiring deeper inquisition, has entangled many a curious wanderer in its rugged soul. Best of all, these wide open places give you space to think, to reflect, to breathe and to dream. As a wildlife-lover I was endlessly wooed by its miracles of evolution. A desolate, harsh place this semi-desert realm may be, but it is certainly not a dead one – from cartwheeling spiders to the regal oryx, those who belong here are remarkable highly specialised survivors, not least the Meir and Khomani San Bushmen whose ancestors have called the Kgalagadi home for at least 20 000 years.
Recently, I spent three delightfully refreshing days exploring the South African side of the park with the lovely Frances Steyn (pictured above). To be honest, I didn’t really feel like going at first, it seemed a long way to travel for just three days, and somewhere in the back of my mind still lingered childhood memories of endless hours in a stuffy car driving there on a family vacation.
Yet this time it was a completely different experience. I stepped onto an airplane that morning with Airlink in Pietermaritzburg for a quick 1-hour flight to Johannesburg, hopped on a new plane for a smooth hour and a half ride to land my feet in the warm red sands of Upington, the main city in South Africa’s Northern Region and the nearest town to the park gate and Twee Rivieren Rest Camp.
Fran had organised to hire a car at the airport (a good option if you’re flying in or visiting for just a few days, there are many options available). Then we were off … two adventurous girls dune-bound in a little VW Polo. I couldn’t help noticing that most of the vehicles we passed were of the larger, 4×4 variety … in fact some of their drivers were actually laughing at us – or was I imagining it?
But I was definitely not imagining it! Once inside the park the roads became increasingly sandy and rough. Luckily we were met by the manager from Xaus Lodge in his more suitable 4×4 to take on the last 30km to the lodge. I will never forget this stretch of road – not because of the beautiful surroundings, although they are! – but for the queasy sensation of being on a tiny boat in rough sea as we went up and over each dune, 90 of them to be exact! When we eventually washed up on the 91st dune, we were just in time for a warm homely stew followed by a night drive.
Under star-dotted heavens
Fran and I began the night drive sitting on either side of the open vehicle but it wasn’t long until we were huddled together in the middle, furiously trying to close any little gaps open to the freezing night air in the blanket we shared. Nighttime in the Kalahari is a phenomenal occasion with my personal highlights being the playful little bat-eared foxes (apparently brown hyenas are also seen quite often but we weren’t so fortunate), the evocative calls of fiery-necked nightjars, the delightful springhares or “Kgalagadi kangaroos” and, of course, the million-star-canvas stretched out above us. Apparently, some bushmen groups believe that the sky is a big blanket filled with lots of little holes that God covers the Earth with every night, I just love this, it’s no wonder bushmen have such a rich starlore living under these star-dotted heavens.
The best thing about arriving somewhere in the dark is the surprise that awaits you in the next morning. !Xaus Lodge is situated in a really unique area, overlooking a beautiful heart-shaped pan (for which the lodge was named), so drawing back the curtains in the morning wasn’t a bit disappointing!
The lodge (the only 4 star fully catered accommodation option within the park) is at the centre of a piece of land that has been given back to the Khomani San and Mier communities after it was lost to them in the 1930’s when they were displaced to make way for the game reserve. In 2002 about 50 000 hectares was given back to the community, who leased it back to South African National Parks to financially benefit from it. Thus, !Xaus Lodge is owned by the community who receive shared profits.
A Guided Walk
This was one of the best experiences of our trip. Our guide, Johan and our tracker, Klaas were incredibly knowledgable. We rose at the same time as the sun which made for beautiful golden light, enough to excite any budding photographer!
This grassy yellow cathedral was surely one of the most impressive sociable weaver nests I have ever seen!
Inside this amazing architectural wonder is an interlocking system of rooms that can weigh up to 1000kg, contain 50 or more individual chambers and provide a home for 300 pairs of birds. The birds enter their abode on the bottom side of the nest which makes it more difficult for climbing and airborne predators to get in. Yet the Cape cobra and honey badger are two unwelcome guests able to destroy entire colonies. I learnt this the hard way!
Me: Oh WOW! Look at how AMAZING this nest is (begins to take photos and ends up lying flat on back straining eyes in an effort to see the weavers poking their heads out of the openings to their chambers.
Johan: It’s probably not a good idea to lie like that (chuckles)
Me: Oh, I don’t mind getting a bit of bird poo on me, it’s good luck!
Johan: But I think you WOULD mind a COBRA falling out!
Me: …Agghhhh!… yeah your right! (Jumps up)
Anyway, just incase you were thinking of lying upside down beneath the nest to take photos, now you know the risk!
The chicks were so sweet, we couldn’t see them but could hear them cheeping away from their cosy bedrooms. I could just imagine their little open mouths, ready and waiting for their parents to feed them. The diligent Moms and Dads flew back and fourth ignoring our intrusion.
From admiring the dug out holes of damara cane rats, tasting sour roots and uncovering amazing silky spider mats, the walk held us in a constant state of wonderment. Walking also gives you the opportunity to notice small bright treasures like little flowers and the feel of different grasses, which all have lovely names like ‘tall bushman grass’, ‘dune bushman grass’ and ‘silky bushmen grass’.
Meeting the Locals
!Xaus Lodge have recreated a traditional bushmen cultural village and guests have the chance to visit and see how some of the crafts are made. I was impressed by the extremely detailed work that goes into shaping beads from ostrich eggs. South Africans who speak Afrikaans are definitely at an advantage because most of the bushmen are fluent in it – I, on the other hand, had some trouble communicating! There are some things though, that transcend words, like the expression in Pieter’s eyes lined with the wrinkles of many days under the hot Kgalagadi sun…
A GnT and a beautiful sunset, there’s no better way to end any day in the bush…
…And no better excuse for a cheesy selfie!
Planning your Trip:
Flights: Airlink fly between Cape Town/ Johannesburg to Upington 5 days a week
To book online for !Xaus Lodge, click here
For other accommodation options, click here
For car hire from Upington we used First Car Rental
- lip ice!
- a hat, walking shoes, a swimming costume, insect repellent
- deflate your tyres at Twee Rivieren (and remember to pump them up again!)
- You will be most comfortable booking a high clearance vehicle.
When to go: Late winter to early summer (August to October) are great – mostly hot and dry – but with very chilly nights so pack warmly! April and May are also great, but bring a raincoat. Mid-summers (December to February) are extremely hot! Luckily !Xaus has a refreshing swimming pool for midday wallowing.
Thanks so much Airlink for this wonderful adventure!