There is never a bad time for the Kgalagadi. But something magical happened to me when I visited in July.
The air was crisp, the sky enamel blue, the earth clean. And the colours… the colours…
There is something a little bit pre-history about Kgalagadi. Perhaps it’s that when you visit the vast calcrete ridges of the south or the wide open spaces of the north, you can envision arriving in this barren, untouched landscape thousands of years back, and deciding to call it home, just as stone-agers did 200,000 years ago.
I’ve heard that once the sand gets in your shoes you are eternally tied to this place, and it will summon you back time and again.
I feel it now.
Or perhaps it’s just the black-maned lions, the red sand dunes, the golden grasses or the large blurry herds of wildebeest and springbok that flood the wide open spaces right up to the horizon that draw you back.
Despite often feeling like the only person around for dozens of kilometres and hours when visiting the park now, the past few millennia have been relatively busy in this area. With tribes, traders, hunters and settlers discovering the Kgalagadi magic over the past 3000 years, the San people who were once the sole inhabitants of this desert landscape dispersed. But there was a time 20,000 years ago when these descendants of the original hunter-gatherers thrived and lived a sustainable existence in this harsh environment.
Today, the cultural heritage of the Kgalagadi is celebrated, with the Khomani San Cultural Landscape, covering the Kalahari, recently declared a World Heritage Site.
There’s quite a bit of other history to enjoy in the park, including the waterholes, some of which carry names that speak to the dense past of the area. At Actherlonie, just along the dry Auob River bed, the museum perched atop the ridge tells the tale of the families who were sent to tend boreholes for the British-aligned troops stationed along the border after World War 1. Somehow, they managed to create lives out of absolutely nothing here. I naively envy them. While visiting the museum, I keep my eyes trained on the surrounding veld. A few weeks back, lions spent the day in the shade of the Actherlonie house.
Driving along the Auob, one can’t help but feel a sense of fomo. What other sightings await further down the river bed? Which waterhole should we pick for staking out as the sun reaches its last? Are there eyes staring out from the shadows of bushes that we just can’t spot? But the fomo is always short-lived. Within intermittent minutes there are mesmerising creatures to behold.
From jackals that scratch at the burrows of whistling rats to bat-eared foxes with their noses buried in the sand, searching for snacks, keep your eyes peeled for anything.
And don’t be fooled by the dozens of kori bustards. No, it’s probably not a leopard, a baby giraffe, a lion or a kill: it’s a kori bustard. What a pleasure – these birds are near threatened, and difficult to spot throughout the rest of the country. Here, we see multiple birds dotting the landscapes.
A few kilometres on, we spot a cheetah merely because she has sit up for a second and the sky silhouettes her round ears. As she lies down again, she is nearly impossible to see in the shade.
Back at Mata Mata, we have visitors at our back door. Meerkats dig at the sand underneath the doormat, taking turns to clear the way. They scurry off into a clump of grass, and I follow. They must stay around the camp, I think. Within minutes two adults are joined by a nursery of pups, guarded by a nanny that is not taking any nonsense. I plant myself in the sand, camera trained on them. I am curious. They are curiouser. They crawl closer. My 400ml is suddenly too large to capture their little faces, which become blurred in my viewfinder. I drop the camera, only to see that two pups have crawled onto my boots. I jump up and step back in panic, nervous to upset angry nanny. But they follow, crawling again onto my boots. I am numb with delight. Nanny calls them off, and within moments they are gone. Did this really happen? I share my experience at reception. Meerkats have not been spotted in the camp in months. In our few days following at Mata Mata, I do not see my meerkats again.
At Nossob it is bitterkoud. I wake up at 5am one morning to spend some time with the rangers, and my fingers are too cold to shoot. It’s -3°C. A few hours later I crawl back into the icey sheets in our little room. The animals can wait while I heat up.
When we do finally head out, the meerkats are baking their bellies in the sun, defrosting from the cold night. They jump in front of one another almost in jest, stealing sunlight from their friends as they all try to get a front row spot. Spend a few hours with these guys - they are entertaining AF and seem to stare into your soul,
We drive with the windows open because I wouldn’t want to miss a sound, a clue, a moment. But my ears and fingers burn from the cold wind. Hours later, we are stripping down to Tshirts in the midday sun.
The witchcraft of the evening air carries the sounds of lions to us as if they are only a metre away. Or perhaps they are – and we just can’t see them. Other spooky noises fill the air too.
At Mata Mata there is a sea of eyes staring back at us from the other side of the river. At 2am, we are awoken by a genet scurrying over the bedroom floor out through the window. I hear him scratching again as the dawn draws closer.
In the early morning as the light gathers, we see that the eyes belong to the jackal, who had gathered the previous night at the scent of braai meat.
At night I catch the moon and stars with my lens. At Twee Rivierin they are not as bright, but as we head further north in the park one starts to see the layers of spiralled stars saturating the sky. How can I ever gather this feeling again, back in the city, where the air is thick and the sky is grey? One cannot. When I shake the sand out of my boots and hair back home, I feel it already.
The sand on the bathroom floor echoes the sands of the Kalahari calling me back.