This black-maned Kalahari lion was suffering from the intense heat and having overindulged on wildebeest. Pictures:  Lauren and Dale Barrow
This black-maned Kalahari lion was suffering from the intense heat and having overindulged on wildebeest. Pictures: Lauren and Dale Barrow
While the Kalahari welcomes the summer rain, the same cannot be said for this mother cheetah and her two cubs at Marie se Draai waterhole.
While the Kalahari welcomes the summer rain, the same cannot be said for this mother cheetah and her two cubs at Marie se Draai waterhole.

Kimberley - It was only a four-night visit en route to Windhoek, but our stay at the Kgalagadi National Park will forever be entrenched in our memories. The decision to deviate from the highway was not made lightly, what with the desert heat, the extra time and distance and the infamous corrugated roads. But it was sanity that prevailed as my wife and I entered the transfrontier park at Twee Rivieren.

Upon immediate entry into the park we were confronted with the hardship that accompanies life in this dry landscape – tens of eland carcasses around the waterholes and dry riverbed. This was our welcoming committee to the Kalahari. The dry years of 2011 and last year forced thousands of eland to migrate south from the northern Botswana region of the park, but insufficient water, unsuitable grazing and expectant predators were their demise.

With the return of summer rain the eland had returned home to the north. But not all the eland returned, and it was one of these expatriates that pointed out the most special siting of our visit. At “Jasper se draai” waterhole, between the Twee Rivieren and Nossob camps, my wife and I were taking pleasure in the smaller, less-noticed residents of the park: a pair of squabbling Cape Sparrows, a couple of jackal and a lone and thirsty eland.

With our hungry stomachs competing with the thunder overhead we were discussing our skottel breakfast back at camp – and then it happened. I recall the eland bark, the jackal looking up – and following their eyes we saw a sight that is engraved in my memory forever, a beautiful sleek spotted shadow cautiously and stealthily moving down to the waterhole.

This was one of the 150 leopards of the South African section of the park, which with the 130 Kalahari lions and 200 cheetahs make the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park one of the best places to view the big cats of Africa. This is confirmed by the “Game Spotted” noticeboard at each camp where daily multiple sitings are evident – a useful guide when planning your afternoon game drive.

The park expanse is vast (over 3.6 million hectares) and game spotting requires persistence, patience and fuel, which is available at all three traditional camps (Twee Rivieren, Nossob and Mata Mata). But beware of only pursuing the grand game – there is lots of joy to be had in the many animal species that call the park home, and none more so than in the prevalent Whitefaced owls common to the campsites.

But no single aspect of the park can accurately define it. It is not the ghostly leopard, the mother cheetah and her cubs huddled against the precious but unfamiliar rain, nor the black mane Kalahari lion gorging on his wildebeest, that singularly captures and defines the magic of this place. It is these things and so much more; it is the colour of the red dunes against ominous thunder clouds, the cool shade of the camel thorn tree and the clean and dry air.

It is the Tawny eagle with his feathered legs silhouetted against the red setting sun (and the other 92 resident bird species in the park), the peacefulness of the waterhole as gemsbok and springbok silently come to drink their fill.

Yes, the roads aren’t always the smoothest, short notice thundershowers are always a possibility (in summer), and your campsite is always vulnerable to a marauding gang of ground squirrels, mongooses and jackal (don’t leave any food out unattended). This is after all the desert, the Kalahari, and would you want it any other way? - The Mercury