By Sue Derwent

Kimberley - The desert is quiet. So quiet the sand rings in your ears and you can almost hear the stars as the Milky Way sweeps across the sky. It is colder than I expected, especially in the crisp early mornings and as the navy blue April nights settle in.

!Xaus (pronounced Kaus with a little click on the K) Lodge is some 80km into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

As you turn off the road between TwKee Rivieren and Mata Mata, the 4x4 track then rolls over some 90 dunes for approximately 35km and where the dunes end, a string of salt pans start.

This land was originally owned by the Khomani San and Mier communities and was incorporated into the Kalahari Gemsbok Park in 1931. In a historical agreement in 2002, ownership of 50 000ha of land was transferred back to the two communities. They leased it back to SanParks and it is on this land that !Xaus Lodge now perches.

During the day, if you stand on the deck overlooking the beautiful heart-shaped Klein Skrij pan, small herds of gemsbok wander on to the pan to lick the salt and at night you can hear jackals yip.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see, or even better, hear the deep-throated grunt of a magnificent black-maned Kalahari lion echoing for miles across the landscape. And if you’re even luckier, you may have a chance of interacting with Isak Gooi and his extended family, some of the last remaining Komani Bushmen who see themselves as custodians of their ancient, but fast disappearing culture.

At more than 3.6 million hectares, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the few conservation areas of this magnitude left in the world. The distances are far and the roads unfriendly to sedan cars, yet despite this, it is often difficult to get a booking. Many who say it is precisely because of the remoteness and the silence that they keep returning, drawn to a place where they can reconnect with their souls.

On the surface, the land looks bleak and sunburnt. But, if you look a little deeper, according to the Bushmen, the history of not just the night before, but the whole world is written for all to read in the sand below as well as the stars above you. It’s just as well then, that the night skies are so brilliant and the light pollution almost non-existent.

For many of us living in cities, access to the beautiful night sky filled with stars has all but disappeared owing to excessive light pollution. In an attempt to retain the visual impact and accessibility to a star-filled night sky for not just the Bushmen, but also for the world at large, the administrators of !Xaus Lodge have applied to have the lodge and surrounding region registered as a “Dark Sky Preserve” with the International Dark-Sky Association in the US.

The association was founded to address the problem of light pollution and “recognises protected areas, public or private land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment mission of a large peripheral area”.

It is generally understood that a dark-sky preserve is an area that is kept free of artificial light pollution, and should be sufficiently dark to promote astronomy.

By registering as a Dark Sky region, !Xaus hopes to be the first Dark Sky preserve in South Africa and the second on the continent. Namibia’s NamibRand, one of Africa’s largest private nature reserves, is the only other registered reserve.

Already !Xaus is equipped with two massive telescopes. The evenings are filled with stars and planets rotating in the heavens above. Our very knowledgeable guide pointed out individual stars and planets, and to my great delight, for the first time I saw the actual rings of Saturn through the big telescope.

Another option is to sit around the fire chatting to the Bushmen about their understanding of the firmament and listening to their descriptive myths and legends of the stars as told to them by their elders and ancestors.

l More from www.xauslodge.co.za - Sunday Tribune