Kimberley - The Auob River in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was bone dry – nothing unusual for the ancient river which seldom flows.
Animals in the park are dependent on small man-made water holes; without them death is a real prospect for a lot of the game in this spectacular moisture-starved sanctuary about 265km from Upington in the Northern Cape.
Straddling South Africa and Botswana and bordering Namibia, the park and Kalahari areas all around it were desperate, as usual, for rain late in January this year.
Prayers were answered one Sunday afternoon when the heavens opened bringing fresh hope to all – human, animal and vegetation – for new life.
People danced in the streets, children stripped to their underwear and splashed in puddles, frogs found their voices again and things dormant started awakening. There was joy and laughter in the air.
I arrived at Kgalagadi with my son after it had been raining off and on for about four days. We were amped for the wildlife scenes for which the park is renowned. I had heard how all the animals, including the big cats, rely heavily on the artificial water holes, making exciting sightings relatively commonplace.
But the good rains had spread water all around the park and the animals were, for the time being, no longer reliant on man’s offerings.
So we saw very little on our first few days and were disappointed, despite sharing the relief and happiness the good rains had brought far and wide.
Then, one late afternoon while on our way back after a barren game drive, we saw something moving a distance up the Auob River bed which was still dry.
We looked closely and then even closer through binoculars: surely what we were seeing was a mirage?
Breaking the reserve’s rules we ran into the river bed. It wasn’t a mirage! There, inching towards us, was a shallow film of water, stretching across almost the entire breadth of the bed.
It was an experience of a lifetime. We were witnessing the rebirth of the river, or a section of it at least. What a privilege.
We stayed with the river for about half an hour to satisfy ourselves the phenomenon was not just a flash in the pan, watching as the water, which stretched back as far as the eye could see, crept relentlessly forward. The Auob River was indeed flowing!
The sun was setting and it was time to head back to camp. We would be back at first light to check on the progress.
Back on cue the next day, the river had vanished, sucked up by the thirsty earth beneath!
The disappearance of the flowing water surprised us. We tracked back up the bed and only pools remained.
But we had witnessed an unusual happening and in store were other revelations. With the sun slowly returning to its full furnace heat, trees turned green, shrubs got flowers and a variety of shoots starting popping up all over the place, including on the river bed.
Spurred by abundant moisture, it was a flora revolution not at all common in this semi-desert area.
As the rain clouds cleared and the searing heat the Kalahari is renowned for – 40oC and up – returned, the surface water soon disappeared and within days the animals were back at their stable watering points.
Among many sightings, we saw a cheetah flash along the Auob River bed and take down a springbok before it knew what was happening; watched lion cubs cavorting while two big females looked on; witnessed two massive lion “kings” embrace each other with enormous affection; were metres away from a honey badger as it dug furiously for anything edible, and saw a breath-taking array of birds of prey in flight, in trees and on the ground.
At one stage we counted about 50 bateleurs and tawny eagles snacking on grubs and things over a 1km section of the river bed. The wildness was everywhere.
And we also saw the beds of the Auob and Nossob rivers turn golf course-fairway green; the common driedoring shrub – much of which had previously appeared to be dead – display sprays of brilliant white and pink flowers.
Shoots were popping up and grass was growing all over the place, even on the red Kalahari dunes, a distinctive feature of the park.
Sunsets were spectacular as were the big star-filled evening skies, which only days earlier had often been filled with mountainous storm clouds.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was created in 2000 by the amalgamation of Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park (28 400km2 and the smaller South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok Park (9 591 km2 ).
The two rivers, Nossob and Auob, are usually dry but flow sporadically for a short period when there are excellent rains. Flooding is a rare.
The main entrance is at Twee Rivieren where visitors have the choice of going to the South African section or the Botswana side, or both. In the South African section, there are three fully-equipped fenced rest camps (including swimming pools) and six wilderness camps (no children under 12 allowed). The rest camps have small stores and petrol. Roads are generally good and there are also 4x4 trails.
Predators in the park include lion (450), leopard (150), cheetah (200) and brown hyena (600). There are no elephant, hippo, rhino or zebra.
With so little water around, Kgalagadi is one of the best parks in Africa to see game close up.
By the end of our 12-day stay we had seen a lot of the action close up in this unspoiled and remote place so different to other southern African parks. It’s calling me back already and I won’t resist.
l For more details and bookings for the South African section, call 012 4289111, e-mail [email protected] sanparks.org or visit the website: www.aridexperiences.com. For the Botswana side, call 00 267 3180774/ 3971405 or e-mail: [email protected]
Greg Dardagan, Saturday Star