After reading Cry of the Kalahari, a fascinating book written by a pair of researchers who lived in total isolation within the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) for 20 years, I have built up wild and wonderful daydreams about this place. Encompassing 5 million hectares (the size of Denmark!), the CKGR is one of the largest and most remote conservation areas in the world. The CKGR is a mix of several different climates including semi-desert, dry forests, savannas, and salt lakes but it is not a true desert. It contains a fascinating geography of sand sheets and ancient river beds that snake around longitudinal chains of wind blown sand dunes and intermixed pans.
While in Botswana, many have warned us that you really have to know what you are doing to survive here. It is standard procedure to go as a convoy of at least two cars because it is so remote and if you get stuck/breakdown you are SOL. Stories abound of lions taking over campsites and even the most experienced drivers getting hopelessly stuck in the deep sand roads. I was of course worried about traveling here on our own – especially since this was right after our breakdown in Gweta. I didn’t’ t know if it was such a good idea to be testing out the car in such a difficult location….Luckily all fears were unfounded. We had no car trouble at all! Didn’t even get stuck once. The roads gave us no trouble and were rather easy compared to what we had seen so far on the trip.
We have been to Khutse a few times, which is a southern offshoot of the CKGR. I didn’t think it was anything too particularly special. The landscape is desolate but didn’t give me any special kind of feeling. There were a bit too many other campers in the area which spoiled the sense of isolation you hope for in the Kalahari. We also didn’t see any lions which was a disappointment. Thus, my expectations for the CKGR were low.
But to my surprise, I totally fell in love with the CKGR. There was an overwhelming sense of peace and comfort that filled my soul when I looked out across the wide open landscape. There was something almost hypnotic about watching the tall soft wisps of grass sway back and forth in the wind. It is not a place for big game, but instead for finding miracles of survival. Flora and fauna that have found a way to adapt to the harsh dry climate. It is so special and unique. Very few people, no structures, no phone signals, no proper roads – just offering time and space to be with your thoughts and the limitless beauty of nature. I came to develop a deep connection to the wild and desolate landscape.
Because the CKGR has only has a handful of campsites, only a limited amount of people are allowed in each day. It is essential to book far in advance to secure a spot. Even with booking 8 months in advance, we weren’t able to get the campsites we wanted. We spent our first night a Kori Camp 1. There are 4 camps in this area. They sit fairly close to the gate so it’s a good starting point and close to the excellent wildlife viewing areas at Deception pan and Sunday pan. Although we couldn’t see our neighbors, the campsite are within shouting distance so you don’t get that feel of total isolation.
The second night we made the long trek to Passarge Valley to stay in campsite number 2. There are only 3 camps along this valley and they are separated by ~20k so you are completely isolated without any facilities. I thought this was one of the best campsites we’ve ever stayed at.
From our campsite, we had a beautiful view over a large pan filled with giraffe. In the afternoon, we made a long drive over to Passarge waterhole which is about 2 hours from our campsite. Right before the waterhole, we found a group of 4 sleeping lionesses. We stayed for a little too long, chatting with another vehicle who was staying in passarge 3 campsite. We didn’t get back to our camp until an hour past sunset…which is against park rules. We were quite pleased to squeeze in this bonus night drive and were handsomely rewarded with a caracal that leap out in the road in front of us. This is one of the rarest cats to see and has been on my wish list!
The only downside of our passarge camp was a very naughty mongoose. He appeared immediately as we pulled, walked right up and sat next to our table to stare at us with beady little eyes. At first I thought he was quite cute, then I noticed him trying to jump inside the car – no doubt to tear apart our stuff! We shooed him off but he stayed near and continued lurking around. He managed to grab a piece of gristle from our trash and took it off to eat. We sort of forgot about him, then I started hearing the birds all around us squawking and going crazy like I had never heard before. We realized the mongoose was in the tree above us attacking their nests! We watched him march right up to a weaver bird nest, pull out a baby bird and eat it alive. Aghhh! It was horrifying! The poor mama bird was loosing her mind but couldn’t do anything but make noise. I couldn’t figure out why she wouldn’t try to peck him. I guess she was afraid of getting attacked by him too. I know there is a circle of life, but what made me mad is that the little mongoose had just eaten a piece of meat! Why did he need to get more food? I felt like he was just being greedy.
The Kalahari sunsets and night skies were some of the most spectacular we have seen on the trip. I had been anxiously awaiting a good clear sky to try out star trail photography and the CKGR did not disappoint. Star trail photography isn’t in itself all that difficult, you just need the right conditions and a lot of patience. And you have to stay up late! I would start the star trails around 10pm and have to wake up to stop it at 2.
I was so pleased with how they turned out considering it was our first try. We had no trouble finding the south pole which is were you need to aim the camera to get the circle effect.
Our last night we made the trek back to Kori 1 camp. This seemed like it was going to be annoying to backtrack but since we have to pack up all our stuff for game drives every morning anyway it wasn’t a big deal to head back in that direction. It put us closer to the gate on our last morning which was also a plus.
During our time in the CKGR we saw loads of oryx which were quite impressive because you usually just see them alone or in pair of 2-3. Here we saw herds of 30-40. It must have been breeding season because all the males were fighting constantly -always interesting to watch. We saw lots of bat eared foxes which are a favorite of mine. Ton of of jackals. Some hyenas. Springbok, steinbock, and kudu.
We found a large herd of giraffe that were covering deception pan. They were all struggling to bend down to eat the fresh grass sprouts that were growing from the wet pan. It was a very impressive sight because giraffes don’t usually congregate in large groups. And it is very rare to see them eat grass from the ground!.
We saw lots of birdlife including kori bustards, secretary birds, lots of types of eagles, owls and other birds of prey. We kept hoping to see some meerkats, but only found mongoose and ground squirrels. Of course the famous Kalahari lions were all over. There are several prides roaming the park. We saw two large males and a pride of lionesses. I was surprised that the males didn’t have the solid black manes like you always hear about in the Kalahari. I’ve yet to ever see one with an all black mane. There were definitely cheetahs and leopards about, we didn’t get to catch a glimpse of them.
The biggest shock I got in the CKGR was when we stopped for a picnic and I looked down to see my legs covered in ticks! I have never seen a live tick before. Because of having to learn about all types of ticks and the awful diseases they inflict while studying for my derm boards….I am absolutely terrified of them! I am not afraid of most bugs and I have a policy of not killing insects….even spiders. So Garrett was quite confused to see me completely losing my mind over these ticks and stomping on them in all directions. For some reason the CKGR was overrun with ticks this year so I had quite the panic attack dealing with the constant threat of these awful creatures crawling and burrowing into my skin. But thanks to my diligence neither Garrett nor I got a single bite!
The best wildlife viewing areas were around Sunday pan, Leopard pan and Deception valley. Because it was the green season, water could be found all over so the waterholes were not particularly abundant with any wildlife. The recent rains meant that the landscape was filled with lush grass and beautiful pops of bright wildflowers.
The weather was perfect. Cold at night, cool in the morning, pleasantly hot in late afternoon and cool in the evening. I know the game viewing is better in the summer but it would be quite unbearably hot.
We also had a bizarre encounter with a solo male traveler who chatted us up about how he has been coming to the CKGR for over 10 years and knows everything about it. We saw him stopped outside of the car taking photos. Garrett jumped out to see what he was looking at. The man said he found a huge millipede. Garrett took one look and said “no man that is a huge puff adder! The guy said “no snakes don’t move in straight lines, they slither, this can’t be a snake.” The guy finally wised up and rushed back to the car. He was so close to getting bit! I can’t imagine what he would have done!
Even though the wildlife is not as plentiful as in other parks, I absolutely loved the CKGR. It has a very special energy. You really feel like you are experiencing the wild heart of Africa. I hope we get to visit again and spend a few nights out at passarge valley.