June, 2017: In the Tswana language of Botswana, Kgalagadi apparently means ‘land of thirst’ (at least according to wikipedia). When we first heard about it, it was just another name which try as we might we couldn’t bloody pronounce it. But, we had also heard that the Kgalagadi is one of southern Africa’s last great stretches of untouched wilderness. A place where rolling red sand dunes stretch off into the distance and black maned lions the size of small cars dominate the food chain. Without doubt this was a place we had to visit. A Kgalagadi game safari suddenly seemed high on our list of priorities.
Kgalagadi versus Kalahari
So the Kgalagadi is just a different way of pronouncing the Kalahari right? Well, kind of. The answer to this question is something I’m still trying to completely figure out and frankly it’s all a bit confusing. From what I can figure out, the long and the short of it is that the Kgalagadi is a 38,000km2 portion of the much larger Kalahari desert (930,000km2). The Kgalagadi were a group of people who moved into the region and coexisted with the local San people (perhaps better known as the Kalahari bushmen).
The word Kalahari was derived from the Kgalagadi word Makgadikgadi which means salt pans or great thirst lands. To confuse things further, Makgadikgadi is the name of some epic looking salt pans in Botswana which in themselves are part of the greater Kalahari desert. Finally, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was formed through the merger of the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana and the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa. Kgalagadi…Makgadikgadi….Kalahari….Confused yet? Well I certainly am so lets move on.
Our first impressions of the Kgalagadi
After a few days at Fish River Canyon we entered the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park at the Twee Rivieren Rest Camp on the South African side. It’s the largest of the camp’s gates with a well organised camp ground, petrol station, lodge, customs and immigration offices. South African retirees seemed to be pulling up left, right and centre and unpacking their caravans, camp trailers and tents. The average guest age was probably in the late 60’s and a coin operated laundry provided convenient washing facilities. Thoughts of an intrepid Kgalagadi game safari seemed to blow away with the next cloud of caravan dust.
Getting our Kgalagadi game safari on…
Unperturbed we jumped in Bertha and drove out the park gates in search of the giant cats. It was a hot afternoon, Bertha felt like a sauna and the 50km per hour speed limit seemed far too slow for any reasonable driving. Where were those cats god dammit? We found plenty of wildebeest, gemsbok and springbok but the cats were no where to be seen. I know it’s unreasonable but we finished that day feeling a little frustrated. The next morning was the same with several hours bumpy driving over corrugated roads with nothing ‘exciting’ sighted except for the aforementioned South African retirees who seemed to be having a great time! What were we doing wrong? It wasn’t until the second half of day two that we had a bit of an inspiration. We figured out that going on safari was more a marathon than a sprint, more test match cricket than twenty-twenty.
The game changer…
Once we figured out that we needed to treat our Kgalagadi game safari more like a day at the test cricket, we started enjoying things a lot more. Then our luck changed and we started seeing some cats. Sure the lions were lying lazily off in the distance digesting some poor unfortunate springbok but there they were. Then we saw a family of five cheetahs hunting on the road right in front of us. Then we saw three more cheetahs wandering through the sand dunes. Giraffes, springbok, red hartebeest, blue wildebeest, black backed jackals, bat eared foxes, loads of different birds, a couple of awesome porcupines and a lonely hyena. We had already probably seen these creatures, but as we slowed things down, even the ‘ten thousandth’ springbok seemed cooler.
Lasting memories of our Kgalagadi game safari
My lasting memories of the Kgalagadi will be sitting by a waterhole in the middle of the day while the gangly but somehow graceful giraffe spread their legs to allow there heads to get close enough to the water for a drink. It will be watching the skittish but beautiful springbok making their way through the grass at first light. It will be little birds buzzing around a brackish seep while a herd of wildebeest walked cautiously in for the water.
My other lasting memory will be of the those awesome old South Africans. Their warmth and friendliness will stay with me, with both of us for a long time to come. People like Peter from Knysna who was so happy to sit around chatting like we were long lost friends. Or people like the old couple who first came to the Kgalagadi 60 years ago in time to see the last great springbok migration. They had been coming ever since just to hang out and enjoy being in the wilderness. These people and many more like them will stay long in our memory. Just like the park itself.
Kgalagadi game safari: a few things to know.
- Twee Rivieren and Mata Mata in the South African part of the park are the main camp sites and are well organised with good facilities e.g. hot water showers, clean bathrooms, powered and watered sites. You can also buy petrol and basic supplies at both. There is a third camp at Nossob River but we didn’t get to visit there. At both camp sites we stayed at the earliest you can leave in the morning is 7:30am and the latest you can return is sun down, for us around 5:30pm.
- If you want a more rustic bush experience check out the Botswana campsites. Apparently these are a bit of a hassle to book but after seeing one of the camps we wished we had stayed in these more open camps. Sure they are not protected by fences but they feel much more a part of the bush and you won’t have a caravan parked beside you. They also don’t have the same time restrictions so you can head out on safari earlier and come back later.
- In peak season, the camp sites book up quickly so reserve well ahead when ever possible. Especially for the South African camps. Bookings for the South African camps can be made here.
- Try and organise your stay so you can move from one end of the park to the other, staying a night or two at each spot. This way you won’t get sick of driving the same roads every day like we did. This is especially the case if you’re based at Twee Rivieren for three days like we were.
- If you are going from South Africa into Namibia through the park (or vice versa) make sure you complete customs and immigration formalities at the gate you enter. If not you’ll be sent back, a round trip of nearly 12-13 hours.