Africa’s first official transfrontier park, named KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK after the ancient San name for the Kalahari (it’s pronounced “kha-la-khadi”, the kh as in the Scottish “loch”), is the result of the formalization of a long-standing joint management arrangement between South Africa’s Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s neighbouring Gemsbok National Park. The local Mier and San communities have agreed that their land be jointly managed by themselves and South African National Parks, so that the land remains part of the wildlife sanctuary. In keeping with the agreement, tourism opportunities for the local community are being explored, including training people as trackers and rangers. The park is run as a single ecological unit and gate receipts are shared, although the tourist facilities in South Africa and Botswana are still run autonomously. Almost all visitors to the park will, however, encounter only the South African section, where all the established tourist facilities are found.
Kgalagadi covers an area of over 37,000 square kilometres – nearly twice the size of Kruger National Park – and although the South African side is by far the smaller section, it still encompasses a vast 9500 square kilometres. Be prepared to clock up some serious mileage here; the shortest circular game drive is over 100km long, not far short of the distance to Mata-Mata restcamp on the western edge of the reserve. The park is bounded on its western side by the Namibian border, and to the south by the dry Auob River and a strip of land running parallel to this. The national boundary with Botswana follows the dry Nossob river bed, as does one of the few roads in the park. No fences exist along this line, allowing game undisturbed access to the ancient migration routes so necessary for survival in the desert. The main roads follow the river beds, and this is where the game – and their predators – are most likely to be. Water flows very rarely in the two rivers, but frequent boreholes have been drilled to provide water for the game. Larger trees such as camelthorn and witgat (shepherd’s tree) offer a degree of shade and nutrition, and desert-adapted plants, including types of melon and cucumber, are a source of moisture for the animals.
Much of the park is dominated by red sand dunes, which, when seen from the air, lie strung out in long, wave-like bands. From a car, the perspective is different, as you are in the valley of the river bed, but this doesn’t prevent the path from offering one of the finest game-viewing experiences in South Africa – not only for the animals, but for the setting, with its broad landscapes, the crisp light of morning and the huge open skies. The clear viewing and wonderful light are ideal for photography, as shown by the exhibition at the visitor centre at Twee Rivieren Camp.
In a place where ground temperatures in the summer can reach a scorching 70¬∞C, timing your visit is everything. The best period to be in the park is between March and May, when there is still some greenery left from the summer rain and the sun is not so intense. Winter can be very cold at night, while spring, though dry, is a pleasant time before the searing heat of summer.
The game-viewing highlights in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park are, inevitably, the predators, headed by the Kalahari lion and, enjoying rare status alongside the Big Five, gemsbok, the large, lolloping antelope with classically straight, V-shaped horns. You won’t find buffalo, elephant or rhino, but the other animals more than compensate. Of the remaining Big Five, leopards, as elsewhere, are not uncommon, but remain elusive. Kalahari lions commonly have much darker manes than those found in the bushveld, and studies have shown their behavioural and eating patterns to be distinctively well adapted to the semi-desert conditions here.
Beyond the Big Five, there are various species of antelope, hyena, jackal, bat-eared fox, cheetah and some extravagant birdlife, including vultures, eagles, the dramatic bateleur (which takes its name from the French word for an acrobatic tumbler), bustards and ostrich. There’s also a good chance you’ll see family groups of suricate, a relative of the mongoose and squirrel, striking their characteristic pose of standing tall on their hind legs, looking round nervously for signs of danger.
The best time to take your game drives is as early as possible in the morning, when you’re more likely to see animals out in the open. Drives normally take at least four to five hours, so an early start means you can avoid the desert sun at its zenith. The last couple of hours of light in the afternoon are also a good time for game (and for taking photographs), but it’s a lot more relaxing to go out for a little foray from your base than to be en route to a new camp, destined to arrive just as it’s getting dark. The middle of the day, especially during summer, is a necessarily inactive time for both animals and humans, so don’t plan too full a programme.