Forever in the shadow of the extraordinary Namib, the country’s second desert, the Kalahari, is often neglected. Though technically a semi-desert on account of its greater rainfall – some areas receiving over 280mm per year on average – it’s difficult to conceive of it as anything other than a desert given that any precipitation immediately drains away through the porous sandy soils. Yet the higher levels of rainfall and the numerous ephemeral rivers that streak the Kalahari inevitably allow it to support more vegetation and more varied wildlife than the Namib. In particular, smaller mammals thrive on the shimmering grasses that follow rain and on the greater availability of even smaller prey: aardwolves, porcupines and honey badgers are all possible sightings, so too scurrying groups of meerkats, mongoose and suricates. Birders will be keen to watch out for the many raptors wheeling above: martial and snake eagles, as well as lappet-faced vultures. Inevitably, snakes and scorpions are common denizens of the desert; keep an eye out for the puff adder and Panabuthus raudus – the largest scorpion in southern Africa, which can reach over 12cm, threatening with a particularly impressive tail. Some of the desert’s more surprising inhabitants include tortoises and even frogs.
Yet the Kalahari is as much about the stillness and silence of the desert as it is about wildlife, and – in this southern section – the visually stunning red dunes, made so by the high iron oxide content in the sand. In contrast to the towering dunes in the Namib, these are rippling vegetated linear dunes, running broadly northwest to southeast. They start just east of the B1 between Kalkrand and Mariental, where several private reserves make the most of this picturesque dunescape, and they cover much of the land between the B1 and the eastern border of Namibia, extending into the South African section of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The park is attracting increasing numbers of self-drive visitors entering via the Mata Mata gate on the Namibian border, roughly 200km northeast of Keetmanshoop, as the crow flies. Many take the scenic C15 from the agricultural centre of Stampriet, northeast of Mariental, which tracks the relatively lush Auob River valley 230km southeast to the park gate, sometimes stopping of at one of the new campgrounds that are sprouting up along the way.