Secretly, he does his homework. He finds a Kalahari veterans’ blog and asks if it is okay to travel to a wilderness camp with an 18-month-old. Most respondents seem to have only heard of an 18-month-old human, never actually sighted one. The response is mixed: “Have to admit, we do not have kids, and a 1.5 year old still basically cannot move on their own… so Urikaruus will be okay… but if the little thing is already moving by itself, the camp setup will be dangerous. I would personally not be happy if I stayed at Urikaruus and my neighbours had a small baby, crying.” There are supportive voices too. “An 18-month-old child cannot compete with a bunch of dronkies (inebriated adults) for noise!”
On the trail
Getting to Upington, a thousand miles from Cape Town, is a challenge. There aren’t many flight connections and on the few that exist, we have been unable to procure a seat. The only choice is Inter-cape – the overnight bus service with seats that recline 135° – they say so. When we disembark in Upington at seven am, we are in good shape. We rent a Nissan X-Trail, and after a brief stop to buy groceries for the next five days, are on our way to Twee Rivieren, the first camp and entrance to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
The Nossob and the Auob rivers meet at Twee Rivieren, hence the name. After a quick lunch in our chalet, we head out towards the Kij Kij water hole. We drive along the Nossob riverbed, completely dry – we hear that the river runs only once or twice in a hundred years. The Auob does a little better, with the flow expected once a decade.
Land of thirst
Kalahari – the land of thirst – is a parched, dry, semi-arid wasteland. Vegetation is sparse, with trees withered beneath the scorching sun, scant, scruffy grass, dusty plains and red dunes. In this harsh, pitiless desert environment, roaming the vast landscape in search of shade and water are herds of springbok, wildebeest, hartebeest and gemsbok. They, in turn, are food for a variety of predators – the black-maned Kalahari lion, leopards, the cheetah and the spotted hyena. How the various plants, birds and animals have adapted to the rigours of this thirstland makes for interesting study.
On our first afternoon, our eyes only just begin to read the desert. We are unable to spot anything beyond herds of antelope. “Look out for small animals,” says the Husband, “they will lead you to big game.” We see a few cars waiting at the Rooiputs waterhole. But we are tired from our drive and Ashi is getting restive too. We retreat, weary but hopeful.
We spend the next two days driving more than 300 km from Twee Rivieren to Nossob and back. Forget about predators, we see not even a tail, spoor, or scat. At the Marie se Drai waterhole we look hard – a pride of lions is thought to have settled there – but no luck. The sky is flat and uninspiring – we are not even getting good pictures of the landscape. By day three, we are despondent. “We should have gone to Imfolozi,” says the Husband. “It’s all a big fraud,” I say. In true Bollywood tradition, when all else fails, we sing songs to implore Mata Kalahari for a darshan. “Jhalak dikhla ja,” I wail in desperation.
The Bollywood formula doesn’t fail. The lady at the information centre tells us there has been a sighting at the Houmoed waterhole. We rush back and look around hard, but see nothing. To the right of the riverbed is a high flat ridge that we drive up on and peer through binoculars. We still see nothing. Then someone taps on the window.
“Did you see the lions?” asks the gentleman from the other car on the ridge. “There are 12 of them.” He points to a spot right in front of my nose, across the riverbed, across the track. Incredibly, he is right. We have driven just 10 metres from the pride, and not spotted it. The lions are sleeping, totally camouflaged on the dusty hillside. “How did you spot them?” asks the Husband. “We are hunters,” he brags. “We have the instinct.”
Thus begins our spate of good luck. We start to spot families of ostrich, black-backed jackal, a bat-eared fox, giraffes, rarer antelopes – kudu and steenbok – and several small animals – the yellow mongoose, the agama, a mole snake. We also begin to get good pictures of birds – the swallow-tailed bee-eater, pygmy falcon, secretary bird, weaver, spotted dikkop, tawny eagle, bateleur, vultures, eagle-owl and hoop-hoi. Ashi learns to keep a lookout and learns to recognise ‘coggie’ (most dog-like animals), ‘cow’ (all wildebeest) and ‘bootar’ (all small birds). The first time we spot the sleeping pride of lions she calls them coggie (“coggie ninni,” she tells us) but soon learns to say cheetah. Each time we resume driving after taking pictures, she is unfailingly polite. “Coggie bye,” she says.
Here is our recommendation if you are planning to go to the Kalahari. Give the three large camps a miss. Visit their grocery store and petrol pump if you need to, but choose a wilderness camp to stay in. We go to Urikuruus, almost midway from all three camps. Urikuruus has four chalets built on stilts (ours is above a cobra hole). There is a ramp connecting the chalets, and visitors are forbidden from descending to their cars or walking about between seven pm and six am. There is a fifth chalet for the caretaker who cleans the rooms, radios base camp if visitors do not report back by seven, and keeps a gun, just in case. There is no fence around the camp and predators and other animals routinely walk through it on their way to and from the waterhole facing the chalets. In the evening we light a fire in our bra’ai (an open outdoor grill), train our searchlight on the waterhole and soak in the atmosphere.
Both nights, a leopard visits the waterhole. The first night, we videotape a bat-eared fox lapping water. The second night, we film a pregnant spotted hyena as well as the leopard. How its eyes glint in the dark! My hands shake in fright as I beam the searchlight on the leopard, while the Husband films the magnificent creature. The hyenas laugh late into the night and we hear the jungle sounds all around us, as we drift off into sleep.
The lion kings
The next day, we start to stalk a pride of lions at the Viertiende Boorgat waterhole, in the hope of witnessing a kill. On a lovely morning, we catch five of them crossing the track. Another time, we catch a lioness stalking a herd of wildebeest. She waits for more than an hour before giving up the chase. That same afternoon, we hear from a couple that they witnessed high drama – the lions have just eaten five ostrich chicks. I am appalled and very upset because we have pictures of this family with their eight chicks. We immediately go around to see the distraught family. The mom keeps looking at the waterhole for the longest time, before gathering her flock and scampering away. I lose all respect for lions. I tell the Husband they are lazy, decidedly cowardly and absolutely unmajestic. Where is the pride in killing five little chicks? The Husband consoles me – this was a quick snack, like a bag of popcorn, the same lions would certainly hunt a springbok or wildebeest for a full meal.
On our last morning, as we drive out to catch a flight to Johannesburg, we find a lioness stalking a herd of springboks. Reluctantly, we leave a scene that is so laden with possibility. “Coggie bye,” says Ashi, as we drive away.