Camping in the Kgalagadi
Having been out of the country for two years, when a friend said there was seat going begging on a trip to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, I jumped at the opportunity and I could barely contain my excitement about getting back into the African bush and my first chance to photograph wildlife with my DSLR camera. The Kgalagadi is located in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, crossing over the border into Botswana and the border of Namibia forms the Western boundary of the park.
With the trailer hitched on we set off from Cape Town at 4:00 am heading towards Clan William, Calvinia and then up Van Rhyns Pass, the border between the Western and Northern Cape provinces with this spectacular view on the way up.
The landscape changes dramatically once you are over the pass and I strongly recommend taking some loud music with you to avoid falling asleep at the wheel as there is no radio or cell phone signal and the road is long and straight. We stopped in Brandvlei, with 37°C on the dashboard temp display, and a guy at the petrol station asked ‘have you ever been to the Devil’s Pit?’ to which we shook our heads and he replied ‘this is it!’ The temperature climbed steadily as we headed north and peaked at 47°C that afternoon in Augrabies which is why we delayed setting up camp until after dark although it was still 39°C at 11pm and why I was glad we were only spending one night there as we wondered what the man from Brandvlei would think of this.
The next day at Twee Rivieren, the entrance to the Kgalagadi Park, while the others sorted out the gate permits I was busy attaching a Canon 400mm lens to my 550D body and couldn’t wait to get into the park and start photographing some animals. While the park doesn’t have the big five it does have all the big cats namely lion, cheetah and leopard and I have only ever seen lion in the wild and, even then, only in the distance.
After filling up with diesel and deflating the tires to 1.5 bars for the dirt roads we had around 120 kms to drive to our camp, for the first two nights, at Mata Mata. Our first game sighting was a Gemsbok just inside the gate, then some Wildebeest and everyone in the car was alert and scanning the riverbed that the road runs along. However we didn’t see anything for the next half an hour and everyone was becoming a bit despondent, focus was shifting from game spotting to chatting and then out of the corner of my eye I spotted a cheetah right next to the road. With a heavy trailer behind us we were well past the cheetah by the time we stopped and reversing proved to be near impossible so we carried on up the road to the next picnic spot to turn around and sped back hoping the cheetah was still there. As we got back to the spot we saw that there were in fact three cheetahs panting in the shade of a small tree desperately trying to stay cool in the 37 degree heat.
Reenergised and eyes trained we came across a group of five lion further up the road, then a group of five cheetah. While we were busy taking photographs of the cheetah another car pulled up and said that there were six lion feeding on a giraffe kill further up the road. That evening there was a massive thunder-storm which thankfully passed just to the north of us but I have always wanted to try photograph lightning and so stopped pumping up my mattress and quickly set up my camera with a self timer and got rewarded with a couple of shots which was amazing. All this on our first day in the park, could it get any better?
With the giraffe kill 10 kms from Mata Mata Camp we were guaranteed lion sightings every time we went out for a game drive which was incredible but this wasn’t the only kill we saw as on one of our morning drives a goshawk flew across the road in front of us with something in its claws. We stopped the car, as he landed in a tree just off the road, in time to see that it was in fact a mouse whose legs were still moving.
The goshawk, focused on his meal. didn’t seem to mind my shutter clicking away as he devoured the mouse in a matter of minutes. Sad as it was for the mouse it was amazing to witness this event so up close and personal. Satisfied with the mornings viewing we went back to camp where we did our best to escape the heat of the day in the shade of a tree or lazing in the swimming pool at the camp.
On the third day the wind had changed and the giraffe kill was starting to smell, and so while it was great to see the lion everyday, perhaps it was a good thing we were moving on to Nossob camp. To get there we had to go over the dunes between the Auob and Nossob River valleys. I described the scenery as bleak, but it’s a beautiful bleakness. The arid semi-desert conditions seem inhospitable, even more so in summer but the plant and animal species there have adapted to their environment and the lack of vegetation makes game spotting a lot easier. This combined with the fact that the major roads run along the dry river beds where most of the game is found feeding around pools of water left by the rains makes the Kgalagadi a great game viewing park. For the adventurous there are also some one way 4×4 only roads although you can’t take trailers on these.
With 3 nights at Nossob we could relax a bit. One morning we didn’t go for a drive and in stead woke up early to watch sunrise from the bird hide overlooking the watering hole at the camp. Our patience was rewarded as we sat waiting six hyena came down the valley, had a drink and then as quickly as they came they were gone. They were followed by five jackals and a herd of Springbok who looked golden in the first morning light. Back in camp I learnt how to make lamb shank which we left cooking as we went out for an afternoon game drive where we saw Red Hartebeest, a ground Agama, a beautiful golden Cape Cobra and cat spoor on the road but no cats.
Before we knew it our time in the park was over. On the last day we packed up camp and went to bird hide for one last look at the watering hole at sunrise. The mood was sombre as we sat, silently, looking out across the valley. Each of us reflecting on all the game we had seen and trying not to think about having to leave the bush to go back to the city. The mood continued as we made the 174 km journey from Nossob to Twee Rivieren but the Kgalagadi wasn’t done with us yet. As we neared the exit gate we came across five lion resting under a bush so close to side of the road that if we had gotten out of the car (which you are not allowed doing), we would have stepped on their tails.
Around the next corner we spotted a large Marshal Eagle in a tree who was focused on a ground squirrel that was seemingly frozen still at the entrance to his burrow. We waited for while hoping to see the eagle in action but we had a long way to drive back to Cape Town and so had to move on. Another car had told us of two cheetahs as well further down the road but they didn’t tell us about the Springbok kill they had with them which was very fresh. We think they wouldn’t have noticed it driving from the other direction. The two cheetahs, resting in the shade of a tree, looked exhausted having killed and dragged the Springbok up the bank. What a way to end our week in the bush.
While I wouldn’t recommend driving from Nossob Camp to Cape Town in one day (it took us 19 hours) if you are a bird or big cat lover then a trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a must. In just 4 days we were able to tick off over 60% of the commonly seen mammals, birds and reptiles on the identification card checklist. The one animal I wanted to see, but didn’t, was a leopard. I guess you have to leave something for next time and I will definitely be going back a next time.