Grootkolk was our first experience of a Kgalagadi wilderness camp and prompted us to change the following night’s booking from Nossob to remain at Grootkolk. The camp comprises four two-bedded units, part tent and part construction from plastered sand bags – very effective and altogether architecturally pleasing. Each unit has its own kitchen and braai area as well as a toilet and shower and is fully equipped with anything the visitor might need.
THE HUT AT GROOT KOLK
There is also a waterhole in front of the camp, but due to the rain there was little reason for the animals to use it and we saw nothing of great interest.
Our journey the next morning to Unions’ End, the very top of the park, was interesting for two reasons. Firstly, because the road and surrounding veld was substantially dry and secondly because of the large number of trees, mostly Camel Thorn which had blown down. As we were the first vehicle on the road I had to climb out to remove branches on several occasions. Writing in the Forum on the National Parks Board web site, Dr Gus Mills noted that he counted in excess of one hundred trees blown down that morning!
FALLEN TREE AND DRY(ING) ROAD
We left Grootkolk early on the morning of 10 December and drove down towards Nossob, the first car on the road that day. A short way down the road we came across what could only be lion footprints in the road. We drove on slowly, scanning the bush and tracking the footprints which occasionally wandered off the road and then back on again. Suddenly we saw him, a beautiful big black-maned lion striding through the open veld. He totally ignored us and we followed and watched him for about 30 minutes as he walked down the valley and finally climbed the dune and disappeared.
We arrived at Nossob mid-morning and our team of Kgalagadi Heroes were soon there fit our new battery. I suppose what strikes me about these men was their unrelenting helpfulness and kindness and they fitted the battery and well-wished us on our way.
When choosing a camp in which to stay from a map there was no way of knowing what we were letting ourselves in for. Our next stop was Bitterpan, a camp right in the middle of the dunes between the Nossob and Auob Rivers. We were advised that four-wheel drive was required, but nowhere did it explain that we would be dune surfing! The red sand Kgalagadi dunes all seem to run North-South and our route took us East-West – across a range of dunes for some 28 km. Again there were some hairy moments, but I was gaining in confidence as we ploughed our way up the dunes and slid down the other side. Then we encountered the mother of all dunes!. We could see that it was steep and very high. We could also see where other vehicles before us had tried to climb where there was more vegetation to provide traction and how that section had been fenced off. Nothing daunted we attacked, stuck in the sand, reversed, attacked and progressed a little further, stuck in the sand, reversed and attacked again. Finally, on the sixth attempt, we breasted the crest of the dune with much relief and internal applause.
THE ROAD THROUGH THE DUNES
We estimated that we must have crossed between fifty and sixty dunes by the time the road turned left and ran parallel with the dunes. This was easier driving, but I missed the adrenalin rush of surfing the big red waves. One of our fond memories of this part of the trip will be the vast number of Northern Black (White quilled) Korhaan. These beautiful birds seem to own their own dunes and made sure we knew they were protecting them with their loud “Kraaaak, kraaak” calls. The rest of the trip continued without much incident and we reached Bitterpan some six hours after leaving Nossob. By this time I had come to realise that the Park authorities and I live in different time dimensions, as their estimated time for this trip is three and a half hours. Admittedly the camp attendant did say that we were the first visitors to the camp for a while and that the road had not been travelled recently. Evidence of the difficulty of the trip was the dark patch of sand en route where a vehicle had burnt out earlier in the year.
Bitterpan is an amazing camp. Four double bedrooms with their own bathrooms across a narrow walkway and a large communal kitchen, dining room, braai area. The camp overlooks an enormous arena of what one presumes is sand and where a pan must once have been. In front of the pan is a waterhole, easily monitored from the rooms and communal area.
We spent a very pleasant evening with two other couples (South Africans, three of which with broad Scottish accents!) and the next morning were privileged to see flocks of birds flying into the waterhole. Closer inspection revealed that these were Namaqua Sandgrouse, which only need water every three to five days, and Burchell's Sandgrouse. These birds only fly in to drink a few hours after sunrise and we felt very privileged that they had arrived while we were still in the camp.
THE CAMP AT BITTERPAN WITH OBSERVATION TOWER
BITTERPAN ITSELF FROM THE OBSERVATION TOWER
Our next stop was Kalahari Tented Camp, where the Auob River reaches the Namibian border. We had a choice of another drive through the dunes for some 46 km or an alternative quick (12 km) drive south, down to one of the two roads linking the Nossob with the Auob. We chose the latter as by this time my nerves had settled and I had no desire to feed them any more adrenalin. Bitterpan is an amazing camp and, as a four wheel driver, I like the limited access. However, it seems to me that making the road from Moravet, where it reaches the cross road, into a two way road would make the camp substantially more user friendly. At present the only way into the camp (legally, at least) is via the dune road from Nossob, with the two exit routes as described. It means that staying in the camp one cannot go for a day drive without having to brave the sands of the desert each time, and that is hardly practical. Our fellow tourists and the camp staff had come up the road from Moravet and that seems a logical step to take.
Kalahari Tented Camp is the largest of the tented camps, with fifteen tents / huts. Again, one can have nothing but praise for the layout and facilities. All the tents (except ours which was hiding behind a tree) look out over a waterhole and consideration could be given to having this lit at night. The kitchen and braai area are separate from the main tent and provide a very pleasant area to relax and watch the passing animal parade.
OUT OF AFRICA – THE BEDROOM AT KTC
It mustn’t be supposed that there were no animals on this latter part of the trip. We had seen a number of new birds, and many old favourites such as the exquisitely painted Namaqua Dove and Lilac Breasted Roller. We had also seen our large black-maned male lion, several in fact, and studied them, in awe at their immense latent power. We had also seen a Round-eared Elephant Shrew moving across the veld at a rate which, on a comparative basis, would have given the little creature a five second 100 metres record. The beautiful little Striped Mice were also everywhere and climbed all over our feet at one of the picnic sites in search of the inevitable crumbs. On the Auob side of the park the trees seemed taller and it was here that we saw Giraffe for the first time in the park. There was one very arid section of the route but otherwise, like most of the park, it was quite green.
A visit to this side of South Africa would not be complete without a sighting of the Crimsonbreasted Shrike and we saw our first one in Mata Mata as we stocked up with water for the journey.
I suppose I should cover two aspects of the trip here. Firstly the water. We had previously found that there is an enormous taste difference between Johannesburg water and Kgalagadi water, and we find the latter totally undrinkable. As a result, and knowing that many of the tented camps required us to bring our own water, we had a 25 litre bottle with us in the car, and this proved just about adequate for the two of us for the seven nights we were in the park. Probably two litres per person per day would be the right quantity. Secondly the heat. I suppose we were lucky that it was only on the last day that the outside temperature got close to 40 degrees Celsius. This may have been due to the rain storm or to a cold front coming through the country, but there were several nights when we dragged on the duvets towards the early morning. The tents only have fans, so we were lucky that the potential December heat did not really get us.
The Landy is air conditioned, so during the day, provided we were aware of where the sun was, we drove with the windows open and the aircon providing a cold breeze to refresh us. There were however times when even the aircon could not help and I entered the Mr Wet T-Shirt competition on several occasions, revelling in the coolness as the water evaporated and refrigerated my body.
THE TALL TREES OF THE AUOB AND ANOTHER BLACK MANE
Our final night was spent at Kielie Krankie. This was a spur of the moment decision as we were booked for Twee Rivieren but had so enjoyed the tented camps that I seized the moment and changed the booking. Kielie Krankie is an amazing camp. Set high in the dunes it looks down on a water hole in what must be an optical illusion as the water hole itself was not really that far away.
The camp is very modern and appears out of the dunes as some sort of space station on a lonely planet. Unlike the other wilderness camps this camp is built largely from brick, with canvas on the front. Each unit has a small kitchen with an eating counter and a bedroom leading onto a large veranda with a braai facility on the end. It is one camp where I believe the architect got matters a little wrong. The bedroom is fitted with a skylight which lets in hot sun. This may be acceptable in winter, but in summer it merely adds to the pain. Also, there is no way of arranging a through draft in the bed room as there are no back windows. We had also learned by this time to keep all tent sides facing the sun closed and this exacerbated the problem. Also, unlike the other camps, one could see the occupants of the other units from the veranda, which is a bit of a problem. Nevertheless, the place is very different and certainly worth a visit.
We arrived in the midday heat and having unpacked the car we took a brief siesta before heading out in search of more game and more birds. We were back in camp well before sunset and commenced to light the fire and settle a few cold beers. We sat watching a lizard shed its skin, rubbing itself up against the rocks and sloughing off more and more skin which it eventually ate and then disappeared in its new black finery. Later, while we were looking at the water hole, very aware of the number of doves drinking, I suddenly saw a large Tabby cat at the waterhole. This was an African Wild Cat and we watched this wonderful creature until it became too dark to see. Two Jackals came down to drink and the scent of the cat must have been quite fresh for then followed an interaction such as one would see with two boxers – each one respecting the other and determined not to pounce or be pounced on first. The cat and Jackals tracked each other all over the crater before the Jackals gave up and vanished over the dunes. The cat then came back and proceeded to spray almost every bush in sight in a determined effort to stake his undisputed claim to the territory.
KIELIE KRANKIE “SPACE STATION” FROM THE BACK
THE WATERHOLE FROM THE VERANDAH
SUNSET AT KIELIE KRANKIE
As with all good things there has to come an end, even if only so we can appreciate the contrast and earn the money to repeat the experience. The next morning it was back to Twee Rivieren, finally checking out, pumping our tyres back to normal and on the road away from civilization.
What did we think after a twelve year gap between visits? Firstly, twelve years is too long. In mitigation, however, we had been put off by the road from Uppington and now that it is tarred almost the whole way to Twee Rivieren it makes the trip so much more enjoyable. The next step, for us “Gauties” would be for the road from Kuruman via Hotazel to be tarred to cut another few hours off the trip.
Secondly, the roads in the park itself are much improved. We became stuck in sand on the main road on our earlier trip in a little Starwagon. No chance of that now unless you are really careless. Also, you do not need a 4X4 to see most of the park, so don’t be put off.
Thirdly the picnic sites are vastly improved and very pleasant to visit and, a tribute to both officials and visitors, are always clean.
Fourthly the tented camps are wonderful. Each has its own character and, while I would not advocate abandoning the original camps, visitors should include at least two or three tented camps in any visit.
Finally, for those of us who regularly visit Kruger or other national parks, Kgalagadi is such a different experience that it should be regularly included in our holiday plans. We are already encouraging friends to come with us on our next trip, which will include an expedition into the Botswana side - in a manual 4X4 this time!
Congratulations to the National Parks Board for an excellent job done at Kgalagadi and especial thanks to the Nossob Heroes, Aubrey and his team!