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Natural & Cultural History

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier park lies in the large sand-filled basin in the west of the southern African subcontinent, known as the Kalahari. It covers almost one third of the area and forms what may be the largest sandveld area in the world.

It stretches from 1 degree South in Zaire to 29 degrees Sin South Africa and from 14 degrees East in Angola to 28 degrees East in Zimbabwe.

The term Kalahari was derived from the Kgalagadi word for ‘the land which dried up’, ‘the dry land’ or ‘the thirstland’ .

The Southern Kalahari is defined as the area to the south of the Bakalahari Schwelle (first described by Passarge [1904]), This is the indiscernible ridge that runs roughly from Gobabis in the north-east of Namibia to Lobatse in the south-east of Botswana. The Schwelle separates the Okwa and Hanahai river system in the north and the Nossob, A point at Twee Rivieren and Two Rivers in the south-west.

The southern Kalahari slopes gently in a south-westerly direction from the Schwelle.

The Rivers

Both the Nossob (meaning dark clay) and the Auob (meaning bitter water) rivers have their sources in the Anas Mountains near Windhoek, Namibia. They flow South-easterly joining in the former Kalahari Gemsbok Park (6Km north of Twee Rivieren) and continue as the Nossob to the Molopo and Kuruman rivers 60km to the south. The Molopo River with its origin near Mafikeng, no longer reaches the Orange River as sand dunes near Noeneput have blocked its course for at least the last 100 years.

These rivers are predominantly dry, only flowing for short periods after abnormally high rainfall. The Auob last flowed in 1973 and 1974, the Nossob in 1964. The Auob and Nossob rivers differ in that the Auob cuts a steep sided, narrow valley (100-500m wide) along its course while the Nossob flows in a shallow, sandy trough until it cuts through the calcrete near Kameelsleep windmill.

The Polentswa, a fossil river, joins the Nossob River near Grootbrak windmill. The ancient river is now represented by a string of pans that run North to beyond the border of the former Gemsbok National Park.

The Sands

Five groups of Kalahari Sands are recognized and range in colour from red in the dunes, through to yellow-brown on the pans and riverbeds.

The sands are predominantly of Aeolian origin, emanating from within the basin itself. In the Southwest, the sands are piled into vegetated linear or self-dunes. They break down into a more gentle undulating terrain about 40Km east of the Nossob River.

Brief History

The Kgalagadi were some of the first people to penetrate the northern Kalahari and lived in comparative peace with the Khoe speaking inhabitants. Although the did not always remain there, the name they gave the area remained. Kalahari is derived from the Kgalagadi word Makgadikgadi, meaning saltpans or the great thirstland. The first english speaking settlers in the area came to trade with the people living in the Kalahari.

In 1884, the Germans occupied South West Africa and it was during these years that Stoffel (Christoffel) le Riche first ventured into the Kalahari. In 1899, he and his wife Martie moved from Rietfontein, just south of the existing Park. In 1899 there first son Johannes and in 1904 their second son Joseph (Later known as Joep) was born.

In 1891, the Park area as well as the area to the southwest, presently known as The Mier, was annexed to what was formerly British Bechuanaland. Approximately ten years later, just across the border, a rebellion against the German colonial rule in former South West Africa led to German troops setting up a station at Groot Kolk, in British territory, to transmit messages to South West Africa. An enormous camel thorn tree served as an ideal lookout post despite this, a daybreak raid killed many of the the Germans as they rose from their beds. Unfortunately, the tree, still bearing horseshoes, which the Germans nailed to the trunk as a ladder, burnt down in a large veldfire in 1976.

With the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, the (Union of) South Africa’s Government drilled a series of boreholes along the Auob to provide their troops with water in case South Africa wanted to use corridor to invade South West Africa. Guards were recruited mainly from the local community and hired to protect and maintain the boreholes. They were permitted to settle next to the holes with their families and livestock. It was expected that they would live of the veld (with dire consequences to the environment). Because of lack of firewood and appropriate clay to make bricks they erected timber frame structures as dwellings and stock shelters. Dwellings that are more permanent were erected with the locally abundant calcrete stone. The only evidence of these times are the calcrete walls of circular cattle kraals, the foundations of square and rectangular huts and some larger multi roomed dwellings.

This corridor was never used to invade South West Africa and the borehole guards stayed on, largely forgotten by the authorities. Instead, the Government appointed a Scottish land surveyor Rodger “Malkop” Duke Jackson to survey the area and divide it into farms. About this time, six farms were purchased by the South African Government, but were not occupied before the Government decided that Coloured people should rather settle the region. The British Government, then already in control of Bechuanaland, had already settled Coulred people on the east bank of the Nossob between Rooiputs and its confluence with the Auob River (the ruins of an old dwelling is still located at Rooiputs).

After World War 1, Scottish born Rodger “Malkop” Jackson surveyed the region and a theoretical subdivision was made into farms of 10 200 and 12 800 hectares. Jackson named many of the farms after landmarks in homeland Scotland, most of which are still in use today as boreholes in the Park. Several farmers settled as borehole caretakers along the Auob River and they lived rent-free as long as the boreholes were kept in good repair.

Additional farms were allocated to more farmers along the Auob and along the Nossob River. However, this is a harsh environment and these farmers struggled to make a comfortable living from their farms, with names like KoKo, Kameelsleep, Kaspers Draai en Kwang. If not for the tsama melons, an essential plant in this semi-arid ecosystem, which in dry times are the principle source of water, many would not have survived. Under very dry conditions, even the tsamas disappear and only animals that are well adapted to the harsh conditions survive.

The settlers therefore took to hunting and they, with the biltong hunters from further a field, gradually denuded the game. Only in the more remote reaches of the upper Nossob River was the balance of nature maintained, for here the Khoe speaking people lived in harmony with animals and plants. One of the last and oldest inhabitants those times was Regopstaan Kruiper, who died in 1996 at the age of 96.

If this remarkable eco-system was to survive, a conservation plan of action was needed.

Two conservationists invited the then Minister of Lands, Piet Grobler to inspect the region. Grobler piloted the National Parks Act through parliament and played a major role in the proclamation of Kruger National Park in 1926. By 1931, Piet Grobler had decided to proclaim the area between the Nossob River and the Auob River and the SWA Border a national park. Land was purchased south of the Park to resettle so called ‘Coloured’ people and the borehole structures were abandoned. All but a few farms that had been sold by the Government were brought back and the Park was finally proclaimed in 1931.

Johannes le Riche (the son of a local trader Christoffel, Francois, Albertyn Le Riche), the first warden of the Park (and his family), settled at Gemsbok Plain (later referred to as Gemsbok plein) in a house which had been abandoned by a borehole guard. From this point, onwards Le Riche and his assistant Gert Januarie became involved in the protection of wildlife in the area. For three years, they patrolled the Park on horseback. In 1934, the park experienced an exceptional rainy season and both the Nossob and Auob came down in flood. This was followed by an epidemic of malaria and both Le Riche and Januarie died of this illness. A few days later after their death Le Riche’s brother Joep was appointed ranger in his place.

In 1935, a row of farms along the southern bank of the Auob River was purchased by the Union Government to ensure that both banks of the river would be protected. Twee Rivieren was also bought to include the confluence of the rivers into the Park. The resulting jagged boundary was straightened through ‘give-and-take’ between the Government and neighbouring farmers.

In 1935, a corrugated iron house was built for the Warden at Samevloeiing and shortly afterwards a brick house built at Twee Rivieren. Joep le Riche who was supposed to be appointed temporarily eventually stayed in the post for 36 years. He and his assistant Gert Mouton re-commissioned the old boreholes in the riverbeds in order to ‘persuade’ the animals to remain in the Park instead of leaving the unfenced boundaries where they were poached and killed.

In 1938 the British Government proclaimed a new game reserve across the Nossob in what is today Botswana. Joep le Riche was put in charge. During World War 11, Poachers were short of bullets and game numbers increased dramatically. After the War, game fences were erected along the Park’s western and southern boundaries. The Eastern boundary remained unfenced leaving this border open to animals that needed to migrate from east to west.

The Botswana Gemsbok National Park was proclaimed in 1938 by what was then called Bechuanaland. Mabuasehube Game Reserve was added in 1971 and was incorporated into Gembok National Park in 1992.

Neighbouring Communities

Read more about issues surrounding how to address these communities.

Khomani Community

The Khoe-speaking people of Southern Africa are not one society but a collective of different peoples with different languages and cultural practices. They are united by their experience of being hunters and gatherers in southern Africa, particularly in the Kalahari.

Today there are about 100 000 Khoe speaking people in southern Africa. They live in small, scattered groups in the urban and rural areas of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In March 1999, they had a portion of their territory restored by the government of South Africa. This land included 27 769ha in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park forming the Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park.

Mier Community

The Mier community of the Kalahari mainly originated from the people of Captain Vilander who, more than 150 years ago settled themselves across an extended area that reached from Rietfontein as the central point to the Orange River and into the German West Africa (Later South West Africa and presently Namibia) and Bechuanaland (Presently Botswana). They mainly farmed with sheep, goats and cattle in the hardveld south of the Kalahari dunes.

The cattle, horses and donkeys grazed in the duneveld but due to the scarcity of water they had to always return to the hardveld. One day Mr. Dirk Vilander discovered an aardvark burrow filled with water. When he tried to drink from the water, so the story goes, he noticed the water was full of ants.

He named the place Mier; the Afrikaans word for ant and it is still so called today.

The following information was compiled by Jan Kriel.

The Kgalagadi is full of names that tell a story… find out more here.