Journey to Central Kalahari Game Reserve

April 22, 2020

Once home to several thousand Bushmen, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana is one of the largest protected areas in Africa. This semi-arid wonderland is important not just as a conservation area for threatened species like lion and brown hyena, but also as a living, breathing symbol of pristine Earth that remains mostly free of destructive human influence (for now). We travelled there recently for two weeks...
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana is home to between 150 and 300 lions, some of the last free-roaming wild lions in Africa (there are no more than 20 000 left on the continent). The 52 000 square kilometre reserve is still largely inaccessible, undeveloped and free of mass tourism or fancy lodges. It's a place where one can still camp alone without any humans for 100 kilometres in any direction. Long may it remain so.

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana is home to between 150 and 300 lions, some of the last free-roaming wild lions in Africa (there are no more than 20 000 left on the continent). The 52 000 square kilometre reserve is still largely inaccessible, undeveloped and free of mass tourism or fancy lodges. It's a place where one can still camp alone without any humans for 100 kilometres in any direction. Long may it remain so.

I don’t really know when we decided to go to Africa. In a way, I guess each of us had always wanted to go. For as long as we can remember we have sought out wild places, drawn strength, peace and solitude from them and wanted to protect them from destruction. For myself, I can still recall the sadness and bewilderment I felt as a young boy, when from the top of the windmill, I watched a line of bulldozers plough through the woods on our Ohio farm, destroying it for a superhighway – and changing my life.

These words are written by Mark Owens in the prologue to the book Cry of the Kalahari, co-authored with his wife Delia. As young wildlife biologists from the USA, the Owens moved to Botswana to spend the better part of seven years living in Central Kalahari Game Reserve, from 1974 to 1980.

This beautifully-written text describes the couple’s lives based at Deception Pan in the reserve, where they conducted research on lions and brown hyenas. It’s probably one of the best – and bravest – books I’ve read on African natural history and conservation. (Except for one thing, about which I’ll touch on later: it makes scant mention of the Bushmen’s history and their claim to this part of Botswana.)

My younger sister gave Cry of the Kalahari to my mother for Christmas in 1994. I’ve read it several times, most recently in the Central Kalahari itself.

At end of January 2020, I travelled there for two weeks with my friends Ian and Joni. We camped at the campsites of Kori, Letiahau, Piper’s Pan, Phokoje, Passarge and Lengau, each of them small, basic campsites in the dappled shade of a camelthorn tree or two. A long-drop loo and bucket shower are the only facilities.

Mark’s quote speaks to my own calling to be immersed in Africa’s wild nature, and to my depression when I see, hear or read of the destruction of natural, wild lands and oceans anywhere.

In Africa today, where much wilderness has been destroyed, compromised or commercialised, the Central Kalahari is valuable beyond any measure.

In Africa today, where much wilderness has been destroyed, compromised or commercialised, the Central Kalahari is valuable beyond any measure.

Located in the middle of Botswana, the CKGR is wonderfully big: 52 000 square kilometres, or 10% of the country’s surface area. (The second largest protected area in Africa, more than twice the size of Kruger National Park in South Africa.)

The reserve represents something increasingly special: an African wilderness that through sheer size remains mostly aloof and inaccessible, and exists on its own terms, without need to justify its existence to man (for now).

The massive landscape here has mostly eluded – thus far – the heavy hand of humans, and carries on with it’s daily business much the same as it has for thousands of years. (Except for the Gope/Ghaghoo diamond mine in the south-east of the reserve, near the small town of Lephephe, which I’ll get to later on…).

The CKGR ecosystem can look after itself and its animals without the need for interference from government, scientists or park rangers. In Southern and East Africa today, this is a very rare thing indeed, and it deserves to remain that way, if only so we can say, “yes, that place belongs to the Earth, not us.” We may never even go there, but just to know that it is still there…that keeps my soul alive.

The geology of the place makes it inaccessible to most. The reserve is covered with thick Kalahari sand, laid down over the past 100 million years.

The geology of the place makes it inaccessible to most. The reserve is covered with thick Kalahari sand, laid down over the past 100 million years by ancient rivers that dumped immense amounts of sediment into the interior of a continent that eventually became Africa. (Way back then, when dinosaurs roamed, Gondwana land was slowly starting to split up into the various continents we know today).

During previous climatic era, when the proto-Zambezi, Chobe and Kwando rivers flowed south (instead of east as they do today), much of the Central Kalahari area was a huge lake, with shallow rivers meandering through the sands. As the climate cooled and dried, a concomitant tilt in the continental plate shifted the directions of these massive rivers, diverting their water east, into the modern-day Zambezi River.

(It’s a little known fact that this part of Botswana is at the very southern end of the Great Rift Valley, and is subjected to regular earthquakes, some as much as 6 on the Richter scale. But because the cushioning effcts of the deep sands – up to 300 metres in places – the tremors are hardly felt).

The landscapes bears the clues of this once lush era. The Makgadikgadi Pans – a fossil remnant of one of the largest lakes in Africa – lies just a hundred kilometres east. In the CKGR itself, there are several ancient dry riverbeds linking a series of much smaller fossil lakes, known as “pans”. These flat, open expanses are dotted through the reserve, and most of the campsites are located adjacent or near to them.

A limited network of 4×4 jeep tracks make their way through the sand, following the ancient river beds and pans. Campsites are simple, nothing more than a long-drop loo and bucket for showers. Many of them are exclusive, allowing no more than one group of people.

You must have a fully-equipped 4×4 with everything you need for the length of your stay, including drinking water. You’re often all alone in the middle of nowhere (but if you’re prepared, that’s a very good thing, right?)

There are no water taps at the campsites, and although the pans sometimes carry water after heavy rains, it may not be drinkable. A solar-powered borehole at Piper’s Pan provides drinking water for animals, and is clean enough to use for an impromptu bucket shower.

Strictly speaking, the Kalahari as a geological system refers to a particular type of wind-blown (or aeolian) sand. And the Kalahari is one the biggest sand systems on Earth.

Strictly speaking, the Kalahari as a geological system refers to a particular type of wind-blown (or aeolian) sand. And the Kalahari is one the biggest sand systems on Earth. In the south it starts in the northern Cape of South Africa, and extends through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Angola, DRC, Republic of Congo and into Gabon!

(Remarkably, when I visited Odzala National Park in the Republic of Congo a few years ago, I noticed how the sand in the rainforest felt exactly the same as the stuff all the way south in Botswana.)

The rainfall and temperatures are what determines the amount of life above the sand. In the Congo, almost two metres of rain falls every year, and the rainforests thrive in the sandy soils, which are enriched by huge amounts of leaf litter. In the south-western reaches of the Kalahari in South Africa and Botswana, as little as 50mm of rain can fall every year.  It is in these parts that the term “Kalahari Desert” is most often applied.

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve lies towards the southern end of the Kalahari sand deposits, but the rainfall can still reach over 400 mm per year, although much of it is highly variable and unreliable, falling as scattered showers.

As a result, this part of the Kalahari supports arid-adapted vegetation, like acacia shrub thickets and seasonal, ephemeral grasses. Big camel thorn trees, with tap roots up to 70 metres deep, suck up ground water from aquifers below ancient river beds.

(In this part of the Kalahari groundwater is believed to be extensive, although increasing numbers of boreholes – mostly for livestock – are reducing groundwater levels apparently).

It was the summer thunderstorm season when we travelled to CKGR. Hot afternoons generate massive cumulonimbus clouds, and by 3pm, it’s too hot to do anything except sit or lie in the shade of a camelthorn, with wet towel on your body, and pray for rain.

If the Kalahari gods choose to listen to your prayers, then the land is drenched with “pula” – rain. When we were there at end of January, the rain had a particular ephemeral, fleeting quality, often seeming to evaporate before it had even reached the ground.

Heavy rains smashed into the dry Earth in an orgasmic release, the sky and land in passionate intercourse. The smell of wetness on dry, hard earth is more than just a meteorological event.

Other times, heavy rains smashed into the dry Earth in an orgasmic release, the sky and land in passionate intercourse. The smell of wetness on dry, hard earth is more than just a meteorological event. It’s a deeply sensory experience that gives life to body, mind and soul.

Such is the reverence for fresh water in the semi-arid country that both Botswana’s currency and national motto is simply “pula“. Pula means more than just rain, however. The word implies life, luck and prosperity.

In a country where evaporation rates are double or even triple the average rainfall of 350mm, and summer temperatures can reach 45 degrees Celsius, fresh water is deeply entrenched into the subconscious of the local people.

Most of the campsites are located on the edge of the pans, whose clay soils hold more nutrients than the immense sandscapes that dominate the reserve. When the scattered rains fall, usually from December to April, sweet, nutritious grasses sprout from the pans and their edges.

Herds of springbok, wildebeest, zebra and even giraffe congregate to build up fat reserves for the inevitable dry winters that will arrive around May and last until December. Many of these herbivores are sedentary, but many also come from other parts of Botswana, guided to the green grass by an uncanny sixth sense.

Because there is no permanent surface water in the Central Kalahari, you won’t find Cape buffalo (which need to drink daily), or hippos of course. For several decades up until the 1990s, during which elephant populations were hammered by poachers and hunters, few elephants left the north of the country to venture  this far south in the Kalahari.

But recently in good rainy years, when standing water accumulates on the pans for several weeks, more and more elephant bulls are moving into the reserve from the north. The solar-powered borehole at Piper’s Pan also supplies some semi-permanent water. (Read my blog about the elephants moving into Makgadikgadi Pans here).

Until the 1970s, the migrations of herbivores in the Kalahari numbered into their millions, and probably were bigger and longer than the current Serengeti migration in East Africa.

As readers of Cry of the Kalahari will know, until the 1970s, the migrations of the Kalahari’s herbivores – particularly wildebeest – numbered into their millions, and probably were bigger and longer than the current Serengeti migration in East Africa.

Begining in the 1950s and lasting until the 1980s, the government built several hundred kilometres of veterinary fences across the middle of the country, separating the central Kalahari region from the north and east. Beef is a big industry in Botswana, and the fences were erected on the insistence of European countries who refused to import the country’s beef unless the fences were built.

To this day, the fences remain, even though there is no scientific proof that the fences stop the spread of the virus, or in fact that wild herbivores even spread the disease.

The fences wiped out the wildebeest and zebra migration of the Kalahari, stopping the herbivores from moving north in the dry winters from the central Kalahari to the Boteti River and Lake Ngami and Lake Xau. It’s estimated that in 1961 and again in 1964, as many as 80 000 wildebeest died at the corner of the Kuki-Makalamabedi fence corner in the north-east of the reserve.

The fences effectively trapped the herbivores in the reserve, whose only water source is rainfall that collects on the pans. Within a few weeks or even just days, the water evaporates, and in dry season, the animals have to move north and east to drink from the Boteti River and the lakes.

The current numbers of wildebeest and zebra in particular are much reduced.  On Mark and Delia Owens’ first morning at Deception Pan in May 1974, they woke up to a single herd of over 3 000 springbok. According to George Silberbauer, “great mixed herds of gemsbok, eland, and hartebeest, covering an area three by five miles near Pipers Pans have been reduced to a small fraction of their former wet-season concentrations.”

When we camped at Pipers Pans, during middle of the January rainy season, there were no more than a few hundred springbok, and a handful of gemsbok and wildebeest. At Deception Pan, there were probably a hundred springbok. In seven years at Deception Pan, the Owens never saw a zebra, even though they had been known previously to congregate there during the wet season. It’s clear that the CKGR was once home to far more herbivores.

However, in the past ten years, with damage and disrepair of the vet fences (some caused by the resurgence of elephants into the area), the herds are slowly rebuilding themselves, and the migratory routes seem to be making a comeback. There is good work being done by Botswana to help restore the migrations to some semblance of its former glory – read my blog on the topic here.

And there are still enough sedentary springbok, gemsbok and wildebeest to keep the Kalahari’s territorial predators happy.

According to 2004 research by Paul Funston and others, the CKGR has a lion populations of between 150 and 450 (depending on season). The prides may not be as big as in East Africa, but they are still apparently healthy, suffering none of the diseases like TB or feline HIV that lions in parks like Kruger have to endure (due to their proximity to communities, infected cattle and buffalo).

The lions strut around like they own the place, and sometimes wander through your camp without invitation (of course). Be careful at night, especially when going for a pee.

Leopard and cheetah populations are probably also healthy for a reserve of this size. (Though I haven’t found any up-to-date research on these species in CKGR).

The reserve is probably one of the best places in Africa to see shy, nocturnal species like brown hyena and aardwolf.

The reserve is probably one of the best places in Africa to see shy, nocturnal species like brown hyena and aardwolf (we saw the latter, but not the former, although there were fresh hyena tracks all over the place.)

The black-backed jackals are the spies of the Kalahari…just when you think you’re all alone, one of them pops its head up and trots past. Their yapping howls at sunset and sunrise are a key part of the Kalahari’s soundtrack, along with the boom-boom-boom of the Kori bustard and the raucous clacking of the northern black-korhaan (which we soon started calling the Kalahari chicken). Lion roars provide the bass notes, and the rufous-naped larks sing the melodies.

The Owens’ book made the Central Kalahari famous long before it was on the tourist map – indeed, long before tourists were even allowed into the reserve. For several decades, visitors had to apply for a permit, which was only issued under strict conditions.

Proclaimed in 1961, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve should have been called Central Kalahari Bushmen Reserve.

Proclaimed in 1961, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve should have been called Central Kalahari Bushmen Reserve. It was officially intended as a refuge for Botswana’s bushmen, the most ancient lineage of human beings, and the most genetically-diverse people on Earth today. According to Mike Main’s book Kalahari, initially up to 3 000 Bushmen lived in the reserve, but during dry years, many of these nomadic hunter gatherers would leave, some returning again when rainfall returned (hunters and gatherers are supposed to do that, of course).

For 200 000 years, the Bushmen have been living in Southern Africa, and in the Kalahari (read a BBC article here). But since the arrival of Bantu tribes from central Africa about 2 500 years ago, and European colonials in the 1500s, the Bushmen people have been pushed off their land, marginalised and in many cases, systematically exterminated and murdered. (James Suzman’s book Affluence without Abundance is also additional required reading for any visitor to the Kalahari.)

With the discovery of diamonds in the 1980s, the government has systematically moved the Bushmen off one of their last pieces of ancestral lands that once stretched all across Southern Africa.

The Central Kalahari was one of the last places where they lived in a traditional way. But with the discovery of diamonds in Central Kalahari in the 1980s (read an article from Ecologist here), the government has systematically moved them off one of their last pieces of ancestral lands that once stretched all across the immense sub-continent.

The first forced removals were in 1997, when Anglo American (owner of De Beers) began drilling in the south-east of the reserve near Gope. In 2002 and 2005, more Bushmen were evicted, and in 2006, the Bushmen won a case in the high court of Botswana. De Beers sold the deposit rights in 2007, to Gem Diamonds, because of public pressure. The mine was sold again in 2019, and diamonds from the mine are on sale around the world. The Bushmen have yet to be compensated, despite overwhelming rights to the land.

(It’s quite simple: the Bushmen are entitled to ownership of all of Southern Africa. Governments in Southern Africa – and colonial powers in Europe – still have much to answer for. There have been no formal apologies, fair compensations or meaningful land reparations to the Bushmen. It’s a haunting question that modern society have yet to answer properly.)

While the Central Kalahari Game Reserve remains a remarkable place to experience the rapidly dwindling wilderness atmosphere of Africa, I can’t forget that this magical place is haunted by the absence of one of it’s most important members: the Bushmen people.

Lying in central Botswana, the Central Kalahari is flat, comprising of thick, windblown sand that has formed an endless series of low-lying ridges and shallow valleys, all held in place by acacia shrub and grasses. The sand originated around 100 million years ago, when the interior of what eventually became Southern Africa was a massive lake filled with river sediment. The porous nature of the sand, and the semi-arid climate with sporadic thunderstorms between December and April means that there is little permanent water. But when it does rain, it's usually an awesome sight, as if the landscape itself is reaching out to make love to the thunderclouds.

Lying in central Botswana, the Central Kalahari is flat, comprising of thick, windblown sand that has formed an endless series of low-lying ridges and shallow valleys, all held in place by acacia shrub and grasses. The sand originated around 100 million years ago, when the interior of what eventually became Southern Africa was a massive lake filled with river sediment. The porous nature of the sand, and the semi-arid climate with sporadic thunderstorms between December and April means that there is little permanent water. But when it does rain, it's usually an awesome sight, as if the landscape itself is reaching out to make love to the thunderclouds.

In the Central Kalahari, summer thunderstorms turn the dry, dusty, grey ground turns into an emerald wonderland of nutritious grazing that draws thousands of animals, like these giraffe and springbok. Some people enjoy Kalahari winters, because it's cooler, but I find the dry winters a bit dull and dreary. As a photographer and nature lover, I prefer visiting in summer, even if temperatures during the day can touch 45 degrees Celsius.

In the Central Kalahari, summer thunderstorms turn the dry, dusty, grey ground turns into an emerald wonderland of nutritious grazing that draws thousands of animals, like these giraffe and springbok. Some people enjoy Kalahari winters, because it's cooler, but I find the dry winters a bit dull and dreary. As a photographer and nature lover, I prefer visiting in summer, even if temperatures during the day can touch 45 degrees Celsius.

The Kalahari in central Botswana is not a desert, even though "The Kalahari" as a whole is often mistakenly referred to as one. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve receives about 350 to 450 mm of rain every year. (A desert is usually defined as a place that receives less than 100mm per year). But most of it falls as highly variable and sporadic thunderstorms, and surface evaporation is always higher than rainfall, no matter the season, leading sometimes to the appearance of a desert (especially in the dry winters).

The Kalahari in central Botswana is not a desert, even though "The Kalahari" as a whole is often mistakenly referred to as one. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve receives about 350 to 450 mm of rain every year. (A desert is usually defined as a place that receives less than 100mm per year). But most of it falls as highly variable and sporadic thunderstorms, and surface evaporation is always higher than rainfall, no matter the season, leading sometimes to the appearance of a desert (especially in the dry winters).

Two examples of how rainfall changes everything here in the Central Kalahari. This photo is of Deception Pan, in the east of the Reserve. Little rain had fallen this particular summer, and the conditions resembled a dry winter period....

Two examples of how rainfall changes everything here in the Central Kalahari. This photo is of Deception Pan, in the east of the Reserve. Little rain had fallen this particular summer, and the conditions resembled a dry winter period....

And yet only 20-odd kilometres west, near Letiahau Pan, there had been far more rain, and the landscape has responded with a green blanket of grass.

And yet only 20-odd kilometres west, near Letiahau Pan, there had been far more rain, and the landscape has responded with a green blanket of grass.

On our first morning camping near Deception Pan, we woke up to remarkable conditions...a low mist that had settled over the Kalahari. Unusual conditions for the middle of summer...for any time of year! We watched a herd of springbok grazing nearby to our campsite.

On our first morning camping near Deception Pan, we woke up to remarkable conditions...a low mist that had settled over the Kalahari. Unusual conditions for the middle of summer...for any time of year! We watched a herd of springbok grazing nearby to our campsite.

Later in the day, when the mist had cleared and the intense heat had returned, we spotted this cheetah mother and her two sub-adult cubs hunting on the edge of Deception Pan, using the acacia thicket as cover.

Later in the day, when the mist had cleared and the intense heat had returned, we spotted this cheetah mother and her two sub-adult cubs hunting on the edge of Deception Pan, using the acacia thicket as cover.

That evening, at our campsite at Kori near Deception Pan, we watched with amazement as winged termites erupted from the ground beneath our feet, emerging from thousands of holes in the ground. Each one has but a few minutes to find a mate, shed their wings and reproduce, so that a new colony can be started. The vast majority die before they get a chance to do so, either through predation or simple poor luck. Remarkably, each winged termite carries within its gut spores of the termitomyces fungus. All termite colonies depend on this fungus for breaking down leaf litter that the termites collect, as a source of nutrition for the colonies which can number several million termites.

That evening, at our campsite at Kori near Deception Pan, we watched with amazement as winged termites erupted from the ground beneath our feet, emerging from thousands of holes in the ground. Each one has but a few minutes to find a mate, shed their wings and reproduce, so that a new colony can be started. The vast majority die before they get a chance to do so, either through predation or simple poor luck. Remarkably, each winged termite carries within its gut spores of the termitomyces fungus. All termite colonies depend on this fungus for breaking down leaf litter that the termites collect, as a source of nutrition for the colonies which can number several million termites.

One of the reasons why I love summer in the Central Kalahari...butterflies! We must have seen billions of them, as they flitter and flutter all across the grasslands. Sometimes they descend onto open patches of ground, where there is moisture. Most of the butterflies we saw were African migrants (Catopsilia florella) and brown-veined whites (Belenois aurota), which have emerged with the rains. Apparently this year (2020) was a particularly good year for the butterflies, as previous years of drought had reduced the predators which feed on the butterfly eggs, larvae and catterpillars. The larvae of browns-veined white butterflies primarily live on shepherd's trees (Boscia albitrunca), which are common in the Kalahari, while the African migrant butterflies lay their eggs on Fabaceae senna (a type of legume plant that grows on sandy soils and has a pretty yellow flower). When the butterflies disperse in their thousands, they are not "migrating" (ie. going somewhere and then coming back), but rather looking for new areas to colonise. When caught in high-altitude winds, they can travel as much as 1 000kms, according to Steve Woodhall’s excellent Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa.

One of the reasons why I love summer in the Central Kalahari...butterflies! We must have seen billions of them, as they flitter and flutter all across the grasslands. Sometimes they descend onto open patches of ground, where there is moisture. Most of the butterflies we saw were African migrants (Catopsilia florella) and brown-veined whites (Belenois aurota), which have emerged with the rains. Apparently this year (2020) was a particularly good year for the butterflies, as previous years of drought had reduced the predators which feed on the butterfly eggs, larvae and catterpillars. The larvae of browns-veined white butterflies primarily live on shepherd's trees (Boscia albitrunca), which are common in the Kalahari, while the African migrant butterflies lay their eggs on Fabaceae senna (a type of legume plant that grows on sandy soils and has a pretty yellow flower). When the butterflies disperse in their thousands, they are not "migrating" (ie. going somewhere and then coming back), but rather looking for new areas to colonise. When caught in high-altitude winds, they can travel as much as 1 000kms, according to Steve Woodhall’s excellent Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa.

 

These are African Monarch butterflies (Danaus chrysippus aegypticus), getting ready to roost on some grass stems for the night.

These are African Monarch butterflies (Danaus chrysippus aegypticus), getting ready to roost on some grass stems for the night.

One more butterfly image...brown-veined white using it's proboscis to search for nectar in a cat's tail flower (Hermbstaedtia fleckii).

One more butterfly image...brown-veined white using it's proboscis to search for nectar in a cat's tail flower (Hermbstaedtia fleckii).

Near Deception Pan, we spotted this African wild cat (Felis sylvestris) in the shade of an acacia bush...this is the original wild cat found all over Africa, and the direct ancestor of every domesticated cat currently on Earth. (Originally probably domesticated by the Egyptians of the Pharaohs era.)

Near Deception Pan, we spotted this African wild cat (Felis sylvestris) in the shade of an acacia bush...this is the original wild cat found all over Africa, and the direct ancestor of every domesticated cat currently on Earth. (Originally probably domesticated by the Egyptians of the Pharaohs era.)

Summer thunderstorms bring rain, which turns the grass green, and which draws herds of gemsbok (local name for Southern Oryx), probably the most handsome of antelopes in my mind (sable antelope come a close second!). These denizens of semi-arid areas of Africa are the kings of the Kalahari, able to survive without water indefinitely, although they will drink whenever they can.

Summer thunderstorms bring rain, which turns the grass green, and which draws herds of gemsbok (local name for Southern Oryx), probably the most handsome of antelopes in my mind (sable antelope come a close second!). These denizens of semi-arid areas of Africa are the kings of the Kalahari, able to survive without water indefinitely, although they will drink whenever they can.

Another herd of gemsbok, this one near Passarge Pan. I was pleasantly surprised to see that most herbivores in the Central Kalahari are largely tolerant of human presence. They tended to keep their distance, but were not overly frightened, as I've seen from other herbivores in other areas of Africa (where perhaps hunting is allowed?)

Another herd of gemsbok, this one near Passarge Pan. I was pleasantly surprised to see that most herbivores in the Central Kalahari are largely tolerant of human presence. They tended to keep their distance, but were not overly frightened, as I've seen from other herbivores in other areas of Africa (where perhaps hunting is allowed?)

Three male ostriches near Letiahau Pan. Too often they are overlooked in favour of other species...but if you've never seen one before, they are quite remarkable animals! The species in Namibia and Botswana is mostly wild, unlike the ostriches in South Africa which have been domesticated and hybridised with Somali Ostrich stock for the feather industry.

Three male ostriches near Letiahau Pan. Too often they are overlooked in favour of other species...but if you've never seen one before, they are quite remarkable animals! The species in Namibia and Botswana is mostly wild, unlike the ostriches in South Africa which have been domesticated and hybridised with Somali Ostrich stock for the feather industry.

Our campsite at Letiahau Pan, one of my favourites.

Our campsite at Letiahau Pan, one of my favourites.

The feeling of freedom...once you've tasted it in the Central Kalahari, you won't go back to more popular parks where mass tourism has ruined the essence of a wilderness experience. My friends Ian and Joni enjoying a sundowner on top of my Ford Ranger near Letiahu Pan.

The feeling of freedom...once you've tasted it in the Central Kalahari, you won't go back to more popular parks where mass tourism has ruined the essence of a wilderness experience. My friends Ian and Joni enjoying a sundowner on top of my Ford Ranger near Letiahu Pan.

Sitting under a camelthorn tree in the Central Kalahari, next to a fire, with friends, as Venus pops up and the sky turns pscyhedelic with colour. Lions roaring nearby, barn owl screeching in the distance, lamb chops on the braai, and a cold beer in my hand...everything is just fine with the world!

Sitting under a camelthorn tree in the Central Kalahari, next to a fire, with friends, as Venus pops up and the sky turns pscyhedelic with colour. Lions roaring nearby, barn owl screeching in the distance, lamb chops on the braai, and a cold beer in my hand...everything is just fine with the world!

In summer time in the Kalahari, you have to get up early if you want to spot the predators, which are mostly nocturnal. That means a 5am start every morning...but it's worth it. We spotted this male leopard near Letiahau Pan before sunrise one morning. Ian heard some guineafowls going nuts, and sure enough, there was Mr Leopard in the distance. I took this photo with my 500mm lens, about 30 mins before sunrise. The Canon 1Dx does it's job in the low light conditions!

In summer time in the Kalahari, you have to get up early if you want to spot the predators, which are mostly nocturnal. That means a 5am start every morning...but it's worth it. We spotted this male leopard near Letiahau Pan before sunrise one morning. Ian heard some guineafowls going nuts, and sure enough, there was Mr Leopard in the distance. I took this photo with my 500mm lens, about 30 mins before sunrise. The Canon 1Dx does it's job in the low light conditions!

Next thing we see, as the sun is rising, a young male lion walking towards us out of the grasslands...oh hello, sir!

Next thing we see, as the sun is rising, a young male lion walking towards us out of the grasslands...oh hello, sir!

And a very beautiful, solid-looking lioness is just behind him! What a beauty...

And a very beautiful, solid-looking lioness is just behind him! What a beauty...

And soon after, as the sun is up, another male comes sauntering up behind us! He had come from the direction of our campsite, and no doubt had spent the night nearby. He headed straight for the young male and the lioness...something was about to happen.

And soon after, as the sun is up, another male comes sauntering up behind us! He had come from the direction of our campsite, and no doubt had spent the night nearby. He headed straight for the young male and the lioness...something was about to happen.

Hey! What you want here!? The lions clash, but it's a brief territorial skirmish, nothing more than some moody behaviour. Perhaps the bigger male once held the territory, but lost it to the younger male, and the lion politics were still being sorted out.

Hey! What you want here!? The lions clash, but it's a brief territorial skirmish, nothing more than some moody behaviour. Perhaps the bigger male once held the territory, but lost it to the younger male, and the lion politics were still being sorted out.

The lions of the Central Kalahari were curious about our presence, but once they'd assessed us, they tended to ignore us. They seemed particularly wild, but not scared of us, like some other lions I've seen in parts of Africa where they are either hunted or regularly persecuted by humans. The low levels of human influence in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is it's saving grace, I think.

The lions of the Central Kalahari were curious about our presence, but once they'd assessed us, they tended to ignore us. They seemed particularly wild, but not scared of us, like some other lions I've seen in parts of Africa where they are either hunted or regularly persecuted by humans. The low levels of human influence in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is it's saving grace, I think.

After the skirmish, a little roll around in the herbaceous grasses, to make oneself smell nice and attractive to the lioness? Letting it all show...he's a wild lion after all, so he doesn't care!

After the skirmish, a little roll around in the herbaceous grasses, to make oneself smell nice and attractive to the lioness? Letting it all show...he's a wild lion after all, so he doesn't care!

This image looks much better in black and white...the same big male later on that morning. I was surprised at how thin he was...especially his spine, which seemed to poke through his skin on his back. He had obviously been edged out of his territory and no longer was at the front of the queue at the gemsbok buffet.

This image looks much better in black and white...the same big male later on that morning. I was surprised at how thin he was...especially his spine, which seemed to poke through his skin on his back. He had obviously been edged out of his territory and no longer was at the front of the queue at the gemsbok buffet.

On our way from Letiahau to Piper's Pan, we came across this dead gemsbok on the jeep track. It had clearly been killed by the lioness and her young male lion the night before, just a few kilometres from our campsite. The two lions had stopped feeding by the time we got there, probably because it was too hot at that time of day. Note the dung beetles on the rumen of the stomach, the flies on the carcass and the butterflies coming to get moisture and minerals from the raw flesh. The gemsbok in death is keeping plenty of animals alive...

On our way from Letiahau to Piper's Pan, we came across this dead gemsbok on the jeep track. It had clearly been killed by the lioness and her young male lion the night before, just a few kilometres from our campsite. The two lions had stopped feeding by the time we got there, probably because it was too hot at that time of day. Note the dung beetles on the rumen of the stomach, the flies on the carcass and the butterflies coming to get moisture and minerals from the raw flesh. The gemsbok in death is keeping plenty of animals alive...

Note the claw marks of the lions that had killed the gemsbok....

Note the claw marks of the lions that had killed the gemsbok....

With my friends Ian and Joni, on our way to Piper's Pan. These signposts are the only man-made things in the reserve, along with long-drop loos and open-air bucket showers.

With my friends Ian and Joni, on our way to Piper's Pan. These signposts are the only man-made things in the reserve, along with long-drop loos and open-air bucket showers.

The jeep track to Piper's Pan...not much traffic here (except for dung beetles and butterflies, watch out for them!)

The jeep track to Piper's Pan...not much traffic here (except for dung beetles and butterflies, watch out for them!)

Springboks grazing on the fresh green grass at Piper's Pan, with butterflies flirting in the air.

Springboks grazing on the fresh green grass at Piper's Pan, with butterflies flirting in the air.

The beautiful Piper's Pan is actually three pans linked together. In previous climatic eras, when conditions were much wetter, this part of the Kalahari consisted of hundreds of small, shallow lakes, linked together by slow-flowing rivers. As the climate has become drier, these have turned into large clay pans, which still sometimes fill up with water when rainfall is particularly heavy. The water quickly either evoporates, or sinks into the clay (watch out for the thick, sticky cotton soil that can swallow up a vehicle in wet conditions!)

The beautiful Piper's Pan is actually three pans linked together. In previous climatic eras, when conditions were much wetter, this part of the Kalahari consisted of hundreds of small, shallow lakes, linked together by slow-flowing rivers. As the climate has become drier, these have turned into large clay pans, which still sometimes fill up with water when rainfall is particularly heavy. The water quickly either evoporates, or sinks into the clay (watch out for the thick, sticky cotton soil that can swallow up a vehicle in wet conditions!)

Blue wildebeest and zebra on Piper's Pan, mid-morning. Once numbering in their millions (only about 40 years ago), both species used to migrate across Botswana, following the grazing and rains. But starting in the 1960s and 70s, when the government (at insistence by the European Union) built veterinary fences to separate cattle from wild animals, the wildebeest populations in particular were decimated in their hundreds of thousands. Unable to find their way around the fences, thousands were trapped against the wires, unable to find grazing or water. Today most wildebeest are sedentary, meaning they don't migrate, and have to rely on much smaller areas for grazing and water (and consequently, aren't able to breed as successfully, due to limited resources).

Blue wildebeest and zebra on Piper's Pan, mid-morning. Once numbering in their millions (only about 40 years ago), both species used to migrate across Botswana, following the grazing and rains. But starting in the 1960s and 70s, when the government (at insistence by the European Union) built veterinary fences to separate cattle from wild animals, the wildebeest populations in particular were decimated in their hundreds of thousands. Unable to find their way around the fences, thousands were trapped against the wires, unable to find grazing or water. Today most wildebeest are sedentary, meaning they don't migrate, and have to rely on much smaller areas for grazing and water (and consequently, aren't able to breed as successfully, due to limited resources).

Some old elephant dung on the jeep track into Piper's Pan area...probably from a few weeks previously. With more and more elephants taking refuge in Botswana's north, some are heading south into areas like Makgadikgadi Pans, and a few into Central Kalahari, if permanent surface waters allow...

Some old elephant dung on the jeep track into Piper's Pan area...probably from a few weeks previously. With more and more elephants taking refuge in Botswana's north, some are heading south into areas like Makgadikgadi Pans, and a few into Central Kalahari, if permanent surface waters allow...

At Piper's Pan, there is a solar-powered borehole to supply drinking water for the animals, and also for hot humans. We collected some water and splashed it over ourselves. Here Ian and Joni take a shower.

At Piper's Pan, there is a solar-powered borehole to supply drinking water for the animals, and also for hot humans. We collected some water and splashed it over ourselves. Here Ian and Joni take a shower.

Late one afternoon, near sunset, we sat on the edge of Piper's Pan, and watched this lioness sauntering across the pan....

Late one afternoon, near sunset, we sat on the edge of Piper's Pan, and watched this lioness sauntering across the pan....

Wherever there is a beautiful lioness, you can be sure there's a male following somewhere behind...

Wherever there is a beautiful lioness, you can be sure there's a male following somewhere behind...

Joni checking out the lions and the general epicness of the Kalahari's incredible summer light that makes sunsets and sunrises so dreamy...

Joni checking out the lions and the general epicness of the Kalahari's incredible summer light that makes sunsets and sunrises so dreamy...

The next morning, we spotted the same male, still following the female! But she clearly wasn't interested, as she had moved off quickly...the reason would become clear later that day.

The next morning, we spotted the same male, still following the female! But she clearly wasn't interested, as she had moved off quickly...the reason would become clear later that day.

We found the lioness, with cubs, a few kilometres away...perhaps she had been trying to keep the male away from the cubs?

We found the lioness, with cubs, a few kilometres away...perhaps she had been trying to keep the male away from the cubs?

So we followed mom and kids for a good hour or two, as they walked determinedly across the pans...

So we followed mom and kids for a good hour or two, as they walked determinedly across the pans...

Two more lionesses came to join mom and kids...

Two more lionesses came to join mom and kids...

And they all came to drink from the waterhole...what a wonderful morning.

And they all came to drink from the waterhole...what a wonderful morning.

A good day...our campsite at Piper's Pan. Somehow, even though we knew the pride of lions was nearby, everything felt very calm indeed! But we did keep scanning the edges of our campsite for company...remember to watch your back at night in the Central Kalahari (especially when going for a pee).

A good day...our campsite at Piper's Pan. Somehow, even though we knew the pride of lions was nearby, everything felt very calm indeed! But we did keep scanning the edges of our campsite for company...remember to watch your back at night in the Central Kalahari (especially when going for a pee).

Springbok grazing on Piper's Pan, at sunrise...these are the most numerous antelope in the Central Kalahari, and like the gemsbok, are able to go without water indefinitely, but will drink readily if they can. Despite their adaption to the semi-arid habitat, their numbers have fallen consistently in the past few decades, probably because they aren't able to migrate as much as they used to. Wild animal populations in these ephemeral landscapes need space to move, and as soon as they are cornered or restricted, their numbers begin to fall...nature abhors fences!

Springbok grazing on Piper's Pan, at sunrise...these are the most numerous antelope in the Central Kalahari, and like the gemsbok, are able to go without water indefinitely, but will drink readily if they can. Despite their adaption to the semi-arid habitat, their numbers have fallen consistently in the past few decades, probably because they aren't able to migrate as much as they used to. Wild animal populations in these ephemeral landscapes need space to move, and as soon as they are cornered or restricted, their numbers begin to fall...nature abhors fences!

An unidentified beetle bejewelled with pollen from a morning glory flower...the Kalahari turns colourful after summer rains. Who said this place was a desert?!

An unidentified beetle bejewelled with pollen from a morning glory flower...the Kalahari turns colourful after summer rains. Who said this place was a desert?!

Every trip to the Kalahari needs a photo of a ground squirrel, possibly the cutest and most playful animal of the region (along with the meerkats, which they sometimes apparently play with!). Ground squirrels can become very habituated to humans, and near the campsites they can quickly become used to human presence, but don't feed them!

Every trip to the Kalahari needs a photo of a ground squirrel, possibly the cutest and most playful animal of the region (along with the meerkats, which they sometimes apparently play with!). Ground squirrels can become very habituated to humans, and near the campsites they can quickly become used to human presence, but don't feed them!

Another iconic species of the Kalahari. Bat-eared foxes are regularly seen, but very shy, often running away. To me they look like Yoda from Star Wars! They use those big ears to listen for insects in the ground, which they dig up and chew with 46 to 50 sharp little teeth, crunching their jaws at rate of five times a second. They feed mostly on harvester termites, but also beetles.

Another iconic species of the Kalahari. Bat-eared foxes are regularly seen, but very shy, often running away. To me they look like Yoda from Star Wars! They use those big ears to listen for insects in the ground, which they dig up and chew with 46 to 50 sharp little teeth, crunching their jaws at rate of five times a second. They feed mostly on harvester termites, but also beetles.

My first sighting ever of an aardwolf! And a very good one too. These are very shy, strictly nocturnal animals, so to see one in good light is very lucky. Early one morning at Piper's Pan, we saw a bat-eared fox pounding its legs on the ground, and we thought it was trying to chase a rodent out of it's burrow, but then this wonderful animal popped it's head up out of the hole, and the bat-eared fox (and several others) chased it away! Poor aardwolf...

My first sighting ever of an aardwolf! And a very good one too. These are very shy, strictly nocturnal animals, so to see one in good light is very lucky. Early one morning at Piper's Pan, we saw a bat-eared fox pounding its legs on the ground, and we thought it was trying to chase a rodent out of it's burrow, but then this wonderful animal popped it's head up out of the hole, and the bat-eared fox (and several others) chased it away! Poor aardwolf...

Our big male lion, still alone, still looking for his females...we spotted him on our last morning at Piper's Pan. Because the sun hadn't risen yet, the light was wonderfully soft. You've got about about twenty minutes before sunrise and ten minutes after sunset to get your soft-light shots...

Our big male lion, still alone, still looking for his females...we spotted him on our last morning at Piper's Pan. Because the sun hadn't risen yet, the light was wonderfully soft. You've got about about twenty minutes before sunrise and ten minutes after sunset to get your soft-light shots...

Ian and Joni, at our campsite at Phokoje, just after a huge thunderstorm had rolled over us. Within 30 minutes, the storm had passed, and the sun came out again...

Ian and Joni, at our campsite at Phokoje, just after a huge thunderstorm had rolled over us. Within 30 minutes, the storm had passed, and the sun came out again...

Black-backed jackals are another denizen of the semi-arid Kalahari. Their evocative howling at dawn and dusk is the soundtrack to this immense wilderness. This species will forever be branded into my heart because of the book Cry of the Kalahari, by Mark and Delia Owens, the best-written text on the Kalahari.

Black-backed jackals are another denizen of the semi-arid Kalahari. Their evocative howling at dawn and dusk is the soundtrack to this immense wilderness. This species will forever be branded into my heart because of the book Cry of the Kalahari, by Mark and Delia Owens, the best-written text on the Kalahari.

Dawn in the Kalahari...just looking at this photo now makes me wanna go back!

Dawn in the Kalahari...just looking at this photo now makes me wanna go back!

Tracks of man, tracks of lion...in our campsite. Sharing the land, sharing the space. We all have a right to be here.

Tracks of man, tracks of lion...in our campsite. Sharing the land, sharing the space. We all have a right to be here.

A thunderstorm near our campsite at Passarge Pan. Average rainfall in Botswana ranges from less than 200mm in the southwest on the South African border to over 650mm in the north-east on the Zambian border. A true desert is usually defined as an area that receives less than 100mm per year, so Botswana is better defined as a semi-arid country. But because evaporation rates are normally twice or three times the rainfall, much of the Kalahari can - during the dry winters - appear to be very desert-like in conditions. But during the rainy season, the sands turn verdant green, if rain happens to fall on a lucky patch of dry earth.

A thunderstorm near our campsite at Passarge Pan. Average rainfall in Botswana ranges from less than 200mm in the southwest on the South African border to over 650mm in the north-east on the Zambian border. A true desert is usually defined as an area that receives less than 100mm per year, so Botswana is better defined as a semi-arid country. But because evaporation rates are normally twice or three times the rainfall, much of the Kalahari can - during the dry winters - appear to be very desert-like in conditions. But during the rainy season, the sands turn verdant green, if rain happens to fall on a lucky patch of dry earth.

Magical, late-afternoon light at Passarge Pan, as light rain falls. For me, these are ineffable scenes that defy description, probably because we as human animals have an emotional response that predates the development of the language part of our brain. The language I know (English) falls short of doing justice to the immense sensory experience of immersion in a scene like this. We may well have an emotional connection to landcapes such as the Kalahari, going back millions of years, when our early human ancestors were surviving - and thriving - here. Perhaps the only language that is capable of doing justice to the emotional response we have is the Khoisan group of languages. The Bushmen's language of syncopated clicks is the most comprehensive use of the human palate, tongue and mouth, which is why it's so difficult for modern-language people to speak. If you've ever heard a Bushman talk, you may think their language is not just language...it's language, music, poetry, rhythym and feeling all rolled up into one.

Magical, late-afternoon light at Passarge Pan, as light rain falls. For me, these are ineffable scenes that defy description, probably because we as human animals have an emotional response that predates the development of the language part of our brain. The language I know (English) falls short of doing justice to the immense sensory experience of immersion in a scene like this. We may well have an emotional connection to landcapes such as the Kalahari, going back millions of years, when our early human ancestors were surviving - and thriving - here. Perhaps the only language that is capable of doing justice to the emotional response we have is the Khoisan group of languages. The Bushmen's language of syncopated clicks is the most comprehensive use of the human palate, tongue and mouth, which is why it's so difficult for modern-language people to speak. If you've ever heard a Bushman talk, you may think their language is not just language...it's language, music, poetry, rhythym and feeling all rolled up into one.

We came across this beautiful cheetah late one afternoon on Passarge Pan. Botswana - and Central Kalahari - is considered one of the last strongholds of this endangered species which now number fewer than 7 000 in Africa (there are more white rhinos on the continent...) Just 20 years ago, there were probably over 12 000 of these remarkable cats in Africa. Their future is not assured, unless protected areas like Central Kalahari remain inviolate, and unless local livestock owners stop killing and trapping the cats (which are often assumed to kill livestock, but in fact rarely do). The non-profit Cheetah Conservation Organisation in Botswana is doing great work with communities in this respect...

We came across this beautiful cheetah late one afternoon on Passarge Pan. Botswana - and Central Kalahari - is considered one of the last strongholds of this endangered species which now number fewer than 7 000 in Africa (there are more white rhinos on the continent...) Just 20 years ago, there were probably over 12 000 of these remarkable cats in Africa. Their future is not assured, unless protected areas like Central Kalahari remain inviolate, and unless local livestock owners stop killing and trapping the cats (which are often assumed to kill livestock, but in fact rarely do). The non-profit Cheetah Conservation Organisation in Botswana is doing great work with communities in this respect...

Stopping to smell the flowers...

Stopping to smell the flowers...

The rufuous-naped larks are the DJs on Radio Kalahari, always chirping, always got lots to say...but at least they sing beautifully!

The rufuous-naped larks are the DJs on Radio Kalahari, always chirping, always got lots to say...but at least they sing beautifully!

If the rufous-naped lark sings the melody, then the Kori bustards plays the base guitar on the Kalahari soundtrack. Most mornings you can hear the male booming it's call across the land...seducing females and claiming his territory. This is the world's heaviest flying bird...weighing up to 18kg and standing 140cms tall.

If the rufous-naped lark sings the melody, then the Kori bustards plays the base guitar on the Kalahari soundtrack. Most mornings you can hear the male booming it's call across the land...seducing females and claiming his territory. This is the world's heaviest flying bird...weighing up to 18kg and standing 140cms tall.

Sharing our campsite at Passarge Pan with this fella, a yellow mongoose. He was probably the alpha male in the colony, as he was actively scouting his territory and keeping watch constantly.

Sharing our campsite at Passarge Pan with this fella, a yellow mongoose. He was probably the alpha male in the colony, as he was actively scouting his territory and keeping watch constantly.

Near our campsite at Passarge Pan...

Near our campsite at Passarge Pan...

Another day comes to an end, and another astonishing sunset in the Kalahari summer. Our campsite at Passarge Pan.

Another day comes to an end, and another astonishing sunset in the Kalahari summer. Our campsite at Passarge Pan.

Sunbeams light up this communal spider's web (Stegodyphus dumicola)...the colony's "home" is out of the image, but can contain up to 2 000 small spiders that live together.

Sunbeams light up this communal spider's web (Stegodyphus dumicola)...the colony's "home" is out of the image, but can contain up to 2 000 small spiders that live together.

This solifugid (also known as a sun spider) was hiding out under Ian and Joni's tent...while packing up the next morning, they found him scurrying about. Unlike spiders, they aren't venomous, but they do have a bite. They also have a habit of running as fast as they can into shade because they dislike strong sunlight ("solifugae means "detest light"), so often they end up running towards your own shadow, making them seem particularly fearsome!

This solifugid (also known as a sun spider) was hiding out under Ian and Joni's tent...while packing up the next morning, they found him scurrying about. Unlike spiders, they aren't venomous, but they do have a bite. They also have a habit of running as fast as they can into shade because they dislike strong sunlight ("solifugae means "detest light"), so often they end up running towards your own shadow, making them seem particularly fearsome!

I happened to look up late one afternoon at Leopard Pan, and took a photo of the thunderclouds...when I looked at the image later, I noticed the dragonfly buzzing around. Small insect, big sky.

I happened to look up late one afternoon at Leopard Pan, and took a photo of the thunderclouds...when I looked at the image later, I noticed the dragonfly buzzing around. Small insect, big sky.

Ian and Joni watching a storm approaching across Leopard Pan, our last campsite of the trip.

Ian and Joni watching a storm approaching across Leopard Pan, our last campsite of the trip.

Our favourite spot near Leopard Pan, soaking up the atmosphere of the Kalahari. You don't need TV or social media or books out here. Just sit and watch and be amazed.

Our favourite spot near Leopard Pan, soaking up the atmosphere of the Kalahari. You don't need TV or social media or books out here. Just sit and watch and be amazed.

Joni at sunset on our last evening in Central Kalahari, with her friend the camelthorn tree. Near Leopard Pan.

Joni at sunset on our last evening in Central Kalahari, with her friend the camelthorn tree. Near Leopard Pan.

On our way out of the reserve...and back to the madness of the modern world.

On our way out of the reserve...and back to the madness of the modern world.

Map showing extent of Kalahari sands in Africa, all the way from South Africa to Gabon! Map from Mike Main's excellent book "Kalahari"

Map showing extent of Kalahari sands in Africa, all the way from South Africa to Gabon! Map from Mike Main's excellent book "Kalahari"

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