Safari so good
During their 10-day overland trip through Botswana, Claire Keeton and photographer Marianne Schwankhart visited the Central Kalahari Game Reserve
. KUBU ISLAND TO MATSWERE GATE
WE woke to another cloudless sunrise on our second morning at Kubu Island. After packing up, we drove onto the hazy tracks of the Makgadikgadi Pans. Finding the route out was easier than coming in, yet leaving this magnetic place was difficult. When we reached the tar road, we turned right towards Rakops. The settlement was our last chance to stock up on water before we reached the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, 40km away. Babo Dikeleko of Ludolicious Hair Salon let us fill up from her tank while she tried to talk me into a perm for my untamed mane. But we kept moving, reaching the park's Matswere gate in the mid-afternoon. Many animal skulls, including eland and giraffe, mark the reserve's eastern entrance, along with an Aids ribbon in stones.
. WATER, WHAT WATER?
At the Matswere reception desk, you get a list of "information and regulations", including instructions to carry water. The recommended rations for the "desert" are 10-20 litres per person per day. The five of us - Marianne, my son Zade, friends Lynn Morris and Jan Pirouz Poulsen and me - needed a minimum of 100 litres. At Rakops, we had filled up a 25l can, 20l solar shower and 10l canvas bladder to add to our bakkie's almost full 50l tank. We'd be fine, or so we thought. But when we opened the tap on the tank at our campsite, it was dry. Maybe we'd left the tap dripping? We were surprised but this didn't subdue our high spirits at finally reaching the Kalahari and, after all, we had wine. Luckily, we met a group going to Rakops for supplies and they fetched us some extra water.
. CAMPING WITH LIONS
Our campsite in Deception Valley was a secluded, shady clearing in the tawny bush. And you have no idea what is in that bush. A friend had a brown hyena come up and inspect his foot (and slink away) when he was camping here and he also saw a honey badger. The reserve is unfenced, so game move freely through the camps scattered far apart in its 52800km². Nevertheless, our campsite was more established than expected: a fireplace, long-drop like a throne inside a circular stone wall and another empty stone enclosure. When we arrived, we put up our two ground tents below the Kalahari-sand acacia trees and two rooftop tents. This time, Zade and I took a rooftop tent. When I woke up after midnight to hear lions roaring, I was pleased to be up high (though the next night we slept on the ground) and thrilled to hear that primal sound nearby. In May, much of the prey has migrated and the big cats are less visible. A chart at Matswere entrance shows when and where lion, cheetah, leopard and hyena were last seen.
. SOLO DRIVING IN SOFT SAND
The next day (day five), I wanted to try to track down the Kalahari black-maned lions, made famous in the book Cry of the Kalahari. The chart showed they had last been seen close to Sunday Pan. Sunday Pan was about 35km from our campsite but that drive, in thick sand, took us roughly half a day. The official speed limit is 40km/ph and the sand acts as a brake. I was tense at the wheel, worried about getting us stuck in the middle of nowhere in the heat, since we were flouting the 4x4 rule to always travel in convoy in deserted regions.
In the Kalahari, other vehicles are spotted almost as infrequently as lions in winter. But we engaged the 4x4 controls of the diesel Nissan Hardbody (2.5l engine), took turns driving and stayed in control. We didn't need support but you do need 4x4 controls, spare fuel and water.
. SUNDOWNERS ON THE PLAINS
Though I had heard lion, we never found them. But we did see buck and other wildlife on the plains and at the Sunday Pan waterhole. My favourite sighting was a startled-looking bat-eared fox scampering through the flowing grass. We also saw mongoose, blacked-backed jackal, gemsbok, kudu, giraffe and springbok, who thrive on these plains. When you look up you see raptors like Bateleur eagles and falcons (in the distance) sweeping through the sky. The vastness of the plains has desolate beauty and we drove onto Deception Pan for sundowners. After a glass of wine, we headed for camp and on the way passed two vehicles. This party from Botswana and Zimbabwe invited us to join them for drinks - in territory where lions rule, people are quick to join ranks - and told us how they keep coming back to the reserve. They were also camping, but there is a lodge in the northeastern section for travellers wanting more comfort.
. THE CRY OF THE KALAHARI
The foreigners to stay longest in the Central Kalahari - a land where San hunter/gatherers have roamed for hundreds of years - are US researchers Mark and Delia Owens, the authors of Cry of the Kalahari, who started out here with nothing in 1974. The young couple wanted to study carnivores in an area where humans had not impacted on their habitat and this immense wilderness was perfect. They have stories of waking up in their sleeping bags surrounded by a pride of nine lions. They established camp under an island of acacias (close to where we had sundowners) and for nearly seven years gathered data on the Kalahari lion and brown hyenas. They made discoveries that challenged conventions - for example, that brown hyena are social animals that adopt orphans and babysit each other's pups. The couple write in their book's conclusion: "We had lived through some difficult times in the desert, but the most difficult task of all was leaving Deception Valley."
- Next stop: Okavango Delta