Size matters: Nicky Oppenheimer's super-luxury Kalahari Game Reserve
Tswalu Game Reserve, the largest private reserve in South Africa, is making amazing strides in freeing up even more space for wildlife to roam, writes Brian Jackman
He was an old lion past his prime with a dove-grey coat and a broken canine tooth, but he was still an impressive beast, his grizzled features framed by a lustrous black mane that fell like a rug around his shoulders.
All day we had followed the tracks he and his brother had left in the red sands of Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, each four-toed pad as wide as my outstretched hand. Now he lay in all his majesty, just a few metres in front of us, staring into the thorny thickets where his brother had just departed after an extraordinary demonstration of mutual grooming and affectionate head rubbing.
This was my reward for a masterclass in the arcane skills of bushcraft, demonstrated by Rudi Venter, my guide, and Ari Leeow, the tracker. In the Kalahari you have to work hard for your lions, but the experience is worth every spine-tingling second.For hour after hour, perched on the bonnet of our four-wheel-drive, Ari had picked out the lion's unmistakable spoor as we drove through the bush.
"He's following what we call the silver line," said Venter. "That's when a tracker can almost think his way into the mind of the animal he's following, anticipating its every twist and turn."
Once we'd found him, the lion began to roar. On and on he went, each deep-throated bellow reverberating among the surrounding hills and out into the deep emptiness of the Kalahari until at last his brother responded, like the echo of his own voice returning.Everyone who comes to Tswalu wants to see the famous black-maned lions of the Kalahari, but this is not a Big Five reserve.True, there are Cape buffalo and rare, desert-adapted black rhino hidden deep in the tangled seas of thornveld, but the real attraction is the heady sense of freedom.
INTO THE BIG WIDE OPEN
Tswalu began life as a hunting preserve owned by Stephen Boler, a British entrepreneur who made his fortune selling cut-price car tyres in the '70s. In 1995 he bought up 35 clapped-out farms in the southern Kalahari and turned them into his own vast, private fiefdom.
When Boler died three years later the ownership passed to Nicky Oppenheimer, the former chairman of De Beers and a lifelong conservationist.Within a month he had put an end to hunting and begun the colossal task of re-wilding, introducing breeding programmes for rare antelopes such as roan and sable, reversing decades of overgrazing and providing a haven for cheetahs and other predators.Since then, more farms have been acquired and returned to the wild, sweeping away fences and buildings to enlarge what was already the biggest private wildlife reserve in South Africa with the lofty summits of the Korannaberg running through it from end to end.Oppenheimer is also a great believer in the importance of ecotourism. "Without it, cheetahs, lions, black rhinos - all of Africa's emblematic animals will disappear," he says, hence the presence of two luxury lodges; Motse, which can accommodate up to 20 guests, and the smaller Tarkuni. Both are five-star oases of food and comfort with blissful outdoor pools and sweet-natured staff.But the real luxury of staying here is having your own exclusive vehicle, guide and tracker to explore one of the world's last wild places with nobody else in sight.
Besides its famous lions, Tswalu's also has giraffe, two species of zebra and a whole bestiary of antelopes such as eland, kudu and gemsbok, along with smaller animals that are hard to find elsewhere: aardvarks, meerkats, caracals and pangolins.Add more than 240 kinds of birds including standout species such as the crimson-breasted bush shrike and pygmy falcons - fierce raptors no bigger than a thrush that make their nests in the haystack citadels of sociable weavers.THE RAINS ON THE PLAINS
By chance I had arrived after a year's rain had fallen in a week, bringing about a miraculous transformation. Overnight Tswalu had become an emerald desert, lit with the crimson flowers of poison bulb lilies. Rainwater pools still lay across the game trails and flurries of brown-veined white butterflies flew up at every step.
We drove for miles across the dunes where the land rose and fell like an ocean swell, and every time we climbed a crest a fresh sight awaited us in the valley below. Black-as-midnight sable bulls rose from the grass to stare at us as we passed by. Red hartebeest bounced away with their jaunty rocking-horse gait, and large herds of shy eland cantered off into the distance.Evidence of rhinos was everywhere in the form of fresh middens and footprints the size of dinner plates, but the animals themselves kept a low profile. Instead we came upon a lioness with seven cubs. "Four of the cubs are hers," said Rudi. "The others belonged to her sister who died a month ago."On the way back to the lodge that evening, thousands of swifts zoomed overhead to join a dark vortex of birds whirling over the dunes. It was a giant feeding frenzy, triggered by clouds of winged termites emerging from the ground to complete their annual life cycle.
Even Rudi had never seen anything like it. "As a spectacle it's just as good as finding lions," he said.
The next morning, at dawn, a cheetah was walking across the plains, a taut and quivering creature whose presence dominated the landscape. No wonder this is Nicky Oppenheimer's favourite animal. "I love them for their elegance", he had told me, "and the way they fit so perfectly with the scheme of things at Tswalu."Earlier I had also spoken with Gus van Dyk, his manager, who told me that cheetahs were doing well at Tswalu. So were the reserve's other predators, though they had lost a pack of wild dogs to distemper. But the dog population would recover. Like cheetahs, they need space, and Tswalu is one of the few remaining places where such far-ranging species can fulfil their need to roam."Space is what nature needs most," said Gus, "and that is what Tswalu can provide." - The Daily Telegraph
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Rates start from R17,700 per person sharing per night at Motse. See tswalu.com
• Jackman was hosted by UK tour operator Journeys by Design.