Kalahari Kid visits Kgalagadi

My father recently wrote an article about me and my mother Jill visiting the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier National Park. The article was published under the heading A Thousand Splendid Sightings. A few of my friends who read the article asked me if I did indeed have a thousand splendid sightings which led me to think that there might be other readers thinking similar thoughts, so I have decided to write a sequel to my father’s article that will answer this question.

I would be lying if I said: “Yes, I had that many splendid sightings,” as I did not keep count. The question also arises: “What constitutes a splendid sighting?” I take as much delight in seeing a lioness carrying her one-day-old cub to a new location as I do seeing a majestic sunset. So, all I can confirm is that visiting the Northern Cape, north of the mighty Orange River, was an amazing experience that will be etched in my memory forever. If I tell you that the far northwest region of the Northern Cape is possibly the most underrated tourist destination in South Africa, I don’t think that I am exaggerating.

As we departed from Upington on the last leg to reach our ultimate destination, the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier National Park, I felt a sense of adrenaline. We were going off the beaten track and I could only hope that there would be no unfortunate incidents that would place a dampener on the trip. We had prepared well but I know that the best-laid plans of mice and men can come to naught in an instant. My renal failure and subsequent kidney transplant bear testimony to that fact. 

Grape Vines Next to the Orange River

Winding along the Orange River before we reached the turn–off that would take us north to the park, I was struck by the stark contrast of nature versus man. Along each side of the river, under irrigation, are the most healthy-looking grape vines and pecan nut trees; I am sure that there were other varieties of fruit but those were the two that I could identify. However, where the irrigation ceases, you have barren terrain stretching as far as the eye can see. I began to wonder if anything could survive in that waterless wasteland.

Going on our first drive through part of the park soon after reaching our destination and setting up camp, my earlier question was soon answered. The park is a testimony to the resilience of nature and the ability of nature to adapt even in the harshest environment possible. We witnessed a lion carrying a cub to its new location, we were told later by another visitor that it had only been born the day before. This was to be the first of many of the special moments that we were to enjoy over the next two weeks.

I could wax lyrically about watching a leopard frolicking with her two nearly fully grown cubs or a mother spotted eagle-owl and her chicks perched on the branch of the only tree in a kilometre radius but there are as many spectacular sightings as these to be seen in other South African National Parks so on reflection I need to digress and focus on two key issues that make this area so unique and special.

Kgalagadi Trans-frontier National Park
Sunset Drive in the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier National Park

Firstly, I have visited the Kruger National Park on many occasions over the past 20 years and I have noticed that, especially over the past five years, the park in the south is becoming too crowded at times to enjoy a sighting. Due to its relative proximity to Gauteng residents, the most densely populated province, and an increasing number of nature enthusiasts generally, when a sighting takes place, the word spreads like wildfire, and before long there is a jostling among the park visitors to get the best view. I have even witnessed road rage incidents, especially when irate people feel that someone is hogging a prime spot for too long.

This is certainly not the case in the Kgalagadi. You don’t have traffic queues or jams as you do in the south of the Kruger National Park, especially at prime times such as the Easter weekend. They even have quotas to limit the amount of visitors during peak times. The Kgalagadi, due to its remote destination, is certainly off-limits to most people hoping for a weekend getaway. There is an aura of solitude, you can sit in your vehicle and enjoy the view without any interruptions. Call me selfish if you will, but going into a park should refresh your soul and not add to the tensions that seem part and parcel of our modern-day lifestyle, often referred to as the rat race.

Lioness carrying day old cub by Jordan Barber

The second issue were the local guides and other staff that work in this harsh environment. They are the salt of the earth. We met some very interesting characters. Wizened old veterans full of interesting stories and anecdotes, if there is a South African answer to the Australian icon, Crocodile Dundee, it would be my guess that he lives in this hood. 

I am generalising when I compare the staff in this park to the more popular parks in other parts of South Africa but you get a feeling in those parks that there is an air of entitlement and that they think that they are doing you a favour when they serve you.

In this park, nothing seems to be too much trouble. The staff goes out of their way to try to help you. You feel that they appreciate that you have taken the time and trouble to visit them and that they will do anything to ensure that your stay is as pleasant as possible. Speaking of people, it was interesting to note that in every conversation with the locals at some stage they would say: “The rains are late this year.” This was indeed the case, and the Kgalagadi was living up to its reputation, Kgalagadi meaning The Land of Thirst.

I am not a fan of humans interfering with nature but if it was not for the man-made boreholes I think that the animals would have struggled to survive due to the late rains. Fortunately, I can now report that some really decent downpours occurred in the middle of March, and when I saw the pictures I was amazed at how this barren area we had witnessed was transformed into an oasis of lushness.

Any doubt that I might have had about visiting the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Park was erased one afternoon, having returned to the campsite after a drive and then bumping into the world-renowned large carnivore expert, Dr Paul Funston who is the executive director of African Lion Conservation. Thinking that he might be involved in a research project I enquired as to why he was at the park and he replied: “I am on leave, I love to come here to unwind.”

Inquisitive owls checking out their visitors by Jordan Barber

As verse 11 in Ecclesiastes chapter 3 states: “There is a time for everything,” and before we knew it, it was time to leave. I had planned our return trip via a detour to Augrabies Falls due to my medical conditions, as I am uncertain if I will ever be in a position to visit this area again. En route to the falls, we discovered another hidden gem – wine farms and distilleries. This was just up my mother’s alley as she loves her wine. Needless to say, our load was slightly heavier when we departed, my mother had decided that their products would make ideal Christmas gifts.

Unfortunately, due to the drought, the Place of Great Noise was pretty silent but one can imagine that when the Orange River is in full flow it must be a spectacular sight. However, the views of the gorge and the spectacular rock formations more than compensated for the falls not quite delivering the awe-inspiring images that I have seen on video footage. Something to look forward to, the next time I visit.

The last leg of our journey was the trip back to Bloemfontein to meet the family to spend Christmas together. We duly arrived and I was grateful that the only blemish of the whole trip was getting stuck in the dunes twice, the first time I was able to manoeuvre the vehicle to secure ground but on the second occasion it required the help of a Good Samaritan to tow us out. A little embarrassing, but as my mom commented: “If that was the worst thing that happened, fall on your knees.”

So, to my friends, readers and especially you Dad, to answer your question. I don’t know if I had a thousand splendid sightings, all that I can say is that I have many cherished memories that will last a lifetime.

Jordan Barber holds a degree in Wildlife Management and he is passionate about telling stories about the wild places in Africa

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *