Traversing the Kalahari Sands

“Now, remember, don’t look at anything and keep your blinkers on” I teased Amanda. We were departing the Tweerivieren Campsite, our next destination Nossob Campsite. It was our first day in the Kalahari Trans frontier Park and we were on a two week visit starting with the three day Xerry Hiking Trail.

Our challenge was to drive the 165Km to Nossob in under 4 hours. Normally, this would be an easy drive, but in the reserve there was a 50km/h speed restriction, a 50km jeep track detour and some incredibly corrugated gravel road. Our time limit – we had to meet up with our guide to start the trail at 11h30 and the camp gates only open at 7h30. The official reserve information book advises a drive time of 4.5 hours to Nossob from Tweerivieren.

So for avid nature lovers and addictive birders, it meant that we had no chance to stop en route, even if we saw something special. Sadistically nature conspires against nature enthusiasts on a restricted time budget and displays a bonus of visual treasures.

Our first stop was to check out a trio of Gemsbok that were alertly staring to the east. It was none other than the infamous Rooiputs Lions, a pair of golden heads poking through the tufts of golden grass, the morning sun enriching them to glowing citrine gems sparkling against the red Kalahari dunes.

It was with reluctance that we set off, frustration at not even being able to turn the camera on. And that was just the beginning as we by-passed Bateleur, Kori Bustards, a flash of unidentified wings that under normal game driving conditions would detain us for hours. This was worse than window shopping on Xmas Eve with an empty wallet.

Natasha, my GPS, was chastising us; nagging that at this rate we were already going to be 15minutes late. We had to keep going.

At Melkvlei a pair of Jackal was fighting over a Gemsbok carcass. Vivid red bones indicated the kill was recent, the size of prey suggesting the remains of a lion kill. What to do? Stop and scan for the lions, the chances being that they were resting close by? Or to bypass the spot and just keep driving?      

What the heck, at least get some photos! The jackals were excellent models though I did wonder why they fought over such a large carcass. There was definitely more than enough for both of them should they declare a truce and share the spoils. Two hundred meters around the next bend Amanda needed a comfort stop at one of two toilet facilities along the route.

We hopped out the car, Amanda with toilet paper, myself with camera. And there he reclined, a male lion, silhouetted on top of the dune, a mere 200m away, the sun blazing behind him. It was exhilarating to be close enough to see the detail of his face, yet far enough not to infringe on his comfort zone. All the time I wondered where the other lions were lurking.

My focus was shattered as a Toyota travelling from the road to the right of the lion pulled up next to me and a Japanese couple erupted from it shouting ” You slee line?, you slee line?!”. They then dived back into their car, grabbed a toilet roll each and sprinted to the toilet. No doubt an unsettling

As Amanda returned, the lion stood up, regally surveyed the landscape with the nonchalance of Aslan, turned and disappeared into the swathes of grass cladding the dune.

The next two hours were a blur of Gemsbok, Springbok, eagles and Cheetahs to taunt us as we juddered across the endless corrugations, Natasha indicating that we had managed to gain a few minutes and were now expected to arrive at 11h20.

Then, a mere half kilometre, 2 minutes from the gates, a herd of Springbok were at full alert, collectively staring towards a fixed point in the riverbed. We had no choice but to stop and look. Nothing less than three Cheetahs stalking a territorial male Springbok rooted to his territorial patch. The clock was ticking, the Cheetahs missed their mark and we completed the drive 5 minutes late.

At the reception we discovered two snippets of information that made our lateness acceptable… First, we were the only guests on the Xerry Trail. Second, our guide was also late.

Car parked, fridge stored and our gear loaded on the trail Landrover, we left the main roads and traversed the dunes westwards to the base camp for the trail. Xerry Trail is a three day hiking trail, self-catered with guests providing their own camping gear. Most important it is in the middle of nowhere.

“Once you have set up camp we can get ready for an afternoon walk from the boma.” instructed Melissa. Our guide for the next three days, she was a slight, tall woman with short hair and an impish look which distracted from the ease with which she handled her R1 rifle.

“Our program for the next three days will be a morning walk from the Nossob River which we drive to at dawn” she continued. “Lunch and siesta are back at base with another afternoon walk in the surrounding dune.” In her briefing she covered toilet protocol, shower use, camp safety, emergency protocol and the rest of the trails schedule.

Xerry Hiking Trail is not about the big creatures of the Kalahari, but is a means to explore the mosaic of nature which stretches between the vast horizons. Barely 100 m out of the camp we encountered our first Whistling Rats. Arguably the vertebrate with the highest biomass in the Kalahari, they excavate a warren of burrows that covers about 25 square meters. Their name derives from their alarm call, a high pitched whistle, which they emit at every sign of potential predation. A whistle that sends the whole colony diving down the closest hole, a series of flickers in your peripheral vision that has the ground seemingly shimmering.

The next 2 hours are a collage of Black Thorn, Tall Bushman Grass, Candle Thorn, Four-Striped Field Mice, countless tracks and Camel Thorn all cloaking the endless undulating dunes. Straightening up from showing us a sample of Porcupine dung, Melissa leads us to the crest off a dune to watch the sunset. Roosting on top of a Camel Thorn a Scretarybird settling down as the sun dips below the horizon.

Night time in the wilderness is time for fire, an ancient legacy of our ancestors. Gerome, our back up guide, builds a mini bonfire which takes an hour to produce coals to grill meat and cook potatoes. As the night chill presses down on us, we all draw closer to the fire for warmth.

While birds and animals intrigue during the day, in this open landscape devoid of the glare of civilization it is the glittering stars that captivate your attention at night. Like a swathe of glow worms scattered across black velvet, the African night sky pulsates with energy. We are fortunate; it is full moon and soon the inky darkness yields to a landscape of silver dunes punctuated by grey shadows, the blanket of grass shimmering in the cast of monotone light.

Pressed closer to the fire by the winter chill, we merge into four golden faces captivated by the dancing flames while beyond the token boma the night chorus begins, Jackals locating mates, Hyena’s setting out in search of a meal.

Soon we exchange polite ‘good nights’ and ‘thanks’ for a wonderful afternoon before crawling into our respective tents, Amanda and I eagerly awaiting dawn and the new lessons it will present. But first we need to survive the night. Sometimes danger in the bush lacks teeth or claws and leaves no tracks. But for now, it is time to sleep.

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