It’s dark. I’ve got something cold and moist pressing against my face. Alertness rises through my slumbering mind. A lion roars, muted, a long way off. Heck it is cold. Thank goodness Amanda insisted on the down duvet instead of the sleeping bags. But, while trying to cuddle up for warmth she had again managed to push me to the edge of the mattress, and instead of the abyss of being nudged to the edge of a bed, I was pushed into the tent wall. Two hours till our 5:30 am wakeup call. Heck, the drive to Haagnes Pan was going to be cold in the open Landrover.
Tea, coffee and rusks, instant oats and we are loaded up for a morning walk, but first we have to survive the drive. The temperature had dipped to minus 7oC last night and a predawn game drive at these temperatures does not fit in with the stereotypic image of sunny hot Africa. After 45 minutes we pour out of the Landrover, stamping feet, waving hand to stimulate circulation, trying to restore warmth, hoping for feeling.
Melissa repeats the safety protocol, rangers leading, us following in single file. Silence, click fingers or whistle if we want to stop. Whatever approaches us, Do Not Run, that only places us on the African Menu.
Striding out into the river bed the first impact is just how surreal the landscape is, a crescent dune blocking off the view into Botswana clad in a mosaic of vegetation. Scaling the slope of the dune, an ordered series of layers of grasses, Acacia spp, scrub and annuals present distinct demarcations governed by their height on the dune, the geology and aspect. Traversing the Nossob River, we cross the border into Botswana, the only officials a herd of Wildebeest, a few Gemsbok and a smattering of Springbok contentedly chewing their cud in the early rays of sunlight.
It was while we were investigating a Scaly Feathered Finch nest that the Gemsbok and Wildebeest bolted south, stopped and stared. We scanned the river bed for a sign of predators. Nothing. And then Melissa saw them, three Cheetah slinking through the bushes 400m away, heading east, right where we had been when we climbed of the Landrover. They climbed the dune and disappeared into a copse of Silver Cluster leaf on the crest of the dune, lay down and vanished from sight.
We continued north, up the dune to the crest. The landscape transformed to rolling grassland studded with Acacia’s, stretching to the skyline in the east. A shimmering silver yellow plain in contrast to the azure blue sky punctuated by the red crest of the dune. We felt like a blip in the vast expanse of nature. Looking down to the dry riverbed, which had last flowed in 1963, the river bend looked like the remnants of an ancient cauldron.
Plenty tracks, Whistling Rats, Giant Elephant Shrews, Gemsbok Beans, Candle thorn, each thing a 10 minute stop of discovery, another piece in the amazing puzzle of the Kalahari. Melissa and Gerome had spoken about Tsama Melons and the variety of nutritional uses that they provided for wildlife and San Bushman alike. 22kg or these phenomenal fruit provided the same energy as one kilogram of protein. Ten melons equated to 7 litres of water. But you had to eat them at the correct stage of ripeness to avoid a digestive tract upset. Unfortunately we had not found any yet so their descriptions were so far left to our imaginations.
Following some Porcupine spoor along the crest of the dune, I glanced back for a new photographic composition. Hidden in the shade of a Black Thorn was a patch of Tsama Melons. The largest that Melissa had ever seen (summer had been a good rain season), they looked like round watermelons. Slicing one open, we sampled them, a bland taste, but refreshing none the less. We too had now sampled from the melon that sustains so much life during the long dry season of the Kalahari.
We followed the arch of the dune crest, captivated by the scenery, entranced by the diversity of life in this apparent barren ecosystem. Slowly we approached the Silver Cluster leaf trees, alert and hopeful to catch another glimpse of the Cheetahs. But it was not meant to be. They had left nothing but their tracks before blending into the vivid landscape.
In the same manner that we had used the Silver Cluster leaf’s as a beacon to mark the Cheetahs resting spot, so too had the San Bushman used them to store water filled Ostrich Eggs. A rare tree species in the Kalahari, the Silver Cluster leaf is a useful marker in a seemingly uniform terrain which lacks regular points of reference for navigation while walking, especially while out hunting. Burying their water storage vessels under this species of tree was a guarantee that they would relocate it, especially during the oppressive summer heat.
Disappointed at not seeing the Cheetahs, we descended the dune along their tracks, the Landrover a shimmering mirage in the mid-morning heat as we re-crossed the river bed. We had taken three hours to cover 3km, a walk of learning.
En route back to the boma, we bounced up a dune and stopped with a jolt. Perched on top of a Three Thorn Bush was a Surrikat, the lookout of a resident family with their burrow to our left. Startled by our arrival, they had all dived down some of the numerous Whistling Rat burrows. Patiently we waited, to be rewarded as one by one, inquisitive heads popped out of the burrows, the more intrepid and experienced individual’s emerging to continue foraging in the sand. The lookout had returned to his roast, an impressive display of balance as the bush was vigorously buffeted by a steady breeze.
The rest of the afternoon was lunch, siesta and a short dune walk looping south before returning to prepare for dinner, another moonrise, and fireside stories. Mentioning that for our final night in the Kalahari we had booked in at Rooiputs Bush Camp, Melissa and Gerome glanced at each other, a sense of reluctance to make comment. Sensing that they had something to say, we gently pried the story of the Rooiputs Lions out of them.
Evidently, less than a month earlier, three friends had camped at the Rooiputs Camp site, two in a roof top tent and the third in a ground tent. The gent in the ground tent, on his first trip to Africa, was woken in the early hours of the morning with something large bumping against his tent. Suddenly the side of the tent was torn open and the enormous face of a male lion entered. Holding nothing but his torch, believing it was his last moment on earth and pressed into the furthest corner of his tent, he did the only thing that he could. He screamed and lashed out at the lion with his torch, hitting it solidly on the nose. Fortunately the lion retreated and the gent lived to tell the tale. This was not the last time we were to hear the story. It had become legend. It also added an exciting prospect for our last night in the Kalahari.
With stories of the bush cavorting through our minds, we retired to our tent; the only visitor that we could expect was the bitter cold, an extremity numbing onslaught of minus 11oC. Savage, brutal and stealthy through the African night.
Dawn crept through our sleep and we enjoyed coffee and rusks to the chorus of Sociable Weavers before heading out for a brief walk to the Surricat den. Basking in the sun, the dune glowing red in the bare patches cleared by the clan’s activities. It was time to read the African newspaper, the subtle sands of the Kalahari imprinted with the stories of the night, stories of hunting, stories of survival and in between the tracks, the snare of a buck Spoor Spider. Looking like an antelope spoor, the spider’s snare is either two or four discs of silk covered with sand. As an insect walks over the disc, the spider dashes out, grabs the prey with its front legs and sinks it’s fangs in before dragging the stunned victim into its burrow. Gently Melissa attempted to coax one out so that we could see, but they obviously had not defrosted yet after the freezing night. Returning to the boma, we passed the dried out stems of Thunderbolt Lilies and shrivelled leaves of tumble weed.
It was sad packing up, the only consolation of leaving the tranquillity of the Xerry Trail camp was that we would be returning next week.