Time waits for no-one in the Kalahari Sands

There are three ways to guarantee spectacular game sightings in Africa. First, leave your binoculars at home. Second is to forget to take your camera or to have flat batteries. The third method is to be late for or to have limited time to get to a rest camp in a national park.

Having just completed the three day Xerry Hiking Trail in the Kalahari, our next destination was the Mata Mata rest camp. Located on the western border of the Kalahari National Park, it was a mere 68 km west of Nossob Rest Camp as the crow flies.
Unfortunately Amanda and I were not crows and the route we had to drive headed south and then west before turning north to Mata Mata, a huge ‘U’ shaped traverse, which according to the official map book for the reserve, was 162km that should take three and a half hours excluding any stops.

It was 12h30. We had returned to Nossob Rest Camp, had a much needed shower to flush away three days of dust and replenish our water supply. Loaded and ready to roll by13h00, we had at least 5hrs to make it before the 18h00 gate closure time. What could be easier, a gentle game viewing drive via Marie se Gat to check if the local lion pride was around before heading down to Dikbaardskolk for lunch? Heck we had plenty of time! We even had our binoculars within easy reach and spare batteries for the camera.

At Marie se Gat there was not even an ancient lion spoor visible. In the moderate midday heat shimmer a few listless Gemsbok half-heartedly squabbled over their rights to access to water. When a cluster of Springbok arrived to drink, the Gemsbok abandoned their interspecies jousting and collectively created a front to deter the newcomers. Not with much success.

It seemed that everything was having a siesta, making the most to store radiant heat in preparation for the impending sub-zero night ahead. This made for awesome oppertunities to watch roosting raptors. A pair of juvenile Bateleur’s drinking at Kaspersdraai. Not close enough to capture images, but amazing to see the detail of their sub adult blue beaks.

Running the gauntlet of Secretaybirds, Tawny Eagles, the ever present Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk and Greater Kestrels, we arrived at the Dikbaaardkolk picnic site for a snack of salami, cherry tomatoes and humus on Provita’s. Without a doubt it is the presence of a pair of Scarlet Breasted Shrike’s that enhances any meal at this stop. Normally a shy species that retreats into the recesses of the shady Camel Thorn Acacias, a pair of these vividly coloured birds has become desensitised to human presence, boldly perusing their food on exposed branches and in the open.

Packed up, we headed west and began the traverse of the dunes, leaving the Nossob River valley. If you have ever watched the African stage of the Dakar Rally and wondered what it feels like traversing a dune field, this road has to be the most accessible experience. There is something about ascending the dune face, blind to what is on the other side of the crest which unleashes a primordial spirit of adventure in anyone traversing a dune field.

Dropping down into the dune ‘streets’ and catching glimpses of startled Gemsbok or sprinting Ostriches enriches the vast landscape that stretches beyond the constraints of ones imagination through which we pass, feeling only marginally more significant than one of the grains of sand composing the dunes.

After an hour the routine roller coaster ride is interrupted by a flash of movement before it gets gulped up by the rolling grass. 1km on, another blur traverses our peripheral vision. But alert now, we are able to track it before losing sight of it. A territorial Southern Black Bellied Korhaan, the stark contrast against the dunes absolutely riveting.

Once you stop to look, they overcome their timidness and continue manning their post in anticipation of attracting a mate while being alert to repel any competitive males. Continuing, the males seem bolder, standing their ground as the vehicle approaches. All photos look spectacular, but the challenge is to get a classic image of the deep red gullet as one announces his mating call. It is amazing how fast time can fly when you take a few images at 1/800th of a second. By now we are on track to arrive at the rest camp with half an hour’s grace.

Reaching the Auob River, the road joins the arterial route from Tweerevieren and heads northwards to Mata Mata. We still had 60km to go and being a bit behind schedule, the road was empty. I am not sure if the wildlife is aware of the camp closing times and know that there would be little or no traffic this far from camp. Or if they venture out once the roads become quieter, but we started seeing groups of antelope more frequently. Giraffe pruning Acacias, territorial males challenging herds of Springbok heading to waterholes for the last drink of the day intersperses with stretched out columns of Wildebeest marching to a refuge for the night, puffs of dust kicked up with each step.

Part of the magic approaching Mata Mata is that the road has regular splits offering options of following the river bed or venturing up to a higher contour with an elevated perspective. At a more relaxed pace the river options would have been our first choice, but now with Natasha, our GPS, indicating a six pm arrival, we were forced to take the faster route.

Prelude to a hunt

Our first delay was at a bend in the road.  A female Cheetah was crouched in the middle of the road looking over the top of the sand berm at a cluster of Springbok in the river bed 100 m away. She looked thin and was focused on her next meal. There was nothing to do but stop, switch off and wait for the hunt to unfold in the neutral light of dusk. While Cheetah may be the fastest running animals on earth, the prelude to a hunt moves at a snail’s pace. The springbok were slowly walking towards her, oblivious to the predator sizing them up.

The Cheetah nudged forward, a spotted feline Kilroy peering over the berm. The Springbok moved away. Time ticked on. We were going to be late but we could not interfere in the cycle of nature unfolding before us.

She stood up and walked along the road, a chance for us to pass her. She stopped, crouching, a coiled spring ready to unleash. Watching National Geographic or Discovery Channel provides in-depth insight to Cheetah hunts.

But none of these documentaries imparts a true impression of the incredible speed and astounding acceleration of these streamlined animals. One moment we had a Cheetah crouched in front of us, the next instant she was blurring through the landscape after a Springbok. Three seconds later she was standing still over 100m away.

As she erupted over the berm, the herd of Springbok split, one breaking to the right of the rest. Rule number two in Africa – stay in a crowd! She missed the kill, the Springbok darting behind some scrub before breaking left. Enough to escape and live another moment.

We were on our way with an ETA of 15 minutes late. A sure indication we had plenty more to see. A flurry of Bat Eared Foxes scratching out a meal of termites. A sudden streak of grey scurrying down a tree, a series of bounds across the road and an African Wild Cat leaped into a small Acacia next to the road. It is not every day that we get to see these elusive hunters. Just when we are late.

We only had two more delays before arriving at the rest camp, first of a herd of seven Kudu followed a few minutes later by a herd of 15 Cape Eland, both apparently rare sightings in the reserve.

Checking in at Mata Mata we were duly chastised for being late, a minor issue in light of the awesome sightings that had delayed us. Eternal memories to distract us as we set up camp and prepared dinner. Memories that made enduring the sub-zero temperatures worthwhile.

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