It's a strange feeling being the only person on a tour. Both you and the guide have only one person to talk to, meaning the guide/group relationship is broken down and it's more like two friends together. Not being a particularly chatty person, I can't say this arrangement necessarily appeals but fortunately my guide/driver/cook T is fond of monologues requiring no input from me. He's a white Namibian whose English comes with intriguing rolled r's. His several decades in tourism mean he has plenty of information to pass on, as well as enough connections to mean he knows 50% of the people we pass.
Driving out of Upington, T points out the airport, saying it's one of the umpteen alternative landing sites for the Space Shuttle dotted around the world (though NASA's website doesn't mention it). Certainly a 5km runway is more than enough for the few 50-passenger jets that comprise its usual traffic. The road to Twee Rivieren, the southern gate to the park, is straight and tarmac, and the 250km pass in less than 2.5 hours. T mentions that the main cattle in the region are Bonsmara, specially bred for the conditions, and the main sheep are Dorper,
a breed with only a thin woolly coat that is farmed for food only.
Inside the park, though, it's all gravel roads with the occasional 4WD-only track. T negotiates these surfaces with practised ease, but the frequency of tourists rolling their vehicles on these types of roads is one reason why car hire is so expensive here.
In many people's minds, the word "Kalahari" is usually twinned with "desert", but there's plenty of vegetation to cover the dunes and in fact the average annual rainfall (of sometimes over 250mm) disqualifies it from being a desert, but it's a close-run thing.
The wildlife is concentrated around the two ancient river beds that meet at Twee Rivieren but fork north from there. We see numerous springbok, wildebeest, and (my favourite antelope) oryx/gemsbok, and a good dose of red hartebeest (new for me), jackal, eagle, and ostrich. The landscape is a cross between the sand of Sossusvlei, the trees of lower Masai Mara, and the open spaces of the Serengeti. The heat of early afternoon has driven the animals into the shade, though occasionally we find one that has perversely decided to plonk itself down in nothing but sunshine.
We reach camp late afternoon and I immediately like what I see. Each camp site is under a tree, with a braai and a stone table/chairs. The ablution block is clean and has spacious hot showers. A fence surrounds the camp but has failed to keep out various jackals, who scavenge around the braais once night falls and people start their dinner. Cuter are the extremely tame sand squirrels, also in search of food, who approach very close then stand on their hind legs, noses sniffing and front paws held out like a zombie.
Sadly, the Kalahari fails me for the sunset. There's not a cloud in the sky nor dust in the air so a distinctly average sunset is the result. We view it from what is technically Botswanan soil.
Dinner is the inevitable meatfest. My main quibble with barbecues/braais is that I've got too many teeth jammed into the available space in my mouth, so eating meat off the bone means I need a subsequent long session with dental floss. The camp's water is salty, giving an acquired taste to the tea.
The sky is a predictable blaze of stars, at which I gaze while
T says that you can raise a cheetah cub at home and it will behave no differently to a domestic cat (albeit a large one that can accelerate as quickly as a Ferrari and gets through Whiskas by the ton) - any other big cat will forever retain a streak of animal aggression that could manifest itself in an unfortunate way (i.e. by eating you). Sometimes these little factoids are totally useless, but I'm grateful that my plan to build a future feline menagerie of a ginger kitten, a grey one, and a leopard has been revealed as impractical - without having to learn that the hard way.
Sadly T's conversation is shot through with constant racism, whether in his comments that the Rainbow Nation is a poor name because there's no black in a rainbow (he doesn't seem to realise there's no white either), his wish that Nostradamus was correct in predicting the Germans will take over Namibia again, and numerous other statements that are considerably more offensive. He also seems to assume that, because I'm white, I will naturally agree with him. This is as irritating to me as being called mzungu
in East Africa, as though
the colour of my skin says anything about my personality and opinions. I'm also surprised that he seems unaware of the level of revulsion felt in most parts of the world at apartheid, especially as he must've met enough foreign tourists to realise that.
Day 2 turns out to be lion day. We see 15 in total, including several cubs. Kalahari lions are a subspecies of those found elsewhere in Africa, being smaller and greyer in colour. The mature males are recognisable by the black edging to their mane. Other Kalahari adaptations can be seen in the springbok (it can delay giving birth by up to two months if there is insufficient food around) and oryx/gemsbok (they can allow their body temperature to vary by several degrees Centigrade in order to increase/reduce heat loss).
We move camps to one next to the Namibian border, seeing more of the usual game plus a couple of shy duiker along the way. This second camp has a swimming pool but the facilities in general aren't as good. It's also absolutely roasting. Some other campers tell us it's 45C but with only 2% humidity, however I'm sweating even while sitting in the
shade doing nothing. T says it can get over 50C at the height of summer - in fact conditions are so extreme that several car companies come to the area near the park to conduct stress testing on new models.
Our late afternoon game drive brings in an owl and two fledglings sitting under a tree, and then a herd of giraffe. We don't even get a sunset, courtesy of clouds massing on the western horizon that speak of rain. Once night falls and braais are fired around the camp, a hyena circles the perimeter fence in search of hand-outs.
T reveals he has a grudge against Dutch people because they used to smuggle weapons to the ANC via overland tourist trucks. With the USSR contributing to ANC funds, I would've thought there were better methods for gun-running, but subsequent Googling does seem to suggest that this was a route for arms to the ANC. T also says he was shot twice by Namibian rebels while on military service, which I assume provides some of the fuel for his anti-black feelings.
Throughout the evening there's plenty of lightning activity to the north. The cloud cover above the
camp is patchy but there's still the possibility of rain. T says that rain here doesn't do things by half measures so if I hear drops on the tent during the night then I should wake him immediately (he's been sleeping in the 4WD) and we can carry the tent to the covered kitchen area. Every second will count. I cross my fingers that such a manoeuvre won't be necessary.
The night is hot and still, and a couple of times I leave the tent to sit outside where there's a slight breeze and mercifully few insects. There are a few spots of rain in the run-up to dawn but nothing of concern.
Day 3 sees us leave camp early. We pass an old lioness lying under a tree. She has multiple skin lacerations and is extremely skinny. T says she has been kicked out of her pride, is too old to hunt, and hence is starving to death. He opines that she won't survive the day. He says he would shoot her but that would bring the rangers down on him.
Moving on, we spot a shaggy adult male lion atop a dune, surveying his domain
in the slanting sun. We also get what appears to be an aardwolf but it's an inconclusive sighting. We then stop by a hyena den, outside of which three adults are lazing and two cubs are playing. Hyenas are generally ungainly, unappealing creatures but the cubs' energy and playfulness transcend that.
We stop for breakfast at a rest camp on a rise. The heat is tempered by a strongly gusting wind that means the braai appears to be burning horizontally. Four slices of toast and half a sausage fall victim to the capricious breeze. T says that, several months ago, a guy was marooned in the toilet here for three hours when a lion decided to have a nap outside the door.
A stone building nearby contains a small museum. Apparently the area was first surveyed by a Scottish chap, hence the many resting spots with Scottish names. And when this particular locale was first settled, it took 14 days to reach Upington by oxcart.
Three hours later, we're back in Upington - via Mazda bakkie.
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