The Vivacious Glitter of the Kalahari Plains
The word Kalahari is thought to be a derivative of a word meaning “great thirst or a waterless place”. Most people think of it as a great desert in southern Africa, and tell its story as the struggle for life in the desolate Kalahari sands. These tales focus on the time of the year when the landscape is hibernating from the heat — too thirsty to grow, too hot to move, too dusty to breathe. However, this annual phase is only part of the legend of the Kalahari, just a facet of its character. Only defining the Kalahari as a desert is akin to only appreciating a diamond for its strength.
It omits the chapter that buzzes and struts with life just after the first rains fall. It does not describe herds of springbok pronking in plains of finger grass, or the kaleidoscope of African Monarch butterflies dancing around wild dagga flowers. It does not include the sparkles of the dew perched on the acacia thorns at sunrise, or the korhaans that descend like helicopters into the tall grass.
The beauty of the flourishing Kalahari Plains in the north of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), is the seldom told tale of the Kalahari’s dazzle. The renewed verve of the wildlife leisurely lapping water, and gracefully grazing the savannah, until they are plump and strong. The processions of ostrich crossing the plains flaunting shiny plumage, while black maned lions prune their fluffy manes, and baby helmeted guineafowl scurry through the bush after the flock.
Traveling to the Kalahari in the Green Season
To really know the Kalahari, you must see its soft side. The intimate character it only reveals once a year while relaxing in the rains. The best place to make its acquaintance is probably at he Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana. In the north of the reserve, small pans turn into savannahs, and little groves of dwarfed camelthorn trees attract oryx seeking to snack on their seedpods.
Flying low over the Kalahari in a small plane really provides perspective on how the rain transforms the landscape. The pilot navigates through big puffy clouds, and the ground below is the raggedy texture of an old tennis ball. It emanates scruffy shades of green as wild gemsbok cucumber, devil’s claw, buffalo thorn, and acacia, spring to life between fields of natal and crowfoot grasses.
Wild stock rose and hibiscus flowers rise above the grasses, and flamboyantly named butterflies like the green-eyed monster, and the queen purple tip, flutter together, like flower petals drifting in a breeze. This Kalahari welcoming show is worth making a trip to see.
The Cats of the Kalahari
As the savannah spreads across the Kalahari sands, the cats find time to play. Herds are everywhere, and the predators are well concealed in the tall grasses. Near the Kalahari Plains Camp we found the Plains Pride of lions consisting of three females, and six cubs. They are protected by two roaming brothers with movie star black manes known as the Owens brothers.
The females are the backbone of the pride. While they allowed the cubs to come tackle each other around our vehicle, the lady lions also displayed a show of strength to any interlopers, roaring together in a grumbling tone that made our skin shiver. The curious lion cubs batted at butterflies in fields of flowers, and pounced on frogs hiding in small puddles of water. It is the time of year to lounge and learn the lessons of life.
The males laid near each other rolling around on their backs in the tall grass like kittens. The power of their alliance seemed to give them comfort, as there was unlikely to be any threat to their combined strength. The dominant brother kept watch over the pride, but just between cat naps, and amid a series of attempts by the cubs bite his tail. Then, in the night, his brother betrayed him by sneaking away with one of the females that went into estrus. A classic Kalahari soap opera.
However, lions are certainly not the only cats of the Kalahari. One evening we sat watching the sunset, and saw the curious face of the African Wild Cat peer above the savannah grasses. Unperturbed by our presence, it bounded back and forth through the grass as if it had just found a cache of Kalahari cat nip. In Deception Valley, we spotted the pointy black tipped ears of a caracal twitching above the grasses. It sauntered right in front of us, starring back at us with glacial blue eyes.
Campfire Under the Kalahari Stars
The rains from November through February bring the Kalahari Plains to life, and continue to provide showers through March and April. It is a pleasant time, as puffs of clouds shield the sun during the day, and afternoon breezes blow them into the most impressive sunsets of the year. As the day ends, barn owls come out to hunt, and the campfire is set ablaze.
The darkness of the night highlights the remoteness of the Kalahari. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the largest protected area in Botswana, which is surrounded mostly by more desert, as well as the Mkgadikgadi Pans and the Okavango Delta. On a moonless night, your campfire is probably the only light a passing plane would see all the way to the horizon. Those brave enough to walk away from it, and lay in the crowfoot grass, see distant galaxies in the sky that seem closer than anything else on earth.
Planning a Kalahari Safari
The Kalahari is an advanced safari for those that want to be alone in the wilderness. It is not the place to see the big five, and honestly sightings are hard without a professional guide that knows the animals that live there. However, the encounters are iconic when they do happen. A black maned lion approaching through the grass, the Kori Bustard’s mating ritual, a lark’s nest hidden in the grass, and meerkats hunting scorpions are sightings you will not forget.
Travel to the Kalahari from February through April to learn about the soft nurturing side of a harsh desert. Make the trip to point at stars you have never seen before, and learn about the ancient culture of the San Bushman. Spend a few days listening to the bush, tracking footprints in the sand. The secrets of the Kalahari only reveal themselves slowly to those who look carefully, but if you do, you will understand the Kalahari glitters with life like a diamond under the desert sun.
Notes for Nomads: I was invited to travel to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) and stay at the Kalahari Plains Camp by Wilderness Safaris. For those looking for an exclusive, remote safari experience, I highly recommend this boutique camp. If you are planning a safari to Botswana, it is helpful to consult the Wilderness Safaris “When to Visit” Guide.