Kgalagadi - Big Place, Small Wonders
Sunrise in the Kgalagadi
Did you see the lions?’ the young girl asked me, her face beaming with delight. I was getting used to this question and it seemed as if everyone I met was seeing the predators – except me.
‘They were just behind that bush,’ she explained. ‘I can’t believe you didn’t see them.’ She showed me the photos on her camera. ‘Look how close we were to them,’ she said with a giggle.
Her enthusiasm was infectious, yet I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of envy. I’d come to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park to photograph its wildlife as part of my Year in the Wild project, and lions were near the top of my wish list. My camera with its 400-millimetre lens was permanently by my side, but after two weeks I still hadn’t seen a lion. Every morning I’d woken early to leave camp as the gates opened. I had driven up and down the roads which follow the dry Nossob and Auob river beds. These ancient rivers flow only every few decades, when exceptional rains swamp the prodigious sands of the Kalahari.
During the heat of the day, I had stopped at boreholes that were drilled during the First World War to supply water to South African troops in case Germany invaded from South West Africa. Today, they serve as drinking points for thirsty animals, making them excellent places for wildlife viewing.
In the afternoon, hot and tired, I’d driven slowly back to camp, catching the last rays of a crimson sunset and timing my return with the closing of the gates. Every night, around the embers of a braai, my campsite neighbours would ask me the same question: ‘So, did you see the lions?’
I still hadn’t seen a lion, but Kgalagadi provided so much else to admire. Slowly, I started to realise they’re just one species in an amazing wilderness. And few people know it as well as Dr Gus Mills.
Predator specialist Gus has spent his entire adult life studying brown and spotted hyena, cheetah, lion and wild dog. For 20 years he has lived in Kgalagadi, spending many nights tracking these creatures and learning their survival tactics.This is one of the last true wilderness areas in the world,’ he told me, as we chatted in his office at Twee Rivieren Rest Camp. ‘There aren’t many places like this left on Earth.’
The region known as the Kalahari is the world’s largest continuous expanse of sand, stretching north from the Congo down through Angola and Zambia to the Northern Cape, and west from Namibia through Botswana to central Zimbabwe. Formed from ancient sands eroded from rocks created more than 250 million years ago during the time of Gondwanaland, the Kalahari is a massive geological feature on Earth’s surface. In its southern reaches it encompasses Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a cross-border conservation area that straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana. This southern part of the Kalahari isn’t a true desert, despite sometimes looking like one, especially at the end of a long, dry winter. On the contrary, between 150 and 350 millimetres of rain falls most years and the Aeolian dunes (those formed by wind) are often covered in thick grass. More correctly perhaps, this region is a semi-desert. But it’s a poetic Setswana term that gives the region its name and hints at its essence: kgalagadi, meaning ‘great thirst-land’.
At 40,000 square-kilometres, Kgalagadi is huge – about twice as big as Kruger – and thousands of wild herbivores are able to move as they wish, following the grasses that sprout quickly from the dry sands after sporadic thunderstorms. ‘The park is unique because it covers such a large area,’ Gus elaborated.
‘That’s very important. It’s a remnant of the natural system that once occurred across the whole of Southern Africa, when large populations of nomadic animals were able to move freely.’
Unlike most other reserves in South Africa, which are entirely enclosed, the only fences in Kgalagadi are along the Namibian and South African border, as well as 100 kilometres east along the Botswana border from Twee Rivieren. But that’s where it ends: there are no fences along the Botswana and South African border, providing ample freedom for migratory herds of antelope and ungulates.
Visitors will see sizable numbers of springbok, gemsbok, wildebeest, hartebeest and eland in the Nossob and Auob river beds – and giraffe, which was introduced several decades ago.
The region doesn’t receive enough water to support elephant, zebra or buffalo. Even with the artificial boreholes, these animals wouldn’t be able to survive. Somewhat incredibly, though, if the boreholes were removed – a commonly-debated topic among locals – almost every animal species currently found here would still be able to survive indefinitely.
‘Every single animal that lives here – except wildebeest and giraffe – can live independently of drinking water,’ Gus explained. ‘The artificial boreholes have allowed wildebeest to become sedentary, rather than having to migrate. It’s unlikely that giraffe occurred here before the boreholes were drilled, but since they have been introduced they’re quite happy, as long as they’re supplied with water.’
It’s one of the things which makes the southwestern part of the Kalahari such a fascinating place. The park endures some of the highest daily temperatures and evaporation rates on the continent, while the rainfall is notoriously unpredictable. Yet animals such as gemsbok and springbok are still able to thrive.
There is no shortage of springbok here in the Kgalagadi...although their numbers have declined, but are stable.
When temperatures soar above 40 degrees, as they do in summer, gemsbok don’t need to sweat, thereby losing valuable moisture, to cool off. Instead, they allow their body temperature to rise to as much as 45°C, while keeping their brains cool with blood that has passed through a network of vessels called the carotid rete, something akin to a car’s radiator.
Other herbivores and birds such as ostrich have similar adaptions, while carnivores such as lion, leopard and cheetah receive most of their moisture from the blood and meat of their prey. Indeed, it’s the cheetah which Gus has been studying for the past six years, to see how these lithe cats cope with the tough conditions. The results are encouraging. There are roughly 350 cheetahs in the park. ‘It’s a very healthy, viable population. What’s also important is that there’s little human interference, so they behave in a natural way.’
The wide, flat surfaces of the dry riverbeds make an excel-lent habitat for these cats, which prefer hunting in open areas.
‘The Auob River is one of the best places in Africa to see cheetahs hunting. It’s a very narrow river bed, and if the cheetahs are around, you’re bound to see them.’ The Nossob River is also a good spot, but because it’s much wider, it’s harder to see the big cats. During his research, Gus was surprised to discover that cheetah males form coalitions specialising in hunting sub-adult gemsbok, an antelope which can weigh close to 300 kilograms and whose rapier horns can slice an adult cheetah clean open.
The female cheetah we saw on the Auob River
‘It’s always a titanic struggle. It’s not easy for the 40- kilogram cheetahs to kill such a big animal and it’s only by co-operating in a group that they’re able to do it – a single cheetah simply doesn’t have the strength to kill one. Basically they have to hold the gemsbok’s head down to immobilise the horns. Then they eat from the chest, while it’s alive. It’s quite gruesome, but it’s nature.’
However, the cheetah’s main prey, Gus discovered, is the dainty steenbok, which, interestingly, hardly ever ventures into the river beds. Instead, it prefers the thousands of square-kilometres of dune habitat that cover most of Kgalagadi. Here it’s easier to hide from preying eyes.
‘The river beds are an integral part, but they make up only a small part of the system. The dunes are by far the biggest component of Kgalagadi.’
It’s in the vast dune fields, dotted with natural pans, that most of the drama unfolds, often unseen by human eyes. Here the grasses are more nutritious, as the pans contain valuable minerals that herbivores crave. With his studies, Gus has been fortunate to witness some spectacular animal interactions that take place far from any of the main roads.
One of the most memorable things I ever saw was a brown hyena at an ostrich nest with 26 eggs. It ate seven of the eggs, then spent the rest of the night carrying the others in different directions to store under bushes and clumps of grass.’As for the lions? I asked Gus about where I should look for them. He laughed. ‘There are about 150 lions on the South African side of the park, which is huge of course. Because of the semi-desert environment, they exist at a low density compared to places such as Kruger. And they move all over, not only in the river beds, so it’s purely luck if you see them.’
I asked him about the famed black manes of the Kalahari lions. ‘That’s a bit of a myth,’ he said. ‘The manes of the lions here aren’t any darker than the ones elsewhere in Africa.’ And are they bigger, as some say? ‘Nope, but I can understand why people think that. When they’re standing on the crest of a dune, silhouetted against the sky, they do look big.’He’s had some close shaves with lions. On a research trip in the 1970s to an area known as Gemsbok Plain, he slept under the stars next to his bakkie and woke up in the night to see a huge male lion standing at the foot of his sleeping bag. ‘There was a brief moment when we stared at each other, and I wasn’t sure how things would turn out,’ Dr Mills reminisced. ‘I shouted something unprintable and the lion walked away. Then when he was a few metres away, he roared. It was a magnificent sound, if rather terrifying.’
It’s also in the dunes that Kgalagadi’s hidden mysteries are revealed, perhaps less dramatic than large predators, but nevertheless equally fascinating if you know what to look for.
At the private !Xaus Lodge, in the southwest of the park, visitors are treated to a walk through the dunes, guided by a local Bushman. (The symbol ‘!’ denotes a palatal click in the Nama language, but for those who can’t master the click, !Xaus is pronounced ‘kaus’.) Owned by the local Khomani San and Mier people, !Xaus is set on the edge of a massive pan, 30 kilometres southwest of the main road between Twee Rivieren and Mata Mata. As with the small wilderness camps in the rest of the park, there are no fences and guests are advised to stick to the boardwalks while in camp.
Early one morning, I set out with guides Hannes van Wyk and Pieter Jacobs. We didn’t walk far, perhaps only two kilometres, and we didn’t see any lions, hyenas, leopards or cheetahs, but it soon became apparent that Kgalagadi contains some fascinating details in seemingly uninteresting things.
Pieter Jacobs from !Xaus lodge...with an ostrich egg that we found on the pan
First up was the ubiquitous tsamma melon, which comprises 90 per cent water. These watermelon-type fruit dot the dunes and provide moisture to many animal species. ‘Gemsbok kick them open with their hooves,’ Hannes explained as he cut one open with his knife, ‘Even brown hyena are known to eat them.’ Hannes gave me some of the juicy flesh to eat. It was cool and refreshing, and tasteda bit like watermelon. ‘These will save your life if you’re lost in the Kalahari,’ he told me. Fortuitously, tsamma melons ripen precisely when animals – and humans – need the moisture most, during the dry mid- winters, when all surface water has long since evaporated.
The Tsamma Melon is 70% water...and taste a bit like watermelon...and is cool and quenching
Then Hannes dug up the root of a gemsbok cucumber. He sliced a piece off and gave it to me to taste. I immediately spat it out. Hannes and Pieter laughed. ‘Bitter, hey?’ Hannes chuckled. ‘To other animals, it’s valuable because it’s 40 per cent water. They can handle the taste better than us.’ Because the root is so bitter, antelope tend to eat only part of it, leaving the rest on the ground. It then regrows, extending its tendrils even further across the dune.
The Oryx cucumber...bitter, but an important source of moisture
Then there’s the seemingly boring dune grass, or duinriet. ‘This may be the Kalahari’s most important species,’ Hannes postulated. ‘Its root systems are up to five metres long to tap the moisture below. The roots stabilise the dunes and stop strong winds from blowing away the sand. This allows other plants and trees to take root, which means there’s food for all herbivores. Without this grass, the Kalahari would probably be covered in moving sand dunes, without nearly as much life.’
Over the next week, I was treated to even more wonders. First, a cheetah mother and her three cubs crossed the road in front of my Ford. The windy conditions had made her skittish, and she quickly led her brood behind a dune. Then a honey badger scampered past me on its way to its burrow alongside the road. Usually, these tough animals are seen only at night.
The next day, I chanced upon a secretary bird catching a snake. The bird stamped on the serpent with its long legs, and promptly swallowed it whole.
Secretary Bird catches a snake
At one of the waterholes, I spotted a martial eagle in a nearby tree, about three metres from my car. Other birds such as pale chanting goshawk, lanner falcon, tawny eagle, white-backed vulture and spotted eagle-owl are common; Kgalagadi hosts one of the most diverse and healthy populations of raptors in Africa.
Driving back home, it occurred to me that I had forgotten about the lions. Everyone else had seen them, but they had eluded me. Was I just unlucky?
It didn’t seem to matter now. I had lost myself in the myriad other species and their interactions.
Besides, every evening I had gazed at the wondrous stars of the cold, clear, Kalahari sky and listened to the piercing calls of nearby black-backed jackals. I had fallen asleep in the middle of an immense arid wonderland, where modern man is just a visitor and nature carries on, as it has for millions of years. I had been very lucky indeed.
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