The Kalahari Desert is the largest stretch of sand on the planet, and covers 900 000 km2. In the very heart, lies the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. This reserve, which lies on a prehistoric fossil bed of sand dunes and ancient rivers, sprawls over 52 800 km2 and is the most remote reserve in southern Africa. It covers more than 10% of Botswana, and is one of the world’s largest game reserves. It is an unforgiving landscape where the battle for survival is constant, and its inhabitants have had to adapt or perish. The result is a fascinating collection of the strangest animals and plants in Africa.
The term 'desert' conjures up images of endless barren sand dunes, but the Kalahari is not like this at all. It is well vegetated in many places, creating a wide variety of habitats and grasslands that seem to stretch on forever. Add to that the tree savannah, the sparse scrubland, the mature forests and tall grasses tolerant of sandy soil, and then expect to see a surprising number of lilies! There are in fact large rivers in the Central Kalahari.
They may not be as dramatic as the Zambezi or the Okavango but they do have their own charm, considering that they have been dry for hundreds of years! There is something special about driving through an endless landscape of flat open savannah, followed by a cloud of tiny yellow butterflies, and being surprised by an impossibly beautiful waterhole in what should be a dry wasteland of sand and rock.
After good summer rains, the grasslands of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve’s northern reaches transform into an Eden of plenty, grass seems to sprout from no-where and the shallow pans fill with life-giving water.
It teems with wildlife, which gather in the best grazing areas. Most of the grazing animals do not rely on water to survive, but draw moisture from their food, and still enjoy this seasonal bounty of plenty.
Deception Valley is one of the highlights. Its dense concentrations of herbivores include huge herds of springbok and oryx, as well as wildebeest, hartebeest, eland and giraffe. The predators inevitably follow, and the sight of the famous black-maned Kalahari lions wading through the thick sand under a diamond sprayed sky is a sight that will send chills up your spine.
Outside of the rainy season, when the animals are more sporadically distributed, the experience of travelling through a truly untouched wilderness of seemingly unending dimensions is unbeatable. The southern reaches of the reserve are less heavily wooded, covered predominantly by relatively unpalatable grasslands, and have no permanent water. The concentration of game is usually much lower than in the north.
But, for the really intrepid traveller, a journey to the southern sections of the Kalahari will be rewarded with an experience of Africa at its most wild, unforgiving and untamed.
San Bushmen are the ultimate survival experts and have called the Kalahari home for thousands of years. They know exactly where to find water-filled tubers in the sand or how to catch an Ostrich – no easy task! The Bushmen are great storytellers and like nothing better than to embellish a tale with elaborate and hilarious re-enactments, accompanied by fast and furious dialogue in their incredible clicking language. You may not be able to understand their language but their natural flair for acting will leave you spellbound!
From May through to October, the reserve lies dry and hot, and only the hardiest of animals venture into the centre. However in the rainy season from November to March the animals arrive in droves. The land becomes rather muddy in patches and many of the roads become impassable for vehicles.
The Kalahari Desert is a land of profound silence. The stars are so bright here that they seem to cover the entire sky in a sparkling blanket thrown across the heavens. Under the blanket the huge expanse of Africa is at its most raw. It can be a very intimidating place in its silence and vastness, a place so distant to us now that we fear it. But, if you love the silence of empty space, then the Kalahari is calling.