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AFRICA 2005 TRIP REPORT (2/3) - KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER NATIONAL PARK, AUGUST 2005

By Vandit Kalia
September 2005

Initially, when we planned our trip, we had left the last week open, as we were not sure if we would go to the Kalahari or dive the salmon run. After the first stint in Kruger (see Part 1), however, the Kalahari pretty much selected itself – we both wanted to continue game-viewing, and also experience the wilder desert terrain.

A quick drive to the SANParks office, and we had 6 nights of accommodation squared away in the Kalahari, all along the Auob river: 2 nights each in the unfenced bush camps of Urikarus and Kielekranki, sandwiched between 2 nights in Mata Mata.

The drive from Pretoria to Upington was quiet, except for the tendency of N14 to lose itself, and become all sorts of various R-routes. A few wrong turns later, we managed to get into Upington by 4:30, only to find pretty much every B&B place full. A lot of searching later, we heard of a B&B with one available room and found ourselves racing for it - in our haste to beat other potential room-seekers to that room, we kept getting lost as Upington exasperatingly decided not to follow the roads laid down in themap. We actually ended up getting there behind someone else, but all ended well as the B&B had rooms for both of us. Tired by this running around, and by the long drive of the day, we decided to have a proper meal at Le Must, a restaurant highly recommended by our guide book. More hungry than anything else, we turned up in cargo convertibles & T-shirts, only to find, much to our embarrassment that everyone else was dressed up. Oh well - atleast my T-shirt had a collar, and the staff seemed to take our slightly dishevelled appearance in stride. The food was excellent, though, and just what the doctor ordered. Fortified by a very good steak and a bottle of excellent red, we slept really well that night.

   
                 


The next morning, a quick breakfast and we were off. We checked into the reception at Twee Rivieren and started driving the 60-odd kilometers to Urikarus. The difference was immediately obvious. One sandy, gravelly, sometimes-corrugated road. Vast sand dunes all around us. Lots of scrub. I was a little taken aback, however. The word "desert" had created a mental image in my mind of vast patches of flat, barren land, stretching out as far as the eye could see. While I knew that there would be vegetation, I was not expecting such thick bush cover nor did I imagine the dunes to be that high - almost like gentle hills.

The difference between this park and Kruger was immediately obvious - much fewer cars and a relatively wilder feel. This was true wild Africa.

The Kgalagadi is supposed to be raptor central and that was also very evident – as soon as we left Twee Rivieren, we saw a huge martial eagle sitting on a tree some distance away. During that one drive alone, we saw pale chanted goshawks, lanner falcons, tawny eagles, black-shouldered kites and an awesome jackal buzzard.

Urikarus was an awesome campsite – open & unfenced, raised on stilts, with a waterhole right in front of our balcony. The only wee problem was the cold. The first couple of mornings, it was absolutely freezing, and because we were in a tented camp (read: canvas walls), getting out of the blanket before dawn required willpower I didn’t know I had.

The first two days were a little quiet, gamewise. As we were new to the park, we had no idea where the game hotspots were. Unlike Kruger, with its busy pin board, we were on our own here - literally, as we were the only residents in Urikarus.

   
                 


While we didn’t see any of the large predators, we did see a lot of meat-on-hooves: wildebeest, giraffe, gemsbok (oryx), springbok (apparently the national animal of S Africa – you’d think they’d choose something fiercer or atleast carnivorous!?). Giraffe were apparently reintroduced into the Kalahari in the not-too-distant park, and as per the park literature, there were 42 individuals in the park, split into 2 herds. We were lucky enough to see pretty much the whole lot of them, as they were all around the Auob river.

We also saw lots of rodents – whistling rats, ground squirrels, mongoose, various types of lizards – and bird species – sandgrouse, doves, sociable weavers, ostriches and of course, the raptors. My photo highlight of the first two days was getting a shot of a kite framed with the full moon behind it – a shot I have visualized for a long time but never thought I’d be able to pull off. Admittedly, my visualized shot had an owl in it, not a kite, but hey, I ain’t complaining. I also got to spend a lot of time with black-backed jackals, animals I really like. We also got to see one of the biggest springbok herd I have ever seen - hundreds upon hundreds of the white-faced fellas, chilling out on the riverbed.

As a final bonus, we got to see a pair of red hartebeest on the riverbed as well!

After 2 days, we moved to Mata Mata. Immediately, we had success, of sorts. Driving along one of the waterholes, I noticed a pair of fresh pugmarks along the road. We followed them for a bit till they turned up a dune. Figuring that the lazy cats wouldn’t go too far, I did a scan and discovered a couple of lionesses as they lay behind some scrubs, some distance from each other. They were settled in for the day, and we were thinking of moving on when we noticed a gemsbok approaching the general vicinity, some distance away.

   
                 


The gemsbok soon noticed one of the lionesses, but not the other. As it started circumventing the one that it had seen, it ended up within the second one's hunt zone. In a flash, she leapt up and gave chase. However, it was hot and she didn't quite have her heart on it - the gemsbok got away quite easily, while the cats soon plopped back down in the shade.

Our excitement at finding these kills was tempered when we learned from someone passing by that he had spent 10 min shooting these cats as they drank water… and seen a leopard patrolling his turf at the previous waterhole on the same drive. We also heard of a lion kill near Montrose waterhole from a few days ago. Grrrrr. Some people get all the luck.

The rest of the day, as well as most of the next, was not very productive. We spent a fair bit of time driving along the riverbed, but didn't have much luck in the way of quality sightings. I was feeling a little frustrated, as I was not sure if this lack of sightings was just the normal luck of the draw (which I am ok with), or whether I was missing a trick or lacked some specific information that would make our game drives more productive. As it turned out later, it was just luck of the draw, but at the time, I kept second-guessing my game drive plans and routes.

The evening after our first lion sighting, we were supposed to check in Kielekrankie, and were about to wrap up our drive and turn back towards the campsite. However, just as we were looking for a suitable spot to do a U-turn, we noticed a springbok staring fixedly in one direction, tail wagging furiously. He’d take a few steps, stop, wag his tail like mad, take another few steps, repeat.

Forgetting about the U-turn, we scanned the direction in which he was looking and…. leopard! A large male detached himself from the bushes and started climbing the dunes on the other side of the riverbed. After 10 min, he disappeared from view. However, I remembered that there was a lookout point a kilometer or so behind us (as the road winds), and the leopard seemed to be taking a more direct route in that direction. We drove over, and soon, we could heard his contact call and caught a glimpse of him as he approached us. He never got close enough for us to get a clear shot, but it was still absolutely thrilling to locate this shy predator, and on first principles too. We barely got into Kielekrankie on time, but we were already ecstatic, and Kielekrankie made our mood even better.

   
                 


As camps go, Kielekrankie was, if possible, even better than Urikarus. The first thing the resident ranger there showed us was an African wild cat, which had crept into a nook near one of the rooms. The next thing he showed us was a big pugmark. A much bigger cat. A male lion, to be exact. It was about 2 feet from the door to our room. Apparently, this male had been visiting the campsite the previous 2 nights. We were told to not venture out at night. I did stick my torch out through the railings and scan several times; also, cooking a braii on an open deck, about 8 feet above the ground, was a little un-nerving, but much to our disappointment, the lion did not come back that night.The campsite itself was fabulously located, on top of a dune and offering endless views of the desert as it stretched out away from us. In addition, there was a waterhole some distance below - too far for shooting, but good enough for observation.

The next day, we were driving along towards where we had seen the leopard. Near Montrose waterhole, we stopped to scan. Pritha happened to look up at the dune on our side of the riverbed, and what do we see but a cheetah, sitting and looking down on us. However, before I could position the big lens to get a shot, he turned and climbed down the dunes on the far side. Bucked by the sighting, we continued.

Within a few kilometers, as I scanned the riverbed, Pritha stopped the car. And there, on the side of the road away from the riverbed, less than 10 metres from us, was a lioness. And there, approaching along the riverbed, was another lioness. We watched them for a while, as they crossed within 5m of our vehicle. I turned back to scan the riverbed, and saw a small black speck getting bigger. A male. I finally was going to see a black-maned Kalahari lion!

I have wanted to see a wild, black-maned Kalahari lion since I was a kid. So it was with great excitement that I watched as the speck came closer and closer. Even before it was in proper range, I had my big lens pointed at it and was firing away. He sauntered in towards us, looked at our car suspiciously, and went around the back to the lionesses. I guess one of them was about to come into oestrus, because he spent a fair bit of time sniffing her rear end. She obviously had NOT come into oestrus, because she turned around with a fierce snarl and told him to behave. Looking visibly sheepish, and giving us an embarrassed glance as if to say "women" (some things transcend species, I think) the male climbed the dune.

The females were obviously looking for more of their pride, because one of them was making soft contact calls. However, after a while, they too crossed the crest of the dune and disappeared. We stuck around, trying to spot the missing members of the pride but no luck. Still, it was absolutely amazing to have spent almost 30 minutes with the cats without any other cars around, and it served to highlight how fleeting sightings could be in the Kalahari - had we come just a little later, there'd be nothing except for a few pugmarks for us.....

   
                 


Our dietary misadventures continued on this trip, however. We purchased frozen meat for braaing in Mata Mata – and that night, after we had eaten one of the packs, we realized that the expiration date on one of them was June 2004 - 13 months ago. Luckily, we were no worse for the wear, but it was not a pleasant discovery.

I feel week was far too short to spend in this fascinating park. True, there is a far greater variety of game to be seen at Kruger. But the silence and solitude of the Kalahari has to be experienced to be believed. My one regret was not getting shots of suricates. Twice, we came across the fascinating creatures, but both times, we were trying to get somewhere else and didn’t stop and spend time with these guys. Also, we learned later that there is a cheetah that hangs out around the first waterhole on the Nossob riverbed, after the Auob turnoff. Good reasons to go back, I think.

Photographically, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier NP is long-lens territory. Most of my mammal shots, and all my bird shots, were taken with the 500mm with either 1.4, or more often, the 2x teleconverter. Also, photographers might want to consider visiting in September, rather than late August. In late August, the park hours mean that you can only leave the camp after the sun is up and have to be back well before sunset - September hours would allow leaving before sunrise and returning after sunset. This would offer a greater chance of getting impressive magical-light shots, something I completely was unable to get on this trip.

As we left, we both knew that we would be coming back, and this time staying for longer.

Next: SA Airways gives us the shaft, and we have to extend our trip by a few weeks. Part 3 of the Chronicles of Kalia continue.

 
     

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