The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) situated in central Botswana is the world’s second largest game reserve and hereon follows the experience of our last visit to this remote part of Africa.
When trying to define what a truly wild animal is, I think one must consider that it needs to be able to freely roam its territory without being hindered or constricted by boundaries and fences. At 55,000 km2 in size, The CKGR does truly offer wild sanctuary to its inhabitants.
Fueling the feeling of wildness and being utterly remote is the fact that there only 2 lodges here and apart from Deception Valley (the main camping site of the park), all other camp sites are private, so when you book it, it’s only you that gets to share the space with the real Kalahari “citizens”! Over the 2 weeks we spent here we only saw a total of 6 other vehicles, it is that quiet! If its remoteness you are after and a total immersion into the African Bush, the CKGR is certainly the place to be.
Once inside the park one needs to be totally self-sufficient and all food, water, fuel and anything else that may be needed needs to be brought in by oneself. With limited carrying capacity it meant that Chris & I would be restricted to just 4.5L of water each per day. This was for everything… drinking, cooking, cleaning and showering. It may sound like a little but it is amazing what one can make do with when need be. In fact just learning to live with such limited water is a great learning experience for anyone and everyone. Water truly is a precious life sustaining resource.
January to May is the rainy season with January and February being the heaviest rainfall months. We normally like to be here just after the first rains as this is when most of the desert adapted game (mostly Springbok, Gemsbok and Wildebeest) come down from the dunes to feed in the newly sprouting grass in the fossil riverbeds. Of course this also means that the predators will now also be patrolling these river bed areas which makes them much easier to locate and spend time with.
Rainy season also means thunderstorms and the magnificent stormy skies that can make beautiful and special backdrops for photography.
I don’t know what it is about the CKGR but it is without doubt home to the most athletic, powerful and most gorgeous looking lions in all of Southern Africa. The genetic pool here is quite something. These extraordinary lions were what we were hoping to see and photograph, as well as the having the fantastic opportunity of spending time in a wild and remote place.
We arrived to a very dry looking Kalahari. In what would normally be its highest rainfall month, only one day of rain had been received thus far in January and the temperatures where literally at boiling point. Chris and I just looked at one another knowing we had made a crucial error in deciding to leave our battery operated fan at home. It may sound like an overly luxurious item to take into the bush but I can tell you it makes the world of difference in taking the edge off some very uncomfortable conditions. At this point we were cursing Accuweather who had quite clearly stated that we were to have lots of rain and moderate temperatures!
Our first lion sighting was to be the best of our entire trip. We like to focus a lot of our attention looking for a particular pride in the Letiahau fossil river bed. In a population of already magnificent lions, these guys are always the standouts and added to this, they always seem to be extremely curious and bold. We have spent time with them in 2010, 2017 and now in 2019. They have behaved in the same manner each time whereby they actively approach you and don’t seem to obtain any fear or cautiousness.
This year the pride consisted of 9 lions. A beautiful black-maned lion (who we had seen in 2017); three adult lioness; 2 sub-adult males and 3 sub adult females.
Late one afternoon we came across them lying asleep in the middle of the road. No sooner had we approached when one of the sub adult males stood up and starting jogging towards the car. (This is pretty unusual lion behavior!). When he reached us we had to very quickly put up our windows as he began peering inside, although he soon found the car tyres and the tow bar far more interesting. As he began gnawing on the back of our car we had to firmly pull away in order to keep our car intact!
The commotion had now attracted the attention of his sisters and before we knew it we had 4 lions surrounding the car all intent on chewing tyres, door handles and basically anything they could get their teeth into. Of course this was not an ideal situation for the wellbeing of our vehicle so we kept having to move away. Undeterred the lions would just jog after us. It must have made for quite a sight and I can tell you that inside the car, our adrenalin levels were at fever pitch!
I have to stress that at no time were the lions being aggressive towards us. They were just very playful, big cubs that were at the age where they were beginning to understand their size and power…surely a white 4×4 was fair game?
All through these escapades the adults continued to sleep, completely unperturbed and unstressed about what the youngsters were getting up to, making us think that this may be a fairly common game that the youngsters were engaged in.
For us it will rank up there as one of the most full on lion encounters we have ever had, and it also made us just a touch nervous about the possibility of this lot joining us in camp!
After a while they all calmed down and with sunset approaching the classic golden Kalahari light and very obliging lions gave Chris some opportunities to really capture the beautiful lions that made up the Letiahau Lion Pride.
The following afternoon we came across the Letiahau Pride again. The naughty rascal sub adult male was tucked up under a very shady bush with his father while 2 lioness and a sub adult female were crammed under a bush, trying to sleep in the tiny bit of shade that was on offer.
Chris & I had parked our car opposite this bush and were waiting away the time as late afternoon turned towards sunset with the hope that the lions would wake up and start moving around.
I became aware of a presence next to my side of the car and as I casually glanced down I noticed it was a very large 2 meter long snake. It gave me quite a fright as my breath caught in my throat but I managed to causally mention to Chris that there was a snake right next to the car. It was about a meter away and I could tell it was utterly aware of me looking at it.
Chris leaned over to have a closer look and to my surprise he leapt back in fright, profanities pouring forth. As I had not seen one before, I did not realise that it was in fact a Black Mamba and not the boomslang I had incorrectly thought it to have been. The Black Mamba is the most poisonous as well as the fastest snake in Africa. It also has the reputation of being highly aggressive and an incredibly aware snake.
This is the one thing that struck me about it, it was totally aware of us and we think it was looking at the very enticing shade our car was providing. Mambas are also well known to climb up the undercarriage of cars and rest inside the engine block. Thank goodness I had noticed it before it had decided in making our car home but as you can imagine all of this was racing through our minds as soon as Chris had uttered that word…Mamba!
In order to prevent the snake from coming under and possibly into the car Chris had in a split second turned the engine on with the idea of getting some space away from it. He wanted to drive forward to block it from the lions that were only a few meters away but the snake was too fast and raced in front of the car rather than behind it when our car engine startled it.
To our absolute horror, the snake had spotted the “lion bush” as a place of safety and at blinding speed it had careened in front of the car and was heading directly for the bush. The imagined scene flashed before us… a black mamba coming into a surprise contact with three lioness would have dire consequences. This had all happened within a few seconds but the scene was strangely being played out before us in slow motion. We were sure the lions would be bitten but just as the snake entered the bush the sub adult female jumped upwards and backwards in fright. We think this movement created enough of a disturbance for the snake to stay away and to our relief it leapt upwards into the top of the bush, and at the same time avoided contact with the lions.
The young lion seemed to be unsure what it was and proceeded to walk around the bush looking up at the movement it was hearing. The snake eventually settled in the higher reaches of the bush and the sub adult lay down again. All the while the two adult lioness kept sleeping…
We knew that immediate danger had been avoided by the narrowest of margins but with the snake still in the bush anything could still happen.
We had another agonizing hour of waiting before all three lions roused themselves and crawled out from under the bush to begin their after dark activities, none the wiser to the potentially fatal encounter they had just avoided.
I can’t tell you how stressful the situation was for us. We would not have been able to bear it if a lion, and quite possibly all three lions, had been bitten. There was no way they would have survived a Mamba bite.
Now that we knew both the lions and the snake had survived we can look back on it as being one of the most bizzare and intense bits of behavior we have ever seen in the African bush.
There are unfortunately no photos and although I have written a lengthy account, it was all over and done with in just a few moments!
We sadly were not to see the Letiahau Pride again and as we continued our journey our sightings declined dramatically and the heat began to amplify.
Added to this our air mattress (which we look after with the utmost of care!) had obtained a puncture and our tent zip had given up the ghost. This meant that every few hours we would wake up uncomfortably on the ground and we’d have to get up to pump the mattress up joined by the bugs that were coming in via the broken zip. By the time we got to San Pan, which is located in the back end of beyond, we had not seen another car for 5 days, we were tired and irritable, and there was not a cloud in the sky despite the temperatures constantly being in the high 30’s.
San Pan was inhospitable to put it mildly. We reached a trip high of 42C in the scrap of shade we could find. We were being bitten by 2 different species of ants and 1 species of tick. 3 difference species of flies were constantly buzzing and pestering us and as the area was so dry, not having received even a tiny drop of rain, there was not an animal in sight!
I think this is the closest I have ever been to asking Chris to promptly take me home!
I nearly lost my rag when he turned to me and with all earnestness said how lucky we were to be here!
But, having said all of the above I know there are no rewards without a little bit of hardship sometimes and quite honestly, the adventure and privilege of being in the Central Kalahari definitely means a bad day in the bush beats a good day in the City!
The following day we arrived at Tau Pan just after day break and were greeted to the sight of 3 magnificent Kalahari male lions. These 3 were part of a coalition of 5 strong males we had seen back in 2017 and they were looking in prime condition. We were later to learn that all 5 are still together so it was very moment to know that all were doing well and still reigning over their territory that falls over the prime location in the park.
The CKGR is also known for having excellent sightings of cheetah and in our time here we were to see a total of 9 different cheetah. We were also very fortunate to witness a chase.
Hunts are always observed with a huge amount of respect as well as with a certain amount of trepidation. At the end of the day, as exciting as it is to see it, the winner is merely surviving while the loser will pay the ultimate price.
In this particular instance, we had spotted an alert young female shading under a tree in the Passage Valley river bed. A handful of springbok were grazing a few hundred meters ahead. Normally just a handful means that chances are not high the cheetah will be successful but in this instance an unsuspecting ewe just kept grazing closer and closer, completely unware of the predator’s keen and watchful eye.
We thought at any moment the springbok would spot her but with her head down grazing she seemed to be ever more on target for a direct hit.
At the same time we were able to watch the cheetah’s body language as she prepared for the hunt. She flattened herself completely to the ground and inch by inch, crept towards her prey. Her intent gaze was locked on and nothing else distracted her.
At the crucial moment she leapt forward and began her charge only for the springbok to react in the smartest way possible. It may just have been blind luck or perhaps a life-sustaining decision but the springbok reacted with almost impossible starting speed and made a beeline for the thornbush line. The change of habitat (even in those few meters) meant the female cheetah was not able to gain traction and get into her full stride. After 80 meters the springbok emerged the victor in this deadly race.
I have often written that one of my absolute highlights of being in the bush is just lying in our tent at night listening to the night bush sounds. Jackals howl, hyena’s cackle, gecko’s bark and lions roar! You don’t need to see them, one’s heightened senses brings them close in your mind’s eye.
We had a pretty quiet time of sounds at night on this trip but our second to last night was to prove the highlight. At around 11am a lone lioness could be heard calling a long way off and she had obviously attracted the attention of her male counterpart who was in our neck of the woods. For the next 2 hours we monitored his movements as he seemed to approach closer and closer to our campsite.
At about 1am he stopped about 100 meters away from our tent where he proceeded with a long and drawn out roaring session in his efforts to locate her.
It’s hard to imagine that living in this high tech world of 2019, that one can be in a little tent in a very wild and remote place and be able to feel and experience almost exactly what humans that existed tens of thousands of years ago would have felt.
The piercing lion roar rips so loudly and clearly through the still night air and reverberates into the ground so that you can feel the vibrations pulsing up at you (especially when your mattress has gone flat!).
In that moment, when you know he is so close, your breath catches in your throat, it goes completely dry and you dare not draw breath so that you can better listen for the following roar. Will he be closer this time or not?
Sweat starts to pool down your back as you dare not move in case a rustle of the sheets attracts his attention…
Its raw and real adrenalin reacting to ones most basic instinct for survival… I do sometimes feel it’s good to be reminded of our own vulnerability and that we are not the most important beings on the planet, there are many other beings out there that deserve our respect.
In this moment it was just Chris & I alone in our tent, there was not another human around for perhaps 50 kilometers. We were vulnerable indeed but very wrongly we were not as vulnerable as the natural world is at this very moment in time of our planet’s history.
The Central Kalahari had one more stroke of irony left for us…
After 15 days of no rain we awoke the morning of our departure to the rumble of thunder and a dark stormy sky developing in the area we would be driving into and out of the Park. Just when we did not need the rain, it was now here to make our drive out just that little bit more challenging!
Despite the conditions is was still a magical time spent in a very special place with incredible wildlife.
© Chris Fallows 2018