Twenty thousand years are all that it took for the San Bushman to learn to live off the ‘fat of the land.’ With nothing more than a pair of eland skin slippers, a bow and a quiver full of surprisingly spindly arrows they could travel vast distances.
I was all set to take on the Kalahari too, but I would do it on my terms. I was travelling light 21st century style. With just a Britz Toyota Hi-lux 4x4 safari vehicle, fitted with long-range fuel-tanks, ten-gallon water containers and a high-level exhaust (in the unlikely event of floods). At night I would sleep out, as nature intended. With just the flimsy walls of an Eezi-Awn predator-proof roof-tent between me and the Kalahari night.
The coffin-sized ‘chilly-bin’ on the back seat was full of enough steaks and beer to ensure that my guide, Bart Vandepitte, and I wouldn’t be reduced to eating raw mopane worms or sucking gritty water out of grated roots. Taking everything into account I figured that I was immune to just about everything. Everything but death by donkey. “The donkey is the most dangerous animal in Botswana,” Bart warned me as we drove of the old frontier town of Francistown and overtook a row of the little carts that are known hereabouts as Kalahari Ferraris.
In his years as a safari guide Bart has stood up to his share of elephant charges and face-to-face stand-offs with lions but, during the course of more than a million off-road miles in southern Africa, he’s built up a lot of respect for the humble donkey. “Hippos and crocs attacks might be more glamorous,” he said, “but donkeys are responsible for more deaths in this country than any other animal. They’re the greatest menace on the roads.”
So we headed towards the Kalahari, dodging donkeys, until we turned off the desert highway and began to steer a seamanlike course straight into the ocean-like expanses of the great Makgadikgadi Pans. Eventually a rocky ‘island’ rose up as a rare blemish on the almost featureless horizon. Climbing to the peak of this kopje, I stared out over a great pale-grey wasteland that sparkled with mirages, like ghosts of the great inland sea that once covered these immense saltpans, along with most of northern Botswana.
Still it was almost impossible to imagine that just a few hours drive to the north of this desert landscape lay the Okavango. One of the great attractions of Botswana lies in this stark contrast; where else can you find one of the world’s greatest deserts and its largest inland delta in a country the size of France? By now my kopje was throwing a long shadow across the pans so, keeping an eye out for whichever leopard counted this as his territorial headquarters, I went back to the security of my roof-tent.
The next morning the mirages were still there and late-season thunderclouds far out on the pans had me wondering against all odds if there really was water out there. But this is a region that is famous for its mirages and we were heading for its illusionary epicentre, in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The Bushman knew better than to trust the visions of sparkling lakes that materialise on the cracked earth, only to dissolve again as you approach, but there are stories of flocks of migrating pelicans that have been lured off-course by the treacherous phantom-lakes of Deception Valley.
Water is a commodity that will remain precious here long after the CKGR’s legendary diamonds have finally been discovered, mined and forgotten. For eight months of the year the hills and valleys here are burned the colour of a lion’s hide and even the great predators are forced to suck scant moisture from desert melons.
What little rain is released by the clouds often evaporates even before it reaches the ground but the desert nights are as cold as the days are hot. After sunset we piled logs on our mopane-wood braai and watched the hungry jackals skulk in the shadows, sniffing at our steaks. Further out on the pan we could hear an occasional roar that warned us that the East Side pride was on the march…and that they too were still hungry. In the early hours I was awakened by something and stuck my head out of my tent in time to see the lithe form of a hunting leopard stalk past our camp.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve is one of the most evocative and peaceful safari destinations in the world. Far from the game-drive traffic-jams of other reserves we sat at night around our campfire and commented jealously on the owners of the only other fire that we could see on the far horizon. That ‘fire’ turned out to be further off than we thought when two nights later we realised that it was actually Jupiter. We were after all totally alone with the endless canopy of Kalahari stars to ourselves.
The Bushman believed that every speck in that glittering sky was the soul of a hunter. Despite their spirituality, and the support of their gods, life for them must have been far from the ideals of Van der Post’s noble hunter in his Garden of Eden but they had somehow carved a living out of the desert. The white man and more powerful tribes had certainly offered them no retreat from increasingly remote Kalahari pans…until they forced them out for the last time.
But we were privileged to come and go and, in a day or two, we would make a tactical retreat and follow the old Kuki cattle-fence to cool sheets and warm baths at Deception Valley Lodge. Then it was back on the highway…and once more into the realm of the fearsome donkey.
Photo courtesy of Deception Valley Lodge here