Kgalagadi Gees!

Please click on images in galleries to get enlarged image or slideshow.

The title refers to my inability to properly pronounce the local place names for which my fellow travellers gently ribbed me! Gees (an Afrikaans word, pronounced “khere-se” refers to spirit and a state of peace and calm to which we all succumbed over the twleve nights in the park. We went with Andy Baker, my brother in law and Roger Milligan, both based in South Africa, which helped with the planning and organisation considerably.

Sunset at Twee Rivieren rest camp

The trip had been a long while in the planning; it was essential to book early to secure the scarce chalets at the various SANparks rest camps in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park (KTP). KTP is in the far north west of South Africa, in its Northern Cape region and borders both Namibia and Botswana. It is an arid region which has a marked impact on the animals which can survive and flourish here. The two rivers of the park, Auob and Nossob, flood every 10-15 years, but otherwise only small waterholes remain (serviced and maintained by the parks board, I think).

Now a museum, formerly property at Auchterlonie waterhole on Aoub River

The area was originally peopled by the San before they were driven out.  White man came to the area to trade and build stations around waterholes driven into the dry Auob and Nossob riverbeds;  apart from the waterholes, little remains of these farms.  In 1891, the land was annexed into Bechuanaland and due to the proximity to German South West Africa tensions ensued.  The area became a national park in 1999 with the unification of separate parks in South Africa (Kalahari Gemsbok Park) and Botswana (Gemsbok National Park). 

Today the park area remains one of the most pristine conservation areas in the world;  the South African side is some 9500 km2 and Botswana a further 28400 km2. The south western part of the park is duneveld with a unique semi desert vegetation and the north eastern part is an area of Kalahari thornveld incorporating salt pans which play an important part in the grazing and life patterns of the game.  (Source: Kgalagadi Parks information).

The park is famous for its black maned lions as well as having leopard and cheetah and raptors / birds of prey. We hoped to see all these animals which we largely achieved, although perhaps not in the quantity that many of the people we met thought would be normal, as the weather seems to have been dryer than usual.

Compared with many of the safaris we have been on, the colour palette was very different:-

Out went the normal green of forest and verdant grassland, in came the grey and dry beds of the two rivers -Auob and Nossob – sparsely covered in camelthorn and acacia trees, some old and dead; there was some hint of green growth in the river beds, reflecting the scant recent rains. Up the sides of each river rose the dunes -sometimes with red sand or a pinkish hue.

We were self catering and self-drive and had hired a Toyota Fortuner, a 2 x 4 car and not 4 x 4, a difference we were to appreciate later in our trip.  The park allows travellers to motor on designated routes – essentially up and down the two river beds;  these roads are all unmade and mainly comprise of soft sand.  The first park instruction on reaching the front gate was to let our tyre pressure down considerably to help with travel.  Although some parts were very soft, we managed well – until our last day in Nossob, when I fatally slowed down to allow another car to come down a hill …. and we were stuck!  Luckily, the car passing us stopped and tried to help us, eventually letting our tyres down more and towing us out before we carried on our way.  We expressed our thanks later by parting with a bottle of wine back in the camp.

Each of the rest camps is situated overlooking a water hole where we could observe the game either from our veranda or the hide.  From these vantage points we saw lots of action – especially at Urikaruus and Nossob. 

Lions at Nossob

Urikaruus is a special place and ungated or patrolled;  accordingly, all the accommodation is on stilts with gates on the stairs to prevent unwelcome visitors!  All the accommodation we had was of a good standard and well suited to our needs.

One of the rules of the park is that we had to stay in the vehicle when out on the game trails.  There are, however, a few designated picnic areas with facilities where we could stretch our legs.  Accordingly, as the camps were small, we began to feel in need of exercise or a walk at least.  Nossob being a bit larger allowed for a sensible walk in its grounds. 

There are few (sparsely stocked) stores at some of the camps only.  Accordingly, we had to take all our food (and water) with us.  This was achieved by our fellow travellers borrowing two portable fridges / freezers which we could hook in and out of the vehicles as need be. A fresh food shop was undertaken in Upington before entering the park. Most of the evening meals were braais although there had been some pre-cooking by Roger and ferried as part of his flight luggage from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth before loading into the fridges and meeting us in the Northern Cape!  In our two weeks, I do not recall wanting for anything, so we ate and lived like kings!

Our days followed a sort of routine.  Sunrise was about 6.30 am and sunset around 6.30 pm. The camp gates opened at 7am and we generally went for a morning drive before returning for a brunch.  A late afternoon drive was often undertaken but we had to be back at 6.30 when the gates were locked.  In theory we were able to arrange game drives with park rangers at each camp who could take us on roads not open to the general masses.  In practice, we found that these drives were generally not available through want of staff or training programmes.  The one drive we managed was a disappointing evening drive from Mata Mata.  We felt this was a shame as a properly briefed guide can add so much to one’s knowledge and enjoyment.


Sightings:

There are were so many highlights it is difficult to pick a few. Those set out below involve mammals, but my pictures suggest we spent a lot of time looking at birds – raptors mainly.


The first highlight was the time we spent observing giraffes in the Aoub as we neared Urikaruus.  It was a large group and there were several actions to follow.  Nearest us were two giraffes mating and beyond them there seemed to be a group of perhaps younger ones having a slight dispute.

 Giraffe were introduced into the park near Mata Mata in 1990 when 8 were relocated from Etosha.  Since then they have multiplied in number strongly and we saw lots.

Subsequently, a group of giraffe came to drink from the Urikaruus waterhole in front of our accommodation.  They were nervous at first as their drinking action is ungainly and makes them vulnerable as they are unable to move quickly from their low position with splayed legs adopted for drinking.  We could see the group looking out for trouble whilst some of their number drank and then they swapped roles.


Second Highlight: To travel to Nossob from Mata Mata we had to retrace our steps to Urikaruus and then take the dune road across to the Nossob river basin.  Shortly after turning onto the dune road, we found a couple of vehicles peering into the bush and they had discovered a leopard resting in the thicket.  This was special although we could not really see the full beast, but he did look straight at the camera!

Leopard in thicket ion Dune road

 


Cheetah and Lion day:

One our first morning at Nossob we decided to do a morning ride.  No sooner had we left the camp than we came upon vehicles viewing a cheetah feeding on a recently killed springbok.  Apparently, those in the chalets nearest the gate had heard the commotion and the kill was very recent.  However, it was difficult to get a clear view. 

We returned to the site several times during the day to see the patiently waiting Black Backed Jackals hovering and a tree load of vultures waiting for their turn.  I had always thought cheetahs found it difficult to hang onto their kill;  this one was tenacious and seemed to manage a full feast.  At the end there was NOTHING left.

Towards the end of the afternoon, on our last trip to the site, we found lions resting just beyond where the cheetah had dined – it was not clear whether they had helped finish the meal.  Shortly afterwards they decided to rise and wander towards the waterhole – so we got back to the hide quickly for a front seat view of the pride drinking in the gathering darkness.  There was a scrum in the hide some 4 or 5 people deep at the end!

We had expected to see rather more lion but, apart from a sole one at Urikaruus (also drinking at the waterhole) and some sleeping on our way down to Twee Rivieren, these lions at Nossob were all we saw. Leopard and cheetah are more difficult to find and track, so we were fortunate to see all three cats on our trip.


Waterholes:

Most of the animals we saw seemed to respect the waterhole – drinking sedately from the side.  Not so the Gemsbok (Oryx) and Wildebeest, who would quite happily stomp all through the water!

It was not just the larger animals which used the waterholes.  We noted birds enjoyed swooping and flying around them – especially the smaller birds such as Namaqua Doves, Quelea etc. Also we saw a Secretary Bird in the water and a young Bataleur Eagle.

The waterholes are a mixture of old fashioned windmill driven and modern where a solar panel provides the energy to drive the pumps. A few did not seem to have any water.  Apart from the waterholes in the camps, the best action was found on the Nossob / Twee Rivieren road on our last day.

As the trip wore on, we did find larger groupings of animals – who seemed to favour the Nossob river.


Antelopes:

We saw all the antelopes, save for the Eland.  Initially we saw solitary animals but as time went on we did find larger groupings.  The Gemsbok, after whom the first parks were named, were everywhere.


Union’s End:

From Nossob, we drove up to Union’s End (some 130km each way) which, as the name suggests, is the end of South Africa.  Whilst we did not see much game – or at least game we had not already seen such as Springbok, Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest, Gemsbok and Ostrich etc – the road was interesting and enabled us to focus a little more on the arid conditions. 

The earth is very sandy – often red in hue;  we found large areas of anthills but none terribly tall.  The valley had many camelthorn trees bearing their autumn fruits but few flowers of any type. 


Raptors / Birds of Prey:

The area is home to a large number of Raptors most of whom we found resting in the trees and also some in flight.  Sadly, we saw none taking game. 

Among the raptors seen were:-

Bataleur (Short Tailed Eagle), many Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Lappet-Faced Vulture, White Backed Vulture, Lanner Falcon, Martial Eagle,  many Tawny Eagles, Southern White Faced Owl, Black Shouldered Kite, Secretary Bird,  Kori Bustard

In addition, there was a wide range of smaller birds including various kinds of dove, weavers and starling etc.

We are told that there are about 80 bird species in the area plus migratory birds at sometimes of the year.


Smaller Mammals:

Often forgotten, the smaller mammals provided lots of amusement, especially the Ground Squirrel, with its bushy striped tail, which was always busy digging holes.  It often shared time and facilities with the Yellow Mongoose.  We also saw Meerkats (Suricats), although these did not seem to be so prevalent.

We heard a very noisy Gecko at Nossob, known as the barking Gecko – competing with the cicadas – alas we were not able to see them!

Other predators:

We were fortunate to see Cape Fox (on an evening drive), a lone Brown Hyaena at a waterhole and many Black Backed Jackal (at most of the rest camp waterholes).

Not seen:

Each trip into the wild is unique in that you cannot plan to see any particular species with certainty – you have to keep going back!  Strangely, we did not see any snakes or scoprions although we did find some small lizards.  Also missing from our list of sightings were Eland, (the nocturnal) Aardvark and Pangolin as well as the giant Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and the Swallowtailed Bee -eater.


Final Thoughts:

This was the first self-drive safari we had undertaken – but one we all thoroughly enjoyed.  We were able to see the wildlife and scenery at our own pace.  This seems to be almost a way of life for many of the fellow tourists we met – often people who had smart camping vans etc.

Coming from a rather dull winter in the UK, the light made as great an impression as the scenery and fauna.  The African sunrise and sunset always seems to me to have a different quality and palette than that we experience elsewhere;  silly perhaps, but real to me.

A trip like this one provides material on so many levels for photography – obviously the wildlife takes central stage.  But there is plenty of scope for landscape photography as well as people watching (not undertaken!).  Within the wildlife, the birdlife provides considerable opportunity for action pictures as well as the group antics of the various herds, flocks or prides!

Despite the photographic opportunities, the lasting memory will be one of great joy that we could be out enjoying nature in this wonderful and special place.

Lastly our thanks to our fellow travellors who made this all possible by their attention to our well being and provisioning.  Hope we do it again one day!