While the Nothern Cape is the biggest province in South Africa, we make no bones about the fact that it certainly is not he lushest, with some people even insisting it is not worth a visit… However, the overlanding appeal lies in in the unique, almost alien-like landscapes that stretch on for miles towards the northern expanse of this extraordinary African continent.
The Kalahari is a beautiful place, a place of wide-open spaces, a place full of life. But, ultimately, also a place that will very quickly show you who is boss. The Kalahari is not a place to be taken lightly, but as the Adventure Afrika team recently found out, it is a place well worth visiting. We loaded up the latest Ford Ranger Wildtrak and set the cruise control for the near 900km trip to a land very few have visited.
Let me not bore you with the detail about the long (and boring) road from Johannesburg to Upington. What I can say is that you have to be sure to stock up on some padkos as you can forget about any fast-food restaurants in the small towns en route being open before 9am. The Ford Ranger offered a comfortable, compliant ride quality and the driver assists such as active cruise control which monitors the vehicle ahead and maintains a set distance, as well as the active lane- keep assist make for blissful driving.
Arriving in Upington, we were pleasantly surprised at just how pretty this town is. To be honest, one would be forgiven for thinking that a border had been crossed somewhere and we now found ourselves in a different country altogether. Another element which I was particularly happy about was the weather. You see we made this trip at the end of August which meant that the days were somewhat cool and the evenings rather cold. The locals insist that cold evenings are easier to acclimatise to than the sweltering heat during the Summer. After experiencing exactly how cold it could get when the sun sets, I am not convinced!
Our first night saw us overnight at Classic Court Bed & Breakfast, located a few minutes from the Orange River. The accommodation itself is of high quality – the perfect place to rest up after a near eight-hour drive. However, our adventure was only to start the next day.
The Kalahari Red Dune Route
The Kalahari is known for its red dunes and 4×4 adventures. With wide-open spaces, a rich variety of wildlife and numerous 4×4 tracks through farms that adjoin the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, this is a 4×4 enthusiast’s dream come true. This experience can be tailored to beginner or experienced drivers who want to push their vehicles to the limit. The Ford Ranger Wildtrak was more than ready for the task at hand, the more challenging, the better.
Our first stop on the route was at Kalahari Camelthorn Caravan Park in the town of Askham. Blink, and you will miss the town, which will be a shame as the town is a quaint little place with a fantastic coffee shop (offering the best milkshakes I have ever had), a fuel station, church and a general store. The people are friendly and Kalahari Camelthorn is a beautiful oasis, complete with two self-catering units which feature air conditioners, coffee stations and fully equipped kitchens. The guest house also has a rustic luxury caravan for glamping, as well as five separate campsites amid lush green grass and lots of trees, offering running water, electricity and neat ablution blocks. And, my personal favourite, a boma area for sitting around the fire under the beautiful Kalahari stars… What a tough life we have in Africa!
The next morning we packed up our camp and hit the road to Kgalagadi Lodge, but before we got there, we made a few stops which are a must when you do this Route. Our first stop was at a farm called Gemsbokkie where we stocked up on some Kalahari lamb chops and sosaties – our staple for the next few dinners. From there, we headed to the Meerkat sanctuary where we got up close and very personal with some of the residents at the sanctuary. Many of the meerkats used to be pets, some are rescues, and some are wild. These little creatures have huge personalities, and they want to be the centre of attention all the time. Even trying to take a picture of the Ford Ranger seemed to be a mission as one meerkat wouldn’t move out of the frame. Once they find a cuddle spot in your arms, they don’t move. But don’t let their cuteness fool you, they are quite voracious, when they want to be as one of our travel partners found out when she was bitten.
Just a bit further down the road is a place called Rooiduin Guest Farm where visitors can do a bit of off-road driving and even try their hand at sand-boarding. Be prepared to spend a bit of time here as the need to not fall down the dune but surf it, becomes something of an obsession. Once you get it right though it is great. The same goes for the off-road trail, while not very demanding one needs to stay alert and maintain the basics of sand driving. The Ford Ranger makes life easy with on-the-fly H2 to H4 as well as a very clever gearbox which means that you are always in the right gear for best use of the 500Nm of torque.
Once we were all played out in the dunes, we headed to our overnight spot at Kgalagadi Lodge. A beautiful site which overlooks the flat landscape of the Kalahari. The chalet that we called home for the night was spacious, had an air-conditioner, a large bathroom and even a television with popular DSTV channels. The outside kitchen area is well-equipped, and it was easy to prepare some of the meat that we had bought earlier that day as the sun was going down.
Into the unknown where camels roam
Day three saw an early start as we had some ground to cover to a place beyond cellphone signal, a place so remote you literally start seeing camels, because that’s what they farm there… at a place called Koppieskraal. This is where our trip got very interesting.
The Wildtrak had proved itself a worthy companion, dealing with the rough Kalahari roads and delivering commendable fuel consumption; all the while making heads turn for its rugged good looks. Now we found ourselves in the middle of a salt-pan which was to be our overnight location. It was the Adventure Afrika team, a Ford Ranger Wildtrak and a billion stars above us. We set up camp and watched as the sun began to set, with it so too did the temperature.
We kept adding wood to the fire to get as much heat as we could, but as the cold wind fought back persistently, we decided to retreat to our tents, blankets and duvets a double. I was even contemplating sleeping in the mighty Ford Ranger as it comes standard with heated front seats.
Nothing beats waking up in the middle of nowhere, on a pan, with not a sound, besides that of Anton Willemse complaining about how cold it is. Once we had our coffee and warmed up a bit, we were able to face day four of our trip. Yet another gravel road and while the Wildtrak is fitted with more on-road bias tyres, it does seem to handle gravel roads quite well. It feels stable, especially at speed.
Pass the salt, please
It wasn’t long until we reached our next stop-over, Zoutpanputs. A hunting farm, it also offers a challenging off-road experience where you can view some of the beautiful game on the property. There are also a few lookout points where one can enjoy a sun-downer or two. One thing I realised is that everyone in the Kalahari has a story… And not just any old story – a Wild West-like story about things so absurd that you would be forgiven in thinking that they are just tall tales.
It’s these stories that entertained us while we sat around the campfire that night. The farm is equipped with chalets and private ablutions with hot water for those who are camping. There is also a sort of clubhouse with a bar, couches and a fireplace for when you want to reminisce about day’s events. Oh, and while we thought we had the worst of the cold on the pan; we were seriously mistaken!
That night the mercury dropped even more – so much so that our coffee water was frozen the next morning. It was freezing, but this being the Kalahari, warm temperature is never far away, and within an hour or so after sunrise, things started to warm up.
On the hunt for a challenge
We once again packed up and headed to our second to the last spot on our epic trip; Loch Maree Guest Farm and Field Camp. This location is situated around 90km South from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and 43km West of Askham. Once we settled into the hunter’s cabin, we headed a few kilometres back down the road to a place called the Molopo Kalahari Lodge. This local watering hole is a must-visit as adventurers from all over the area gather to tell their stories.
We headed back to the cabin and were planning a 4×4 excursion. However, mother nature had other plans and sent a gale-force wind, which resulted in a massive dust storm. We decided it best to remain indoors and use the time given to relax by the indoor fireplace. The next morning, we woke up early and decided that it was time to hit the 4×4 trail.
Once we found the trail, the first obstacle was a rather tall dune, one which underlined the golden rule of dune driving: as slow as possible as fast as needed. Thankfully the Ford Ranger Wildtrak has the power. Its new 2.0-litre bi-turbo diesel produces around 157kW and as mentioned earlier 500Nm of torque. The 10-speed gearbox, however, did take some getting used to but once I figured out what gear was best suited (it was second gear which I locked it in), I headed up the dune. The Ranger pulled all the way to the top, but unfortunately, I tapped off a little bit too early, and we all know what that happens next… After some digging, pulling and pushing we got the Ranger down the other side of the dune and headed to our final destination, Kalahari Goerapan Lodge.
Fun in the sun
Kalahari Goerapan Lodge offers some of the more entertaining dune driving on the route, with a challenging, technical and lengthy trail which is ideal for those who want to play and have fun in the sand. The Ford Ranger Wildtrak took it all in its stride, without any issues this time around. One negative, however, is the fact that I did feel bad every time I brushed past a bush and heard the scratches along the side. I guess it’s because the Ranger is a beautiful vehicle, especially in this striking Wildtrak gold. Perhaps plain white will do better out in the bush, but that’s just my personal opinion.
That night we sat around the fire, our long trip coming to an end. Before us lay the great trek back to Johannesburg, but I was happy to continue piloting the Ranger. It delivered on this trip, not putting a foot wrong. Sure, if you are going to do overlanding then one needs to consider a canopy that is properly equipped, perhaps more off-road focused tyres, a replacement bullbar and a few other items as a stock standard vehicle won’t cut it without a support vehicle which we had. That said, the point of this trip was to see if the Ford Ranger Wildtrak could take on the Kalahari and all that it had to throw at us and it complied, with ease.
The next morning, we headed back to Upington, filled the tank of the Ranger and pointed its nose towards Gauteng. The trip back saw an average of around 9.9l/100km and the addition of Apple CarPlay and Andriod Auto as standard means that you are always connected. Messages are read out to you, and your smartphone’s built-in assistant can help with sending voice to text messages; while Google maps is just a push of a button away.
It has been said that you lose your heart in the Kalahari and you will always return for a visit. There is no doubt that this unique part of the country will be seeing us again – more adventures await us, and with a host of new vehicles in the 4×4 segment heading our way in the next few months, I foresee another Kalahari adventure in our near future.
About the accommodation
Loch Maree Guest Farm & Field Camp
Situated 90km south from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 4343km west of Askham and 200km north of Upington, Loch Maree offers a variety of accommodation options. These include a Field Camp and Bush Camp, complete with convenient ablution facilities, as well as a fully equipped luxury suite. Enjoy the remarkable Kalahari hospitality and experience the rich bird- and wildlife. A 50km self-drive 4×4 route with ample lookout points and braai facilities on a high dune makes this a magical overnight spot.
Contact: Retha Stadler
Phone: +27 82 492 3469
The Kalahari Camelthorn Caravan Park & Guest House
A welcoming green oasis situated in Askham, the Kalahari Camelthorn Caravan Park and Guesthouse is 173km from Upington when driving towards the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and 83km from the Rietfontein border post when heading towards Namibia. It offers two self-catering units with air conditioners, coffee stations and fully equipped kitchens as well as a rustic luxury caravan for glamping. Five separate camp sites are available amid lush green grass and lots of trees, offering running water, electricity and your own braai area.
Contact: Rene van Wyk
Phone: +27 82 330 6762 / +27 72 437 6969
The Kgalagadi Lodge
Only 5km from the gate of the Kgalagadi National Transfrontier Park, this well- equipped lodge offers the perfect affordable alternative to staying in the Park. The clean, fresh accommodation and style compliments the area and brings together the vast array of cultures in the desert. Strategically placed, the chalets makes every morning a special treat. Seeing the sunrise from your front porch is an unforgettable experience, and this alone will make you want to return.
Contact: Kgalagadi Lodge
Phone: +27 83 225 0331
Nestled in the northwestern tip of South Africa, lies Koppieskraal Camel Farm where owners milk camels and farm with sheep; while offering explorers exquisite star-gazing opportunities and ample fresh Kalahari air. Overnight at the Kalahari’s Lost City amongst the giant chairs and tables imagined by Farini in 1885 or camp on the magical desert salt pan to enjoy 10 000 hectares of silence and solitude and a spectacular sunrise. Both sites are for self-sustained campers with no amenities offered. Also available is a fascinating interactive camel experience.
Phone: +27 73 367 6803 / + 27 83 272 2164
Zoutpansputs Game Farm
Offering the keen nature lover many enticing opportunities with large herds of springboks and oryx roaming freely, Zoutpansputs offer more than 50 bird species and some exquisite vistas to keep any photographer clicking. Situated north of Upington, about 100km from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and 70km to the to the Rietfontein border post, guests can choose between three well-equipped bungalows or a night camping under the stars in the neat camp site.
Phone: +27 83 262 0233
About the Route
The Kalahari Red Dune Route explores the area north of Upington into the Kgalagadi Transfontier Park. This protected expanse shares its borders with Namibia and Botswana and is one of the largest conservation areas in the world.
Phone: +27 82 492 3469