As adventure tour operators, we have been guiding trips into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) and Mabuasehube Game Reserve for over a decade, witnessing the absolute best these two gems in Africa have to offer. But why enjoy these separately? Hence, we put together the Ultimate Kalahari Experience tour, combining both of these magnificent wilderness areas into one Kalahari bucket list adventure.
We meet up with the group of bright-eyed adventurers at Khama Rhino Sanctuary just utside the town of Serowe in Botswana. To say we were all filled with great anticipation for what lay ahead of us over the next 10 days is an understatement of note. After we enjoyed a sunset drive around the reserve, it was time to get to know each other. And what better way than settled around a campfire, being treated to a gourmet meal from our renowned bush chef, Master P? Laying in my tent that evening, going through the route in my head, I felt like a six-year old boy on Christmas Eve… I was no longer counting the sleeps, but rather the hours until the adventure could begin.
From Khama Rhino Sanctuary we headed to Rakops, a tiny little town situated close to our turnoff to the Matswere gate of the Central Kalahari. Here, we fill up on as much fuel as possible (including jerry cans) and finish off the last bit of tar road before we deflate our tyres to tackle the sandy Kalahari tracks… Let the adventure begin! After about two hours we reached the Matswere gate where we quickly attended to the necessary admin and – permits in hand – lead the convoy to our first campsite in Deception Valley where we would spend the next three nights.
As we approached Deception Valley, the excitement is electric and I let everyone know via two-way radios to look out for a special surprise, just ahead over the large dune on the horizon. Although I have seen it countless times, the first view of Deception Valley opening up in front of you still gives me goosebumps. At this point, it is a tradition for us to stop the convoy for everyone to get out and soak up the clean Kalahari air while admiring the vastness of the golden savannah. The Valley lies in the remnants of the ancient Deception River. It gets its name from the nearby Deception Pan where a mirage-style effect makes the dark clay pan look like it is filled with water while, in actual fact, it is bone dry.
With our lungs rejuvenated by the fresh Kalahari air, we make our way to the campsite only a few kilometres away. As we are about to turn off the main track into our designated camp, Des spots some movement in the long grass on our left. Low and behold, right here next to our “driveway” lay a magnificent male lion and lioness with a fresh wildebeest kill. The chaos that ensued over the radio for the next few minutes was a mixture of excitement and trepidation once everyone realised just how close they were to our campsite. It certainly made everyone pay extra attention when I gave my safety briefing about camping in the wild and not wandering about in the dark.
The next morning we all headed out at dawn, greeting our resident kitty cats, before heading down into Deception Valley to watch the sunrise, turning the grassy plains into a golden wonderland. Mornings in the CKGR are incredible, with herds of gemsbok, wildebeest and zebra emerging from the safety of the dense woodlands that line the Valley to frolic on the vast grasslands and enjoy the warmth of the morning sun. This is also the best time to try and catch a glimpse of predators that may still be on the prowl, looking for somewhere shady to settle down before the harsh Kalahari sun starts to find its feet. My plan for this morning’s drive was to head right through Deception Valley and down to one of the permanent waterholes situated at Letiahau Pan.
The animals in the CKGR have lost access to natural surface water due to cordon fences, livestock and human encroachment along the access routes. For this reason, several artificial pumped waterholes had to be established in the reserve. The reservoir at Letiahau Pan is one of my favourites as the game viewing around there usually is very good. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the waterhole, it was scorched, either due to a faulty pump or lack of groundwater which is a growing problem in the Kalahari. Luckily there was still plenty of game in the area, including one of the largest herds of giraffe I have ever seen at around 30 strong.
After a quick bush breakfast at the waterhole, it was time to head back to camp for our customary afternoon nap and shower time. However, after only a few minutes of driving, we were faced with one of the most magnificent sights you could hope to see. A large, black-maned Kalahari lion walking straight towards us in the middle of the road, followed by five lionesses and three cubs. “I guess shower hour is going to be a bit late today,” someone happily chirped over the radio. We spent the next two hours in the company of the pride, watching them move from tree to tree while chasing the shade as the sun moved through the clear sky.
Over the next couple of days, everyone settled into the routine of Kalahari life consisting of game drives in the early mornings and late afternoons. Of course, the heat of the day is spent lazing around camp to escape the baking sun. Our resident kitties were never too far away. They kept us entertained as they desperately tried to guard their carcass from the cheeky black-backed jackals that were constantly trying to sneak in to grab a morsel for themselves. On one such day, after an afternoon nap, Des was slowly making her way down from the rooftop tent when someone yelled a warning of a snake coming towards our trailer. Just as she looked down a large puff adder slithered under the ladder and made its way straight for the shade under our Land Cruiser.
The growing crowd of spectators caused the “puffy” to look for somewhere more secure and the next thing he was curled up in our wheel with just his heading sticking out. We left him there to relax while we prepared for our afternoon game drive, hoping he would eventually make his way out of our wheel and back to the safety of the bush. We were wrong! He was more than comfortable in his afternoon resting place and had no intentions of leaving. Left with no other choice but to evict him, one of the adventurers in our group came along with a long, sturdy pair of braai tongs which were perfect for the job to nudge him out of the way. We managed to carefully remove him from the wheel arch and place him safely back in the bush.
This was our last afternoon game drive in Deception Valley as it was time for us to now head North to explore a new section of the reserve. You could sense the sadness in the group as we watched the sun slowly slide away over the Valley. This place imprints itself on your soul, leaving you with memories to last a lifetime and a yearning to return again and again. Master P once again out-did himself by serving a delicious venison potjie with homemade bread and salads, complemented by a delightful strawberry cheesecake for dessert. A great way to end the first leg of our Ultimate Kalahari Experience.
A wild surprise
Since the drive to our next campsite at Motopi wasn’t too long, I suggested one more quick game drive that morning before packing up and heading North. Everyone opted to rather sleep in and pack up camp at a leisurely pace, except for one vehicle. The group would live to regret this decision… I wanted to drive the loop from Deception Valley to Sunday Pan where there was another artificial waterhole and good game viewing, so we headed out at sunrise to see what Sunday Pan had in store for us. As we approached the waterhole, I could see some dark figures through the dense bush but couldn’t make out exactly what they were. I called on the radio to the vehicle behind me, suggesting we approach carefully as not to startle them. Just then one of the figures stood up, and I nearly swallowed the radio in excitement: “Wild dogs! It’s wild dogs at the waterhole!”
We edged very slowly through the bush until we had a clear view and there they were, eight wild dogs lazing next to the waterhole. We each found a good position and started capturing this incredible moment. The dogs began their pre-hunting ritual of high-pitched twitters, squeals and social interactions to get the pack prepared and ready for the hunt. After watching this for a few minutes, I realised the alpha female was ready to head out. I suggested we start our engines and prepare to follow them for as long as we possibly could. Luckily for us, they decided to make their way down the road away from the waterhole. We were able to follow closely behind them for around 20 minutes, with them stopping every now and then and circling our vehicles deciding which way to go.
Eventually, they veered off to the right and we lost sight of them in the dense bush. I had a hunch that they would be cutting through the bush towards Sunday Pan. If we went back past the waterhole and drove along the edge of the pan, we may be able to intercept them and hopefully witness the hunt. So, we quickly turned our vehicles around and circled back to the area that I guessed they may reappear into the open and sat quietly with our engines switched off. After about five minutes, a small herd of springbok came hurtling out of the bush. We held our breath in anticipation of what we expected to happen next… but it never came. The dogs clearly spooked the springbok who bolted in all directions to get away from the threat.
With all this excitement going on around us, we had lost track of time. We realised that we had better start heading back to camp to meet up with the rest of the group to begin our trek up to Motopi. As we drove along, chatting on the radio about the morning events, I had to suddenly jump on my brakes as a sub-adult male lion emerged from the bush on my left. His eyes fixated on a herd of wildebeest about 200m away on the other side of the road. We quickly turned our engines off to not disturb him as we were overcome with that same feeling of anticipation we had felt just an hour earlier with our pack of wild dogs. Fortunately, for the wildebeest at least, this lion was still learning his trade and they were alerted to his presence fairly quickly due to his lack-lustre attempt at stalking and camouflage.
Once the word spread, the wildebeest all herded together to face the lion. The herd slowly started moving towards him until he lost his nerve and made a hasty retreat into the thick bush behind our vehicles. “Well, it was definitely worth getting out of bed early this morning!” Peter exclaimed over the radio as we continued back to camp to share our morning’s shenanigans with the rest of the group.
Once everyone had gotten over the envy and gone through our photographic evidence, we were ready to bid farewell to Deception Valley as we headed to the north-western corner of the reserve to our campsite at Motopi Pan. I decided to rather take the southern road which winds its way through a series of smaller pans along the way before crossing over Passarge Pan on the edge of Passarge Valley. Game viewing along the way was a bit sparse due to the extreme lack of water in the area. Still, we did see healthy herds of gemsbok, springbok and red hartebeest scattered across the pans.
We eventually reached the waterhole at Motopi Pan by 3pm that afternoon. As we rounded the corner, I had to blink a few times to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Firstly, there was water in the waterhole (the first water we had seen on the trip). Secondly, a huge elephant bull was slurping up as much water as he could fit into each trunk-full. I don’t know who got the biggest fright as we clocked each other, but our presence was definitely not going to interrupt his afternoon sundowner as we all moved around to the other side of the waterhole to sit and enjoy this unusual sight of an elephant in the Kalahari desert. I had seen signs of elephants in Deception Valley the previous year and heard reports of a herd that had moved through the reserve on their quest to find water but had never seen it with my own eyes.
We all sat in awe and watched him empty the waterhole in about 15 minutes. When he started to display some signs of petulance, I decided it was time for us to head to the camping site and get settled before dark. The campsite at Motopi is positioned on a dune with great views of the setting sun over the grasslands’ never-ending expanse. You’ll have to search far for a more ideal spot for a sundowner. As we explored the small network of roads in the area surrounding our camp, we were treated to more lion sightings on both morning and evening drives, while their loud roars pierced the silence every night just as we retreated to bed.
Mixed emotions were at the order of the day as we packed up camp for the last time in the CKGR. We were not ready to leave yet, but the excitement for the next leg of our Ultimate Kalahari Experience in Mabuasehube Game Reserve was palpable.
More adventure awaits
An easy drive out of the reserve – being treated to a sighting of a lone lioness trawling the cutline – took about two hours. We reached the A3 tar road where we stopped to inflate our tyres for the 160km journey to Tautona Lodge, situated just outside the town of Ghanzi. This would allow us to refuel, restock supplies, refill our water tanks and enjoy a long hot shower using more than five litres of water. It’s actually amazing how little water we can survive with when we absolutely have to and how much of this precious commodity we waste in our daily lives. As there are no taps in the CKGR, you have to look after every precious drop and make sure it lasts for the duration of your stay in the reserve.
That night we gave Master P the night off as we enjoyed pizzas in the lodge, washed down with a few cold ones while sharing our stories with some of the locals frequenting the lodge’s watering hole. As we relived the adventures of the past week, I again realised just how blessed we are to call this amazing continent our home. And the experience was far from over – what does Mabuasehube have in store for us?
Some members of our group signed up for an early morning walk with a local San tribesman to learn about how they have survived in the harsh environment for centuries. Upon their return, we saddled up and cxontinued south to our last stop-over before entering Mabuasehube. The Kalahari Rest Lodge is 25km north of Kang and is nestled in the Kalahari dunes to give you protection from the noisy Trans-Kalahari Highway. It is the perfect place to stay over for a night, before entering Mabuashehube. After the second night of long hot showers and cold swimming pools, our group of Kalahari adventurers were fully rejuvenated and ready to tackle the last leg of our odyssey – the Mabuasehube Game Reserve, notorious for lion encounters in the campsites.
The road from Kang to the Mabuasehube gate is wide and sandy, with corrugated gravel sections. Still, you can maintain a good speed and we reached the reserve gate by 1pm. While Des and I sorted out the paperwork in the office, the rest of the group enjoyed lunch under a huge Acacia tree while being watched by some inquisitive ground squirrels. After everyone had used the last flushing toilet we would see for the next three days, the convoy rolled on through the gate and into the reserve.
The word Mabuasehube means “red earth”, and you quickly understand why as you drive over endless undulating red sand dunes. This game reserve, of course, was formerly known as the Gemsbok National Park. It was incorporated into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in May 2000, making it the first peace park in Southern Africa. The park is only 33km wide and 63km long but is home to an abundance of predators including lions, leopards, cheetah and wild dog. All the campsites are situated on the edges of grassy pans, where most of the game is concentrated due to the good grazing on the pans. Our home for the next three nights would be the camping sites at Mabuasehube Pan, a short 30km drive from the gate.
As a couple of the vehicles in our convoy were towing, we decided it would be better to head straight to the campsite and set up. We would then still have enough time for a quick late afternoon drive around Mabuasehube Pan. Our route took us past the popular Mpayathutlwa Pan where we stopped briefly to chat to one of the vehicles camping here. They told us that if we wanted to see lions, we just needed to visit their campsite every morning. There was a pregnant lioness who would walk across the pan every morning to drink from their shower bucket.
Once the camp had been successfully erected, we had enough time before sunset to do a quick lap of our pan and get the lay of the land. At the gate, we were informed that the only waterhole that was working and had some water in it was at Mpayathutlwa Pan. In the back of my mind, I thought that we would probably end up at our new friends’ campsite every morning as this is where the action would be. With the sun dipping over the horizon, we split the group up and headed in opposite directions around the pan to cover more ground in a short space of time. We kept in communication if we spotted anything.
Highlights of the drive included a large herd of red hartebeest that made their way out onto the middle of the pan; as well as small family of bateared foxes scurrying around in the late afternoon sun. Just as I had given up hope of any lion sightings for the day, I noticed some very large male lion spoor in the road heading in the direction of the campsite. After trying to follow the tracks for a while, they disappeared off towards the pan so I gave up the chase and led the group back to camp to enjoy another fivestar meal from Master P at our billion-star hotel. Later that evening, as we were all sitting around the campfire, Mabua lived up to its reputation.
A young male lion appeared from the darkness and started to sniff one of the tents pitched just behind where we were all sitting. Fortunately, I was the first to spot him and calmy informed the group not to panic or make any sudden movements or loud noises, but to rather turn around slowly and enjoy the show this nosy teenager was putting on for us. We all sat quietly in our camp chairs as he went from tent to tent, pulling at ropes and sniffing around to see if anyone had disobeyed my request to not keep any food inside their tents. One of the adventurers had left his laundry bag just outside the entrance to his tent, and this proved to be of much interest to our new friend. He started to sniff at it intently, and when he suddenly picked it up in his jaws and started to walk off into the bush, I realised it was time for a scolding.
After much screaming and shouting, he reluctantly dropped the bag and disappeared into the darkness. After a short silence, the adrenalin kicked in and the excitement fuelled the campfire chatter long into the night with everyone adding one more arrow to their quiver of campfire stories acquired on the trip so far.
While enjoying our pre-game drive coffee and rusks the next morning, the group consensus was that we should head over to Mpayathutlwa Pan to see if we could find the pregnant lioness we had been told about. Upon leaving our campsite, the spoor of our late-night visitor lay before me in the road, and it looked as if he was headed in the same direction. When we reached the campsite at Mpayathutlwa Pan, we noticed two vehicles parked on the opposite side of the pan, so we decided to investigate. As we got closer, we could see three jackals furiously tugging away at a springbok carcass.
As we pulled up next to one of the vehicles that had arrived before us, they told us that there was a cheetah in the bushes that had killed the springbok. Just as it was about to settle down for a well-earned meal, a group of six jackals appeared on the scene, stealing the kill for themselves. We managed to catch a glimpse of the cheetah as it skulked off into the thick bush to lick its wounds and wait for another opportunity for breakfast. It was fascinating to sit and watch how these jackals tore into the fresh carcass while trying to keep the vultures at bay at the same time. Usually, you only get to see them picking at bones of an old carcass that another predator has already deserted. While we were sitting there enjoying the commotion, someone blurted over the radio: “I wonder if that pregnant lioness is still around?”
Fat cat roaming
With everyone happy that they had seen enough of the jackal show, we made our way around the pan back towards the campsite, scanning the pan for any signs of a fat cat moving around. One of Des’s many talents is spotting lions in the bush. When she shouted, “There she is!”, I didn’t even hesitate before sharing the news over the radio. We were not sure if she had made her daily sojourn across the pan to the campsite yet as she looked quite comfortable sitting in the shade right on the edge of the pan. Luckily, she had positioned herself in such a way that all of the vehicles could get a good view of her. Then suddenly, as if waiting for everyone to take their seats, she got up and started strolling across the pan, clearly heading in the direction of the campsite.
As she got closer to the campsite, a few of us drove on a bit to try and get a closer look at her and see what she got up to when she reached the campsite. With camping etiquette in mind, we parked a reasonable distance away from the campsite so as not to infringe on anyone’s privacy. Still, we had the perfect view when she calmly strolled into the campsite, completely ignoring the family making breakfast under the A-frame, and enjoyed her morning drink from the shower bucket they had left out. “Mabuasehube does it again!” I yelped over the radio as we made our way back to our camp.
The group quickly fell back into the routine of Kalahari life, only this time our camp “pets” consisted of a busy family of ground squirrels and a very relaxed jackal that would lie in the shade right in the middle of our campsite like a lazy dog. These camp “pets” provided us with hours of entertainment each day as we slouched in our camp chairs during the heat of the day, recharging our batteries after our morning drive. The next few drives came and went with the regular sightings of plains game, raptors and even a mating pair of lions at Khiding Pan. As everyone was reasonably familiar with the area and the roads linking all the pans, we split up on our game drives and shared our sightings when we reconvened back at our pan in the afternoon for sundowners.
One of the species we had yet to see and one that most of the group had never seen in the wild before, was a brown hyena. These shy, elusive scavengers are reasonably common in Mabua and we have had some great sightings there in the past. However, up until now, they had eluded us on this trip. On every tour, we take a group photo on the last day in the bush and agreed to meet up at our regular sundowner spot on the last afternoon so we could take our group photo and enjoy one final sundowner together as a group.
Trying to get a group of people to stand in one spot while I perfect the settings on my camera is always a challenge, especially when there is a cold gin and tonic calling them back to their vehicles. I just managed to get everyone into position when someone said, “What’s that walking in the road over there?”. I quickly turned around to see a brown hyena walking along the road towards the waterhole only 50m away from us. This was an extra special sighting as we all just stood in awe and watched him investigate the dry waterhole and very calmly walk off across the pan, taking very little notice of us.
This used up a lot of the remaining light for our group photo so with that quickly out of the way, we all charged our glasses for one more sundowner in the Kalahari. “Cheers to the Ultimate Kalahari Experience!”
*Words and pictures: Desiree & Simon Steadman