Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

A mad Kgalagadi Adventure

Being 4×4 Tour operators, Ultimate Adventures’ Des and Simon Steadman often get asked: “What do you guys do for fun?” The answer… We go to the bush!

With 2020 turning out the way it did, we definitely did not get anywhere near our quota of bush time, so we were really looking forward to our annual December holiday, which we’d booked in early February already. When we told everyone that we were planning on spending eight nights in the Kgalagadi in December, we were met with various comments and references to our sanity or lack thereof. It made me think of the Rudyard Kipling quote: “Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.”

Personally, I would rather spend my December holiday in a hot and dry desert climate than a hot and humid one down at the coast with the rest of Gauteng, so we shrugged off the comments. We knew we were in for some hot weather as we had spent previous Decembers up in Northern Namibia and the Serengeti so we were confident we would be able to handle it.

My wife Desiree and daughter Savannah had never stayed in the Park before as it has been many years since we ran a tour to the South African side of the Kgalagadi. So it was my job to build up the hype and excitement with stories of prolific predator sightings and spectacular Kalahari sunsets. With both of them being lovers of the bush, I didn’t have to try too hard and before we knew it, it was time to pack the Cruiser and trailer before heading West on the long and boring N14.

Our first stop was at a very neat little guesthouse in Kuruman called “Die Mynhuis”. Every time I drive through Kuruman, I am amazed at how rapidly it has deteriorated since the last time. This visit was no exception, so we decide to leave early the next morning and rather have breakfast in Kathu before hitting the long road to Twee Rivieren, where we would spend the first two nights of our holiday.

We opted to rather stick to the tar road and go through Upington instead of taking the corrugated gravel road via Van Zyl’s Rus and Askham as we spend enough time throughout the year on bad roads. Sounds like we’re getting soft, now that I think about it! It turned out to be a good decision as the roads were noticeably quiet and we arrived at the Park gates just after 2pm. The check-in process is a little slower these days with the additional COVID-19 regulations and forms you have to complete, but worth it in the end and we were still able to have our camp set up with enough time for an afternoon game drive.

Kalahari Thunder  

One of the advantages of visiting the Park in December is the longer days. This gives you a couple of extra hours of driving time as the gates are open from 05h30 until 19h30. So, with the mercury up at around 32 degrees, we were more than happy to get back to the Cruiser’s aircon and head out into the Park. From Twee Rivieren you have a choice to make when heading out on your game drives and that is which riverbed to explore, the Auob or the Nossob. We decided to head up the Auob as there had been some cheetah spotted in the area earlier that day. As soon as we got through the dunes and into the riverbed, it was clear that the rains had been fairly good so far, with plenty of green grass on offer for the grazers to enjoy.

After about an hour-and-a-half of driving and not much action on the game viewing front, we stumbled across a Cape Fox den right next to the road. The four pups weren’t perturbed by our vehicle at all and we sat there being entertained by them for over half an hour before we had to head back to camp before the gates closed. As we headed back South towards Twee Rivieren, we were treated to a typical Kalahari thunderstorm with blue-black clouds lit up by frequent bolts of lightning zig-zagging down to the horizon.

The only problem with this magnificent display was that it appeared to be taking place directly above our campsite. “Luckily, I zipped up all of the tent flaps before we left,” I thought to myself as we edged closer to Twee Rivieren and the rain came bucketing down around us. Carnage is the only word that comes to mind to explain the scene we were faced with upon our return to camp. It looked like Hurricane Hilda had been to visit and had invited her angry stepsister. Our awning had completely collapsed and was hanging lifelessly from the side of the trailer. Savannah’s little tent had taken the worst beating; one of the fibreglass poles had snapped in half and was poking through the nylon rain cover. The huge rip in the material had left it looking more like a paddling pool inside than a tent, so we decided to collapse it completely so I could repair the pole with some duct tape and re-erect it later on once the weather improved.

The Kalahari Rain Gods were kind enough to give us about 45 minutes to tidy up and repair our campsite before they decided to empty another 50mm of rain upon us over the next few hours. We had planned a lavish braai underneath the expansive Kalahari sky for our first night, but instead ended up whipping together some toasted sandwiches while huddled underneath our awning, getting lashed by the rain that was coming in sideways with the wind. I must hand it to my two camping companions, they handled the adverse conditions with aplomb and never let their spirits slump through the entire ordeal.

Just as we were considering retiring to the comfort of the Cruiser for a game of UNO, the rain subsided and then disappeared, allowing us to set up Savannah’s tent once more, hoping that its newly bandaged legs would stand strong through the night. Luckily, the rain stayed away and we all managed to get a decent night’s sleep before heading into the Park at 05h30 for another game drive, hoping to see more than we had the day before. After a few hours of seeing only a few lonely Wildebeest and Springbok, Des and Savannah started to question the validity of the “prolific predator sightings” they had been promised in the build-up to our little adventure. “Don’t worry! We still have plenty of time in the Park and once we reach Nossob things will improve for sure,” I assured them.

Sightings and stories

The swimming pools at the main rest camps in the Kgalagadi are the best place to be during the heat of the day to cool off and share game viewing stories with your fellow campmates. It seemed like we had just been unlucky so far on our game drives as we heard of the great sightings we had missed by choosing the wrong riverbed each time. This resulted in me being fired from game-drive-planning duty and Des and Savannah taking over this responsibility as I was clearly choosing the wrong roads to drive on. They didn’t get off to a very good start that afternoon, with the highlight of the drive being a tiny tortoise about the size of a cigarette box. Needless to say, I faced another firing squad of questions on the drive back to camp with more reassurances from me about the abundance of lions in the Nossob area, which we were heading to the next day. What concerned me more was what I saw building on the horizon, not too far from camp. Was Hilda on her way back to test us again?

We had only been back at camp for about twenty minutes when the wind started to pick up and announced the impending violence that was to come over the next few hours. I had just lit the braai but had to extinguish it when bright orange sparks started flying around the campsite in the frenzy of the storm that was about to hit us and have us huddled together, once again, under our awning.

I have to admit that our spirits were not as high as they had been the night before as this was now beyond being adventurous and quickly becoming unpleasant. This time I was determined to braai, no matter what time it was when the rain ended so we topped up our drinks and sat in the car playing UNO until the storm finally passed at around 9pm. While I was getting the fire going again, I heard a groan from Savannah. “Dad! Look at my tent!” It had once again turned into a teepee with one of the poles snapping and standing upright. We decided that braaiing would take precedence over tent repairs and that it was probably a good idea for Savannah to sleep in the car. We could fix her tent again when we reached Nossob camp the next day.

Success, at last

The next morning we packed up camp before it got too hot and made our way up the Nossob riverbed for the four-to-five hour drive to Nossob camp. As we approached the Leeudril waterhole, I saw that there was some commotion up ahead with a handful of vehicles parked at various angles. This normally indicates that something exciting is taking place. “Cheetah!” shouted Savannah as she pointed out of her window on the left side of the Cruiser. Finally! I sighed with relief as there she was: under a camel thorn tree with her two cubs and a fresh Springbok kill. The great thing about the Kgalagadi is the openness of the riverbeds. When you have a great sighting, there is enough space for everyone to have a good view without the chaos and bickering you have to endure at similar sightings in the Kruger.

The camel thorn tree that the mother had dragged the kill to was a mere 70 metres off the road, giving us all a great view as they enjoyed their Springbok breakfast feast. Satisfied that we had seen enough and had some great shots on the camera, we continued North towards Nossob. We were all chatting so excitedly about the sighting that we nearly drove past two lionesses lying right next to the road, one of them heavily pregnant. “Now this is more like the Kgalagadi I know,” I said to Des and Savannah, hoping that our luck would continue like this for the rest of the trip.

When I made the booking for our holiday with SANParks, they had asked me if I wanted a private campsite at Nossob. It was the first I had heard of these campsites and after hearing that you had your own ablution and that each campsite was spread out in the bush, I decided it was definitely worth the extra expense. Boy, did I make the right decision. Husband and Dad of the Year awards were bestowed upon me when we arrived at our private campsite and the girls had inspected the spotlessly clean private ablution. I would definitely recommend these campsites for your next visit to Nossob camp and hope that the other two rest camps follow suit and offer the same in the near future. The next three nights were going to be bliss. Hopefully, the sightings would live up to expectations too.

Kalahari Life

By now we had comfortably slipped into our Kalahari life routine of a 05h30 morning drive followed by breakfast at a picnic site or back at camp, then a few hours in the pool before lunch in the campsite and an afternoon drive. This formula seemed to work well and kept everyone satisfied with a good balance between driving in the park and relaxing at camp. It seemed like we were not alone in our disappointment in the lack of good sightings so far as most people we spoke to in the pool and around the campsite seemed to be having the same concerns.

We all agreed that the heavy rains of the previous few days had left enough surface water out in the bush, making it unnecessary for the animals to use the man-made waterholes to slake their thirst, thus making it a lot more difficult than normal to find these elusive cats. In saying this, we were having almost one cheetah sighting a day while exploring the area around Nossob and the odd lazy lion sleeping in the shade. What we were really in search of was the pride of eight lions that had regularly been seen near the Cheleka waterhole over the previous couple of days. It was a drive of around 35km to get to Cheleka so after a brief conference with our game-drive committee, it was agreed that we would head straight there the next morning to try and find them in the early morning light on our way to Mata Mata.

That evening after dinner, Savannah and I decided to take a walk over to the hide situated near the camp gate which overlooks a waterhole. If you are a follower of the Kgalagadi Sightings group on Facebook, you will know that this waterhole is often frequented by lions and the odd leopard, so it is always worth spending some time there. To my surprise, we were the only people in the hide and after about 45 minutes, Savannah’s concentration levels were completely depleted, so we decided to head back to camp and turn in for the night. As we walked across the gravel towards the campsite, I heard a scuffle next to me and when I shone my torch in the direction of the noise, we both got a bit of a fright to see as a two-metre-long Cape Cobra slithering away from us into the darkness. We must have been very close to standing on that little critter. Thankfully not!

It’s a pride thing

With our mugs and flasks full of tea and coffee, we headed for Cheleka waterhole as soon as the camp gates opened. This was our last morning in the Nossob area, so we were due for a good lion sighting as a goodbye gift. We resisted the temptation of popping past Marie se Gat waterhole and stuck to our plan of getting to Cheleka as early as possible. Judging by the stream of cars all heading in the same direction with purpose, we were not the only ones with Cheleka as our primary goal for the morning. We lost a few places in the queue as we stopped to photograph some Spotted Eagle Owl fledglings in a tree right next to the road.

A few kilometres later, we caught up with the rest of the front-runners as they were all parked and looking to the left with camera lenses and binoculars firmly fixed on something. As we approached slowly so not to spook whatever they were watching, we noticed a large male lion and his lioness lying under a bush right next to the road. Once we got closer, we were able to see the rest of the pride lying right in the middle of the riverbed in all their glory. Four sub-adult-cubs and two lionesses lay there inspecting the growing audience they were attracting. We found a good position, switched off the engine and sat and watched as the cubs playfully wrestled with each other and the two lionesses.

Des was in her element as the camera clicked away at 100mph. After about 20 minutes of this playful behaviour, one of the lionesses got up and started making her way across the riverbed away from us, so we thought it was only a matter of time before they disappeared into the distance to find some shade for the rest of the day. Just as all of the cubs were about to follow the leader, one of them turned around and started looking back down the riverbed behind us. Seconds later, they were all fixated on something in that direction. “Maybe there is some Springbok down there that they are interested in,” we contemplated. After a quick look with the binoculars, we realised that there was another lioness approaching from the left.

As she got closer to the group, the cubs exploded towards her and the affectionate reunion that ensued for the next few minutes brought tears to Des’ eyes as she furiously clicked away while enjoying the scene through the viewfinder. Smiling like Cheshire cats, we decided it was time to continue on to Dikbaardskolk picnic site for a spot of breakfast. Once we had devoured our homemade roosterkoek with bacon, brie and cranberry jelly we packed up and headed into the dunes to join up with the Auob river road to Mata Mata. These dune roads don’t generally have too much game on them, so I decided that it was a good time to let Des drive and I caught forty winks after the hectic morning we had just enjoyed.

Miera, the leopard

The 55km seemed like minutes and I woke from a deep sleep just before we reached the intersection with the Mata Mata road. We had heard a few poolside stories over the past couple of days about Miera the leopard and her two cubs that had been spotted around the Batulama waterhole. We knew from the Kgalagadi Sightings Facebook group that she was regularly seen in this area, so we had to make a decision. Turn right to Mata Mata or left to Batulama waterhole?

It was only 15km to Batulama and we still had plenty of time to get to Mata Mata so we decided it was worth the detour and turned left in search of Miera and her cubs. We had spoken to a couple while at a cheetah sighting North of Nossob who told us that they had seen Miera a few days before with only one of the cubs so we were not sure if we were looking for two or three leopards. Once again, as even one would be fantastic and once again as we approached the waterhole, the familiar frenzy of vehicles gave us hope that there was some action up ahead.

When we first arrived at the waterhole, we couldn’t see what everyone was looking at but just then, from behind the water reservoir, appeared a young leopard. After scanning the area with the binoculars, and chatting to some of the other vehicles, we established that this was indeed one of Miera’s cubs and he was alone. We sat for over an hour, watching him stalk and hunt doves using the reservoir as cover from the blazing sun. Unfortunately, he was quite a distance from the road so we didn’t manage to get any award-winning shots of him, but instead just sat and enjoyed the sighting through our binoculars, glad that we were able to see one of the magnificent cats that we had been searching for over the past five days.

The drive to Mata Mata went by with very little excitement, except for another cheetah and cub sighting in the distance on the other side of the riverbed. No award-winning photos there either, so we hurried along to Mata Mata with our hearts filled with anxiety that we once again were being thrown into the boiling pot of the public campsite. How would we cope without our own ablutions for the next three nights? Nossob’s private campsite had truly spoiled us, but I was sure we would manage.

Mata Mata magic

The campsite at Mata Mata was pretty busy when we arrived all of the sites along the fence were already occupied, so we settled for one that had some good shade and was close to the swimming pool. We had not seen a cloud in the sky since Hurricane Hilda had left us at Twee Rivieren so the swimming pool was an important part of our survival over the next three days. The ablutions at Mata Mata are kept spotlessly clean and even more so with the threat of COVID-19 lingering in the air, so we quickly forgot about our privileged nights with our own ablution.

The one thing that we really wanted to do during our stay in the Kgalagadi was to go on a sunset drive from one of the camps and seeing as Mata Mata was our last stop, we decided it was now or never. Our game drives around Mata Mata up until that point had not been very fruitful, so we thought we might have better luck going out with one of the guides. It also gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of the Kgalagadi away from the comfort of your air-conditioned vehicle.

The light that evening was spectacular and we managed to get great shots of some swallow-tailed bee-eaters as they soaked up the last rays before the bright orange ball sank slowly below the horizon. It was then that the end-of-holiday blues set in. We realised that our time in the Kgalagadi was nearing an end and that the next day we had to pack up and start the long journey home. A brief sighting of an African Wild Cat was the highlight of the after-dark portion of the drive, but it was still exciting to be out in the Park while everyone else was locked away behind the camp gates.

That night we fell asleep with heavy hearts, to the cries of jackals at the waterhole, knowing that in the morning we would have to say goodbye to this magnificent place and re-enter the real world of COVID-19 regulations, statistics and pending lockdowns. “Can’t we just stay here forever?” Savannah asked me in the morning. “I wish we could, my babe, I really wish we could.”

About Ultimate Adventures

Official tour operator for Adventure-Avontuur Afrika, Ultimate Adventures is run by the husband-and-wife team of Simon and Desiree Steadman. Offering top quality self-drive adventure tours throughout the continent, they pride themselves on delivering expeditions of the highest standards. Their hospitality, attention to detail and superb catering, courtesy of a chef accompanying each trip, is legendary.

Some highlights on the tour calendar include:

  • Koakoland Expedition: 28 March – 13 April 2021
  • Ultimate Kalahari Experience: 18 – 30 April 2021
  • Makgadikgadi Pans: 8 – 16 May 2021
  • Ultimate Tanzania Expedition: 27 May – 28 June 2021
  • Okavango Delta Adventure: 9 – 20 September 2021 (fully booked – watch this space for new dates)
  • Morocco Sahara Desert Experience: 23 September – 3 October 2021
  • North & South Luangwa Expedition: 9 – 28 October 2021
  • Zambia Migrations Expedition: 1 – 14 November 2021
  • Ultimate Namibia Experience: 28 December 2021 – 11 January 2022

*Visit https://ultimateadventures.tv/ or https://4x4afrika.com/category/travel/tours/ for more information.

Contact: Simon on +27 84 447 4666 or simon@ultimateadventures.tv

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