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

Lose your heart in the red dunes

Since the completion of his beloved overlanding beast, #HiluxDevilBuild, Stuart Queripel has dreamt of undertaking a proper self-drive (and self-planned) overlanding adventure. The mere mention of wild camping, with the sound of roaring lions lulling you to sleep, was enough to convince his better half, Oksana, to venture out to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park during their annual leave.

It will not be fair to not start this article without a very stern, very serious warning: If you venture to the Kgalagadi, you will lose your heart and you will never be the same again, always dreaming of going back!

I have been blessed to join many group adventures in my lifetime, to various places – always as part of a convoy, with most arrangements taken care of by a tour guide or company. For me, it was about learning from the best and venturing into the wild, but with a safety net of sorts. However, it was time for Oksana and I to take our travel plans into our own hands and embark on our biggest self-planned adventure to date – a week-long trip from Durban to the renowned Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

Contrary to the advice given in every YouTube video we watched and in every Facebook post or magazine write-up we read, we left our bookings to only a few weeks before we left. Thankfully, the SanParks website is well-run and super easy to navigate. Within a few clicks, we were fortunate enough to find accommodation at the Twee Rivieren, Nossob, and Mata Mata camps within the park. We mixed up camping with a few ‘luxury’ chalet nights, which made for an incredible and authentic African bush experience.

The long trek to the Kgalagadi from Durban is half the fun, but it is far – 1 469km to be exact. But as former American President, Lyndon B. Johnson, once said: “Sometimes it is the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.” This rang quite true as Oksana kept us entertained with interesting titbits and information about the immense desert area we were heading to. For example, did you know that the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the largest conservation areas in the world, spanning 3.6 million hectares? Or that it is home to over 250 species of birds, ranging from the largest bird in the world – the ostrich – to the heaviest flying bird in Africa, the Kori Bustard? By the way, the latter can weigh up to 19kg!

From KwaZulu-Natal, it’s a scenic drive through South Africa’s beautiful remote countryside. We split the trip over two days, with day one having us drive from our home in Warner Beach on the South Coast to the banks of the Riet River in the Mokala National Park, just outside Kimberley. A mighty Karoo thunderstorm welcomed us on our first evening – a sign of things to come. This part of South Africa is known for its spectacular afternoon thunderstorms, and not a single day went by that we didn’t experience Mother Nature in all her glory. Truly magnificent!

The second day of travelling took us further west from Kimberley to Upington and then north to Askham, where we were treated to a spectacular drive through the red dunes of the Kalahari. In all my travels, I have yet to experience anything like this – endless mounds of red desert sand… incredible to drive through and even more impressive to appreciate if you have a drone.

The red sand of the R360, which splits South Africa and Botswana, leads you to the gates of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where your adventure begins. At the Twee Rivieren (TR) reception, the team welcomed us with that well-known Northern Cape hospitality and after the usual paperwork, we were guided to our accommodation. If you frequently visit our country’s national parks, I recommend getting a Wildcard. This is valid for a year and gives you access to all of South Africa’s national parks at an exceptionally good rate. TR is also a border post – however, you only need your passport if you travel through the park and out into Botswana or Namibia.

On our first night, we camped at TR under an African sky that lit up with stars and galaxies. After a campfire and a few ice-cold refreshments, we retired early as we wanted to be one of the first at the gate in the morning. As with all three rest camps we visited, TR is clean and well maintained, had a shop with everything you may need and fuel stations with both petrol and diesel. TR was the only camp where we had a relatively good cell phone signal. As you travel further north, there is nothing – however, you can purchase WiFi vouchers at the other camps if you need to keep in touch with the outside world.

The following day, as the sun rose over the red dunes, we headed into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and it wasn’t long before it delivered on the promised magic. Our first sighting was a large leopard with an African wildcat in its mouth. She proudly displayed her kill and headed up over the dunes for breakfast. We could not believe our eyes! Even more peculiar was the fact there was not a single other vehicle around to witness the kill with us…

The rest of our trip continued in a similar fashion. Sighting after sighting, the wildlife in this park is abundant, mainly due to its layout. The two rivers – the Nossob (meaning dark clay) and the Auob (meaning bitter water) – that run south and meet at TR Camp are dotted with manmade water holes, which attract the animals. To be fair though, referring to these as ‘rivers’ is a bit of a stretch as they are basically sandy riverbeds, with no sign of water at all!

Oksana and I wondered why this park was not as commercialised as the Kruger. During our visit (which fell in the middle of the school holidays), it was at 100% capacity, with every campsite and chalet spoken for. However, we only saw 13 other vehicles. I am certainly not complaining, as the unperturbed views of the big cats were a massive treat compared to the traffic jams you often experience in some of the other national parks.

And speaking of big cats… If you, like us, love to watch lions, leopards, and cheetahs in the wild, I can assure you the Kgalagadi will not disappoint. If you are a bird lover, this is a paradise with exquisite birds of prey aplenty. Not to mention the little creatures – the meerkats, the bat-eared foxes, tree rats, snakes and scorpions! Whatever your nature fix, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park will deliver! As a photographer, I highly recommend you invest in or rent a 600mm lens for your time in the park, as the animals are often sitting in plain sight (through this lens) on the dunes or make a kill 50-plus meters away. The extra bit of zoom brings you closer to the action and delivers some great images.

What I do have to mention, though, is the dry heat in this area. It is hot, especially during the summer holidays. Aptly named ‘Land of the Thirst’ by the local San people, the mercury constantly hovers upwards of 40°C, and further north, temperatures are known to get up to 50°C. Conversely, the desert gets cold at night, with temperatures dropping to around 6°C (and even -10°C in the winter months!). Planning your trip at the correct time of year is crucial for enjoying your time in the park.

We travelled in my trusty overland-ready Hilux and were prepared for anything the notorious African Kalahari Desert could throw at us, but we never had to reach for the 4×4 dial. Most of the gravel roads in the park are well maintained, and many of the vehicles we saw were regular family sedans. It is, however, recommended to lower your tyre pressure when you enter the park and be prepared for the badly corrugated gravel road to Mata Mata on the South African/Namibian border. If you want to travel further to the Botswana camps or some of the exclusive tented camps, you will require a 4×4.

When planning this trip, we read that everyone who visits the area returns forever changed. This was certainly true for us too. A piece of our hearts was left in the red dunes, and we are already planning our return.  

Follow Stuart on social media: @just_q_and_his_canon or @hiluxdevilbuild

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