Kgalagadi Road Trip
When I think about the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, (Kgalagadi means “Land Of The Thirst” in the Khoi language) which is pretty much as far north as South Africa extends, the first thing that springs to mind is a dry, almost lifeless desert. How wrong that assumption is. After a summer of excellent rains, which were far from over, (more about that later), the Kgalagadi Game Reserve was a green paradise, with lush grasslands and full waterholes. It just goes to show, never assume, it also goes to demonstrate the miracle of water, how it transforms the bleakest environment and brings life to a parched world.
But First, Getting There
It’s a long drive from our home near Mossel Bay in the Garden Route, especially when travelling the over 1000 Km via the back roads of the Western and Northern Cape, many of them gravel. I just love roads like this, taking us through places with names like Loxton, Carnarvon, Van Wyksvlei, Kenhardt and Kakamas (sadly we didn’t make it to Putsonderwater this time). Passing through interesting villages and incredible scenery, where you won’t see another car for hours, now that’s exactly my kind of road trip.
We made the decision to break the journey at Augrabies Falls, near Upington on the Orange River, which was in good form after the rains. For some reason, we didn’t stay at the falls, which has some really comfortable looking self-catering chalets, mere steps from the gorge, opting to overnight at Lake Grappa which is a short distance away. The accommodation was great, but it meant that we missed the sunrise over the falls, so lighting wasn’t that ideal, I realise now that time of day is super important if you hope to get good photos of the falls. Next time then.
It’s a bit of a drive from the Falls to Upington, just over 100 Km, from there the road heads North towards the Kgalagadi. En-route it was quite something to see this massive shining tower standing in what appears to be the middle of nowhere, it’s visible from at least 50 Km away. We took a detour into the property which goes by the name of Khi Solar One. It’s centred around a solar “tower” which generates 50 megawatts of clean energy, enough to power 45 000 households. Really impressive.
Onward to The Kgalagadi
From the Eastern outskirts of Upington, the road heads North, it’s a good idea to pick up any essentials in town before the 230 Km drive to the Kgalagadi, because from here it’s getting into some remote country. This is real wilderness, actually the last remaining really wild part of South Africa. It’s a harsh environment, and totally unforgiving, you’ve got to have huge respect for the folks that settled this place. Now, the good tar road whisks you North through a desolate land, but back in the day, wow, respect!
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
The main gate to the Kgalagadi is at Twee Rivieren at the Southern point of the park, which serves as the administrative centre. There is a rest camp with fuel and a basic shop, it’s advisable to stock up on firewood if you plan to braai, also fuel, which is not always available deeper into the park, and lastly let your tyre pressure down, because from here it’s sand driving.
Actually, the roads in this Southern part are reasonably good, the further you penetrate the park, the rougher they get. It had been raining quite heavily and there were some deep “puddles” to get through which become quite muddy, so a 4 wheel drive vehicle really is recommended.
Kgalagadi is a “transfrontier” park, which covers portions of South Africa and Botswana, and it has a long border with Namibia in the west. You will need your passport, and importantly, ownership documents for your vehicle, or authorisation to take it across an international border if you aren’t the owner. At the entrance gate, you’ll be required to clear customs and immigration for both South Africa and Botswana before heading on your way.
After expecting a dry, desert experience we were surprised to find that the reserve was a lush green after good recent rains, in fact, we were treated to a magnificent African thunderstorm on our first night, with buckets of rain and much wind. Our overnight stop was Mata Mata, which is another 120 Km from Twee Rivieren, but allow plenty of time for stops, and bearing in mind that it’s a sand track. It will take at least 3.5 hours, probably longer if the local wildlife plays along. It is possible to travel the road in a non-4×4 vehicle, we saw a couple of them, but it’s not advisable in my opinion.
What a privilege it was to come across 3 male lions on a kill right next to the road, and, a little further along a very distressed mother cheetah with her young cub, the reason was quickly apparent, a lioness sitting on a ridge maybe 300 metres away. The cheetah sent her cub ahead only moments before the lioness came streaking down the ridge, covering the distance in a couple of seconds.
The cheetah mom took off in the opposite direction to her cub, luring the lioness away, and, being a cheetah, she was easily able to outrun the bigger cat, which I think went hungry that night. Although, cheetah normally have 2 cubs, the fact that there was only one youngster makes me think that maybe the lion was more successful on another occasion. Life in the African bush can be very cruel to the weak, the sick, the very young and the old.
Kalahari Tented Camp
Our accommodation was at the Kalahari Tented Camp at Mata Mata, on the Namibian border, comfortable but pretty basic, as you would expect from Sanparks. The accommodation is a tent, as you might have picked up from the name of the camp, but they are pretty sturdy and are covered by a solid roof. It’s not like the sort of tent you throw in the back of your car, I guess it’s kind of what could be called “glamping”, with all luxuries to make life comfortable in the wilderness. A fridge, covered dining area, small kitchen, shower and so on. The tents are elevated above the surrounding veld but aren’t fenced as such, apart from a gate to keep your vehicle safe from tyre munching lions and hyenas.
A couple of cheetah hunting a herd of springbok, unsuccessfully, right in front of our tent was the highlight. The pair then headed past our tent, less than 50 metres away from where we were enjoying an end of day braai and sundowners, before sauntering through the camp on their way to wherever it is that cheetahs go. The camp is unfenced, so walking around isn’t a good idea, especially at night when the sounds of hyenas, as they roam through the camp is the only thing that breaks the silence.
Mother of all Thunderstorms
OK well, that’s maybe an exaggeration, but I tell you what, when an African thunderstorm passes directly over your tent at 2 AM, it sure feels like the end of the world is at hand. We watched the distant lightning earlier in the evening and at around 2.30 AM on our first night were woken by the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard, this after being rudely disturbed earlier by a hyena cackling outside the bedroom window. Seriously, it felt as though the tent was about to take off, I could then understand why the solid roof structure overhead. It’s a tent, so not really designed to withstand massive amounts of water, and water came in everywhere, the floor of the bedroom was absolutely flooded, but the bed itself stayed dry, which is something to be grateful about.
I tell you, it was a pretty intense experience, but when we asked the staff next morning whether it was unusual they just laughed and said that it was a fairly mild storm. Gets much worse they said and photos in the camp reception of a full on river where there’s now grassland in front of the camp, bear it out.
Exploring The Park
Mata Mata is on the Western boundary of the park on the Namibian border, there is a border post, but you need to spend at least 2 nights in the park if you wish to cross into Namibia, which was our plan. We would have loved to go deeper into the park, to Nossob or Grootkolk, but accommodation is quite limited and somewhat hard to come by, often it’s booked month’s ahead, so we take what we can get.
Having said that though, there are plenty of waterholes in the area surrounding Mata Mata, for game viewing that’s what you need, the animals tend to stick around the water. With a 4×4 vehicle, there are loads of tracks and backroads to follow, with some incredible scenery and great lookout points. We found that sometimes it’s best just to sit near a waterhole and let the game come to you, rather than driving around hoping to find them. There is a constant parade of wildlife coming and going, it’s a very rewarding way to spend a couple of hours.
There are other vehicles of course, but this is nothing compared to the Kruger Park, with it’s congestion and competition to get the best viewpoint, especially when the big cats are around. Other visitors were always considerate and discrete, the park is large, and being so remote it’s far less visited, so there is plenty of space for all.
For the sake of keeping the download of this page reasonable not all images are shown, you can view the full Kgalagadi photo gallery here.
- Being a cross-border park, you will need passports and vehicle registration papers to enter.
- The park is large, about 200 Km North to South and 80 Km wide, with only sand tracks, many of which are only passable in a proper 4×4 vehicle (not a soft-roader).
- Fuel is not available everywhere so fill up wherever you find it.
- You need to take drinking water and firewood, some camps like Twee Rivieren, Mata Mata and Nossob do have shops, but they don’t always have what you might need, this is the Kalahari after all.
- There is limited accommodation and even the more remote camps are often booked out month’s in advance, so it’s imperative to book way ahead of your planned visit.
- It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, this is real Africa and the animals are wild, many of them will eat you given the chance, so don’t be foolish, stay in your car and don’t go out of your accommodation at night.
- But most of all enjoy this last piece of a genuinely unspoilt wilderness.