Kalahari’s New Day

African SunsetOpened as a protected reserve in 1931 the Kalahari Gemsbok National Reserve straddles the South Africa Botswana border and makes up the southern most portion of the greater Kalahari Desert. It is a sanctuary for a wide variety of game and I hoped to see them all; giraffe, hyena, cheetah, wildebeest, lion etc…and the incredibly elusive Leopard. Like everyone I wanted that photo of a leopard relaxing on a tree branch, staring straight at me with a look of calm self-indulgence as it processes the ease in which it could scare the crap out of me with little more than a swift move in my direction.

It was the middle of summer though, a time when temperatures average 104 degrees, and swift moves on the part of a leopard or anything else with a pulse were few and far between. Our first day would start out early in order to beat the heat; give us a few hours before the wildlife collectively decided to retreat to any place offering shade. As the padlock to the entrance was removed and the gate made a wide berth to officially open the reserve, our jeep moved forward at a crawl.

We had arrived at base camp last night and after a braai and beer had bedded down for the night. The entrance to the reserve, at that time gated shut, was only a few hundred feet from me. As I lay down under the infinite blue of the African sky the last rays of the setting sun melted into the tops of the acacia trees; the horizon a blazing orange. I slept well. 

By 5 am we had eaten a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon then washed; I remember this part well as my toothbrush had become the resting pad for a scorpion with a Houdini complex. Following its eviction we cranked up the jeep and made our way to the gate.

Anticipation was high.

Reward, when immediate, is a bittersweet thing. You can easily fall into the trap of thinking this to be normal. It leaves you vulnerable to let-down when future experiences cannot possibly live up to the bar set by a fluke of instant gratification.

I kept this in mind as not more than five minutes passed the gate, traveling at a snail’s pace, we came upon a female cheetah and her two cubs. They were crouched down and drinking from the muddy shallows of a waterhole better described as a puddle. Our arrival broke their concentration but only long enough for Mama to glance up and dismiss us as no real threat.

As a spectator you can’t help wonder what they were thinking. The cubs were clearly not thinking much of us, or of the water, as they spent their time leaping about and playing. Mama on the other hand always had one eye in our direction; even when attempting to corral the cubs and instill in them the importance of water during these long, hot, dry days of summer.

As the cubs settled down and drank, all four eyes became trained on us. A look of curiosity and skepticism swept over them and their expressions changed. Their body language lurched them forward playfully, towards us, but this seemed tempered by past teachings. They gave the high-pitched snarl of a cub proving might and kept drinking, now imitating Mama with an eye in every direction.

Throughout the morning we follow the road alongside the bed of a dry river. The flow of green grasses no more than a few feet wide, keep us on track. It seems all animals have congregated in this area and we are fortunate to encounter wildebeest, eland, springbok, and several prides of resting lion.

At one location we stopped the jeep as the guide had heard lions were in the area. We waited patiently; eyes scanning the shadows for any sign of movement. Almost immediately branches and rocks became life-size predators and we saw lions at every turn.

It takes time for your eyes to focus in on wildlife. I think we all want to bear witness so desperately to the natural inhabitants of the great wild that we see them when there is nothing to see. Rocks and branches refocus back to what they really are and the mirage of a lion surge melts back into the waves of rising heat.

After several minutes it was decided to move to a better spot. As the engine-turned over with a start, a head, no more than ten feet from us rose above the blades. A sleepy-eyed lioness focused in. Without a sound several more lion heads surfaced. All in all a pride of eight lay undetected, within jumping distance of our open-back jeep.

It was an incredible sight. Like huge house cats that could devour you. A couple were even laying on their backs, front paws flopped forward as they rolled in the grass to regain their disturbed comfort.

We lapped up the encounter locking in the appropriate amount of awe.

Other than our route, the rest of the park is bone dry;  some sections are made up entirely of red dirt and stone or massive sand dunes. We exited the jeep to ascend one of these dunes and in the reflected heat of a midday sun we felt slightly more cooked at the summit than we had at the base.

By afternoon we were back at camp and setting up the evenings braai (BBQ). The experience in the park had been incredible and the guide had been an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding not only animals but also the connected nature of the entire ecological system; from dung beetles to lions, his enthusiasm was contagious.

I sat with my group, a beer in one hand, once again watching the sun burn orange over the distant horizon as only the setting sun in Africa can.

I head to bed shortly after the fall of darkness. My Afrikaans neighbors talk of politics and “blacks” is disturbing but all to common; drinking has made the rhetoric louder and even more racist…if that is possible.

In the morning I am awoken by a pit bull licking my feet. He follows me outside and together we sit and watch the dawn of a new day in Africa.

Maybe today I will find my leopard.

More images of South Africa and Botswana

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39 thoughts on “Kalahari’s New Day

  1. We recently rescued feral kittens who we are trying to get adopted. When we first rescued them, we also caught the mother. Well, the woman from the rescue who came to help us had us release the feral Mama with the kittens in our very small bathroom where they stayed for a week until the Mama was spayed and release. We couldn’t touch the Mama or the kittens because Mama wanted to kill us. Every time I went to the bathroom for a week, I had an experience similar to you with Mama cheetah and her cubs. Not something you normally experience with city living.

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  2. Great description of your experience at the Kalahari Gemsbok National Reserve . I felt as if I was there. You were very fortunate to see the wildlife you did. But I think the scorpion on the toothbrush might have left me with creepy-crawlies for the rest of the trip.

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  3. Sounds awesome – well except for the scorpion. I’d love to visit Africa but I’m afraid if it ever happens it’s going to have to be with one of those touristy safaris – in fact I have photos of Giraffe Manor is on my bucket list.

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  4. Another place, courtesy of you, that I can put on my places I want to visit. Africa was one of the last mysterious places we had as kids. TV and movies would show us a world there that we were not used to. I hope that it can last and not be populated and destroyed like the other places we knew as children.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

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  5. Wow ( How many times have I used that word before when commenting on your blog?) You are unbelievable. I think you are living 4 lifetimes, I think I’m taking a trip when I go to Santa Monica. Although Africa doesn’t have the same appeal to me as some of your other excursions, the images are fascinating. Those sand dunes, how big are they? That’s such an unusual image they look as if they illuminated.

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    1. I have been fortunate in my travels Pamela; of this I am well aware. Africa is certainly a place that grabs your heart. Those sand dunes were about a hundred feet tall I would guess and with the sun in the right spot they do look illuminated for sure.

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    1. On the very last day in Botswana I spotted a leopard. He ran in front of the jeep and withing a few seconds was gone. We did try and find him for a while but he vanished as quick as he appeared. Was still great though.

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  6. Tim, I loved the part about the little cheetahs – turning into these little snarling ‘monsters’. It would be hard to take them too serious after having seen them first playing around like kittens.
    The photos are gorgeous – the lion between the tree branches is wow – bet you felt on top of the world after having captured that photo.
    So glad to have you back again – missed these posts.

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  7. Tim — you’re a born story teller. I could feel the heat and the gaze of the cheetahs. If it is so dry how do the animals find water to sustain themselves? Also, how did you keep yourself hydrated? I’m also surprised you were travelling in an open jeep. Maybe you like to live on the edge!

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    1. With regard to the open jeep the “common wisdom” is that the animals see the jeep as one big object. The fact that we are smaller objects inside it keeps you protected…seemed to work. Hydration – I drank a ton of water but the animals had to eek out water where-ever it was available; a rare commodity however there were some waterholes.

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  8. What a lovely pastoral feel to this post, and its style definitely evokes the power of place. I can relate to what you wrote about looking so hard for wildlife that you start to see animals where they really are not present at all. I remember going for mountain drives with my dad, and he could spot an elk (under a tree on the steep slope of a mountainside) much faster than I ever could.

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      1. I remember to when my dad would point out animals on the hill when he would take me spotting at the start of hunting season. I was such a liar and would tell him I could see whatever animal he was wanting me to find with the binoculars. Eventually my skills improved though…

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  9. Tim, I absolutely love your writing style. I hope this blog is the fodder for a travel memoir. But the 104 degree weather and the scorpion don’t make me want to follow in your footsteps. Perhaps I will feel differently once I have actually experienced Africa. Thx for sharing …

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    1. Between Jacquie and you the thought has definitely crossed my mind. Right now I am very happy you like the writing and the stories. Just so you know this scorpion was one of two I encountered. The second was under my bed…not to freak you out or anything 🙂

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  10. Sounds awesome Tim! When you were describing how the branches and rocks turned into lions, my thoughts went to a Costa Rica trip. The guide would tell us to look at a rock, we wouldn’t know why and then there – some kind of snake “appears.” Vivid storytelling. Rejoice in all the wonder and splendor you did see. And thanks so much for the wonderful pictures.

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  11. What a stunning place! Unfortunately I didn’t have time to go near the border with Botswana when I was in South Africa but now I can see how much I was missing! It’s definitely on my list when I go back!

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  12. Thanks for sharing this post Tim. The pictures are absolutely breathtaking! It must be an incredible feeling to witness wildlife roaming around freely in a safe haven.

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    1. It is and makes you really wonder about zoos and there benefit to society. The feeling of seeing a lion in the wild, or a wildebeest for that matter, is not like any experience garnered at a zoo and from behind a protective fence.

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  13. “Maybe today I will find my leopard.”

    You and every other person on Safari ever! Good luck with seeing one and great post. I really enjoyed your writing and always get a warm feeling inside when people are enjoying my country.

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  14. Beautifully told Tim! I truly understand wanting so badly to see something that you somehow have the power to conjure it! Laugh! But you did see some amazing things…the cheetah and her cubs sound completely enthralling:) And I do hope you saw your leopard. The pictures are spectacular. Made my throat dry just looking at them:)

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    1. I certainly did see some amazing things Jacquie and your right, this is the one and only time I saw a cheetah family so it remains pretty special. As for the leopard, well…

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  15. Hoping for a leopard and get… a scorpion on your toothbrush! eeeek! haha. Ah well totally worth it! I hope to go to Africa in the next couple of years and Kalahari sounds like a great place to view some awesome wildlife!

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