(c) DJT 2002

Travel the Desert with Plenty of Water - A Kalahari Experience

While travelling on lonely deserts roads, especially by yourself, I cannot overstate how important it is to take plenty of water. By that I mean at least enough to last two or three days, even if the journey should just take a couple of hours. An African safari experience serves to illustrate the dangers.

In January of 1984, I drove from Johannesburg to what was then the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, which lay on the borders of South Africa, South West Africa (now Namibia) and Botswana. It extended into Botswana but the South African National Parks Board managed the Botswana section, turning poachers over to the Botswana police. It is now called The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 15,000 sqare miles (38,000 square kilometres) in area, about a quarter of which is part of the Republic of South Africa.

I took a rarely used route that comprised an unpaved road along the bank of the dry Kuruman river, near the border of Botswana. I wanted to see as much wildlife as possible on the way to the national park, you see.

I spent ten fascinating days in the national park, seeing lions every day and cheetahs on a few occasions. I also saw many other fascinating desert creatures including rare brown hyenas. I was surprised to see a warthog, as I thought that they were not present in the national park. A member of staff told me that there was no permanent population in the South African area of the park but that they sometimes came in from Botswana. There were many gemsboks, or oryx, after which the national park was named, as well as springboks, blue wildebeests, red hartebeests and smaller animals such as ground squirrels and suricate meerkats. Kudus and elands were also present but I don't recall seeing them. There was also fascinating birdlife and I especially recall the numerous and amazingly tame sandgrouse (they couldn't wait to get into the shade of my car), the zooming sound of huge black vultures as they swooped down to a carcass, and eagle owls patiently sitting out the midday heat in a bush next to my car. The evenings were filled with the pinging calls of barking geckos (Ptenopus lizards). It was too hot to close the door of my hut, especially in Nossob Rest Camp, so at night my room swarmed with insects and sometimes the bats that hunted them.

I was fortunate enough to meet the distinguished conservationists and zoologists Dr Anthony Hall-Martin and Professor Fritz Eloff, the latter also being influential in South Africa's rugby administration at the time. I happened to be watching one of the rare brown hyenas when Dr Hall-Martin's car came to a sudden stop next to mine. He apologised in case he disturbed my wildlife watching but I did not mind.

I was also privileged to watch San (Bushman) rangers as they tracked lions. They were looking for some lion cubs that a pride had been sheltering in some reeds, next to an artificial waterhole north of Nossob Rest Camp. I had seen the cubs myself a couple of days before. Unfortunately, I had to inform Professor Eloff that I had seen hyenas in the reeds the day before the tracking took place. He asked me whether they were brown hyenas and he looked crestfallen when I told him that they were spotted hyenas. It didn't look good for the cubs.

It was extremely hot but I enjoyed every minute that I was in the national park. I stayed mostly at Nossob Rest Camp, which a member of staff told me was actually in Botswana. However, I think that she may have been mistaken, as it lay on the southwestern bank of the dry Nossob river. I spent my first and last nights at Twee Rivieren Rest Camp. Unlike at Nossob Camp, the huts at Twee Rivieren were air conditioned but the electricity was switched off at night, when you most needed the air conditioner's cooling influence.

I then headed back to Johannesburg along the same route by which I had come. However, I made several mistakes that put my life in danger, especially as it was before the era of mobile phones.

Firstly, I travelled in mid-January. That is the hottest time of the year in that part of the world, making thirst a real problem if I became stranded. (However, I did see the area at a time of the year when few visitors experience it. I was the only "tourist" in the rest camps where I stayed, and the only people I encountered were staff members and professional zoologists.)

Secondly, driving the rarely travelled and unpaved road along the bank of the dry Kuruman River made it less likely that I would receive assistance if I broke down.

Thirdly, I travelled that long road, consisting of notoriously soft Kalahari sand, as well as the similar roads within the national park itself, not in a truck or a four-wheel drive vehicle but in a plain ten-year-old Volkswagen Passat.

Fourthly, both while driving to and from the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, I took only enough water and other drinks to last one day! Part of the danger is that dehydration or hyperthermia (overheating) can affect one's mind and lead to acts of poor judgment, such as walking away from one's vehicle.

I arrived AT the national park without any obvious problems. I drove mostly on the bed of the Nossob River. (The road actually criss-crossed the Botswana border, as was evidenced by the frontier markers on the river bed.) However, after several days in the park, my engine began to sound different. The Kalahari sand was choking it! Still young and fairly reckless, I drove up to the northern limit of the park at Union's End. (That and Unie End were the names on the sign when I got there, although after becoming a republic, the name on maps became World's End.) I even crossed into South West Africa, still administered by South Africa at the time but now independent Namibia. I even went, perhaps, a little further than I should have into Botswana.

At last I had to drive back to Johnannesburg. I took with me only a few 250ml cartons of fruit juice in spite of the 40 degrees Celsius and higher temperatures. Outside of the national park, I saw less mammalian wildlife than I had hoped to see. In fact, I saw only a steenbok and a few dead zorillas and spring hares. Between the villages of Askham and Vanzylsrus, which lie 146 kilometers apart, I met only one other vehicle, a truck, during the entire journey, which was made slower by the drifts of sand and my dust-choked engine. About halfway between the villages, I rested under the only shady tree I passed, a camelthorn (also called a giraffe thorn). (In Afrikaans, the word for giraffe is "kameelperd", which in times past was sometimes shortened to "kameel" (camel).) When I started to drive away, I saw that there were a number of vultures in the tree, although the tree had been empty of them when I arrived. A vulturine vote of no confidence indeed! However, I did reach Vanzylsrus and comparative safety. If my car had broken down before then, however, there is a very real possibility that I could have died of thirst!. I remember reading of an unfortunate young woman who died after wandering away from her car near the village of Askham.

I reached Kuruman and spent the night in a hotel. In spite of my groaning car engine, the next morning I stubbornly visited the Moffat Mission, as I had planned, before I continued my journey. My luck did partially run out, however, as my car finally broke down after nightfall, just a few miles before I reached Rustenburg. Fortunately, two passing Tswana men, walking by the side of the road, made a temporary repair. They looked poor but refused payment and walked into the darkness. I spent the night in a Rustenburg hotel. The next morning, my car was repaired at a local garage. It was a Saturday and it was the mechanic's day off but he came in to help me, a stranger.

My desire to cram as much as possible into my journey was so great that I spent the afternoon driving around the Pilanesberg National Park, encountering, among other animals, a black rhino bull that was in a huff and made a mock charge at another vehicle. That national park was in the then quasi-independent state of Bophutatswana and was near the fabulous Sun City resort, which I have never visited as I prefer watching wildlife. I spent the night in a nearby hotel and then I spent much of the next day driving around the same national park, seeing both white and black rhinos (a cow with a calf in the latter case). Eventually, I completed my journey back to Johannesburg that night.

As I sit writing this, I have had to contemplate as never before how foolish I was and yet what a wonderful experience I had. It was partly due to considerable good fortune but also thanks to the kindness of strangers of different races and cultures. In my less material and cynical moments, I sometimes wonder whether those two passing Tswana men, who assisted me and then disappeared into the night, were angels. In any case, I am thankful to God and to them and to those at the Rustenburg garage who went out of their way to help me.

Later, I had other wonderful experiences while travelling deeper into the Kalahari, or Kgalagadi, in Botswana but I was not travelling alone or in an ordinary car. However, I will always treasure the memories of that marvellous but reckless solo adventure.

However, as Jesus told Satan, it is written that thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test. Don't make the same foolish mistakes that I did. IF YOU TRAVEL IN THE DESERT, TAKE PLENTY OF WATER! Much more, in fact, than you think that you will need.


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