The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a place of stillness and constant motion; of monotony and fulsome drama; and of emptiness and relentless abundance. It’s full of colour and absence, darkness and astonishing light, sound and absolute silence. It’s a place that will unsettle you and embrace you and change you.
Something special happened when we woke up there before dawn and watched mist pool between the dunes, until the rising sun set the peaks of sand ablaze and slowly, all around us, the desert burnt.
I know this because it happens to me each time I visit. It’s only when I leave the dunes and dusty river beds behind that I realise what’s happened; I’m not quite the same version of myself as before. I can never quite work out how it occurred, or when. All I know is that I miss the desert in a way I can never anticipate or understand, and it’s only by thinking about the next trip that I can slowly assimilate back into ‘normal’ life.
Did it start the night we arrived at Twee Rivieren, the park’s main camp, in a shower of golden light, with a pearl-spotted owlet calling and sandy expanses of desert waiting for us and our Toyota Hilux (with its slightly deflated tyres to better navigate the roads)?
Or was it during the drive to Kieliekrankie, one of the park’s wilderness camps perched high on red dunes, amidst billows of blond desert grass?
We took it slow on the way there, never going much above 30km/h, so we could spend some time with a colony of Brant's whistling rats, watch industrious sociable weavers at work and delight in the antics of the Cape ground squirrels playing in the morning sun. Later on, we saw a leopard at Auchterlonie (a picnic site and small museum) and had her to ourselves for at least half an hour, before gate-closing time meant we had to return to our camp.
Kieliekrankie itself is a place you’ll never want to leave (and sometimes literally can’t – like when there is a pride of six lion dozing in the parking lot). We woke up there before dawn and watched mist pool between the dunes, until the rising sun set the peaks of sand ablaze and slowly, all around us, the desert burnt.
And then nothing special happened for the rest of the day as we drove the dune road and headed north for Grootkolk, seeing small groups of gemsbok and springbok, and an occasional ostrich, during a 10-hour drive.
At Grootkolk we wrapped ourselves in the darkness as we sat around a dying fire, the whole world reduced to the small pool of light around the camp’s waterhole, where we watched jackals drink and wondered what else was watching them (and us). Then we looked up and felt the weight of a universe of stars and the whole world was bigger than anything we could imagine, and we were the tiny ones.
We took that feeling with us when we left for Nossob, timing our first stop to coincide with that of the Burchell’s and Namaqua sandgrouses that gather and drink each morning between 9am and 11am. We saw a brown hyena and a pygmy falcon, and the road was patterned with lion tracks from cats we never encountered and hundreds of tiny mice that we had to be careful to avoid.
Heading back to Twee Rivieren two days later, we saw baby gemsbok hidden in the relative safety of the dunes, and admired bushes adorned with scaly feathered finches and yellow canaries, and the brilliance of the crimson-breasted shrikes.
By then, we’d seen cheetah and bat-eared foxes, red hartebeest, kudu and a family of giraffes appearing over the top of a dune. We’d seen rodents we couldn't identify, Verreaux’s eagle-owls hidden in trees, and more jackals than we could count trotting purposefully to and fro. We’d seen desert blooms and dead trees and dust devils, and gotten used to the taste of the coldness and the dryness of the desert in winter, as well as the distinctive shape of the ubiquitous pale chanting goshawks and the strange grunting sounds of herds of blue wildebeest on the move.
But the desert had more in store for us.
On our very last day, we stopped to listen to some jackals calling and found a leopard in a tree. She climbed down and walked off into the riverbed where she encountered a honey badger and they fought. Not 800m down the road, having just lost sight of the leopard and the honey badger, we saw a cheetah kill a springbok (you would not believe the speed and power and elegance of it all). She called her three cubs in to feed. Then the leopard reappeared, a scuffle ensued and the cheetah lost its kill – but she and her cubs got away safely while the leopard disappeared, pulling its feast off into the dunes.
Minutes later, the stage of this extraordinary scene was bare and still. People drove by and didn't believe us when we told them what we’d just witnessed. The peaceful, solemn gemsbok that had watched the drama with us were now quietly drinking nearby. That didn't help convince anyone.
We left the Kgalagadi just hours later, but it won’t leave us. We’ll feed on a mix of memories and anticipation until we’re able to return – and like every trip to this incredible park, we’ll arrive with expectations that won’t be met; and leave with new memories we couldn't have imagined as, once again, it fills us with its sights, sounds and smells ...