The camels you occasionally spot wandering through the Kalahari region are the descendants of a noble line of crime-busters that used to venture far into the arid lands on patrol. But with the arrival of the pickup truck and later, the 4X4, they were set free on early retirement.

Did you know?

Camel outrides are offered as a special adventure activity on certain Kalahari guest farms.

Outside the Upington police station in the Northern Cape you will see a large statue of a rider in a pith helmet astride a camel.

In this day and age of fast cars and blacktop highways, it’s strange to think that a few decades ago the only way to catch fugitives in the Kalahari or to visit far-flung outposts was on the back of a camel.

The Cape Mounted Police sourced their camels from South West Africa (now Namibia), and many of them had done military duty patrolling the boundaries of South Africa during World War II.

Then there was the legend of Saali Solomons and his travelling Egyptian circus, and the four feisty, unpopular camels in the caravan. They changed hands, being sold to a farmer and then a shopkeeper and then, finally, to the Cape Mounted Police. There, by all accounts, they flourished as upholders of desert justice.

When you drive up to the Kgalakgadi Transfrontier Park, you’ll pass a settlement called Askham. A short distance from Askham is Witdraai, which was once a massive camel training centre. At one stage the Witdraai ‘boot camp’ for camels boasted more than 400 bleating trainees.

One of the difficult tasks of the Cape Mounted Police units was to venture far out into the Kalahari and register various Bushman (San) families they came across. Sometimes these indigenous people would hide in the dunes from the mounted patrols. One sure way of tracking them down and adding them to the national census was to wait until dark, put ears to the ground and listen as the women pounded away at their tsamma melon suppers. They would approach the sound, round up the startled melon eaters and register them – for which the mounted police were paid a bonus shilling a head.

When the robust Ford pickup truck was introduced into the Kalahari in the 1950s, the camel constables were retired and let loose into the desert.

Travel tips & Planning info