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AAs they stand proud on a red Kalahari dune, gemsbok antelope (AKA South African oryx) look like members of an immaculately clad presidential guard.
Their rapier horns, striking face masks, sleek fawn-and-black bodies and proud, horsey tails look like uniforms dreamt up by a top designer.
But good looks are just part of reason these stunning animals are so remarkable. They can also endure astonishingly hot temperatures, allowing their bodies to heat up beyond the point where most animals would collapse from heat exhaustion. They avoid damaging their brains through an intricate network of arteries that cool the blood.
They can deliberately slow their metabolisms to use less energy. And by breathing more slowly and deeply, these buck (in South Africa, ‘buck’ or ‘bok’ is a generic word for an antelope, male or female) also minimise the moisture lost through exhaling.
These qualities make majestic gemsbok the ultimate survivors of desert extremes – and they manage to look good while doing it. They’re also difficult animals for lions and other predators to catch.
Gemsbok are speedy, feisty and alert, with long, sharp horns that they do not hesitate to use. In fact, they are legendary for being able to flick away a stone thrown in their direction with a horn – cricketers would give their eye-teeth for such heightened spatial awareness.
They can sometimes occur in herds of a few hundred but are mostly found in groups of a dozen or so. They are almost equal-opportunity beasts, in that a high-ranking dominant female leads them, but she is directed by an alpha male, who usually brings up the rear.
As you might assume from their reputation as ‘the spirit of the desert’, gemsbok are most easily seen in Northern Cape’s arid Kalahari (the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is famous for them), often catching breezes on the red-tinted dunes. But they’re also seen outside the desert, in regions that are better watered.
Thus, you can find them at the Augrabies, Tankwa Karoo, Mountain Zebra, Karoo and Mokala national parks too.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
How to get here
For the best chance to see gemsbok, head for the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park spanning the border between Botswana and South Africa – it’s a drive of more than 11 hours from Cape Town, but around 8 hours from Bloemfontein. Before the transfrontier park was proclaimed, the South African side was the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, and it still lives up to the name.
Best time to visit
You’ll be able to see gemsbok any time of year. In summer – November to March can be scorching – they tend to congregate under the shade of broad camelthorn trees.
You’ll easily be able to see them from the road, but Kalahari roads have deep sand – so a high-clearance vehicle or 4-wheel drive is preferable to a sedan.
Length of stay
Any trip to the beautiful Kalahari needs at least 4 days even to begin to do it justice – not including the days it will take you driving there and back.
What to pack
Sunscreen, all year, and something warm for evenings from May to September – it’s the Kalahari Desert, after all, and winter nights in the desert can drop below freezing. And don’t forget the camera and binoculars.
Where to stay
National parks like the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park offer excellent self-catering accommodation. The same applies in Northern Cape’s provincial parks.