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An Overlanders Guide to the Central Kalahari

A Guide to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is found in the Kalahari Desert area of Botswana. Established in 1961, its huge size of 52,800 sq km’s makes it the worlds’ second largest game reserve. A vast but topographically varied reserve consisting of bushveld, fossilised river beds, flat open grasslands and huge salt pans, the area is home to an impressive collection of flora and fauna, as well as the San people (Bushmen), who have been nomadic hunters in the area for thousands of years. Following our journey through the reserve, we wanted to share a few thoughts and tips that may be helpful for anyone wishing to explore this magnificent, remote corner of the world.

What is the best route to take through the CKGR?

This depends on your time frame and what you want out of the CKGR. It seems lots of people explore only the northern section – entering and exiting around Xade or Matswere Gates. It is certainly true that most of the game was situated in the northern part of the reserve, so if game viewing is what you are after, then stick to the north. If you are seeking that incredible remote wilderness feeling and the achievement of crossing the Kalahari, then read on.

Looking back on our drive, one thing we were thankful for was our direction of travel. The southern part of the CKGR is tough going with its long stretches of deep sandy tracks and was not very rewarding from a vegetation and game viewing perspective. In this respect, building up from the quiet south then reaching the north and its wide open pans full of grazing animals and predator sightings, made us all the more appreciative of the animals. (NB. We saw plenty of predator tracks in the south and had lions roaring overnight at Xaka, so seeing predators in the southern sections is certainly a possibility). We entered in at Khutse and exited at Matswere Gate.

Khute Gate - entering the CKGR

Route detail: Khutse Gate to Xaxa

Khutse to Xaka was long, there’s not really a better way to describe it. The changing vegetation made it beautiful, but people weren’t joking when they told us it was a quiet stretch for game; we saw 1 steenbok, 4 goats and a donkey in 150km. The thick sand and a wavey track saw us average a speed of 25km/hour for a total of 9 hours and also resulted in the almost renaming Kuhanya to “The Kuh-coaster” after the rollercoaster ride we got on very bouncy springs. It was interesting passing some of the San tribes, living extremely remotely in their thatched mud huts and hunter gatherer lifestyles. Bizarrely, they all demanded sweets. One young man was selling necklaces he made from the seeds of a nearby tree! We were the first vehicle he had seen in 5 days.

Xaka camp was well positioned opposite Xaka waterhole, which I am sure would have attracted plenty of game, had it been full. As it was, the elephants broke the pump so it was dry and the area quiet, though we did see our first Gemsbok shortly before we stopped. While the stars blew our minds that night, the wind blew our tents and it was another blustery, cold and sleepless night for us all. A male lion walked past our camp roaring during night, we heard his breath thundering through his throat, he couldn’t have been more than 50m from our tents. Jackals shouted out in alarm, their piercing cries keeping us all on high alert. A bizarre dove congregation at sunrise the next morning restored the tranquility of the bush. Another big highlight was encountering two honey badgers trotting up the road towards us on our way out of camp – a very special sighting indeed.

Gemsbok

Route Detail: Xaxa to Piper Pan

Xade marked our half way point where we had planned to shower and fill our water provisions. Elephants once again altered our agenda for the day by breaking the water pump before we arrived so we had to stay dirty but we did manage to fill all our water tanks at a nearby tap, poisoning the ground with our chlorine excesses. The topography changed quite considerably from Xade going north; the sandy soil tracks changed to solid clay ground and the vegetation opened from thick scrub to grasslands and huge pans. We reached Piper Pan early in the day, with enough time even for some exercise.

Refilling our fuel and water at Xade

Route Info: To Deception valley and Beyond

A future ‘Star Wars’ movie title, perhaps? We did indeed feel like we were part of a movie for moments during the days drive, as we passed through truly spectacular scenery. There are considerably more animals in the northern parts of the CKGR and we enjoyed seeing large herds of Springbok, Gembsbok, at least 10 Kori Bustard birds and a few Hartebeest over the course of the morning. It was during this drive to Deception Valley that we saw our first Kalahari lions – a big male, a lioness and her two cubs, resting in the shade of a tree. The male lion initially came as a surprise – we were all fixated on a baby Hartebeest in the distance when suddenly we spotted the male lion at our tyre.

Kori Camp 3 was our next overnight stop and home for our last two nights in the CKGR. Overlooking the Deception Valley, we could see animals grazing in the distance and the camp itself had phenomenal birding activity, with Crimson breasted shrike, Violet eared waxbill, Pririt batis, Pale chanting goshawk, very friendly White-browed sparrow weavers amongst many more, all flitting around – a true birders paradise! On day 2, the local ground squirrel warmed up to our presence and we sat watching enthralled for hours as “Kitoko” pottered around the camp. The barking gecko’s at night were magical to listen to.

Ground Squirrel

A review: best campsites to stay at in the CKGR?

We did a lot of research on the best campsites to stay in the CKGR, though in driving past many of them, they all seem to be located in beautiful areas. In Khutse Game Reserve, the Kutse Campsites seemed well placed and looked brilliant with great views over the pan but we absolutely loved our spot at Mahurushele 3 – it was the best of the Mahurushele camps, with a lovely Shepherds tree for shade and great ablutions (i.e. long drop and bucket shower). The campsites at Xaka were not well sign posted and it took a while to figure out where they were exactly. When we did find the right spot (we think), the view over the pan was fantastic, though in being situated under a big camel thorn tree, the area was littered with thorns on the floor. Worth noting if you have blow up mattresses to bring a sturdy groundsheet! Xaka is completely wild camping without any ablutions at all.

Piper Pan camp spots are very popular and hard to get availability at, but are 100% worth jiggling dates around as are beautiful with lots of game. We stayed in Piper Pan 2, but we later saw Piper Pan 1 was right next to the Pan and water hole itself, which would have been much better for game viewing – so we would recommend Piper Pan 1. Our next stop was the Kori Campsites. Kori 3 was fantastic, with lots of space to walk around, ample trees for shade, phenomenal birding and amazing views over Deception Valley with animals both grazing in the distance and walking around the camp. We think Kori 3 was the best of the Kori Camps. That said, the ablutions were pretty grim, especially the full long drop, which we avoided. There was definitely a difference between DWNP and BigFoot sites with regards to the cleanliness of the “facilities”.

Our campsite at Marhurushele

General camping tips for the Kalahari

When setting up camp, make a note of the shade, and direction of movement of the sun – it makes a huge difference to pitch your tent in a shady spot and put up an awning in a place that maximizes the shade it can create. We actually found the weather to be very variable, and even experienced a mini tornado during our stay, on an otherwise windless day. It caught us off guard and broke our awning, even though it was pegged down! So always peg tents and awnings down, it is the wind you don’t know about that you need to prepare for! Another thing worth noting is that there is not always wood available at the entrance gates – so get some before you arrived. We took gas as well which was great for when the conditions were not good for making fires – in high winds and rain!

Driving conditions in the Kalahari

We were extremely lucky travelling in November with regards to the road conditions. The southern sections were a little tricky with deep sand but not impassable, and the north was hard clay, though we could see that after rain the roads would turn to sludge!

Driving advice for the soft sand

Driving in deep soft sand can be just as hard as driving through thick mud. It is a good idea to drop your tyre pressure down to around 1.5 bar, which increases the footprint of the tyre, giving the tyre more surface area and better traction. We used mostly second gear 4×4 (diff lock) or 4th gear in low range. Stay in the tracks and don’t fight the bumps otherwise you will increase fuel consumption. It is also important to keep your momentum, especially when changing gears.

Driving advice in the mud

Generally as above with regards to gears, but one thing we noticed were all of the extra two tracks going around the main road, in a bid to avoid large pools of water and mud. It is worth noting however that the main track is usually well compressed and may well be a safer route option, even if it is through the water. We saw many places where people had got stuck by trying to go around! That said, it is always a good idea to walk a dodgy section before you drive it, and as above, momentum is everything! We carry IronMan4x4 TREADS and an exhaust jack to get us out of sticky situations!

Kalahari Roads

Where to find drinking water in the Kalahari?

All of the entrance gates have drinking water from a bore hole. Within the park, Xade was the only campsite we found that had water. It became apparent that elephants play a big role when it comes to water availability in the park, being a nuisance breaking water pumps. Lots of the water holes were dry for this reason and there was no water in the showers at Xade either because the elephants broke the pump! Make sure you provision for your whole Kalahari stay, just in case – don’t bank on water being available! We planned for 5L per person, per day – that included drinking and washing. One great thing we took was collapsible 20L water containers with little taps for pouring. We kept them in the car then folded them away when they were empty.

Planning fuel requirements & usage

The last place to fill up fuel was Lethlakeng, but note that fuel is not always available here so full up first in Molepole, just in case. We filled our internal tank of 75L, then 3 jerry cans on the roof, so carried a total of 135L to take us through the whole Kalahari. There is no fuel at all available in the reserve, nor at the gates. Our general fuel usage through the park was about 7km/L, which wasn’t bad given the driving conditions and thick sand. We exited with a quarter tank spare.

Booking Accommodation in the Central Kalahari

Both campsites and luxury lodges can be found in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, so depending on your budget, there is something for everyone. The lodges are typically located in the northern part of the park where game is most dense, but campsites are spread throughout. There are two different types of campsites in the Kalahari; those run by the DWNP, the local tourism authority and others operated by BigFoot Safari’s, which are essentially privatised DWNP sites. Needless to say the BigFoot campsites are more expensive and are typically found in the more popular spots – Piper Pan, Deception Valley, etc. A visit will typically require you to juggle availability between the two.

Booking campsites in the Central Kalahari through the DWNP and BigFoot can take some patience, backward and forwarding with availability of dates, correcting invoices etc – it took us almost 6 weeks to finally get our booking confirmations!

This was the process:

  1. Choose route & dates (There is great info & maps on the Tracks4Africa website).
  2. Check availability of campsites with both DWNP & BigFoot and make provisional bookings at both. (Book via email – see details below).
  3. Book and pay first for BigFoot Campsites
  4. Send your BigFoot confirmations to DWNP and then pay for DWNP Campsites, plus park fees per person & vehicle for entire stay.
  5. Print all campsite confirmations and park entry fee receipts – you will need them at the gate.

Contact Details for Campsites

Bigfoot Tours

Khutse: All five campsites in Khutse
Central Kalahari: Piper Pan, Letiahau, Lekhubu, Kukama, Sunday Pan, Passarge Valley and Motopi

Contact: Tel +267 395 3360, reservations@bigfoottours.co.bw, www.bigfoottours.co.bw

DWNP

Three gate camps (Matswere Gate, Tsau Gate and Xade Gate), as well as Xaka, Kori, Deception, San and Phokoje Pans

Contact DWNP central reservations: Tel +267 318 0774, dwnp@gov.bw

Kalahari kit list must have’s

  • Shade awning
  • Solar Panel – make the most of the Kalahari sun and keep the beers in the fridge cold!
  • Air Compressor and tyre gauge for letting tyres down and pumping them up again.
  • Warm clothes! Very hot but sometimes very cold days!
  • Collapsible water containers – great for carrying that little bit of extra water.
  • Camping mirror – great for the ladies!
  • Inverter – not everything plugs into a cigarette lighter, so useful to take for charging cameras etc.
  • Wet Wipes – the best water-less shower solution
  • Binoculars – for spotting animals faaaaar away in the middle of the salt pans
  • A good camera – so many exquisite photo opportunities
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