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David’s brother came to visit us in South Africa, and of course, the top of everyone’s list of things to do is to go on a safari. We’d already been to Kruger National Park back in 2010, so this time we set our sights on a completely different side of South Africa: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Warning: This post includes photos of dead animals.
How do You Say Kgalagadi?
Kgalagadi is a complicated word to pronounce, and I’ve had several people pronounce it differently. I believe you pronounce it with a hard H sound – HAL-ah-hari. The H’s are really gutteral.
Kgalagadi v Kalahari
In my research, I always saw it as Kgalagadi, but when we approached the area I saw signs for Kalahari too. What is the difference?
Kalahari is the semi-arid savanna in this part of Africa. It extends through parts of Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana and covers over 900,000 square kilometers (bigger than our home state of Texas).
Kgalagadi is the name of the formal park. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
The closest airport to the Kgalagadi is Upington.
We flew from Cape Town to Upington. The flight is about an hour and twenty minutes long, but there are only two or three flights a week at this time of year (summer).
On our return, we stayed at River Place Manor, a beautiful place on the river.
We had an amazing dinner at Cafe Zest.
Car Rental for Kgalagadi
From Upington International Airport, we rented a car. I chose a sedan, which, in retrospect, I wouldn’t do again.
If you are going to do ANY driving in Kgalagadi, I recommend renting a 4 x 4. The main roads of the Kgalagadi say that they are for “any vehicle”, but the roads are sandy in some places and a washboard in others. Even though the speed limit in the park is 50 km, it’s slow going most of the time. While out on a game drive we helped pull a minivan out of the sand, and while driving ourselves around, we wished for better suspension in our car!
Entering the Park
We entered the Kgalagadi Park at the Twee Rivieren gate, which is where the edge of the park lies on the South Africa and Botswana border. As long as you are leaving from the same gate, you do not need to do Immigrations with both offices. However, you do have to register with the SANParks office at the Twee Rivieren site.
The other entrances are Mata-Mata in Namibia and Kaa and Mabuasehube, both in Botswana.
Where to Stay in Kgalagadi
There are several options for where to stay in Kgalagadi.
There are three lodges. One is !Xaus, on the South African side, and the other two are Rooiputs and Polentswa, both on the Botswana side and run by a company called Ta Shebube.
We chose !Xaus to stay at because it is the best-rated of the lodges inside the park, requires minimal self-sufficiency and includes a full itinerary of activities.
The other option I considered was staying at Twee Rivieren or one of the other rest camps. The accommodations are basic but easy. The SANParks office organizes guided drives and walks, though they are based on availability. Another issue was the food. There are limited options to eat at Twee Rivieren.
However, if you go all in, like many South Africans do, and have a self-sufficient 4×4 with proper camping gear, I think that’s a great choice.
The other option is Wilderness Camps, where the area is unfenced and you must be completely self-sufficient.
Self-Drive to Kamqua Picnic Area
Our first day in the Kgalagadi park was at the very end of a cold front. That meant that even mid-day, there were amazing animals out for us to spot as we drove from Twee Rivieren to Kamqua, where !Xaus Lodge picked us up.
About !Xaus Lodge
!Xaus Lodge is owned by two of the local tribes, but managed by a hospitality company. The ! is a click of the tongue, which is hard to pronounce for an English speaker. Instead, you can call it Kaus.
The lodge is off to the southwest of the park. The landscape is amazingly interesting; once you leave the river bed, the sand dunes make small craters – I’d imagine that from above they look like a grid, though I’m sure it’s not that even. The truck would climb over the edge of the sand dune, then have a flat ride for a few minutes, and up over the edge again. This meant we couldn’t see very far, but we had a small bowl to scan with every dune we climbed over to see what we could find.
It’s about an hour’s drive through the sand dunes to get to !Xaus. The lodge is set up on a hill overlooking a salt flat. There are two man-made watering holes by the lodge. One is a small birdbath just off the entrance, where, apparently, a leopard likes to visit at night. The other is down in the salt flat, and we often saw critters drinking from the pool.
The lodge itself was lovely, and our rooms were very nice. Water is scarce here in the desert, so tap water is well-water, non-potable and very soft. There is a pool filled with well-water, which was a great luxury in the afternoons.
Electricity is tricky too. The generator is run twice a day, and there’s no air conditioning. The fans in the room only ran when the generator was running. That made it tough to nap in the afternoon, as the room was rather hot.
The food at !Xaus was great. Lunches were a bit boring (salads), but the breakfast menu was very interesting. It was a la carte, and I ordered something called – if I remember correctly – a bushman’s breakfast. It was almost a vegetable stew with sausage and a fried egg on top. There were some lovely spices in it, and it was a rather sweet tomato base. It was delicious! Dinner was also excellent, with a set menu every night. One night was goulash, one night was lamb shank (very, very good), and one night was bobotie, a traditional South African dish of mince curried beef casserole with an egg top.
Night Drives in Kgalagadi
!Xaus lodge had a night drive on our itinerary for our first night in Kgalagadi, and the Twee Rivieren rangers offer night drives (depending on availability).
In addition to Koos, our guide, we had Donovan sit in the spotter’s seat and pan a light across the desert. He was watching for the reflection of the light in the eyes of the animals, and we were so impressed with his ability to spot AND identify the animals.
Plus, Koos was very good at spotting critters in the headlights of the truck and avoiding running over the smaller animals.
Night drives are an amazing opportunity to see unique animals – many are nocturnal or just more active when it cools down at night. We got to see a jackal hunt and catch a snack, zig-zagging in the chase before pouncing for the final move. We watched a steenbok leave droppings and then use its hooves to cover it up with sand like a cat in a litter box.
The Stars at !Xaus
Our first night we enjoyed a crystal clear sky. I took advantage of it and photographed our view. I was so glad I did, because the other two nights, we had crazy thunderstorms and wind howling through the lodge.
Our first morning we were up and at ’em for our morning walk by 6 am. We took a short drive in the truck, and then Koos and Donovan led us for a short walk. Koos pointed out important plants to us, used for medicinal purposes or for survival.
A short walk from !Xaus Lodge is the craft village. As Koos explained to us, the owning tribe wants us to see what their heritage is like.
The small set up was a fenced-in area, with two small huts and a campfire. Koos led us in and introduced us to about a dozen tribespeople, and a few kids running around. Klaus, one of the men, was working on some jewelry made from local animal products such as bones and porcupine quills.
It was interesting to talk to them and ask about their language and their clothes. The men wore thick fur loincloths and the women wore skirts made of hide with beads dangling at the bottom.
Koos took us out on our sunset drive. We drove along the edge of the park, in an area that is off-limits to park visitors unless you are staying at !Xaus. We drove up to a ridge overlooking some salt flats and watched the sunset while having a cocktail. Unfortunately, we had a fairly cloudy evening, so there wasn’t much to see.
Full-Day Riverbed Drive
Our second full day was a day driving in the river bed. This is the main road from Twee Rivierien to Mata Mata and is an “all vehicle” road.
All along the road are watering holes, where you might get lucky to see an animal drinking. It was pretty hot this day (low-30s), so we didn’t see as much on the drive as we’d seen driving in ourselves.
We quickly heard from other vehicles that there was a lion kill – a few young male lions had taken down a giraffe just off the road. We easily found the kill – the bloated giraffe carcass.
There was one male lion hanging out in the shade, guarding the kill. Koos explained that he was waiting for the rest of the pride to come and feast. His job was to keep scavengers away from the giraffe.
We waited for a while, hoping we would spot the pride coming in. We didn’t see them and eventually gave up, hoping to spot them on our way back.
Five hours later, the lone lion was still guarding the giraffe.
On our departure day, we drove over to the kill sight again, over 24 hours after the kill. The lion was gone, and the giraffe carcass was still fairly whole. Who knows what happened?
Safari Packing Tips
- Pack binoculars to help spot wildlife.
- On any safari I’ve been on, the afternoon is left free to relax through the hottest part of the day. That means we come back from the mornings activities sweaty, coated in sunscreen and dust. If I can, I like to shower before napping, and then put on clean clothes in the afternoon. This means packing twice as much as I normally would!
- Be prepared to be patient. Animals can be tough to photograph, as they will move away from you or hide in the shadows.
- When filming during the day, many times you will be shooting something in the shadows while the background is bright white sand. Drop your ISO down as low as you can and then brighten the dark spots in photoshop later with minimal noise.
- Bring the longest lens you have. Mine is up to 200 mm, but many people have much, much bigger lenses.
- If you are self-driving in an enclosed car, bring a sheet or towel to hang on your visor or tuck into your window to block the sun for you to be more comfortable.
- On night drives, bump your ISO up as high as you are comfortable. It’s really hard to shoot something being lit with a spotlight in a background of black. I kept my camera on Aperture mode with my aperture as wide open as I could go. This will keep the shutter speed as fast as possible. It’s easier to shoot small, close things than it is to shoot further away subjects, as there’s too much black and your shutter speed will be too slow.