At the turn of the last century, everything north of the Orange River from Upington was 'forbidden territory,' peopled by outlaws and bandits, political exiles, outcasts and vagabonds. 'It hasn't changed much,' our guide laughingly observed.
This would prove to be true also of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, recently amalgamated with neighbouring Botswana's Gemsbok National Park to form Southern Africa's first cross-border game reserve.
A combined area of 37 9991 square kilometres makes the Kgalagadi almost twice the size of the Kruger. With a history of conservation co-operation between the two parks and the absence of a fence marking the boundary, little seems to have changed but the name.
Long the sole preserve of the wild animal and the Bushman, the Kalahari was opened up to habitation by war. As the Union Government of 1914 prepared for an invasion of German-held territory, 16 waterholes were sunk to feed the thirst of an army on the move.
The invasion never materialised but the water brought intrepid men as caretakers of the boreholes. They discovered a hunter's mecca. By the 1920's, the region had become the 'breeding ground' of Royal game, an elite hunting ground open only to the chosen few who soon took their toll on the region's abundant wildlife.
To halt the slaughter, the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park was proclaimed on 31 July 1931. Today there are 47 artificial waterholes sunk into the dry river-beds of the Auob and the Nossob.
Game congregates in the river-beds, close to the muddy puddles and the open terrain offers better viewing than the Kruger. Although there are no elephant or rhino, the fiery months of January and February promise close encounters with the king of them all. 150 kilometres from the park, the grass gets sparser, the sand redder and to the west, the sky grows dark with the promise of rain.
The terrain begins to undulate, the distinctive red sand of the Kalahari starting to show through the mottled grass. Huge sociable weavers nests dangle like hula skirts from the pylons and telephone poles and occasional tree.
50 kilometres from the park and still no ice. While the camel police station at Witdraai was once the last outpost guarding against insurgents into the 'King's Reserve,' today the Malopo Lodge is the last frontier. Here the tar runs out. And so had their ice reserves.
Foiled but not defeated, we head on into the badlands proper. Despite the air-conditioning in the van, the heat presses against the window like something trying to get in. Entering the park, blue beacons just off the left of the road mark the Botswana border post. That border, as far as the resident wildlife is concerned, is irrelevant.
While the animals know no frontiers, to enter the Botswana side of the park you still have to get your passport stamped on both the South African and the Botswana side although there are plans afoot for a joint border post and reception area.
Other than the camping ground at Two Rivers, just across the dry riverbed of the Auob, all facilities are on the South African side. Twee Rivieren, the main camp and administration centre, boasts the reserve's only swimming pool. Upgrading and development is proceeding apace, however.
It was at Twee Rivieren, that our persistence was rewarded and we finally hit white gold. Ice! And bags of it! So, with champers nicely chilling in the cooler box we headed into the heart of the heat. While good enough to make 4x4's a fashion statement in the park, the dirt road bounced us through heaving dunes before descending to follow the dry Auob riverbed to Mata Mata rest camp, on the Namibian border.
A comically mournful wildebeest follows our passing with a face only a mother could love. Two red hartebees shelter under an acacia thorn, their long faces and clumsy bodies belying their reputation as the fasting moving antelope.
The diminutive springbok, however, gives the hartebees a run for its money. Their ridiculous matchstick legs can reach speeds of up to 88 kilometres an hour.
Herds a-hundred-strong have us reaching for our cameras although, back in 1956, the last recorded springbok migration was three kilometres wide and took three days to run out of steam. Less than fifty years later, the wild animals have been herded by man into the last open spaces.
Our destination reached, the fenced camp of Mata Mata boasts a viewing hide which overlooks a waterhole, floodlit at night. On our arrival, a herd of gnu, their young and several springbok crowd around the muddy puddle.
We set up camp under thorn trees amidst an adequate sufficiency of sand and squirrels and settle back to see in the New Year with icy champagne and a harvest moon on the rise.
The sounds of the wilderness at night are joined by the lilting voices of local carol singers doing their festive rounds. In the middle of our freshly braaied sosaties, a furious flurry of wind hurls a dust storm at our plates and lightning flashes left of the moon. In all the hurly burly, what rain there is evaporates before it hits the ground.
The summer heat is merciless. By 7 o'clock in the morning, the sun is high although the air is relatively cool still and the animals are out in the open before the savagery of the mid-morning sun. Long adapted to the heat, the game is active early in the morning and at night. You soon learn the rhythm.
Our first sighting on the opening day of the New Year was a goshawk, just off the road, visibly struggling with whether prudence was the better part of valour when it came to a yellow Cape Cobra. As the most venomous of the African cobras, the goshawk's better judgement won the day.
The burgeoning day brought us a jackal with three cubs, a sizeable herd of browsing giraffes, which although not endemic, have been successfully introduced into the park, a bat-eared fox, its presence heralded by those sizeable ears, a honey badger on a distant dune and a wild cat huddled under a nearby bush.
Pronking springbok and bonking gemsbok were applauded by an appreciative audience but it was the evening game drive that would prove to be the most memorable of impromptu performances. Wending our way back to camp, a huddle of stationary vehicles massed on a bend in the loop, announced the presence of lion - a family group, mother, father, and two adolescent young, male and female, stretched out in the shade near the watering hole.
The king of the cats and his entourage were just outside our window, close enough to scratch behind their ears should any of us have harboured an exotic death wish. Our excited awe was sadly cut short by the imminent closing of the Mata Mata gate and we made for home at the head of a scurrying convoy of lion-watchers.
We were to see the pride again, however. On the day we left, they had made a kill. On a rise, the carcass of an unlucky gemsbok lay under an acacia thorn, dragged into the shade. A few metres from the body, lay one of the juveniles, the picture of satiation - on his back, legs in the air, just like any domestic cat after a good helping of left-over chicken bones.
Behind the kill, the adults sat alert and watchful as a motley band of jackals hovered hopefully on the periphery, snuffling in the gemsbok's stomach contents which had spilled some metres from its final resting place.
Red dunes daubed in acacia, formed the implacable backdrop to a scene as old as the rusty hills themselves. With the Kgalagadi Trans-Frontier Park in place, it is to be hoped that the future of one of the last true wildernesses of Southern Africa has been assured.Copyright © 2002 Laurianne Claase. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.