Going Further: the call of the Kalahari
Anthony Ham drove the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, one of the Earth’s truly remote spaces, where lions, cheetahs and or yx roam, and humankind is conspicuously absent
ENTERING THE GREAT RESERVES of Africa always feels like crossing a threshold into an entirely different world where any thing is possible. A nd so it was t hat, feeling a litt le like A lice in Wonderland or the children who climb the Magic Faraway Tree in search of adventures, I lef t the paved road and drove out onto the sands of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reser ve. This is one of Africa’s largest protected areas, but it encloses barely a fraction of the Kalahari, one of the greatest unbroken stretches of sand on the planet. Ever since I ̭012 00'4#" ', 2&# * & 0 'Ơ & 4# "0# +#" of this journey, of a crossing from nor th to south, less out of a desire to conquer one of the great deser ts than to leave behind welltravelled trails in search of deser t silences and the wildlife of its remote reaches. Ahead of me lay a week of off-road driving, deep-wilderness camping and days without seeing another human being. Oh, and a puff adder. On the sandy trail out of the village of Rakops I met one of the most
slow-moving yet fearsome snakes in all of Africa. Going too fast (yet to slow my pace to a patient deser t rhy thm), I swer ved to avoid it – to kill a creature, any creature, before my adventure had even begun, would surely be an ill-starred omen. I reversed to get a !*-1#0 *--)Ɵ 2 ̮'!)#" '21 &# " 2 +# ', ,%#0Ɵ I nodded in respect and continued on my way. Soon I reached Deception Valley, one of 2&# $-11'*'1#" "0 7 0'4#0 4 **#71 2& 2 "#̭,# the Central Kalahari – it is one of the great ironies of this arid place that it owes its topography to water. As the sun neared the horizon, the golden grasses swayed in a cool breeze of late af ternoon, and gemsbok – the painted or y x of the Kalahari – and springbok raised their heads, war y of the intr usion. Elsewhere, islands of acacias and salt pans became beautif ul in the sof tening light: it was here Mark and Delia Owens described making their home in that classic of deser t ex ploration Cr y of the Kalahari. Where the Kalahari at midday possessed all the charm of an over-exposed photograph, it now radiated magic in the descent towards darkness. From my campsite high on a sand dune haired with thin vegetation, I watched as stars lit up the night sk y, so far from the polluting sounds and lights of the cit y. In the night, lions roared, and at dawn I followed, as close as I dared, as a blackmaned male Kalahari lion strode along the valley, king of all he sur veyed. Later, during a day spent driving another ancient valley, Passarge, I saw not a single other member of my species, and instead shared the trail with cheetah and honey badger, with bat-eared $-6#1 ," 2&# 5-0*"ư1 &# 4'#12 ̮7',% '0"Ơ the kori bustard, with giraffe and ostrich, as jackals lurked, watching for oppor tunity. Out on the salt pans in the west of the reser ve, as shadows lengthened, an aardwolf ran and ran, not once looking over its shoulder. An ex travagantly horned kudu imagined itself unseen in a thorn thicket. And another lone cheetah, on the fringes of Piper Pan, set off on the hunt, an apparition of feline grace and elegance. Vehicles were few, and became even fewer the f ur ther south I travelled. Beyond Xade Gate, deep into the former homeland of the San indigenous peoples, there was no one, and the sand became deeper. Isolated campsites were quiet, save for occasional gusts of wind and the night roars of lions close to the waterhole at Xaka. By the time I arrived at Bape campsite, on a rise above the dr y river of Quoxo, I wondered what strange land I had strayed into, so silent were the af ternoon and night, and so powerf ul the sense of having lef t the world behind. And then, at Mothomelo, still some distance nor th of the Tropic of Capricorn and with my fuel running low, in an unlikely glade of green and pleasant trees, a community of San people approached my vehicle. One of the last remaining San communities still living in the Central Kalahari Game Reser ve, the people of Mothomelo were reticent, like so many deser t peoples, and the encounter felt like the briefest of meetings between two different worlds. We smiled of ten and, with no shared language other than mutual goodwill, soon went our separate ways. Much too soon, signs of the modern 5-0*"Ơ $#5 2 ̭012Ơ #% , 2- ',203"# ƥ 4#&'!*# tracks in the sand, distant communication towers – until they were impossible to ignore. South of Gaugama, I crossed into the Khutse Game Reser ve, the Central Kalahari’s southern appendage. As I went I began slowly to reconcile myself with my return to the world. By the time I moved beyond the Tropic of Capricorn, any lingering regrets that the journey was coming to an end had given way to the joy -$ , "4#,230# $ 3*̭**#"Ɵ 4#, 1-Ơ ),#5 '2 would not be long before I once again began to long for the roar of lions and the silences of Kalahari nights.