BACK TO NA­TURE Lu­cia van der Post goes on the trail of lions and chee­tahs in South Africa

In the peace­ful, per­sonal Tswalu Kala­hari re­serve, Lu­cia van der Post en­coun­ters lions, leop­ards, an­telopes and aard­varks on an un­for­get­table African ad­ven­ture

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If, like me, you like your Africa wild, re­ally wild, then there aren’t too many places left where you can go. African sa­faris th­ese days are be­set with grand and won­der­ful lodges re­plete with splen­did arte­facts, fan­tas­tic guides, great food and re­ward­ing sight­ings of game, but if your soul han­kers for vast un­tram­melled land­scapes, where the im­print of man is lit­tle to be seen, then there are fewer and fewer places to choose from.

So let me tell you about Tswalu. Tswalu lies on the north-western edge of South Africa’s North­ern Cape Prov­ince, right up against the Botswana bor­der, and is tech­ni­cally part of the ex­pan­sive Kala­hari. To­day there are reg­u­lar di­rect char­ter flights from Jo­han­nes­burg and Cape Town that make it in­fin­itely eas­ier to get to, so a visit could eas­ily be fit­ted into a trip to al­most any South African des­ti­na­tion. Its 1,100 square kilo­me­tres of rolling Kala­hari dunes and semi-arid grass­lands (which makes it more than twice the size of the Isle of Wight) are home to some 70 dif­fer­ent mam­mals and nearly 300 dif­fer­ent birds. It is the largest pri­vately owned game re­serve in South Africa and the 30 guests that it wel­comes to its lodge and pri­vate villa have all this to them­selves. For Tswalu isn’t pri­mar­ily a tourist des­ti­na­tion at all – it is fun­da­men­tally a con­ser­va­tion project taken on by the South African Op­pen­heimer fam­ily, whose stated am­bi­tion is ‘to re­store the Kala­hari to it­self ’.

It wasn’t al­ways so. Once in the not-so-dis­tant past, it was a patch­work of low-grade farms mostly lived on by sub­sis­tence farm­ers whose land had been de­graded af­ter over­graz­ing by sheep, cat­tle and goats. I first came to see it many years ago when the late Stephen Boler owned it. A Bri­tish en­tre­pre­neur who grew to love Africa and its wildlife, he bought up the parcels of land one by one, pulled down the fences, got rid of the do­mes­tic an­i­mals and started rein­tro­duc­ing the beasts that used to roam all across it. He built some very swanky vil­las for tourists and kept a part of the grounds aside for hunt­ing. It had, I thought at the time, a breath­tak­ing splen­dour and, with its rim of pur­ple-tinged, low-ly­ing hills and moun­tains and its sandy, dry bushveld, a more awe­some, aus­tere beauty than the more fa­mil­iar ter­rain of the South African Highveld or Kenya’s Maa­sai Mara.

Then one sad day Boler died sud­denly of a heart at­tack and, as Nicky

Op­pen­heimer told me: ‘I got a phone call from his so­lic­i­tor say­ing that Stephen had said that if any­thing hap­pened to him he should give me a ring. It was like black­mail from be­yond the grave – what else could I do but buy it?’

And so to­day it is in the pos­ses­sion of the Op­pen­heimer fam­ily, who are in the busi­ness of mak­ing sure that the Kala­hari blooms, the wildlife flour­ishes and a small tourist op­er­a­tion con­trib­utes some­thing to the funds. They stopped the hunt­ing as soon as they ac­quired it, de­mol­ish­ing build­ings and pur­chas­ing more acreage, which has given them more bio­di­ver­sity and even more of the spec­tac­u­lar Ko­rannaberg Moun­tains. To the mag­nif­i­cent black-maned Kala­hari lions, leop­ards, gi­raffes, rare black desert rhi­nos, bands of chee­tahs and all the smaller in­hab­i­tants of the bush, they have added Hart­mann’s moun­tain ze­bras (they dif­fer from other ze­bras by hav­ing no shadow stripe), and they have started breed­ing pro­grammes for rare and en­dan­gered species such as the roan and sable desert an­telopes. Only ele­phants are miss­ing: Tswalu was never their nat­u­ral habi­tat and whole herds would do ir­repara­ble dam­age to the an­cient shep­herd-trees that dot the land.

Tswalu means ‘new be­gin­ning’ in the Tswana lan­guage of the North­ern Cape and it is hard to de­scribe how dif­fer­ent it is now from when I first laid eyes on it. Last time it looked like real arid desert, dry, hot, and the trees and earth and wildlife all seemed to be long­ing for wa­ter. It was even then very beau­ti­ful, with a sense of iso­la­tion and wild­ness that I love, but on this oc­ca­sion it lived up to its moniker as the ‘green Kala­hari’. Wher­ever one looked, the grass had re­turned and ev­ery­thing was green, from the rolling hills of the Kala­hari dunes to the open sa­van­nah. As a fel­low guest put it: ‘I felt as if I were there at the be­gin­ning of Cre­ation.’ Ev­ery­where the an­i­mals were flour­ish­ing.

We tracked some black-maned Kala­hari lions – big­ger, taller and more awe­some than any oth­ers, they weigh more than 100 kilo­grams when fully grown (it took six men to carry a lion that had been darted to en­able vets to treat it) and came upon fam­i­lies of chee­tahs tum­bling around in the lee of the moun­tains. We spent a de­light­ful early morn­ing with a young re­searcher who was busy study­ing and ha­bit­u­at­ing a clan of meerkats – they seemed en­tirely obliv­i­ous to us, stand­ing on their legs to check for preda­tors and rush­ing off in lit­tle groups to ex­plore the area around their bur­rows.

Many Tswalu fans come time and time again – of­ten they choose par­tic­u­lar weeks of the year in or­der to study dif­fer­ent an­i­mals. Those who long to see the hardto-find aard­varks and pan­golins, for in­stance, visit in win­ter (July and Au­gust) when it’s very cold at night and the an­i­mals start to walk around in the late af­ter­noon. Oth­ers are in­tent on see­ing a va­ri­ety of mi­grat­ing birds. Tswalu is an ut­terly dif­fer­ent habi­tat from the bet­ter-known sa­fari lodges that run along the bor­der of South Africa’s Kruger Na­tional Park – it is much more re­mote, much vaster, much wilder and therein lies its al­lure.

It was the writer Alis­tair Gra­ham who noted that ‘some­where in the waste­lands and their wild an­i­mals lie beau­ti­ful things, spir­i­tual util­i­ties that we will come to trea­sure more and more as the pace for life has­tens and the space for life di­min­ishes’. If you be­lieve that, I can’t think of a bet­ter place than Tswalu to find them. Africa Travel (020 7843 3500; www.africa­travel.co.uk) ar­ranges tai­lor­made hol­i­days to South Africa. A four-night stay at Tswalu Kala­hari re­serve costs from £4,970 a per­son, based on two peo­ple shar­ing, in­clud­ing all meals and ac­tiv­i­ties, Bri­tish Air­ways flights and light-air­craft trans­fers.

Tswalu is much more re­mote, much vaster, much wilder than the lodges of Kruger, and therein lies its al­lure

This page and op­po­site: the land­scape, lodges and wildlife of Tswalu

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