Expert Reviews – Central Kalahari GR

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Botswana’s beautiful, semi-arid heartlands
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Famous for its dark-maned lions and for being the second largest protected area in Africa (after the Selous in Tanzania), the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is little visited compared to Botswana’s smaller northern parks and reserves. Its sweeping landscapes, which are the homelands of Botswana’s San Bushmen, cover an area of over 50,000 square kilometres. I found it a thrilling place to be just after the rains, when the plains are softened by fresh new grass, attracting wildebeest, gemsboks, springboks and their predators – but remarkably few tourists.

As well as the larger carnivores, you have a reasonable chance of spotting honey badgers and bat-eared foxes here. Birdwatchers can scan the grasslands, trees and skies for heavyweights including black korhaans, pallid harriers and the chunkiest of them all, the kori bustard.

Botswana’s bountiful desert
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The Central Kalahari is no ordinary desert. Its endless sands and fossil dunes are buried under a shaggy pelt of grass and scrub and it is only the heat and lack of water that have made it one of Africa’s most unforgiving habitats. All through the long hot dry season this huge reserve – it’s roughly the same size as New Mexico – suffers under the burning sun. Then the rains come, falling from December to March, transforming the Kalahari into a carpet of greenery pulsating with life and colour, with wild flowers and monarch butterflies, korhaans and goshawks and noisy flocks of plum-coloured starlings. The season usually lasts well into April and is by far the best time to be here. This is when huge herds of gemsbok and springbok are drawn to areas such as Deception Valley where the best of the game is to be found, including cheetah, brown hyena and magnificent black-maned Kalahari lions. For the best take on this magical place read Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens, who spent seven years camping out in one of the acacia islands that are such a feature of Deception Valley’s glorious grasslands.

A desert that surprises with wildlife
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This enormous area is a real treat for fans of arid environments. Even if your headed into the delta, a night or two down here makes for a great contrast. In the Dry season the searingly hot temperatures see man and beast alike retreat into the shade, restricting activities to the early morning and late afternoon. But perhaps most surprising is the number and variety of wildlife. There are plenty of desert-adapted animals such as springbok and oryx (gemsbok), and also blue wildebeest, southern giraffe with their dark, burnt- looking colouring, greater kudu, steenbok and, of course, the Kalahari lion. These magnificent lions – males with stunning black manes – could often be heard roaring around our camp at night. And it’s a sound that once you’ve heard you will surely never forget. A drive out onto Tau Pan was memorable for the bat-eared foxes and African wildcat lurking in the bushes. The pan makes a great spot for a sundowner as you can see for miles while you enjoy a cold drink with the blood-red sun dipping below the horizon.

Cry of the Kalahari
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The Central Kalahari, ‘land of thirst’, is a parched wilderness and primeval landscape of sand, stone, grasslands and thorn-scrub. Peppered with the ubiquitous oryx and echoing nightly with the primordial roars of the king of the African savannah, this iconic desert dreamscape is like no other place on earth. Similar in size to Denmark, the wide-open arid expanses of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve are epic in scale and a favourite off-the-radar safari haunt of mine.

Encompassing the lion’s share of central Botswana, the 52,800km2 Central Kalahari is one of Africa’s largest and most remote game reserves. Set beneath gigantic desert skies, the near-endless expanse of arid wilderness is home to wildlife, wilderness and the last few remaining clans of indigenous San (bushmen) on earth. Although the area was opened to tourism back in the 1990s, its off-the-beaten-track location, unforgiving environment and limited infrastructure have preserved a genuine wilderness feel. With the exception of a couple of tourist camps in and around Deception Valley, the park remains truly wild and chances are the iconic big black-maned lions are the only other ‘inhabitants’ you’ll encounter during your desert safari.

The Great Thirstland
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This 52,800 sq km tract of arid Kalahari sands is Africa’s largest protected area, though it exists as much to protect the fragile semi-desert habitat as for the sparsely populated wildlife that concentrates seasonally in Deception Valley, which was incised by four fossil rovers. Mu only visit to this reserve was comically unrepresentative, as something like half the average annual rainfall fell in the space of three days, transforming the flat sandy plains to grassy swamps where the most common wildlife appeared to be the outsized African bullfrog. More normally, you could expect to see a range of dry mammals including oryx, eland, greater kudu, red hartebeest and possibly lion, brown hyena and cheetah. Dry country birds are also well represented. The area is of cultural interest as one of the last places inhabited by Bushman hunter-gatherers, whose activities are officially restricted within the reserve, but who still practice their ancient lifestyle in several neighbouring private reserves.

An expansive desert waiting to be explored by any nature-loving adventure seekers
Overall rating

This is probably the wildest place in Southern Africa. This huge desert area is very undeveloped and venturing inside feels like a real adventure. In this arid terrain, desert antelopes like gemsbok and springbok are common. The usual predators like lion, cheetah, wild dog and spotted hyena are present and you might also see some of the more elusive desert specials like bat-eared fox and brown hyena.

Birding is remarkably good with raptors being abundant. Unlike most game reserves, the best time to see wildlife is in the rainy season as animals disperse when the pans dry up. I didn’t see a lot of game on my trip, but the feeling of remoteness and adventure is what it is all about and game viewing might be a little bit hit and miss and very seasonal.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.8/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

Rating Breakdown

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