Expert Reviews – Kgalagadi TP

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Desert splendours
Overall rating
4/5

This is one of largest and the most unusual national parks in Southern Africa, and one of my favourites, though I’ve visited it less often than I’d like simply due to its remote location on the border with Botswana and Namibia. The two outstanding features of the park are the stunning landscapes of rolling red dunes, and the wildlife that congregates along the pair of normally dry watercourses – the Auob and Nossob – that demarcate its main game viewing circuits. watercourses. The environment is harsh and uncompromising, but it is also a place of singular I’ve always had great game viewing here, particularly where predators are concerned – not only lion, cheetah and leopard but also smaller nocturnal species such as bat-eared fox and caracal – while common antelope include gemsbok, springbok and eland. It is a great place to see the delightful meerkat and ground squirrel, and the interesting birdlife includes plenty of raptors and dry-country birds, including the sociable weavers whose labyrinthine communal nests perch precariously on the treetops.

Big cat country
Overall rating
4/5

The Kgalagadi is South Africa’s biggest and most remote park, and one of my personal favourites. At over 3.5 million hectares, this arid and ancient stretch of land – which crosses the border between South Africa and Botswana – is double the size of Kruger. The first thing that I always notice driving into the park is the total and overpowering silence of the place.

While it may seem an unforgiving and inhospitable landscape at first, the Kgalagadi is actually a rich and complex ecosystem alive with interesting flora and fauna. In particular, the park has developed a reputation for its big cat sightings. There are an estimated 40 lion prides in the park. Leopards and cheetah are also around, though harder to spot. All three of these iconic big cats look particularly striking against the Kgalagadi’s backdrop of red sand dunes and big steely blue skies.

My most memorable visit to this park was spent at !Xaus Lodge, which is wonderfully isolated and offers the chance to interact with the fascinating Kalahari Bushmen who in fact own the lodge. You can organize guided bush walks or star-gazing activities here – the Kalahari night sky has to be experienced at least once in your life. The South African National Parks wilderness camps are also great, but book up months in advance.

South Africa’s Premier Desert Safari
Overall rating
4/5

The 38,000 km² Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is one of the few conservation areas of this magnitude left in the world and this gigantic protected area allows wild animals to migrate throughout the Kalahari ecosystem in search of food and water as they have done for millennia.

The South African sector of this massive wilderness area lies sandwiched between the perennially dry watercourses of the Nossob and the Auob rivers, and the wildlife tends to focus on the waterholes interspersed along the length of these riverbeds. If you’re after the stereotypical Big Five safari experience, then the Kgalagadi will no doubt prove disappointing. After all, this parched dunescape is a harsh environment devoid of rhino, buffalo and elephant, where the leopard and majestic Kalahari lion are probably the only members of the Big Five you’re likely to encounter while on your desert safari.

The Kgalagadi is, however, famous for its incredible diversity of carnivore species and unbeatable predator-viewing, which is to me – along with its superb raptor viewing – the ultimate attraction of this exceptional safari destination. The black-mane lion tops the safari sightings menu, but I’ve seen cheetah on every one of my ten park visits to date, along with great leopard, caracal, brown hyena, aardwolf and Cape fox sightings. From my experience, safari-goers stand an excellent chance of enjoying quality viewing of a wide array of African predators – both big and small – during their visit.

The Kgalagadi is a special place and one of my absolute favourite parks in Africa.

A vast desert wilderness with impressive populations of large mammals and birds
Overall rating
5/5

The vast Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a true wilderness in the Kalahari Desert with striking red sand dunes and sparse vegetation dotted with isolated camel thorn trees. Our game-drives were superbly rewarding and the dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob showed the animals off to spectacular advantage. We saw cheetah, spotted hyena, bat-eared fox, black-backed jackal, and numerous antelope including the park’s prized gemsbok, a beautiful creature with a dark glossy coat and distinctive horns. Bird-watching was superb; specials included Cape vulture, chanting goshawk, secretary birds strutting along the dry riverbeds, and a Verreaux’s eagle owl in a tree just a metre above our car with an unidentified kill in its talons. The park is remote with uncomfortably high summer temperatures, but I certainly didn’t begrudge the hot dusty roads once I saw my first black-maned lion poised regally on the crest of a dune.

Africa’s First Peace Park
Overall rating
4/5

The Nossob, a river that flows perhaps once every century, forms the border where South Africa and Botswana meet in the Kalahari Desert. On one side lay South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok national park, and on the other side, like a mirror image, was Botswana’s Gemsbok park. But in 1999, inspired by the vision of the South African-based Peace Parks Foundation, the two parks were joined together to form the Kgalakgadi Transfrontier Park – the first natural refuge in Africa where conservation takes precedence over sovereign borders. This means that visitors arriving from South Africa can now also explore the 160-mile Gemsbok Wilderness Trail, winding deep into the park’s Botswana section.

Although this is the most remote park in southern Africa it protects an area bigger than Ireland and is well worth a visit, especially during or just after the winter rains that fall between December and April. This is when the desert blooms, transforming the brick-red dunescapes of the Kgalakgadi as pink-and-white vlei lilies spring up overnight and the sand river valleys of the Nossob and Auob are carpeted with the yellow flowers of devil thorns. Desert it may be, but it’s home to an impressive variety of animals great and small, from meerkats and Cape foxes to gemsbok, cheetah and magnificent Kalahari lions – all of which I saw on my last visit. The same goes for birds, with big flocks of finch larks, doves and Namaqua sandgrouse, and raptors ranging in size from martial eagles to pygmy falcons.

Big Cat Country
Overall rating
5/5

It is generally the predators that people yearn to see on safari and Kgalagadi boasts an amazing amount of lions, cheetahs, hyenas and leopards. There are no elephants or rhinos in the park, but you'll quickly forget about them as you settle down to watch lions feasting so close that you can smell their kill or a pair of hyenas lolloping their awkward run through the dry grass. The summer months bring thunderstorms, the grey afternoon skies providing a photogenic contrast to the dusty red terrain that's characteristic of the Kalahari. My highlight is tough to choose – a wildebeest herd grazing right outside our safari tent, being woken in the night by howling hyenas, watching a young pride chomp on an adult giraffe or the fact that all of this happened while on honeymoon in my favourite of South Africa's parks.

An awesome chunk of raw Kalahari
Overall rating
5/5

Kgalagadi is one of Africa's most incredible wildlife parks, and one of the world's most pristine wildernesses, covering a chunk of Kalahari roughly the size of the Netherlands. The arid landscape is stunning: red dunes ripple away to the horizon, dotted with thorny acacia trees and, in the wet season (November to April), carpeted with a seasonal blanket of shimmering grasses. Equally amazingly, you can bomb up here from Upington, South Africa and tackle the tracks along the dry river beds in a 2WD car.

I stayed at Twee Rivieren Rest Camp, just inside the main entrance to the South African section of the park (the Botswana section does require a 4WD). Bringing a few creature comforts to the Kalahari, the camp had self-catering cottages, a shop and a restaurant. On a guided sunrise drive, huddling against the desert cold before the heat began for another day, we met a lion purring along the road. Kgalagadi is one of the world's best places to spot big cats, with about 800 lions, cheetahs and leopards among its 2,000 predators. What's more, I savoured every sighting in that extreme setting, and marveled at animals from ostriches to antelopes surviving in the dry and merciless environment.

Hunters among the dunes
Overall rating
5/5

I’ve always been surprised by how little attention this unique park receives. This may be because its semi-desert habitat lacks certain wildlife – elephant, zebra, hippo and buffalo are all absent – or because there are no famous lodges. Either way, this is good news for the independent visitor, who will find excellent roads and inexpensive accommodation on par with the Kruger’s public camps, but with a fraction of the Kruger’s infrastructure and visitors. Wildlife-wise, the park is a hotspot for predators, from lions and hyenas to cape fox and honey badger, and there are few better places to watch hunting cheetah.

Peak season is February to April, when late rains bring prolific growth to the dry riverbeds and attract large herds of springbok, oryx and other antelope. At any time of year, you will also find such local specialities as meerkat, sociable weaver and barking gecko. Birders can enjoy a feast of raptors, plus bustards, coursers and other dry-country species. Roads are few, so this is a park for staking out waterholes: with time and patience I have enjoyed such treats as a cape cobra coming to drink and an African wildcat hunting doves in broad daylight. The red sand dunes, stricken camelthorns and harsh desert light are tailor-made for photographers.

A taste of the Kalahari
Overall rating
4/5

If you’re not planning to visit Namibia or Botswana during your stay in southern Africa but would like to get a feel for their dramatic desert landscapes, this borderlands park is a good choice. In theory, you can wander through the park into Botswana, but I like most visitors have only experienced the South African side as this is where the camps are located. One cautionary note – I wouldn’t visit Kgalagadi without a 4WD vehicle, as the tracks are sandy.

Deep in the Kalahari desert, it’s a huge park with dizzyingly wide vistas. Copper coloured dunes, dessicated grasslands and plains dotted with camelthorn trees stretch for miles under endless skies. At first glance, wildlife might seem scarce, but with patience you can see meerkats, gemsboks (oryx), birds of prey, cheetahs and dark-maned Kalahari lions.

An accessible desert
Overall rating
4/5

The desert of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is an amazing place to venture into independently. As desert parks go, this one is very accessible and you don’t need to prepare for a full on expedition in a 4x4 to head out here. The no-frills accommodation in the park is comfortable and very reasonably priced. Alternatively, you can camp at the well-appointed campsites. It would be advisable to bring most of your food, but if you’ve forgotten something there is a well-stocked shop on site. No need for a 4x4 either, an ordinarily car can easily navigate on the good gravel roads. All this doesn’t take away from the wilderness of the place. There are few concessions for the natural inhabitants of this arid place and life is harsh.

Wildlife densities are not as big as in the more lush savannah reserves, but the open scenery makes for easier spotting. The Kalahari is an excellent place to see predators like lion, cheetah and spotted hyena, but it’s some of the smaller predators that I love to see when I venture out here. I love watching a family of bat-eared foxes. The best time to see a lot of interaction is when they are denning; the mated pairs are very social and they bring up the pups together. Black-backed jackals are common, but I’ve been fortunate to spot a Cape fox as well. Brown hyena is another one to look out for in the early morning. The desert-adapted springbok and gemsbok are the main antelope species. Birding is excellent and I especially love the number of raptors that can be seen here.

The best of the Kalahari
Overall rating
4/5

Where Botswana meets South Africa and becomes one, Kgalagadi is one of the Kalahari’s most beautiful corners, with wildlife to match. The park’s signature species is the black-maned Kalahari male lion – the park is home to around 450 lions – but there’s a decent chance you’ll also see cheetahs, gemsbok, brown and/or spotted hyenas, bat-eared foxes and more. I have only visited the Botswana side of the park, but the salt pans of the east, encircled as they are by low hills, offer so many fine views and terrific wildlife watching. The prettiest pans are Mpayathutlwa and Mabuasehube – I had luck with cheetah at the latter, and with meerkats over on Khiding Pan, 11km west of Mabuasehube Pan. Birds were also a highlight, including the inquisitive Kalahari scrub robin and the rather lovely violet-eared waxbill. Best of all, the park is reasonably accessible from main-road Botswana but blissfully remote once you’re there.

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