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Rookies do Kgalagadi

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Words and photography David Shreeve

 Two first-time campers take on the place of great thirst

It takes a brave first-time tenter to tackle one of the toughest and most remote parks in Africa. While David Shreeve’s early planning left him slightly apprehensive, he reports that Kgalagadi ultimately favoured the brave.

The invitation had sounded exciting: ‘Come to Kgalagadi with us in November – we’re camping.’ The admission that we had not ever gone camping – not anywhere – was shrugged off. They would provide everything we needed: all we had to do was come along. So, sort of on the spur of the moment, we said ‘Yes!’ Then we started conducting a little research.

We’d heard of Kgalagadi, of course, but we weren’t at all sure where to find it on the map. It had always sounded far too remote to consider seriously as a travel destination. Remote? You’d better believe it! Kgalagadi is at least two days’ drive from anywhere. From Bananaland, make that three! It’s 1600- odd kilometres from Durbs, 1100 from Joburg … and more than a thousand from the Mother City. So not only does it sound remote, it actually is remote.

Then consider its full, official title: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The term ‘frontier’ suggests pioneering stuff, and we read somewhere that the vast Kalahari is the largest stretch of sand in sub-Saharan Africa. Gradually we took in the bigger picture. The map shows Botswana on one side and Namibia on the other, with a huge chunk of the Northern Cape to negotiate before you even get to this frontier world. We decided to look up the meaning of ‘Kgalagadi’, as any prospective traveller would. Sadly, this exercise failed to brighten our prospects: any isolated spot called ‘place of great thirst’ by its original inhabitants is sure to be a tough nut to crack. Talk about ‘dry country’!

And we were going to camp there! With such long distances involved, we realised that we were going to have to stay overnight somewhere on the way there.The thought of having to learn the ropes of camping from the groundsheet up after the first full day of our own personal Groot Trek was somewhat daunting, so we settled for a comfortable chalet in a resort just north of Upington.

We learned after the fact that we needn’t have bothered. But we weren’t to know, were we? Arriving, eventually, at our destination campsite in Kgalagadi, we learned our first, very pleasant and very surprising fact about camping. And this discovery came not a moment too soon. As we drove into camp, the priority was, naturally, an urgent visit to the comfort station – aka the ablution facilities. This particular aspect of camping had been worrying us, because we’d imagined ourselves, at worst, having to set off into the bush with a shovel and a roll of toilet paper or, at best, suffering the multiple discomforts of a smelly (and possibly semi-public) long-drop. Not to mention fighting off insects and malicious reptiles either way.

Surprise, surprise – and three cheers! As we stepped into the ablutions, like Indiana Jones peering into a temple filled with golden treasure, we silently thanked Great Chief Kgalagadi for providing facilities that were at least as good as the change rooms at our regular gym – and rather better than those at our local sports club! What a relief to know that we didn’t need a scorpion crusher when answering the call of nature. (A ‘scorpion crusher’ is a rather macho name for a long-handled butterfly net used to prod away or scoop up any nipping scorpions. Never fear, no scorpions were harmed in the making of this article!)

Leaving our camp-savvy friends at the designated campsite, I set off towards the ‘Gents – Here’ sign, casually calling over my shoulder, ‘Back in two shakes to help you put up the tents.’ I was back just a little more than five minutes later, only to discover both tents had already been erected and the kitchen equipment was being unloaded at the concrete catering table! What’s more, the gas stove was hissing merrily and a cup of tea was only seconds away.

Deeply impressed, we began moving our sleeping gear and suitcases into our tent and setting up camp chairs and folding table, slightly unnerved by the fact that our neighbours on all four sides – already sprawled out on their well-worn camp chairs – were watching our every move. Surely we were not that entertaining? Was it so obvious that we were rookies? ‘Nothing to worry about,’ our friends shrugged. ‘Everyone watches everyone else. That’s how you pick up tips and ideas and check out new camping gimmicks.’ They waved at our nearest neighbours, who waved back enthusiastically. ‘Soon you’ll find yourself doing it too.’ This prediction proved remarkably accurate: we too were soon casting our eyes over a family as it moved in two tents down from us. We watched with great admiration as they set up like seasoned campers. Impressive! This was one of the most pleasant surprises for us as newcomers to the world of canvas dwellers: the realisation that when you go camping, you join a great big happy family where everyone meets and greets everyone else. It’s a world where neighbours are truly neighbourly and, through a simple gesture such as lending or borrowing a corkscrew or half a cup of sugar, you can end up making new friends for life. Clearly Shakespeare never spent much time at Stratford-upon-Avon’s caravan park!

On our first evening we got back to camp rather late after our game-drive, skidding in just as the gate was closing. A cold beer was the first requirement and, just as we popped the metaphorical corks, our northern neighbour ambled across. ‘You braaing tonight?’ We nodded. ‘Well, we’ve finished cooking. Shall I bring our coals across and put them in your fireplace? Still stacks of heat in them.’ Our western neighbours provided the shovel. The washing-up area was like a small country club, where everyone gathers at more or less the same time to wash pots and dishes. This is where we found out where lions had been seen that day, where the best picnic spots were, where there had been a secretary bird sitting on a treetop nest, which road to avoid at all costs, and heaps of other useful information. Among the clatter of pots, pans and cutlery, jokes shot back and forth between the guys, while many of the girls swapped recipes.

One burly guy, scrubbing a frying pan, complained loudly about the condition of the roads. ‘It’s like driving on a giant washboard.’ ‘What tyre pressure are you using?’ came a question from behind a pile of clean plates. ‘One point eight.’ ‘No, man! Go right down to one point six at most. I use one point four and I’m in four-wheel drive all the time.’ This proved to be very good advice. The dirt or sand roads in Kgalagadi are something else. The ones that aren’t bad are … well, not too bad; the ones that are bad are truly awful. To make sure you don’t miss anything interesting, you need to drive at 40 km/h or slower. However, the corrugations are severe enough to shake your back teeth loose. Well, almost. If you speed up and drive at the speed limit of 50 km/h, your vehicle starts to protest from all four corners. Anything in between feels as if your tyres have solidified. We flattened our tyres to 1.4 bar – we were driving on sand almost the whole time – and suffered far less discomfort on our game drives after that.

Our other great discovery was that camping brings you really close to nature. Yes, that sounds obvious, but when you actually experience this, it resonates on a deeper level. After all, getting close to nature is why you visit a game reserve, and in a camp you literally share your space with the birds and animals. We had the ubiquitous starlings on our breakfast table, while a ground hornbill checked out our rearview mirror – and then we had to keep chasing away the cheeky ground squirrels from our fruit basket. After dark we were constantly shooing away black-backed jackals, which even tried to steal meat off the fire! That little insight explained why everyone in the camp used steel trunks and strongboxes. It wasn’t to look tough, it was to withstand the foraging fauna.

In a single morning we spotted 11 different species of birds without even having to get up from our camp chairs. That was how we experienced Kgalagadi: our first taste of one of the world’s biggest game reserves and our first taste of camping – and we enthusiastically recommend both. Admittedly, this transfrontier game reserve is a long way away, and that makes the price of fuel a major consideration. However, the campsite cost us just R320 per night, as opposed to the R1850 that SANParks charges for a riverfront chalet. So camping certainly helps balance the books, which makes even the remotest destination attainable. And that’s yet another reason why we’re well and truly hooked on this mode of holidaying. The only question now is: Where to next?

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