All About the Kalahari Desert
Africa is like no other travel destination, and if approached with a spirit of reverence and spirituality, can change you and your perceptions of life.The Kalahari Desert is one of these destinations offering the spirituality of the Makgadikgadi Pans or the humbling experience of the peoples of the San – The Kalahari Bushmen.
The Kalahari Desert is surprisingly large, as it occupies central and south-western Botswana, parts of west central South Africa and eastern Namibia, thus covering an area of some 260 000 square kilometres. It is also part of a large sand basin stretching into Angola and Zambia in the north, through Botswana into Zimbabwe in the east, south to the Orange River in South Africa, and west to the highlands of Namibia. The basin encompasses an extraordinary 930 000 square kilometres, and is estimated to have been formed some 60 million years ago, at the time when Africa became a continent.In the millions of years that followed, the area of the Kalahari basin became a super lake, which gradually dried out and filled up with wind blown sand, debris and fossils. Today the Kalahari Desert is perhaps not the classic image of sand dunes, particularly in Botswana – where there is grass, trees and scrub.The Kalahari itself is surprisingly diverse, as is not only includes the massive Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans National Park, but also the salt pans of the Makgadikgadi. These pans are extensive (some 10 000 square kilometres), and are the very real reminder of the extent of the ancient super lake, with clear evidence of a shoreline.
During the summer (November – March) when the seasonal rainfall arrives, the grass bordering the pans turns green and herds of zebra, wildebeest, and other antelope species migrate in large numbers to this food source. The area is also alive with nesting flamingo, pelican, and duck, which also thrive on the algae and minute crustaceans.
Traces of man’s occupation of the Kalahari go back at least 25 000 years. Stone Age tools have been revealed by erosion. The Khoi and the San were the first modern inhabitants of southern Africa, and their numerous rock paintings, tools and pottery can be found in the Tsodilo hills and the Lepokole hills in the east and in other rocky parts of the Kalahari. Today, the population has dwindled, but some San still live and follow their traditional life-style as hunter-gatherers in the Central Kalahari Reserve – where they have only recently regained their right to stay in the Reserve.
The name Kalahari is derived from the Tswana word Kgalagadi, meaning “the great thirst”.
Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan National Parks
The Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans Parks were integrated into the Makgadikgadi and Nxai National Park in 1993, making it some 4 000 square kilometres in extent – thus including Nxai Pan itself, and part of the Makgadikgadi Pans system.
The Nxai Pan area is a series of small fossil pans, which are covered in short, nutritious grasses, interspersed with ‘islands’ of mainly umbrella thorn trees. Nxai Pan lies to the north of the Makgadikgadi Pans, and in the dry season the wildlife concentrates on one artificial water hole, just north of the Game Scout Camp. In the February to April wet season, the concentrations of wildebeest, zebra and oryx are spectacular. In addition there bat-eared foxes emerge in good numbers, while lion, hyena and wild dog have followed the antelope to the area.
Nxai Pan and Kudiakam Pan are both a part of the ancient lake bed that formed Sua and Ntwetwe Pans. Kudiakam comprises mini salt pans, but thanks to its higher elevation, Nxai Pan escaped encrustation by leached salts.
The Makgadikgadi pans cover some 10 000 square kilometres in salt. Some of the pan are enormous, others the size of small ponds. Surrounding the pans are vast grasslands fringed with palm trees. The pans flood after the rains (November to March), and this attracts thousands of water birds to the shallow pools. The flamingos and pelicans flock to the salty waters and the animals of the plains to the fresh grasses. The flamingos migrate from as far away as East Africa to filter the newly released nourishment and algae from the waters.
These pans are the remnants of the once great Lake Makgadikgadi that existed some 2 million years ago, and presumed to have dried up around 1 500 years ago. The lake was 80 000 square kilometres in extent, and up to 55 metres deep, making it the largest inland sea in Africa. Over the years a combination of climatic changes and tectonic activity has drained the waters completely.
Although named for the Pans, the Makgadikgadi section of the park is mainly grassland, with only a small area of salt pan. These grasslands also attract wildlife by the thousands, in the rainy season. There is surprising variety in the park – with 4 main vegetation types: riverine woodland, scrubland, grassland and the salt pans, which support Palmtree woodlands, on the edges.
The range of antelope includes impala, oryx, hartebeest and kudu, but they only appear in large numbers during the migrations during May and June. Lion, hyena (brown hyena are prevalent in the area) and cheetah are also present and when there’s water, and the Boteti River supports a healthy hippo population. The Nxai/ Makgadikgadi area has also been made famous by its magnificent baobab trees. There are Baines’ Baobabs, south of Nxai Pan, which form an impressive group. They are named for the painter, who immortalised them in 1862. Baines was travelling with John Chapman at the time, but has also travelled with Livingstone.
At the ephemeral Gutsa Pan, 30 kilometres south of Gweta (the village close to the entrance of Nxai Pan), you will find Green’s Baobab, which was inscribed by the 19th century hunter and trader Joseph Green. Fifteen kilometres to the south-east by rough track is the enormous Chapman’s Baobab, which measures 25 metres around and historically served as a beacon in a country of few landmarks. It’s thought that it was also used as a post office by passing explorers, traders and travellers, many of whom left inscriptions on its trunk.
Near the south-western corner of Sua Pan is Kubu Island – an ancient 20-metre high scrap of rock with its ghostly Baobabs, surrounded by a sea of salt. In cool weather, this unique sight can make visitors feel like castaways on an alien planet. In Zulu-based languages, ‘Kubu’ means Hippopotamus, and as unlikely as it may seem, given the current environment, the site may have been inhabited as recently as 500 to 1 500 years ago. On one shore lies an ancient crescent-shaped stone enclosure of unknown origin that has yielded numerous pot shards, stone tools and ostrich eggshell beads.
Visit our Camps and Lodges Section to review the varied accommodation on offer in the Kalahari Desert
Central Kalahari Game Reserve
Larger than Denmark or Switzerland, the 52 800 square kilometre Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which was set up in 1961, is one of the largest game reserve in the world.
The reserve is literally in the centre of Botswana, and is characterised by vast open plains, saltpans and ancient riverbeds. Varying from sand dunes with many species of trees and shrubs in the north, to flat bushveld in the central area, the reserve is more heavily wooded in the south, with mopane forests to the south and east.
The people commonly known throughout the world as Bushmen, but more properly referred to as the San (or Basarwa in Botswana), have been resident in and around the area for probably thousands of years. Originally hunters and gathers, the lifestyle of the Basarwa has gradually changed with the times and they now live in settlements, some of which are situated within the southern half of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
One the better known areas of the Reserve is Deception Valley, which is all that remains of a sprawling riverbed that has long since dried up. Stretching across 80 kilometres of the Reserve’s north reaches, the valley is now covered with short grass, and dotted with the occasional island of bushy trees. Some of the roots of the larger trees extend as far as 50 metres below the surface to the water table, enabling them to survive the dry winters.The low canopies of these tree grove islands, usually made up of umbrella thorn (Acacia tortilis) and buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) provide shelter for game during the heat of the day and one can often see lion dozing in the shade of these thickets.
After the summer rains arrive, from Deception Valley to Piper Pans, the vast plains produce sweet grasses making the area one of the prime game-viewing areas in Botswana. Not many people seem to be aware of this and visitors are few. The clear blue sky fills with gigantic clouds and the stage is set for an amazing transformation. Here you will find thousands of oryx, springbok and wildebeest, with numerous predators in attendance (lion, cheetah, hyena and jackal). Game viewing in the Kalahari Desert is best between December and April, when the animals congregate in the pans and valleys.