We promised ourselves that we would visit Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, in the extreme north of South Africa, again after previously seeing it in the ‘wet’ season. Last time we were here we had an amazing experience self driving ourselves around the park, but as you know sometimes when you revisit somewhere it can be a bit of an anti-climax, especially when you enjoyed it so much the first time.
First of all the border post at Mata Mata is unlike any other border that we have been through in Africa, leaving Namibia is so easy and stress free here (not all Namibian border posts are this easy), so after paying our vehicle tax (this is charged per 100km that you travelled while in Namibia for a HGV type truck) which worked out to be just under £20.00 for about 2 months travelling from the far north west border of Katima Mulio (border with Zambia), and out at Mata Mata, we got our Carnet de Passage and passports stamped to exit the country.
Where this border differs with most, is the fact that no commercial vehicles can use it, it is purely for visitors to the park. Secondly you have to have a minimum of 2 nights accommodation/camping pre-booked to be allowed access. We crossed early afternoon and we were only the third vehicle through that day. The other strange thing is that as soon as you cross the border out of Namibia you are of course in South Africa, the SA border post isn’t for another 120km, at the other end of the park at Twee-Rivieren. This also means that you can enter at Mata Mata, and exit also at Mata Mata, and not get a stamp for SA in your passport, this is also the same if entering from one of the remote border posts from Botswana, hence the name ‘Transfrontier Park’.
From the off Kgalagadi did not disappoint, this really is one of the best game parks in Africa (that we have been to anyway), and truly is a predators paradise. This is an extremely dry and arid place, and because of this there are no Elephants, Buffalo, or Rhino here, but it really isn’t any worse for that. There certainly isn’t the massive destruction here that is caused by large numbers of elephants to trees that you see in many places in Namibia and Botswana.
We spent 4 nights camped at Mata Mata (originally booked for 3), and self driving from here produced some spectacular game viewing from the cab of Colonel K including lots of Lions, and a couple of firsts for us with Caracal and African Wild Cat.
These African Wild Cats may look like a household tabby cat, but the are bigger (especially longer in the legs), and are a formidable hunting animal, we were lucky enough to see these on a few occasions in the bush, usually around or nearby a water hole.
There are a very large population of Jackals here in the park and they really do have to work for their food, you can see Jackals everywhere at all times of the day (even in the heat of the afternoon when everything else is tucked up in the shade), scavenging for bits of food here and there.
The other treat up at the Mata Mata end of the Park was the large number of owls present, and because the Camel Thorn trees are right up next to the track here, we were able to get up really close to them sometimes.
There are also huge numbers of birds of prey in this north western side of Kgalagadi, including White Backed Vultures, Lappet-faced Vultures, and the beautiful Secretary Bird.
This park does attract a lot of serious birders, and on one early morning game drive we were flagged down by a vehicle coming the other way, the driver was very animated and excited, he explained that a little further down the track was the best specimen of a huge Tawny Eagle that he had ever seen. Im not sure about that but we did see it and it was magnificent.
There are also many other birds of prey including the Black Chested Snake-Eagle, Brown Snake-Eagle, and the numerous Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, and many more……
Obviously there is a certain amount of luck with self driving in a park such as Kgalagadi, but as with all things in life you also make your own luck, we had 11 early morning game drives during our stay (inc the morning that we left the park), and every time we were out of the campsite by 5.30, in other words as the gates opened. During one of these drives from Mata Mata we saw a huge pride of lions, first counting four adults and four cubs in the long grass near the waterhole. Then incredibly we spotted at least another eight adults on the sand dunes further back, eventually they all came together before moving on over the back of the dunes.
We always went driving for a minimum of five hours each morning, sometimes longer, but there really is little point in driving during the heat of the day (and it was very hot!), but luckily the campsite at Mata Mata has a small swimming pool that is perfect for cooling off.
One day we arrived back at the camp and decided to have a spot of lunch, obviously sat outside the truck, so wound out the awning to get a bit of shade, it was stifling hot, with not a breath of breeze, it was very still indeed. After letting our lunch settle (an exciting mix of crackers, tomato and cold ham or cheese as always), we put on our cossies, and walked the 20 metres to the fenced pool. We were splashing around in the pool chatting to a South African couple went all of a sudden the campsite disappeared in a dust cloud, as a huge “whirlygig” tore through the site, there was an almighty crash, and in unison both Jac and I shouted “shit, the awning”, we grabbed our towels and ran back to Colonel K expecting to see the awning torn to shreds and laying in a heap on the floor. I couldn’t believe my eyes when we got there, the awning was still attached but on the roof of the Daf!!!! The two arms were snapped completely off the front of the awning and were just hanging there. Incredibly none of the other campers batted an eyelid at this happening, but eventually an elderly South African from the camp next door came to lend a hand. We disconnected the hinged wind-out arms completely (there was no way they were ever going to go back into the housing again), and managed to wind the rest of the awning in. A new awning is now needed, and a lesson learnt, never leave an awning unattended in Africa even on the stillest of days!!!!
Some campsites in Africa have a problem with Baboons or monkeys, but here in Mata Mata its Ground Squirrels, there are dozens and dozens of them, and they can be a real pain in the butt, very cute but they have got used to humans and obviously associate us with food.
Then one afternoon there was a new kid on the block, even cuter, and so much more fun, yup I found a solitary Meerkat under Colonel K, hunting and eating the giant caterpillars that were abundant in number here, these were about 3” (75mm) long and very nasty looking.
He would expertly (and very carefully) drag/roll these caterpillars in the sand which seemed to diminish the danger caused by the hairs etc, and then scoff them down, before catching another and repeating this operation. When he had eaten about four of these monsters, he just chilled down next to us.
It wasn’t long though before those pesky Ground Squirrels appeared to see who this little guy was. They were literally nose to nose at one point, until the squirrel decided its better to just bugger off.
When we were here before, the tracks around the park were in very good condition, and really weren’t a problem to drive on, but this time it was a different story, with the sand being very soft and deep in places within about 30km of Mata Mata, and on the track up towards Nossob, so we opted to keep the truck in low range for the 5 days that we were driving up in that area, the trouble was the deep sections were very sporadic, and even seemed worse some days and better on other days.
Let me just say that our 10 tonne Leyland Daf didn’t get stuck once in Kgalagadi, but on one particular day we were returning to Mata Mata after a very long morning drive when we hit a very long deep sandy section that was gradually going up hill. Ahead of us were two stranded vehicles, a Nissan Navara, and a Toyota Fortuna (a car version of a Hilux), both seriously stuck deep in the sand. We pulled off the track onto a sort of “drive around”, and got out of the truck to see if we could help. Behind us was a Landrover Discovery that was also deep in the sand and not moving. Neither vehicle had any sand ladders so Jac and I went back to the truck and got out our Maxtrax recovery boards, We got the Toyota out quite quickly, and he parked back down by Colonel K, the second vehicle the Navara was much more of a problem, not helped by the fact that the South African driver insisted every time we put the Maxtrax under the wheels that he gave it maximum revs and was chewing the lugs off of our boards!!! The issue was made worse by the fact that there were a few “helpers” that all insisted that he “gun it” out of the sand. I was getting a bit irate with seeing several hundreds of pounds worth of Maxtrax (we have 4 of them) being slowly destroyed, especially as we have used them lots of times on our LD truck without so much as a mark on them, I was asked to take the driving seat of the Navara. Oh shit!!!! No pressure here then, a stupid soft Englishman telling a load of burly Afrikaans out door types how to extract a stuck vehicle mmmmmm…….. Slowly, low revs, I can feel the Nissan coming up on the boards, and I just reversed it out…… phew, one up for the plucky Brits. Actually the guys were great and very much appreciated the help from us, it was scorching hot in the midday sun (it was about 12.30pm), and kneeling down in the sand resulted in burnt knee caps.
On our last drive from Mata Mata we found a male Lion under the shade of a tree, at first all appeared well, then Jac noticed that it had a bad wound on one of his rear legs.
Then the poor thing opened its eyes and appeared to be either blind in one eye or have suffered a bad injury.
We saw the same Lion the following morning and it was up and walking, but with a very bad lim. It was at a waterhole not far from where we had seen it the previous day, but things didn’t look good for this fairly young fella. We spoke to someone a few days later and they said lots of lions here get injured while hunting or fighting but apparently the survival rate for injured big cats is quite high. Fingers crossed.
Also on our way down to Twee-Revieren (about a 130km drive including detours), we were lucky enough to see a stunning Leopard dozing under a tree, before he disappeared off up into the rocky outcrops that litter this section of Kgalagadi. This was indeed a rare treat to see one of these cats in broad daylight.
We were due to stay in the park for 7 nights, but ended up staying for 10 nights, we love this place. From Twee-Rivieren we saw lots of Lions again, including some stunning specimens.
By day 6 we still hadn’t seen Cheetah and were staying out a little later in the hope of snatching a glimpse of these elegant cats. We were on our way back to Twee-Rivieren campsite, and with the gate in sight (always left open here during the day), we spotted three Cheetah under a Camel Thorn Tree. It was a fantastic end to another great game viewing, they were lying next to what was left of their dinner, a newly dispatched Springbok, the blood was still visible on their faces and chests.
To be so up close and personal with these Cheetah was a real privilege, and so close to the campsite it just goes to show you never should give up on self- drive game viewing.
Kgalagadi really does attract lots of very serious and indeed professional wildlife photographers, and one of the reasons for this is the stunning back drop that can be available for your photos. With this I mean the red sand dunes of the Kalahari. When the sun is low and the animals are in the right position the result can be breathtaking (unfortunately lots of the time the big cats don’t play ball and you end up taking photos into the morning sun).
Obviously there has to be a stable and reliable food source for all these predators, and in Kgalagadi there are huge numbers of Blue Wildebeest, Springbok, Red Hartebeest,Gemsbok, Steenbok, and Giraffe. All of these animals obviously have to drink, and these waterholes provide the perfect ambush places for cats.
Whilst getting up at 5.00am (in the dark), to be game driving by 5.30am can be a bit of a pain (and its surprising how many European tourists can’t be bothered to get up early), most days it really pays off, and on one particular early morning just as the sun was rising over the dunes to the east, we were paid back in droves!!! We spotted two adult male Cheetah, one very close to the track and one up on the sand dunes beyond.
These boys were up and hunting!! We managed to follow them in the truck for about 40 minutes, and it was fascinating to watch them work as a team, one slowly crouching low in the bush, slowly working his way along, while the other one stayed on the higher ground looking for prey (probably Springbok). We even watched them climb trees, which we had never seen before. They only came together when they got to a large tree, and they both “sprayed” up the trunk, marking their territory.
We never actually saw them make a “kill” but it was a real treat to watch them for so long, and especially with them being on the move rather than just resting up in the heat of the day.
Whilst here we also had a few other “firsts” for us, we saw a Cape Porcupine out in the open, a few Bat Eared Foxes, and Cape Foxes.
There was yet another predatory first for us on the last day in the park we came across a Brown Hyena, these strange creatures are much rarer than the more commonly seen Spotted Hyena, he was very nervous of the truck and also kept looking around him, maybe there were Lions in the area too.
We also saw another Leopard, and another African Wild Cat during our ten days in the park, and out of 11 early morning game drives we saw big cats on all but one of them!! Thats not too shabby a record I think.
I just hope that SanParks (this is the South African body that run their vast array of National Parks), don’t ruin the park. At the moment it is still “raw”, and out of the three main campsites only one has a restaurant (the South Africans like to braii and cook for themselves), the roads are still tricky in places especially in the northern areas, and the capacity for visitors is still low compared to parks like Kruger and Etosha. Also the only game vehicle that we saw was from a lodge in Botswana, so you really have to self drive.
Whilst comparing it to Namibia’s Etosha, I have to say the campsites in Kgalagadi are on another level, in fact on another planet, with the ablutions being spotlessly clean, and literally half the price for a nights camping (approx £17.00 per night for two people and a vehicle).
I also have a suggestion to NWR (the government body that runs Namibia’s main tourist attractions such as Etosha, and Fish River etc), send your staff to Kgalagadi for a few days and see how you are supposed to interact and talk to clients!!!! By the time we left Twee-Rivieren, the Sanparks staff knew us by name, were most helpful about changing a night from one camp to a different one, and allowed us to book extra nights on a day to day basis, all carried out in a friendly smiling manner.
As you can probably tell we loved our time here, and it really is addictive, we just kept adding on days, you never know what you might see the next morning……..
We are gonna miss these guys!
Thanks so much for reading, we now have passed 40,000 visitors to Lorrywaydown, but are sadly nearing the end of our trip ,well only a couple of months to go.
I hope the number of photos on this post isn’t too much trouble to trawl through…..