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Shifting Gear in Africa's
Kalahari Desert

By Brad Zembic

Obsessed with sighting a black-maned lion in the Kalahari wilderness, a tourist learns about Nature's genius.

black maned lion copyright angela and craig

The morning sun was shining over Cape Town as my rented VW Golf slowed, shuddered, then stalled along the shoulder of the N7. After showing me the basics of how to drive a standard, my friend Serena was gracious enough to escort me to the outskirts of town. She parked her Opel GT behind me and walked to where I sat, gripping the steering wheel as if the car might suddenly decide to leave on its own.

"Now remember—," Serena said, snickering, as she leaned through my open window, "gear down when you're decelerating, and be sure to start in first." I was mystified by the hieroglyphic-like lines on the gearshift and berated myself for not having spent the few extra rands on a car with automatic transmission.

"And in South Africa," she continued, "the slow lane is on the left." I nodded, realizing why so many other motorists have been honking at me. The complexity of operating my first standard vehicle in a country where driving is a mirror image of what I'm used to stunned me, and for a moment my vision blurred.

I put the car into gear, depressed the gas pedal, and tried to sense, Jedi-style, the exact moment when I could release the clutch. This intuitive method failed, and I lurched northward along the freeway wondering if I would make it alive to my destination—the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the southwest Kalahari Desert, Africa's first formally declared international park.

I arrived at Twee Rivieren, the park's most southern access, just before dusk the next day, and even in the fading light it was easy to see why European settlers shunned this remote area: sand dunes and peppercorn scrub stretched as far as the eye could see. Everything, including the crisp winter air, seemed dead, leaving my senses straining to fill the void.

The region may well have remained isolated if it hadn't been for General Louis Botha's planned invasion of German South West Africa during World War I. In anticipation of the march northward, Botha built a series of boreholes to supply his South African troops with water. The invasion never happened, but the presence of permanent water sites made the southern Kalahari more accessible to hunters and migrating southerners. Accompanying them was the characteristic slaughter of wildlife which, years later, prompted conservationists to lobby the government for the area's protection.

The park, whose 38,000 km sq of sand, duneveld and savanna is jointly administered by neighbouring Botswana, isn't blessed with spectacular scenery or even big game such as Cape buffalo, elephant or rhino. It's also difficult to get to—a long sixteen-hour drive from Cape Town (ten for those with experience driving a standard). What drew me to this far-flung South African wilderness was the chance to see the fabled black-maned lion made famous by Mark and Delia Owens in their book, Cry of the Kalahari. Since reading about the Owens' adventures in central Botswana, I have been obsessed with the feline and became nearly giddy at the prospect of seeing one outside the book covers.

"Be sure to come back before dark," a park ranger warned me as I set off from camp for a sunset look-about. "There are many lions!" That was good news and, after slipping into what was possibly first gear, I chugged off in search of my prey.


My route followed the bone-dry Auob River, one of the two watercourses that comprise the sinewy pair of main roads that on a map resemble twin spines. Rivers flow only sporadically in this part of the Kalahari. The rains, which fall irregularly between November and April, are often not heavy or prolonged enough to give them sustained life—the Auob fills only once a decade and the nearby Nossob once every hundred years. Summer's short cloudbursts often leave only trickling pools of water for wandering game. These evaporate, though, or are quickly sucked up by thirsty sand that soon becomes adorned with a confetti-like carpet of brilliant flowers.

Soon after the thatched-roof buildings at Twee Rivieren disappeared into the distance, life seemed everywhere. A small flock of
black-plumed ostriches pranced across the veld at my approach, and a pair of majestic gemsbok, one of Africa's largest antelopes, descended from the dunes for a drink of water at a borehole—one of General Botha's, I assumed. They stopped briefly to evaluate the danger I might pose before sauntering lazily to the overflowing cistern. Later, the desert became dotted with thin-leafed camel thorns, shepherd's trees and acacias—slim cover for any of the Kalahari's predators. I stopped to listen for the telltale grunts of lion, but the air was still, the only sound the shrill tone that seems to accompany absolute quiet.

The next day's drive to Nossob Camp, in the northern section of the park, was effortless and serene, though I occasionally became intimidated by the mounds of copper-coloured sand that had formed across my path. The broad, grassy bed of the Nossob River offered unimpeded sightings of game—springbok, blue wildebeest, gemsbok, the "prince of the Kalahari," and ostrich. Occasionally a Cape fox or a wildcat, an animal that through generations of domestication developed into the modern housecat, scurried across the road.

"It's an incomplete place," commented Sandra, a Nossob conservationist, during a guided nature hike. "Everything here seems to be waiting for something. The valleys are waiting for the rivers; the yellows and browns are awaiting the greens. And many people come here feeling incomplete. They want to reconnect with something that's missing from their lives, something that can only be found in the wilderness.

"But others," she added disappointedly, "only feel complete after they've seen a lion when there are so many spectacular things right in front of their eyes." I glanced awkwardly at the other hikers, who were nodding their heads in agreement.


The most remarkable thing about the Kalahari, of course, is that anything can thrive in such a seeming wasteland. The severe environment, where the extreme temperatures and lack of water can be fatal, demands creative means by which animals can survive. The eland's light-coloured coat reflects the sun's burning rays and helps keep it hydrated; the gemsbok's body temperature can rise to as high as 45 degrees Celsius, causing the animal to lose heat to the outside environment. At the same time, a series of blood vessels in its nasal area acts as a radiator by cooling the blood before it reaches the brain.

"Even the plants have developed ingenious ways to survive," Sandra announced proudly as she picked something from the ground. "Take the bushman's grass, here. Its seed waits for a good wind, then sails away across the veld, alights on the sand and burrows itself in to germinate." I gazed for a moment at the golden piece of fluff with its feathery prongs, long stalk and the tan-coloured seed that hung like a parachutist at the end.

"What's so spectacular about that?" I whispered sarcastically as I scanned the riverbed for lion. Sandra blew the seed from her palm. The gauzy projectile drifted awkwardly to the ground and, with the help of the chilly morning breeze, dug itself into the sand with a rotary action. I stooped for a closer look at the embedded seed and admitted I was impressed with the engineering.

"The magic of the Kalahari is that everything here has adapted perfectly to the harsh conditions," Sandra continued as I glanced for feline movement among the grass and camel thorn trees. The only creature in sight, though, was a blue wildebeest, standing forlornly in the middle of the Auob.

During the next hour or so, Sandra, along with her colleague Riaan, who peddles venomous snakes during his free time, introduced me to many of the Kalahari's exceptional creatures. There was a species of rat that lives in trees and a communal bird that builds a condominium of nests so large that it can cover an entire tree.

"There's safety in numbers—a hundred pair of eyes are better than one at watching for danger," Riaan explained.

My guides also pointed out plants and trees that have been used medicinally for centuries by nomadic San, or Bushmen. The wormbark false thorn is an effective de-wormer also used to treat ulcers and rheumatism; the hoodia gordonii cactus suppresses hunger; and devil's claw is now sold around the world as a remedy for everything from arthritis to skin disorders.

"The Kalahari is a natural pharmacy," Sandra said as she plucked a leaf from a nearby bush and slipped it into her mouth. "Anyone want to try one? They make a lovely candy and are sure to take care of morning breath."

On my return to Twee Rivieren, I gazed less through the wintry trees in hope of spotting lion and spent more time thinking about the brilliance of nature and how life, even in the most difficult circumstances, seems to find ways to adapt. I had become expert, I imagined, at identifying the small bushes and grasses I had previously thought valueless and was more aware of the area's magic.

As I proceeded along the dusty road that would take me back to Cape Town, I remembered Sandra's description of the Kalahari as an incomplete place and realized that not seeing a lion during my visit somehow seemed right. I would remain incomplete, like the desert I was about to leave. As with all life in the Kalahari, though, the waiting eventually ends: the summer rains fall; the valleys turn green; and the veld flowers blossom. Near the camp gate, a family in a white pick-up truck flagged me down and told me of a lion kill only a kilometre away. I arrived at the scene and was treated to the sight of two lions sprawled beneath a shepherd's tree chewing on the bloody remains of a felled gemsbok.