KGALAGADI : THE LAND OF THIRST
OUR COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK (KTP)
You may not have heard of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP), even though it is one of the largest protected wilderness areas in Africa, covering close to 4 million ha. (38,000 km²). It is also Africa’s first Transfrontier Park.
But you must have heard of the Kalahari Desert. A pristine section of this remarkable environment is protected by the KTP, which combines the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. This large area is necessary in such a harsh environment since animals must often move far in search of suitable vegetation to eat in order to survive long dry spells.
The red sand dunes in this inhospitable desert form a magnificent backdrop for wildlife viewing and photography. If you speak with nature photographers who have visited all the prime wildlife parks on the continent, Kgalagadi will certainly rank among their top five. But since it is rather far from South Africa’s main tourist destinations and is not widely publicized, this park is not as famous as the Serengeti / Masai Mara, or the Okavango, or Kruger. Still, those who do visit tend to return over and over again.
WHY SO SPECIAL?
What makes this park so special besides awe-inspiring desert scenery? One word: predators. The famous black-maned lions of the Kalahari are the top draw, but cheetah and leopard are fairly common, with african wildcats and caracals also seen often. Other desert creatures normally seen here are the cape fox, bat-eared fox, brown and spotted hyena, black-backed jackal, honey badger and meerkat.
Over 40 species of raptors are on display, which is two-thirds of the raptor species in all of southern Africa. They are just part of the 300+ species of birds seen in the park.
There is not a great variety of grazers, but the iconic gemsbok and springbok are the most common along with blue wildebeest and red hartebeest. Eland and kudu are common further to the east in Botswana. The eland can migrate by the thousands into the South African side in search of grazing when drought hits. The kudu are seen rarely, but do wander over from time to time. We saw kudu, but no eland during our visit.
Kgalagadi is not a “Big 5” reserve. There are no elephants, rhino or buffalo. Wildlife densities are not as impressive as seen in the savannah reserves, but the open scenery makes for easier animal spotting. While it may seem a severe and forbidding landscape at first, the Kalahari is actually a rich and complex ecosystem alive with interesting flora and fauna.
The South African side of Kgalagadi centers on two ancient dry river beds that form a V-shape. The Auob is 130 km long, while the Nossob, which roughly forms the South Africa-Botswana border, is 320 km in length. There are boreholes drilled at intervals along both river beds: 17 on the Auob and 24 along the Nossob. These water sources attract wildlife along with visitors parked in cars awaiting the wildlife. The primary road system follows these two riverbeds, with two cross-dune roads joining the two main roads. Most of the wildlife is found along the roads, often at very close quarters and the sloping red dunes along the river beds makes for appealing backgrounds for photographs.
Click here to see the official SANParks (South Africa National Parks) Kgalagadi map which shows all the roads, camps, and waterholes.
As desert parks go, Kgalagadi is very accessible and you don’t need to equip for a full-on expedition in a 4×4 to enjoy the park unless you wish to cross over to the Botswana side. But since it is South Africa’s most remote park, with less infrastructure than most other parks in the country, some planning is necessary. Most tourism happens on the South Africa side, which has excellent facilities. On the Botswana side you must be self-sufficient if not staying at either of the two luxury lodges just west of the Nossob road. The KTP is also easily accessible from Namibia.
A BIT OF KTP HISTORY
The boreholes (some sweet, some salty) that visitors park beside to observe wildlife were not first put in place for the animals. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, South Africa’s government drilled this series of boreholes along the Auob to provide their troops with water in case South Africa wanted to use the natural corridor to invade German-held South West Africa (Namibia).
Several farmers took up positions as borehole caretakers and they lived rent-free as long as the boreholes were kept in good repair. They settled with their families and livestock, but life in this arid region proved terribly challenging. If not for the tsama melons, an essential plant in this semi-arid ecosystem, which in dry times are the principle source of water, many would not have survived. Under very dry conditions, even the tsamas disappear and only animals that are adapted to the harsh conditions survive. Over time it became clear that this region would never be suitable for livestock. This pushed the farmers into hunting, which decimated the game in most of the region. The need for a conservation plan became obvious if this precious eco-system was to survive.
Kalahari Gemsbok Park was proclaimed in 1931, while the Botswana Gemsbok National Park was proclaimed in 1938 by what was then called Bechuanaland. Mabuasehube Game Reserve was added on the Botswana side in 1971 and was incorporated into Gemsbok National Park in 1992. Then in 2000 the two national parks were joined to form the Kalahari Transfrontier Park (KTP). Approximately 75% of the park lies in Botswana and 25% in South Africa. The San name Kgalagadi means “Place of Thirst”, “Land of Thirst”, or “The Great Thirstland”, depending on who you ask.
The picture below is the Auchterlonie Museum, which is housed in a renovated old farmhouse overlooking the Auob riverbed. That place must have been incredibly hot in the summer.
HOW TO GET TO KGALAGADI
FROM SOUTH AFRICA
The KTP is a ~12-hour drive from either Johannesburg (918 km) or Cape Town (1,040 km). Most visitors break up the journey with an overnight stop along the way. The drive is on good tar roads all the way to the park gate at Twee Rivieren.
The well-maintained road network in South Africa is one of the very best we’ve driven on. But the stop-and-go checkpoints at the inevitable road maintenance sites can add quite some time to any journey. We learned that checking on where road repairs are underway is very helpful for accurate drive time calculating. A good source of info is the AA South Africa site. We actually pre-planned to do our longer drives on Sundays and holidays simply to avoid the stop-and-go delays.
Whatever direction you’re coming from in South Africa, the town of Upington is a final staging post for stocking up or overnight stays before heading on the final 2.5 hours of driving (265 km) to Kgalagadi. We chose to stay at The Overlook in Keimoes, run by an American Chef and his South African wife, which was wonderful and highly recommended. It was just outside Upington, where we (like most everyone) stocked up at the Pick n’Pay the next morning before heading onwards towards the park.
To save a long day of driving, it is possible to fly to Upington, pick up a rental vehicle and then stock up before driving to the park.
Entering from Namibia is less popular, but is actually easier. It’s 570 km (~7 hours) from Windhoek to the border post at Mata Mata. The first half of the journey is south on blacktop, then you turn SE on well-maintained gravel roads. Again, most folks stay overnight along the way since there are numerous great options for overnight (or longer) stays along the way. Besides, there’s no rush and it’s good to enjoy the Kalahari scenery. If you enter the park from Namibia and leave using the same (the only) border post at Mata Mata, you technically never leave Namibia.
Note that if coming from Namibia, you will not be allowed to bring firewood across the border. It will be confiscated. So bring charcoal or buy your firewood inside the park.
TRANSIT THROUGH THE KTP
You can enter in one country and leave into another, but all South Africa immigration formalities must be done at Twee Rivieren. At Mata Mata, only Namibia has an immigration post. This means that if you enter the park at Twee Rivieren and plan to exit the park at Mata Mata, you must get your exit stamp when you enter the park (it is valid for 30 days). This also applies when entering or exiting the Park to or from Botswana. Also, in order to transit through Kgalagadi you need to spend at least two nights in the park.
The border post hours are:
- Twee Rivieren (South Africa): 7:30 am to 4 pm
- Mata Mata (Namibia): 8 am to 4:30 pm
DON’T BE LATE!
It is important to keep in mind that when you first enter the park you need to have enough time to drive (under the speed limit) to your first reserved rest camp or else they will not let you enter. If you are delayed there are a few lodging options just outside the park in both South Africa and Namibia.
WHERE TO STAY IN KGALAGADI
IN SOUTH AFRICA
Most visitors to the KTC stay in the SANParks (South Africa National Parks) accommodation which is clean, comfortable and very reasonably priced, with a number of options, all with fully-equipped kitchens and ensuite bathrooms. Compared to other African game parks, South Africa offers the best self-driving infrastructure and accommodation. By comparison, the government-run accommodation in Namibia’s world famous Etosha National Park is not up to the South African standard and has less options, but is considerably more expensive.
In Kgalagadi, SANParks operate three main camps (fenced), six wilderness camps (unfenced) and camping sites within the three main camps. IMPORTANT: it is vital that you book as early as possible (more on that later).
Visitors should to bring their own food, drinking water and firewood/charcoal, but you will find a shop with basics in each of the main three camps along with a fuel station.
The only upmarket option on the South African side is the community-owned !Xaus Lodge (pronounced “Kaus”), which is on a concession in the western part of the park. This luxury lodge has 12 chalets, with meals, activities and game drives included. While the lodge is expensive, it has the great benefit of helping preserve San culture and providing an authentic cultural experience.
Outside the park gates are two good options:
The first is Kgalagadi Lodge, which is only 5 km from the Twee Rivieren. We stayed there and recommend it highly. The clean and comfortable units have a kitchenette, full a/c, 24-hour power, swimming pool, a fine restaurant, as well as a well-stocked shop with more variety than on offer in the park shops along with a bakery and butchey.
The second is Kalahari Trails, located 35 km before the KTP entrance, which has its own network of walking trails on 3,500 ha and is a well-regarded place for a day or two. Rehabilitated meerkats live on this property, offering great photographic opportunities.
NOTE: If doing day trips into the KTC from South Africa, the park only lets in 20 cars per day (for day trips). You can pre-book to insure that you get in.
Rooiputs Lodge and Polentswa Tented Camp are both higher-end options, run by Ta Shebube.
The DWNP (Department of Wildlife and National Parks) operate the Rooiputs and Polentswa camping sites, which are located near the camps mentioned above. They also operate rustic camping sites at various pans in the far eastern Mabuasehube area of the park, which is only accessible with 4 x 4 vehicles and all visitors must be completely self-sufficient. Booking must be done by phone and can be time-consuming with a number of steps involved. There is no online booking option for Botswana campsites. Also, some Kgalagadi campsites are privatized, making things even more complicated. All Botswana KTP options are unfenced.
DWNP reservations Tel: +267-318-0774
On the Namibian side there are options for those arriving late and finding the border post closed, or just as a stop-over coming or going.
Kalahari Farm Stall & Accomodation, which is 14 km from the border.
Torgos Lodge is the closest option, only 5 km from Mata Mata.
For a more upmarket option which is a destination in itself, Kalahari Game Lodge is on a private game reserve 18 km from the border crossing, on the Auob riverbed with the same wildlife seen in the KTP. It offers chalets and campsites, both self-catering and with full board. Kalahari Game Lodge is the only place in Namibia where Kalahari lions still roam free in the desert and they offer lion tracking since GPS collars are on one or more of the lions there, virtually guaranteeing close encounters.
Note: If doing day trips from Namibia into the KTC, you can only access the park during border post hours (8 am to 4:30 pm), meaning that you cannot get a full day inside and miss both early and late hours when the animals are most active. For this reason alone we would not recommend doing day trips from Namibia.
KGALAGADI SANPARKS CAMPS
THE MAIN CAMPS
Twee Rivieren Camp is the administrative centre for the KTP and is located at the park entrance in the south. The name means “Two Rivers” in Africaans, because it is located where the Auob meets the Nossob. This camp is the only one with 24-hr electricity (which means 24-hr air-con in the hot season) along with cell phone reception (on the Vodacom network). It is the largest camp (31 chalets) and is the only camp with a restaurant and an ATM. Their shop is the best-stocked of the three main camps. Besides souvenirs they normally have firewood, charcoal, water, dry goods, frozen meat, cheese and yoghurt, a few basic vegetables, various snacks, drinks including wine and beer and what we appreciated most on broiling hot days – ice cream!
Most people stock up before entering the park so that they can ensure that they have what they need. They then only use the camp shops for whatever runs out or for whatever they forgot. And more alcohol. But take note that in accordance with South African law no alcohol is sold on Sundays
It is worth stopping off in the Twee Rivieren shop when entering the park because the shops in the Nossob and Mata Mata camps are much smaller with fewer products.
Many people stay at Twee Rivieren only when entering or leaving Kgalagadi as it isn’t as “wild” feeling as the other options. But it is a very good area for all three of the major predators and is better than the other two main camps for finding leopards owing to the calcrete cliffs lining the southern section of the Auob river valley that offer them refuge. The only leopard we saw in the park was sitting looking out of a cave along this section.
Mata Mata Camp is 2.5 hours by road up the Auob river bed where the road ends on the Namibia border. This area has the best variety and highest numbers of wildlife. It is also the only part of the park to have giraffes. We had a strong phone signal reaching us from the Namibian network while we stayed in this area, though others have reported no signal.
If staying at Mata Mata or the nearby Kalahari Tented Camp, the Namibian border guards will let you walk across the border to visit a farm stall just inside Namibia. We did this, but found the farm stall closed at the time.
Nossob Camp is located 3.5 hours by car from Twee Rivieren up the … you guessed it, … the Nossob river bed. This is definitely lion country. If you don’t see (and hear at night) lions around here, you must be terribly unlucky.
GENERAL MAIN CAMP INFO
Both Mata Mata and Nossob have electricity from a generator, but it is turned off at 21:30 and turned back on at 05:00.
All three main camps now have wi-fi connectivity, accessed using vouchers bought in the camp shop.
All three also have a swimming pool.
These camps are fenced, so guests can walk around looking for interesting critters and birds to photograph. There are weaver birds, owls, ground squirrels, meerkats, yellow mongoose, genets, barking geckos, scorpions and other interesting fauna to spot. Remember that you definitely should wear covered shoes and use a flashlight when out walking at night and pay attention to where you are walking since scorpions and snakes are around. At night Bruce and Max had a productive time with a UV flashlight, spotting scorpions.
All three have viewing hides overlooking waterholes as well. The Nossob hide is probably the best of the three. Visiting at night gives you an opportunity to spot interesting nocturnal species that you have little or no chance of seeing by day.
Night drives are a popular pastime offered by the three main camps as long as a minimum of four people sign up and enough rangers are on hand to have someone to take participants out. These spotlight drives give you a great chance for seeing lion, leopard, caracal and African wild cat, which are more active at night. They also show you animals not seen or rarely seen by day: springhare, aardvark, aardwolf, brown and spotted hyena, cape fox, bat-eared fox, porcupine, owls and other denizens of the active African night. Spotting game is quite easy since all eyes, whether it’s a lion or a mouse, reflect light. But like any game drive, a modicum of luck is required. Some folks see only two or three animals that they hadn’t seen by day and leave unimpressed, wondering what all the hype was about. But others go out and return saying it was the highlight of their entire holiday.
There are designated camping areas in all three main camps. At Nossob there is even a premium option, allowing private covered cooking and ablution facilities.
THE WILDERNESS CAMPS
The six unfenced wilderness camps are what get booked up the fastest since they are they are the most popular, yet the most exclusive accommodation option.
In four of the six camps, a maximum of only 8 people are allowed and in another two (Urikaruus and Kieliekrankie, which are the most sought-after chalets in the entire park) only 10 are allowed. A maximum of two people are allowed in each unit and no children under 12 years of age are permitted. The exception is the Kalahari Tented Camp, which is on the Auob riverbank, 3 km south of Mata Mata. It has 15 units, including some family units (like we had) and children are allowed. There is even a swimming pool (well-shaded by big trees and freezing cold). But like the other wilderness camp it is unfenced, so vigilance is required since predators do wander between the units. We had lions stroll by our tent twice.
Do not go out for walks as you would in the main camps (obviously).
Solar power runs the lights and ceiling fan. We were pleasantly surprised to have our lights and fan working all through the night. There are no charging outlets in the rooms, but you can charge your computer and camera batteries in the camp office if you ask the on-site camp attendant nicely.
JUST IN CASE
The South African side of Kgalagadi uses a permit system to make sure you return safely into a camp each night. Before you leave the camp each morning you pick up a permit and inform the staff which direction you intend to go. When you get back to your camp you return your permit. If a car fails to turn up by the gate closing time, a search mission will be launched.
November to April: Hot and (a bit) wet
The rains fall in the summer season (mostly December to March), with the heat peaking in December and January. We visited around Christmas, when daytime temperatures can reach 50˚C. There can be spectacular thunder and lightning storms as well as fierce winds. We experienced all of this extreme weather first-hand.
The first rains cleanse the haze from the sky in October/November, though rainfall levels are still low. Temperatures are around 12°C/53°F in the morning and up to 35°C/95°F in the afternoon.
In December/January/February it really gets hot, with temperatures starting around 14°C/57°F at dawn and quickly rising to 40°C/104°F and above. That’s hot, but but peak temperatures can reach 50°C/122°F, which puts ground temperatures above 70°C/158°F! Spectacular storms move through at this time of the year.
In March/April the summer heat begins to wane, with temperatures up to a possible high of 38°C/100°F in the afternoon. Nights are around 15°C/59°F, but can drop as cold as 5°C/41°F once into April. Rains still occur occasionally, but by the end of April the land has dried up.
- The inclement weather makes for impressive landscape photo opportunities and after any rain the desert erupts in vivid colour from seasonal flowers.
- The birthing season is also at this time of the year, with lots of babies on show. All the young grazers around results in much hunting action along the two main roads, which is where the prey congregate.
- The bird species numbers swell during this time of the year as the park welcomes many migratory species.
- The light for photography turns harsh after around 9 am unless it is cloudy.
- Cheetahs hunt through the day, but other predators don’t want to exert themselves in the heat. With lions, the only action you’ll see is when they move from one patch of shade to another.
- The grass can be lengthy in March/April affecting visibility.
May to October – Cold and Dry
The Kgalagadi winter season has no rain. The nights tend to be very cold, and frost is common. Night temperatures fall to 0°C/32°F and below, with an absolute low of -11˚C/14°F in June/July/August at night though daytime is pleasant.
The winter season starts in May with typical temperatures of 7°C/43°F in the morning and up to 31°C/88°F in the afternoon. Night temperatures get down to 0°C/32°F.
In June/July/August it gets colder, with an average morning temperature of just 2°C/35°F, while afternoons heat up to a possible high of 28°C/82°F and nights falling to as low as -11˚C/23°F.
In September mornings are still chilly, with an average of 7°C/45°F, while afternoon temperatures increase up to as hot as 36°C/97°F.
- The grass is dried up, so game viewing becomes easier as winter stretches towards spring.
- The lower angle of the sun makes for better light over most of the day for photography.
- Animals are more active throughout the day compared to the hot season.
- You also have a better chance of seeing nocturnal creatures in daylight on colder days, such as bat-eared foxes, aardwolves and brown hyenas.
- Owing to the cold mornings, some animals keep atop the dunes as the sun rises in order to catch the sun and warm up, so there can be less to see along the roads when that golden dawn light is in effect.
- This is when many visitors come simply because of the winter school break in South Africa and the summer school break / holidays in North America and Europe.
SO WHEN SHOULD WE GO?
Any time offers much to see in Kgalagadi. But it is obvious that the temperatures point towards between the extremes, meaning March – May and September-November.
At any time of year, the clear and clean desert skies offer superlative stargazing since there is no light pollution, with the nearest settlement hours away by car.
DO I NEED A 4×4?
Many sources recommend getting a 4×4 to visit Kgalagadi. But, in our opinion, you do not need a 4×4 in the KTP unless you plan to go in areas or to certain camps that specifically require a 4×4 vehicle. The main roads are good quality gravel / sand roads. We never even came close to being stuck in our 2-wheel drive Renault Duster.
But nobody recommends visiting the park in a sedan or compact car because of the washboard road sections and sandy patches. Still, we did see a few. We only experienced bad corrugations in one section of the Auob road north of Urikaruus. On one drive we watched a sedan pulling a trailer getting seriously jolted trying to get through this stretch, which must’ve been a damaging experience. We saw a tractor pulling huge tires every day, out grading the roads. After our first experience driving along the worst section, the grader did a fine job flattening it the next day (and the driver pointed out some lions to us when we stopped for a chat). But two days later it was bad again.
It is strongly recommended that you reduce your tire pressure to 1.6 bars when you enter the park in order to have a smoother ride, better traction and to help prevent the roads from getting more corrugated. The fuel station attendant at Twee Rivieren or Mata Mata can do this for you if you do not want to do it yourself. Then get your pressure filled back to normal just before you leave the park. All very easy.
Bring your own water for drinking and cooking. We re-filled large containers easily all over South Africa, including Upington. Water is for sale in the camp shops, but bring your own just in case they are out of stock just when you need it.
The tap water is brackish (salty). Do not drink it or use it for cooking (obviously). Even though we showered daily we had that uncomfortable sticky, greasy feeling on our skin all through our visit, with our hair limply plastered to our heads in the heat. But one must be thankful for any water in such a dry environment.
IMPORTANT: Make absolutely sure that you always have plenty of drinking water in your car. Keeping hydrated in desert temperatures is imperative. Also, if your car breaks down, you may have to wait quite a while to get rescued (hours, or even overnight). You can’t leave your car and walk for help with all the lions along the road (again, obviously, but it has happened).
OUR TIPS FOR BOOKING SANPARKS ACCOMODATION
It is easy to navigate the SANParks website to make bookings, but the limited accommodation and popularity of the park can make finding openings challenging. Bookings open 11 months early. Bookings for the 11th month are opened on the first working day of each new month. Expect school holidays to fill up within days (or even hours) of availability coming online. Likewise, some of the wilderness camps can seem impossible to find availability for. You definitely need to book as far ahead as possible. Eleven months ahead if possible. You will be riding your luck and probably won’t get exactly what you want if you book only weeks or a few months before you plan to arrive.
We booked 10 months in advance for our Kgalagadi adventure and we got what we wanted, even though we were visiting over Christmas. But out of curiosity I checked on the most popular wilderness camps and saw that they were already fully booked at that time. It is the South Africans who mainly fill the parks up on school holidays. We reckoned that knowing how hot it was at that time of the year persuaded many South Africans to go elsewhere with their kids.
HOW TO BOOK
Work out from the SANParks website availability page what you want to book from what is available.
If you secure your booking online, you pay 100 percent straight away. You can alter your booking later, but a penalty will be applied.
Here’s a very useful tip we learned before our first South African trip and have used it to our advantage since then. Many folks do not know about this. MAKE YOUR BOOKING BY PHONE RATHER THAN ONLINE.
First: set up a profile on-line before you call if you don’t have one. Do this by setting up a booking online on the SANParks website and taking it all the way through but just don’t complete it. You will now have a profile.
Once you have checked availability on the website and know what you want to book, make your booking with SANParks Central Reservations by phone: the number is +27 (0)12 428 9111 . Don’t forget to figure out the time zone change so that you call during the SANParks office hours. Once you reach them, give your name and passport number as a reference so they can bring up your profile and start to process your booking. We found them patient, professional and helpful, making the booking process pain-free.
Phone reservations are firm from SANParks side but you don’t need to pay anything for 30 days and you can cancel your reservation free of any charge during this time. You then need to pay your deposit before the 30-day deadline and the balance is not due until 30 days before you come.
So book up something as soon as possible, even if it is not exactly what you want. Then if you want to cancel (within 30 days) or change later you can do this easily. If you monitor availability online, an opening may appear through a cancellation. This often happens one month before, if someone else who has booked by phone fails to complete their payment, such as an agent who has snapped up speculative bookings but could not sell the booking onward.
If something better becomes available, phone again, cancel those days without penalty and rebook. Note that SANParks cannot do refunds. If the new accommodation costs less, just make up the difference with game drives or other activities.
GET A WILD CARD
We strongly recommend getting a Wild Card from SANParks. It is valid for 365 days from when it is issued and allows you free entrance into all the national parks in South Africa. By not having to pay Entrance Fees / Conservation Fees, the card pays for itself if you stay more than five or six days in any park.
The desert of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is an amazing place to venture into independently. It is well worth the extra effort required to both prepare properly and to reach there. We reckon that for slightly-intrepid self-driving safari enthusiasts, Kgalagadi offers unparalleled chances of enjoying memorable encounters with a wide array of African predators large and small, both on land and in the air. Best of all, it’s not crowded, so you have a very strong chance that you will not be sharing your special animal sightings with anyone else in this pristine wilderness.
Our next post will be our Trip Report from Kgalagadi. Stay tuned…