Blood, sweat and cheers

Chris Harvie investigates two of South Africa’s dry national parks and finds three rivers, one full and two empty, but no leopards.

The river runs with my blood and shall henceforth be called the Orange River. I fell off my bicycle crossing a slimy ford in the Augrabies Falls National Park and a few nasty gashes sent a not insignificant quantity of my left arm’s liquid contents trickling into the great river below via a small tributary. Tying a handkerchief around it, I bravely pedalled onwards and dried out almost immediately in the sun.

We had asked at reception whether cycling was permitted in the park but nobody seemed to know. Perhaps there are not enough nutters wanting to cycle in 40 degrees of dusty desert for it to be required knowledge but, while the receptionist expressed concern that we might become the protein in a ‘laypod’ picnic, permission was eventually granted.

We cycled early every morning before taking shelter from the heat under the vast Camel Thorn trees in the shaded campsite. Wittily, we called it ‘taking cycle-logical advantage’ of the early cool air. The gemsbok took refuge in the narrow, angular shade of the quiver trees and even the springbok were panting. Only the geckos and the soaring eagles seemed content in the sweltering sun. We saw no laypods. Luckily.

The park offers well-graded roads to its viewpoints through undulating patchy streaks of yellow grass dotted with rusts and reds, under an endless blue sky broken only by sudden juts of black rocks. The closest is Moon Rock, a large, smooth climb from the end of a sandy track with an outlook stretching right across the park. From Ararat, further along, there is a long view both upstream and downstream along the 18-kilometre gorge carved by the Orange River below the falls. Echo Corner is the furthest viewpoint over the river and, as its name suggests, is not always a quiet place.

Dassies and meerkats hurtle across the roads and I fear I may have clipped the tip of a Kalahari sand snake’s tail with my front wheel on the return journey. It whipped back at me angrily before slithering off. With this sinuous exception, however, cycling proved a low-impact and highly rewarding way to explore the park. The passing occupants of rare, sealed vehicles looked out with envy, leaving us covered in dust but infinitely more in tune with the smells and sounds of the veld.

The camp at Augrabies, like most SANParks camps, is clean, comfortable and efficiently managed. The brick-built chalets have been thoughtfully constructed and sensitively positioned to reduce the impact of their presence on the natural phenomenon they celebrate.

Several people have fallen over the 56 metre drop of the falls through the years, but nowadays there is safe viewing from seemingly-endless wooden walkways and platforms over the river and its bulging gorges and gurgling pools. Safe, even for amateur bush cyclists. Especially those with a tendency to fall into rivers.

The campsite, like any campsite, is only as satisfactory as its residents. We were kept awake one night by a neighbouring camper’s hysterical screams when she couldn’t find her cellphone to call her brother-in-law in the next tent to come and rescue her from a cricket she had discovered in hers. And we were woken at 5am every morning by her hairdryer. The dozens of fat dassies, on the other hand, are good company, provided you check under you car before pulling out for fear of splatting them.

The facilities were good, the camp was spotlessly clean and the ablution blocks were in very good nick. There were even coin-operated washing machines and dryers in full working order and a good solid fence to which to chain bicycles.

The South African section of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 380km up the road via Upington, offers no cycling, principally because laypods are not the only danger. We had taken a round route through Namibia and come into the park through the Mata-Mata gate which has recently been opened to tourists. The road runs along the Auob riverbed and ends at Twee Rivieren Camp, where the park’s two rivers meet. The Auob flows, on average, once every eleven years and its sister river, the Nossob, only a couple of times in a hundred years, so they provide little disruption to game-viewing and the wildlife concentrates around the numerous boreholes scattered along their beds.

On the run from the Namibian border to Twee Rivieren, I saw a number of mammals I had never seen before. A Cape fox lay half-submerged in the cool sand on one side of the road, while on the other side a huge Kalahari lion lay motionless in the shade of a Camel Thorn. The Kalahari is like that. Endlessly surprising and unpredictable. There’s always something, a bush, a flower, a creature at which to marvel. And to wonder how it survives in this unremitting dryness.

We saw a number of giraffes sitting awkwardly under trees with their necks held aloft, frequent wildebeest, red hartebeest and gemsbok and vast herds of springbok, one numbering more than five hundred animals. Our second lion sighting was probably the best I have ever experienced in a national park two males and four females, all with different colourings and character-full faces boasting more scrapes and scars than my left arm. Only five metres away. And with none of the jostling, hooting and squashing of small creatures that characterise lion sightings in the Kruger and the busier reserves.

The joy of the Kgalagadi is its silent isolation and its lack of vehicles. In two hours on the Dune Drive we passed only one vehicle. The road runs through vivid orange sweeping sands between the rivers and offers impressive birding with close-up sightings of crimson-breasted shrike, kori bustard, secretary birds and northern black korhaan. We later sat riveted while five bat-eared foxes romped under a Shepherd’s Tree.

Twee Rivieren offers large, cool chalets and another excellent campsite, this time with wooden shelters under which to pitch tents in the shade. The camp managers are enthusiastic and helpful and allowed us to pass through the gate to ride our bicycles down the road to Upington when we had tired of cycling the perimeter fence.

The only annoyances were the jarring crow of the alien cockerel, from outside the park at dawn, as it mingled with the wail of the hyena and the unfriendly shop. But the camp’s display of Kalahari enthusiasts’ photographs alone makes the long journey worthwhile and the region’s star-gazing is unsurpassed.

The Kalahari offers game viewing on a higher plain (sorry) with its harshness and its vast open spaces, the light and the colours, not to mention the history and the hardships of the San and Mier communities still living there and those of the more recent settlers and trekkers.

As the writer Oliver Goldsmith said, “Life is a journey that must be travelled, no matter how bad the roads and accommodations.” The Kalahari may well seem a long, long way away for most of us and it is but let’s face it, the roads are good and the accommodations are outstanding.

A South African traveller’s life is a journey incomplete without visiting and absorbing these two Kalahari national parks. And if you take your bicycle, use it, but go slowly through the fords. And mind the laypods.

If you go 

Bookings for both parks may be made with SANParks on 012 428 9111., or look up the exceptional SANParks website for more information or to make an on-line booking. It is quick, easy and efficient.

Augrabies National Park (55 383 hectares) named Aukoerebis, ‘place of great noise’, by the Khoi. Conservation Fees R22 (SA citizens) per person per day. Wild cards accepted. Chalets from R600 for a 2 person-chalet, camping from R145 for a 2-person site. Organised night drives R100 per adult / R50 per child. Overnight hiking trails and kayaking also available. Mountain bikes for hire, in theory. Contact the park for details. The excellent Dassie Interpretive Trail is 5km long and there is no charge. Just follow the numbered signs but, as the map says, please don’t remove them!

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (3.6 million hectares in South Africa and Botswana combined) means ‘place of thirst’ in the language of the Khoi. Conservation Fees R40 (SA citizens) per person per day. Wild cards accepted. Twee Rivieren Camp : Chalets from R690 for a 2 person-chalet, camping from R135 for a 2-person site. Organised night drives R145 per adult / R70 per child. Walks and 4×4 Eco trails available. Contact the park for details. The park’s roads are described as ‘not sedan-friendly’ but sedans are permitted to enter certain areas at own risk (and, frankly, would not have had a problem on the roads we travelled). The road from Upington to Twee Rivieren has recently been tarred. NB All visitors entering or leaving by the Mata-Mata gate on the SA-Namibia border are required to spend a minimum of 2 nights in the park. Improvements are under way to the infrastructure of the park, roads are closed in places and both Mata Mata and Nossob camps are currently being upgraded (although Mata Mata remains open).