The Kalahari, the Land of Thirst, is one of Africa’s most epic places. This is the largest unbroken stretch of sand on the planet (sand covers only one-ninth of the Sahara), and its arid veld, salt pans and fossilised river valleys cover Botswana as well as large swathes of Namibia and South Africa: the broader Kalahari Basin extends into Zimbabwe and Zambia. But it is Botswana that is the Kalahari’s true heartland with the desert consuming up to 85% of the country. Curiously, much of the Kalahari owes its existence to water, from the contours carved by ancient rivers through the hills in the Central Kalahari to the vast super lake that once consumed northern Botswana and left behind the largest network of salt pans on the planet. Here are 10 corners of the Kalahari that prove there is far more life and diversity to the area than is normally associated with the word “desert.”
The salt pans of northern Botswana can feel like an ocean, so vast are their horizons, so overwhelming are their silences and sense of isolation. Close to the south-western rim of Sowa Pan, Kubu Island – the name translates as Hippo Island in the local Setswana tongue – is an island of boulders and baobabs that rise from the white-salt bed of what was once indeed an inland ocean. And it’s not just the name that evokes a sensation of ancient waters: the large rocky outcrops that encircle the shoreline are stained white with the droppings of long-disappeared shorebirds. And therein resides the magic of Kubu – deliciously remote and starkly beautiful, it resonates with the echoes of a past before human beings walked the earth.
Baines’ Baobabs, Nxai Pans National Park
The islands that rise like apparitions from the otherwise featureless pans also recall human stories to go with its elemental appeal. Baines’ Baobabs is just such a place and it was here, in 1862, that Thomas Baines immortalised the baobabs in a series of paintings. That he was here at all adds to the loneliness of the place – a member of David Livingstone’s expeditions in southern Africa, Baines was cast into exile after being falsely accused of theft by Livingstone’s brother. If you examine the paintings today, you’ll see a scene nearly identical to the one that Baines painted – just one branch appears to be missing.
The salt pans of northern Botswana can seem utterly devoid of life, but with the rains (between November and May) come water birds in their millions to the Nata Delta on the eastern edge of the pan network, where the Nata River empties into Sowa Pan. Run by the local community as a bird sanctuary, the Delta draws at least 165 bird species, among them rainy season migrants that include white and pink-backed pelicans, and both greater and lesser flamingos – a spectacular sight.
It’s not just birds who love the pans in the wet. In the dry season, the wildlife that inhabits Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is restricted to the park’s west, along the banks of the Boteti River. But with the rains they break free, venturing in vast numbers out across the whiteness in one of Africa’s least-known migrations. There are wildebeest in abundance, but this is primarily a zebra migration and these striped horses are quite a sight against a backdrop where it’s impossible to tell the difference between standing waters and shimmering mirages.
Where Botswana’s meagre settlements thin and the Kalahari becomes a wild and scrubby place of sun-scorched sand and thorn close to the border with Namibia, the dramatic (and Unesco World Heritage-listed) Tsodilo Hills thrust up from the surrounding flatlands. Brought to life in Laurens Van Der Post’s Kalahari classic The Lost World of the Kalahari, more than 4000 rock paintings spread throughout the hills, many in secret cavities known only to the local San people; some of the paintings may date back 30,000 years. Subject matter ranges from the abundance of wild creatures (lions, eland, giraffe) to enigmatic panels which experts have called the ‘Dancing Penises’ and the ‘Origin of Sex’.
Not far to the south-west of the regional centre of Maun, Lake Ngami is emblematic of the Kalahari’s cycles of feast and famine. When Livingstone arrived on its shores in 1849, he found a paradise of prolific bird and animal life arrayed across the miracle of waters in this parched land. The mysterious ebb and flow of the Okavango Delta has caused the lake to disappear and refill many times since and the best time to come here is undoubtedly after heavy rains when pelicans, flamingos and other waterbirds bring colour and life once again to the lake.
If the Tsodilo Hills are remote, the Aha Hills feel like the end of the earth. There is no water here where the rocky outcrops rise 300m from sand and scrub, and it can feel as if there is no life of any kind. And that, of course, is the point: this is one of those rare places where night silences and sense of isolation come close to absolute.
Passarge Valley, Central Kalahari Game Reserve
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is one of Africa’s largest protected areas and there many corners where you can drive for days without seeing another vehicle. Made famous by its starring role in Cry of the Kalahari, Deception Valley attracts the lion’s share of CKGR traffic, but nearby Passarge Valley is rich in wildlife and utterly deserted for much of the time.
Motopi, Central Kalahari Game Reserve
In the far north of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Motopi attracts far more gemsbok, giraffe and wandering lions than it does vehicular traffic. It’s one of few places left in Africa where you can stumble upon a pride of lions and have them all to yourself for hours at a time.
Moreswe Pan, Khutse Game Reserve
Khutse Game Reserve, which is effectively an extension of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve which it abuts, is one of the closest reserves to Gaborone and can therefore attract its share of weekend traffic. But take the time to get out into the reserve’s wild west, at Moreswe Pan, and you could just find yourself lying awake at night, listening to lions roar and knowing that the nearest member of your own species is at least 30km away.
The Northern Pans, Khutse Game Reserve
In its far north, the Khutse Game Reserve segues into the remote southern reaches of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Here, the succession of salt pans with names like Galalabadimo, Tshilwane and Mahurushele can feel like one of those forgotten corners of the planet, so quiet are their trails and so pure are their silences.