The Kalahari – Place of red dunes

The traditional home of the nimble Bushmen, the Kalahari is a soulful place and a complete escape from chaos and crowds. Here lives raw nature and unique desert wildlife. But if you go deep into the dunes, you’ll see the literal heart of the Kalahari.

The Kalahari

Today we’re going on a desert rollercoaster ride par excellence. Our destination is deep into Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – over 90 red sand dunes to be exact.

At the designated parking spot, well off the main road from Twee Rivieren gate, Kosie Visser is waiting for us. It’s been an excellent morning of gameviewing in the park, spotting umpteen gemsbok, wildebeest, springbok and even an iconic black maned lion.

We stopped to watch meerkats changing guard and spotted a cheetah with cubs in long grass. Now we are heading to stillness and star spangled night skies to experience the heart and soul of this magnificent place.

“All aboard,” says Kosie with a quick glance back at us sitting perched on his game viewing vehicle. A 4×4 is essential for the trip we’re about to embark on, and so is a keen sense of direction.

“Don’t worry,” adds Kosie, “I have a built in GPS.” And he’s not boasting. To know where you are going over 90 sand dunes takes some navigation and knowledge, but Kosie has done this trip many times before – he and his trusty Landcruiser.

We’re headed to !Xaus Lodge on the edge of !Xaus pan. It’s no ordinary place, but one of deep significance for the local Mier and Khomani San people. We just can’t wait.

The trip is like a desert roller coaster ride in slow motion, with the halfway mark signposted ‘Dune 45’ to echo the famous iconic dune in Sossusvlei, Namibia.

The Kalahari

!Xaus is way off the beaten track in the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park in the south-west section of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape.

This is the traditional land of the Khomani San and Mier communities, which was returned to them in an historic land claim in 2000. And what they’re doing with their vast tracts of land is ingenious for conservation, tourism and their communities.

On we go over red dunes and with sand stretching out in all directions. “!Xaus means ‘heart’ in the Nama language,” explains Kosie, his hands firmly on the steering wheel, “and when you get there you will clearly see the red heart-shaped pan in front of the lodge.

More meaningful,” he continues, “is that this heart symbolises the spirit of reconciliation between the Khomani San and the Mier, because this is where their physical lands meet.”

Cleverly, they have left conservation and management of their land to SANParks, as part of the vast 3.6 million hectare Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Kgalagadi is also iconic for being Africa’s first transfrontier park, brokered by Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) and official since 2000.

The sun is dipping as we arrive at !Xaus pan and lodge. Warm light has painted the earth crimson and it looks quite surreal. A small herd of red hartebeest are lying in the dry pan, a safe distance from predators that may be lurking in the dry grass.

Do you see the heart?” asks Kosie, as we stand at !Xaus Lodge looking down on the pan below. “Look at the indentation on the right side of the pan and you will see it easily,” he says, tracing the heart outline with his finger.

Here it’s so quiet you can hear your heart beat. !Xaus Lodge is off the radar and off the grid, but beautifully comfortable.

The night air is filled with jackal and hyena calls; skies are diamond studded with stars. We are in a state of bliss. And silence. Yet, energised by being closely connected to the natural world.

The Kalahari

Next morning early, we are back in the dunes with Kosie, enjoying a cup of coffee as the sun rises. He points to a Shepherd Bush and says: “It produces a beverage like coffee from its roots, though maybe a good imagination also helps.”

To Kosie, the Kalahari is an vast outdoor supermarket. “There’s a broom bush for sweeping, and you can brush your hair with that spiky gemsbok melon. Oh, and here’s Kalahari Med Lemon. Smell this,” he says with a smile. A few steps further he picks up a Tsama melon.

“And this is a Bushman takeaway,” he explains, “because it has both food and water inside and it stays fresh for two years out in the sun. Everything we need is really right here.”

Back at the lodge, we head to the open-air craft workshop close by. It’s a simple reed boma and we find loin-cloth clad Khomani San men and women inside, carefully fashioning beads from ostrich egg shell, polishing bone for pendants, and drilling holes in wild seeds that will reincarnate as necklaces.

The Kalahari

Nothing is wasted in this desert environment. In between the crafters, children play while a fire burns gently in the corner. The crafters talk amongst themselves in clicks with plenty of laughs.

They are ingenious when it comes to creating something out of apparently nothing. Even dried gemsbok testicle pouches have become tiny, hairy bowls for sale.

Kosie grins at the testicle bowls and says: “I am so happy to be amongst my people. Before this, I worked in Johannesburg and it was terrible. Here I feel I can breathe, it’s quiet and there’re just the sounds of birds and animals.

There’s no signal for cell phones or DSTV, nature is your entertainment.” He says that’s exactly what people say they love most about coming to !Xaus Lodge.

A couple of days later, we head back over the 90 dunes to join the mainstream of gamewatchers in the park. There is much more activity and wildlife along the dry river beds, but not the sense of peace and quiet found at !Xaus.

Tonight we will sleep in Twee Rivieren rest camp and we hope to see African wild cats. In the twilight, while finishing off a sundowner on our stoep, one calmly walks right past our feet – as if reading our minds.

The Kalahari

Outside the park there are also enchanting Kalahari experiences to be enjoyed. San crafters will sometimes sell their intricately fashioned wares along the roadside.

There is also Witdraai Bushcamp, on one of the six farms owned by the Khomani San, and where an historic cave jail can still be seen.

Accommodation here is in traditional grass huts or camping and a San guide can take you on a bush walk or a game drive. There’s storytelling around the fire at night too and Aunt Koera’s Farm Kitchen down the road is an authentic San culinary experience.

Traditional home stays at Boesmansrus are also available, if you’d like to complete the San immersion experience and sleep in a grass hut.

Not long ago, game watching was the sole attraction in the area but now, with the involvement of Peace Parks Foundation, which manages the ‘Khomani San – living in Peace’ project, there is lots on the go.

Yet, there remains a stillness running through this place where the sand glows red under indigo skies, and the people are warm and welcoming.

It’s a magnificent thirstland and a place of heat by day and jackal calls by night; it is somewhere you can completely recharge by simply being unplugged from the rest of the world.

The Kalahari

Travel tips

Twee Rivieren gate in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is 260km from Upington. A high clearance vehicle is an advantage for game viewing, though the park is accessible by sedan car.

For an authentic Kalahari experience
see www.kalaharivinkie.co.za

To see meerkats up close
see www.kalahari-trails.co.za

For more information see:
www.peaceparks.org
www.experiencenorthencape.com
www.openafrica.org

Accommodation in Kglalagadi:
www.xauslodge.co.za
www.sanparks.org.za

By Keri Harvey

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