Sunday, March 8, 2009


We left our beloved Klein Aus Vista and headed as planned towards Grunau, south of Keetmanshoop, where we would sleep in real beds at the White House guest house.

I had the map on my lap as we drove. The B4, the impeccable tar road we were on was a straight shot from Luderitz on the coast, through Aus, through Keetmanshoop and then, in dusty status change to the C16, on to the border of South Africa and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. We had heard so much about it. The Kalahari, as it was known then, was a place of childhood legend, where my teenage brothers went off in winters to "hunt". Poor dead bokkies came back and were turned into very good biltong in the dry Free State air. My mother had been there on a birding trip with her fellow lady birders, the Tit Babblers, and our neighbours Guy and Jay waxed lyrical about the place.

But we were headed to Grunau, and would turn south soon, stopping to look at the quiver trees before homing in our first proper bed of the trip. The turnoff to Grunau approached. I looked at Vince. Can't we just go on straight to the Kgalagadi? We had thought it would be too far when planning the trip. Too much diesel. Too much time. Except the diesel price kept dropping. And when would we be here again? We sailed past the turnoff.

Vince's post explains it better: Keetmanshoop was hotter 'n hell. At the friendly butcher's (Toeka's) we bought lamb chops, wors, biltong, and asked where we could find a pharmacy. I needed contact lens solution - dust is hell on the eyes; and ice. He directed us to his mother's gas station for the latter. We packed the meat in the fridge and headed for the pharmacy, which was closing for lunch but opened to let me in for 2 minutes. Children were coming home from school, neat in their uniforms in the stultifying heat, for the midday meal.

Filled with diesel, we put pedal to the metal.

After total confusion trying to get out of town, the map useless, the locals' directions colourful and open to wide interpretation, we were on our way. The road was dirt, the scenery, if you can call it that, bereft of any type of beauty. It was not even desolate, as that implies a certain stark grandeur. It was sucked dry. Dust devils came and went. The bushes were carcasses. There were no animals. It seemed desperate. We passed a single fortresslike house with a pump and an electric green water course below it, in which sat a cow, which may have been dead. And then we realized that the border post closed at 4.30. There was nothing near the border post. It was really in the middle of nowhere. So...we drove very fast.

We drove through a tiny dusty settlement, Aroab, where I saw a corrugated iron building that said Private School. Which probably meant White School.

We made the border with 15 minutes to spare. Disconcertingly, against a barren hill, there was a "guest house" shortly before the gates. Surely the place for hapless travelers to spend the night until the border opened again in the morning. We could almost hear the strumming of banjos and the sharpening of an axe.

The border post shut its gate behind us as soon as we were inside its confines. We were stamped and inspected strenuously. The serial number on the engine block was located and compared, minutely, with the regisration and papers we presented. I wanted to take a picture of the herb garden in the median, dominated by mint and alive with white butterflies. But it didn't seem like a good idea.

We still had a long way to go before we reached Tweerivieren, the rest camp just outside the park, and where we would spend our first night back in South Africa.

The maps showed enormous blue lakes at this point. They were pans, Hakskeenpan and Uitsakpan: flat and salty and dry. The only blue was above.

We passed through a scattering of dwellings, named Mier (ant, in Afrikaans), we thought, as there was a sign to that effect, but it was the whole area that was named Mier. See the link.

Farther on, a man in the middle of the road was waving us down, beside his parked car. Another man was carrying a couple of water canisters and about to hop a fence to a windmill. My hijack alarm bells went off and we slowed suspiciously. Water, he said, they needed water for the car. He also wanted, insisted on, a lift. Water we had, and I cut the brand new nozzle from its housing with Vince's very sharp pocket knife, feeling rather odd. The men were unable to handle the huge canister (I had hissed at Vince to stay behind the wheel with the engine running) so I poured the clear water into their canisters but told the insistent man that we were too full to give him a ride, which was true.

Soon we started to see thorn trees again, and as we turned north, onto a newly-laid black tar road up to the park, we saw the most hallucinogenic tableau. A family of San on the verge, father, mother, daughter, wearing skins, dancing around a leaping brush fire, between the tar road and the fenced land beyond, waving and beckoning to us. They fell behind us as in a dream.

And then the drops of rain started to fall.

We reached Tweerivieren at long last, and then began a marathon wait to check in. A party of 16 Botswanan government (so they said) officials had arrived without reservation (just like us) and were making truth of every cliched fatcat joke. Demanding the best. Separate payment for each. Refusing to pay the individual, daily park entry fee because they were Important. This despite the hot season discount. Their four matching white Range Rovers parked side by side looked like something from a Bond movie. We waited. At one point I tried to engage them in conversation. They were not friendly. They harassed the poor woman checking them in unmercifully. She kept her cool. Later her male colleague, who had done nothing to help her while this was all happening, asked, Why did you take it from them? You can't argue with people like that, she said quietly. An hour and a half later we were able to pay our way, and drove down to our camp site.

We'll skip that part. Bombarding bugs, huge beetles...the roar of a leopard. And the heat.

We were at the gates, a 10 second drive from the camp, at 6.30am the next morning.

Within a couple of hundred yards, we saw this:

And that made it worth it.

I hadn't seen a leopard since I was little. A little later we saw a second, identified by the knot of cars on the road. The second leopard was fast asleep in the shade. I realized that Vince's camera would be doing most of the animal work, as it has a farther reach. But I was content. Two leopards.

Springbokkies came to drink at a waterhole. We didn't know that we would see a leopard cub drinking here on his own two days later.

Gemsbok came to join them.

We started an animal count at this point, and were enthusiastically adding the antelope and gazelles. Later we started to yawn at them.

After seeing 8 Kori bustards (huge, stately birds, the largest that can fly) in quick succession, we turned about and headed back to pack up camp and head further into the park, to Nossob, for our second night.

We stopped at a waterhole and saw a male lion walking away from it, to a nice, shady camelthorn. Vince popped out of the sunroof to take pictures. Later we learned that that was quite verboten. Nothing was allowed to stick out, in case it was chewed off.

I stopped and photographed some flowers, scanning the bush very carefully before I did so.

Later identified as the Driedoring (three thorn) Rhigozum tricotomum.

At Nossob we splurged and booked a little house for the night, eschewing the shaded campsite. We needed sleep. The same ranger who checked us in filled us up with diesel.

We were warned that the jackals had become pests and might steal our braai chops.

And we walked to the bird hide down the barricaded corridor that was - hopefully - predator-proof.

After settling in we went for another drive to see if we might find the lion again at his water hole, and we did. Three males, upside down and fast asleep. Lazy, lazy, lazy boys. And then the storm cells rolled over the bush-carpetted dunes on the horizon.

Back at Nossob we got a fire going for dinner, marinated our chops in our peri peri marinade, and I mixed up some dough for my first attempt at potbrood, pot bread. The barking geckos, not heard since the Namib, started their chorus. Once the chops were cooked I put the cast iron pot containing the dough, in a ring of coals, placed some red coals on its lid, and hoped for the best.

We lit our candles, popped the cork on a bottle of Alto Cabernet, sat down to our delicious chops, and saw the sky beyond our low wire perimeter fence light up. The storm had arrived. The coals hissed as fat, warm drops fell upon them. Thunder cracked. Soon it was pouring, but roaring, with rain. It was wonderful. The long haired, Munchen-(judging by his accent)bred German next door, who had arrived in a well equipped Jeep, asked us plaintively if zis vas normal. NO! I almost shouted, it's raining in the desert (dude!). He sighed sadly. Zis alvays heppens to me. Everyvhere I go, it is raining. He asked us for a cigarette. Alas, we did not smoke. I commiserated, feeling sorry that he had run out of smokes in the middle of the park. Oh no, he said, zey are in ze car, pointing to the jeep 15 feet away. But I don't vant to get vet.

The rain started to leak through the reed roof of our stoep. We cuddled closer. We sat and got rained on. Pools formed in the sand. I knew I would never lose this memory.

I rescued the cast iron pot, carried it inside and lifted the lid. Bread!

And so began the new culture of fresh baked bread with butter and jam for dessert.

We slept very well.


  1. great story and fantastic pictures...especially the rain cells...and the leopard!!

  2. I've never seen a leopard. ( Zoos don't count.)
    But I laughed at your Munchen-man. He should join the lazy lions!

  3. That was quite a saga, wasn't it? I'm always amazed at all the small details you remember... Well done!

    But you made one understatement: the pot bread! It was simply fabulous and would have deserved an entire paragraph! AND the coals melting the cast iron pot! :-)


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