The trip to Twee Rivieren, gateway to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park from South Africa, took 15 minutes too long. I’d allotted what I’d thought was plenty of time for the trip from Cape Town – 10 hours – but I’d still missed the gate closing time. By a mere quarter of an hour. I phoned – no answer. I hooted – silence.

Just as I was beginning to wonder where I was going to spend the night, a smiling face appeared in the twilight. It belonged to SANParks staffer Marius Kroon, who performed the magic rite and swung the gate open.

Twee Rivieren is the administrative centre of Kgalagadi park. As such, it’s large and well organized, dotted with attractively designed, limestone-clad buildings, just the place to throw off a city schedule. My first priority now I’d finally arrived was to stop rushing. My second was dinner.

The Lion’s Deck’ restaurant in the camp was busy and generally bookings are essential, but my luck held and I was found a table. As the staff scurried off to fetch me a beer and organize a rump steak, I finally slowed down, switched off the city schedule and started to unwind to the quiet of the Kalahari.

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The Kgaladai Cheetah Project

In the morning I belatedly registered with reception, and enquired where an old family friend who was working with cheetahs in the Kgalagadi might be found. Gus Mills and Margie, his wife, are authorities on predators and have done extensive research in the park, as well as in Kruger, on a range of South Africa’s charismatic predators. Currently they are employed on the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project, sponsored by the Tony and Lisette Lewis Foundation South Africa.

When I told Gus and Margie I was heading north to Kalahari Tented Camp, a wilderness unfenced tented camp north of Nossob Camp, they asked me to look out for cheetahs with a collar. “Though I wouldn’t hold your breath,” said Gus. “We only have two individuals collared in a xx000 km2 area.” Bouncing north along the rutted dirt roads, I drank in the surroundings. The sun infiltrated the land- scape, banishing midwinter’s chill from the air – or maybe that was the seat warmers. A short way out of camp I came across two cheetahs lazing in the shade of a Camel Thorn tree. It seems today would be my lucky day too – one was wearing a radio collar. They were in no hurry; neither was I and I entertained myself snapping photos.

Arriving in the Kalahari Tented Camp with half an hour of daylight left, I decided it prudent to drive through to Mata Mata, three kays away, to fill up with diesel. There are only three camps that supply fuel in the Kgalagadi: Twee Rivieren, Mata Mata and Nossob. They are also the only camps with shops, stocking the basics although these tend to be on the pricey side – but then this is a long way from anywhere.

The six wilderness camps in the South African side of the Kgalagadi are all intimate and unfenced. Kalahari Tented Camp, the largest, consists of 15 stilted canvas tents overlooking a waterhole in the Auob River. The fully equipped tents sleep two to four people and have their own bathroom and kitchen. Having experienced the freezing cold Kalahari nights I was grateful to see ample blankets in the tent.

Be warned, however, that there are not any power outlets for conventional plugs. So, no recharging your cell or laptop. Not that there’s cellphone reception anyway – that’s limited to Twee Rivieren, making Kgalagadi one of the few places in South Africa where you can escape the insidious reach of the airwaves.

The following morning, I’d arranged a special, short veld lesson from warden Piet in the camp surrounds. The tracks around the camp were plentiful, a testimony to the wildness of the wilderness camps. Piet was born in the Kalahari, hailing from the Mier community, and in an animated way shared his knowledge of and affection for the Kalahari with me. Taking the camel thorn tree, one of the most common trees occurring in the park, Piet teased out the micro- ecosystems in decaying fallen branches with his finger, showing why collecting firewood in the park is prohibited.

The road to solitude

Leaving the Kalahari Tented Camp I travelled across to Nossob, a camp midway on the Twee Rivieren to Union’s End road. I was heading to Gharagab Wilderness Camp, in the north of the park, just below Union’s End and on the border with Botswana. Gharagab is accessible only by 4×4 and the park requires you to check in at Nossob before heading on the trail.

The landscape changed quickly on the quiet road up to Union’s End. After popping in at Grootkalk to drop off some brake fluid for the camp warden, I turned onto the Gharagab 4×4 trail, which winds its way through the wilderness. For the first time since entering the park I felt utterly alone; my reliance on my Pajero was absolute. The trail to Gharagab is only 32km long, but at a comfortable travelling speed of 20km/h takes more than an hour and a half. A black-backed jackal trotted down the track towards me, completely indifferent to my approach. As it reached me, it disdainfully left the track, making off into the landscape. The solitude was medicine for my city-weary soul.

I arrived in Gharagab at about 17:30 where camp warden Eric showed me to a small two-bed, log-walled, self-catering unit with a tented roof. I dumped my gear and headed for the lookout tower on a small hillock behind the camp. As I clambered up the rough-hewn log steps, a 360-degree vista unfolded before me. Today I’d arrived just in time. The sun was wallowing on the horizon as if reluctant to depart the day, setting the trees and grasses alight. Slowly it succumbed and night wrestled over the landscape. I became lost in my thoughts, my camera lying unused in hands grown quiet.

The 4×4 trail that leads from Gharagab back to the main road is a lot more challenging than the road into camp. Although it’s only 29km, progress is slow and you’ve plenty of time to smell the camel thorns, the dune dust, the grasses. Three dunes need to be negotiated on the way out, each one requiring different 4×4 gear combinations. My faith in the Pajero held: Pajero 3, Kgalagadi 0. After reporting at Nossob, refuelling, lowering the tyre pressure from 180 kPa to 150kPa and stocking up from the shop, I left Nossob through the back gate. I was aiming for the Bitterpan 4×4 trail, but found myself at an unmarked fork in the road. Taking a flier. I followed the tracks leading off left into the dunes; it was a fortuitous guess and I was on the trail. Two-and-a-half hours and 53 kilome- tres later I’d traversed through rolling grasslands and had good sightings of red hartebeest, steen- bok, gemsbok and eland.

The wilderness camp of Bitterpan overlooks a huge pan. The entire unit is built on short stilts and is far more communal in nature than the other wilderness camps. Being my third day solo in the Kgalagadi, I was looking forward to sit- ting around a fire with fellow travellers. As I was introducing myself, one of the other guests called out that she’d just seen lionesses on the ridge behind camp. We all leapt up to have a look. Sure enough there they were, sauntering down the road towards camp. I counted seven; others nine.

The lionesses came right into camp to drink from a small watering point behind Willem xxxx, the camp warden’s cabin. As the lionesses had approached, he’d dashed across to fetch his rifle and was now peering round his door, keeping an eye on them – and us.

Half an hour and many photographic frames later, the lionesses mooched off, most likely to the waterhole on the pan itself. We ventured out of the protective surrounds of camp to the fire area and soon had a good blaze going. We were sitting jawing about sightings and so on when out of the darkness we heard a sneeze. We grabbed our torches to investigate, only to find a few pairs of eyes glowing back at us. The lionesses had finished at the waterhole and stalked us in the darkness… Cautiously we got up and retreated to the deck.

The lionesses, it seemed, were in a playful mood and in no hurry to move on. Circling the camp, they tackled the low stick fence that lines the entrance track, prizing sticks from the fence for a game. Only after much romping and tussling over possession of the removed sticks did they finally move off into the darkness. Full of bravado we went headed back to our fire to braai our steaks. By we, I mean three out of the seven guests. The others remained safely ensconced on the deck behind us peering anxiously into the darkness lest the lionesses return.

The next morning I said my farewells to my fireside compatriots and the Kgalagadi itself. It was time to head home. Time to get back into cellphone reception and no doubt a stack of messages. Time to face city reality once more.

As I dawdled down to Twee Rivieren black-backed jackals, blue wildebeest, gemsbok, ostriches, steenbok, springbok, a Cape fox and an African wild cat all made appearances. How could I not stop? Eventually, with Twee Rivieren behind me, I hit the tar and my messages. But once the Kalahari dust has seeped into your blood, it beckons for your return. I long for the solitude of the Kgalagadi, that place of peace.