• SHARE

The San Bushmen call the Central Kalahari “The Land God Made in Anger,” and most of the time the description holds good.

The Central Kalahari National Park was established to protect the San people’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

It’s really hot. It’s really dry. It’s really inhospitable. There’s no permanent water. No lakes. No rivers. If you don’t know how to change a tire, or forget your water, the Central Kalahari could, very conceivably, mummify you. From time to time, however, the Almighty mellows, cuts what the Boers call “the thirstland” some slack and sends a little rain over, with sensational results.

Before getting into that, though, a little background. First, although the Kalahari is often referred to as a “desert,” it isn’t. Not technically. To officially qualify for desert status, land must receive less than 25 mm of rain per annum, and overall the Kalahari gets a great deal more. Even the driest bits get 100 mm or so.

The Kalahari is, however, the world’s largest continuous mantle of sand. It spreads over an area of 2.5 million sq. km (roughly 10 times the size of Great Britain). In some areas the sand layer is 50 meters deep.

Brief rains turn the Kalahari desert green, attracting herds of grazers.

The Kalahari covers the African A to Z (Angola to Zimbabwe, with seven other countries in between*). The wildest and most remote stretch, however, is to be found in Botswana’s Central Kalahari National Park, the bit the San were referring to when they talked of God and anger.

The CKNP is unique in that it is the only national park established not to protect landscapes, ecology or wild animals, but to protect people: the San.

There is something hideously appropriate in this. For many years the San, who are the only indigenous human inhabitants of southern Africa, weren’t regarded as people. Black and white colonizers considered them bona fide wild animals. They were enslaved or shot on sight. Some scientists argued that the San were, in effect, a separate species.

A meerkat scans the surroundings.

Their physiognomy is certainly rather different from the rest of humankind. San women, for example, have a unique flap of skin that protects their private parts. The San stomach can handle 6 kg of meat at one sitting.

Now, of course, it is accepted that the San are as human as the rest of us (taxonomically speaking). This said, there’s still something a little bit special about them.

Quite how many continue to live a permanent hunter-gatherer life out in the CKNP is uncertain. The place is so darn vast. Perhaps 800 are still living exactly as their ancestors have lived for 40,000 years. Others commute from permanent settlements into the park for short periods of time during the rains.

With good reason. During the dry season the CKNP is unrelentingly harsh, tormented by dust devils and rippling with mirages. Good reptile country, ideal for agamas, but tough going for most species.

When it rains, though, hell becomes heaven. Flowers erupt, sweet grass grows on the red dunes, cracked salt pans flood and the inimical landscape glows with sudden life. The floral bonanza attracts huge herds of migratory zebra, springbok, red hartebeest and blue wildebeest, as well as flocks of tens of thousands of flamingos and pelicans, waders and waterfowl.

Hot on the herbivores’ heels come the predators: leopards, brown hyenas, caracals, cheetahs, jackals and black-maned Kalahari lions — the biggest and most aggressive lions in Africa.

Scavenging martial eagles and lappet-faced vultures clean up the remains, and giant spotted eagle owls and pale chanting goshawks prey upon the sudden population explosion of ground squirrels and other rodents.

It is an incredible spectacle: one of Africa’s last wildlife paradises, and that increasingly rare thing, a genuine wilderness. To experience it you can join an organized tour of the more intrepid variety. Or do the thing properly and go it alone — in which case a four-wheel-drive vehicle is essential. They can be rented, complete with camping kit, at the capital of Gabarone or the regional capital of Maun. Spare tires, plenty of jerry cans of gas and water, food, drink, ice — take the lot. Self-sufficiency is the key.

There are some officially designated campsites. None have any facilities whatsoever. Finding them is an adventure in itself. What you lose in the way of baths you more than gain in wilderness experience.

Many of the CKNP “roads” don’t see a vehicle for months. Even at peak tourist season your campsite will be yours alone. You drive out beneath vast skies, and after hours behind the wheel, you settle in, pop up a tent, and the humdrum human world of watches, appointments, e-mails, phone calls, convenience stores and obligations vanishes. Completely.

The silence is profound. The stars at night blaze. Most Kalahari wildlife ignores human visitors or watches them warily. It is wise, though, to park the car near your tent mouth so you can scramble to safety should a lion attack.

Hyenas can be a hassle. They will eat anything — boots left outside tents, car tires, salt cellars and children — but can generally be discouraged from such antisocial behavior with a blow from a frying pan.

An unexpected Kalahari hazard to watch for is dry grass seed. It can be fatal. As you drive merrily along the tracks, grass becomes trapped in your vehicle’s undercarriage. The exhaust pipe heats up. The grass ignites. Presto! Your transport is reduced to a burned-out hulk.

One experience you are unlikely to have is an encounter with a San hunter. There is a permanent settlement in the south of the park at Xade, but the tourist campsites are hundreds of kilometers north. The park is so large. The San so few. The odds of bumping into anybody would make even the most reckless Vegas gambler blanch.

Still, it’s good to know they’re out there, doing what they’re doing, as they’ve been doing for millennia. Not drunk and destitute in the modern world or wearing Nike high-tops and yearning for a third-generation cellphone.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.