The black-maned lion found in the Central Kalahari gets its name from its unusual mane.

Seeing black-maned lion in the Central Kalahari

The Central Kalahari is one of the most remote wilderness areas in Botswana. Going on a luxury safari in this region is all about big skies and arid beauty. Instead of rushing around trying to spot game, enjoy a leisurely safari and experience the solitude of wide-open spaces.

We were woken early in our luxury safari tent with a pot of steaming coffee. The sky had just begun to blush as we stepped aboard the open 4×4. My partner and I were bundled up warmly against the autumn chill. It was May in the Central Kalahari and nights can be bitterly cold.

Tamai, our San tracker, climbed into his seat on the front of the bonnet, and our guide, Johan, took the wheel. The nostril sting of diesel as the engine started, the crunch of tyres on dry ground and smell of golden grasses. Giraffes poked their heads from the top of a thorn tree, a porcupine rustled its quills through long grass.

The sun rose over the Kalahari wilderness. The stark landscape was dominated by silver terminalia, Kalahari sand acacias and apple-leaf trees, interspersed with grasslands and dotted with sand dunes, pans and fossil-river valleys.

Nothing quite prepares you for the immensity of the Kalahari. There’s an immediate impression of unending space, and having the entire reserve to yourself.

‘The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is one of the largest and most remote parks in Africa, encompassing more than 50,000 square kilometres,’ said Johan. ‘As such, game sightings can be hit and miss, especially in the dry season, but it’s an incredible wilderness experience. The trick is to relax and absorb the place at leisure, and not fixate on spotting anything.’

We took Johan’s advice and leant back into our seats. Springbok clustered in desultory groups, dust devils playing between them as they grazed on what was left of the nutritious grasses. Gemsbok walked in single file, heads lowered. A family of bat-eared foxes trotted beside us for a while, then scampered off across a pan.

Eventually, we reached the dry Deception Valley, an ancient, fossilised river channel meandering through wooded sand dunes. Mirages stood up out of the heat, deceptively promising water and oases – hence the name. The temperature had risen by 30°C in a matter of hours. Johan swung the Land Cruiser under a grove of buffalo thorns. Out came a table and chairs, table cloth, breakfast treats and home-baked bread. How nice to slow the pace down like this, and simply enjoy the beauty of the area without rushing about.

On the way back to camp, we stopped at a remote waterhole. Before long a warthog family trotted by, line astern. Little’uns with bushy, stand-up manes and aerial tails waded into the water. A jackal, sleek and gliding on light paws, gave them a berth as she approached.

I looked to my left and there was a lion, ambling towards the water. My heart skipped a beat. He was a handsome, black-maned fellow, all muscle and power: king of this corner of the Kalahari. He locked us with his golden eyes and lowered his head to drink. What magnificence, I thought.

Driving back to camp I was trying to define the allure of the Central Kalahari. It’s not easy to put your finger on the attraction. It’s not about ticking off the Big Five, but rather about experiencing pure wilderness. Once the harsh beauty gets under your skin, it breeds a smouldering passion. I knew I would be back.

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