The gregarious meerkat is a favourite on a Kalahari safari.

Cruising the Kalahari

The Kalahari is not perhaps what you’d imagine a desert to be. It’s a ‘green desert’ – arid, certainly, due to receiving relatively little rainfall, but bursting with life of every kind. A Kalahari safari is an incredibly rewarding experience, especially as the area is home to some of South Africa’s most unusual creatures.

Every day on safari is special, but our first full day in the Kalahari Desert turned out to be one of our most memorable ever. Our guide Marelize was passionate about revealing its secrets to us, and the desert responded in kind.

We’d started out very early, arriving at the meerkat colony in time to witness the morning rituals of these sociable mongooses (or was it mongeese, we wondered?). As the sun’s rays began to heat the sand around the burrow, the meerkat emerged and stood facing the sun to warm themselves, front paws clasped in front of them like soccer players before a free kick. They scanned the sky for danger, and chattered to each other continuously.

Another early riser was a passing scorpion, which was dispatched with loud, gleeful chomping sounds. We were happy to stick with our rusks and coffee!

Now, in the late afternoon, we were back with Marelize in the 4×4 vehicle she called her ‘Kalahari Ferrari’, negotiating the golden grass and acacia scrub. Somehow she managed to simultaneously keep an eye out for aardvark holes and animal tracks, and scan the bushes for birds.

We were looking for black rhino – along with the magnificent black-maned Kalahari lion, one of the two animals we most wanted to see. The tracks here were a day old, so instead we nosed through the long grass towards a waterhole that’s a popular drinking spot.

The heat had gone out of the sun, which meant that more creatures were becoming active. As we waited by the waterhole, we heard a curious whirring, beating sound – Burchell’s sandgrouse descending to drink. Marelize explained that they have special absorbent chest feathers that allow them to soak up water and take it back to their chicks. They were beautiful birds, with red wings dotted in white.

A secretary bird strode up to the water’s edge, scattering the sandgrouse and bending down awkwardly to gulp water. And then it happened – my partner nudged my arm and pointed out a rock that appeared to have moved during our time there.

You know you’re seeing something special when your guide also gets excited. Motioning to us to follow, Marelize took her rifle and we cautiously walked towards the mystery boulder. Close up, we saw that it was no stone, but a strange, scaly creature curled up in a ball, with its broad dragon’s tail wrapped around it: a pangolin.

After a few moments, this odd-looking creature unrolled, revealing long claws, a pointed nose, and eyes blinking in the light. It ambled off, leaving us in awe at the sheer variety of life here.

As our game drive became a night drive, the day’s final surprise was a small bat-eared fox in the beam of the spotlight. The light attracted beetles, which the fox eagerly snapped up, in a feeding frenzy. With the light turned off again, the panoply of stars in the ‘diamond skies’ above us reminded us of the wings of the sandgrouse. Our Kalahari safari was a success!

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