With an area of 900,000 sq km (350,000 sq mi), the Kalahari Desert is huge, about the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. The Kalahari Desert covers most of Botswana and parts of five other countries. Because of its aridness, Botswana was ignored during the scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century, when the European powers partitioned Africa into colonies.
The Kalahari’s dry season lasts 8 months, even longer than California’s 6-month dry season. Much of the Kalahari has no permanent surface water. Thirst drives animals to migrate to water sources and fresh grass, like the great migration in the Serengeti.
On the first day of our safari, we drove all day from Maun, the jumping-off point for the Okavango delta, to the Deception Valley in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). The world’s second largest game reserve, the CKGR was established in 1961 as a place for the San people to continue their hunter-gatherer life style. The government forcibly resettled the San in the 1990s.
We drove south on dirt roads for hours along fences like the one on the right in the photo below, watching the vegetation change from woodland to savannah. One fence is a veterinary fence, a double fence erected in the 1970s to separate animals with hoof and mouth disease in northwest Botswana from cattle in the rest of Botswana. At the time, cattle was Botswana’s primary industry. The fence contained the disease.
A second fence marks the CKGR boundary on the north and east. Before the fence, wildebeests and other animals would migrate from the Kalahari after the rainy season to water and grass in the north. At the time this migration was second in size to the Serengeti migration. When the government put up the fence, animals piled up on the fences and were blocked from the surface water they had always used. The animals died.
We entered the CKGR at the Matswere Gate. We washed our hands at this faucet, amid a cloud of butterflies attracted to the water puddle beneath the faucet.
We saw some beautiful birds.
We finally reached our destination, Deception Valley, where we saw our first herd of gemsbok. The gemsbok is an antelope that does not depend on drinking water, so it’s ideally suited for the Kalahari. Gemsboks (pronounced with an initial h sound, as in hemp) are large, with long horns and a distinctive face markings.
Like other antelopes, a dominant male rules a harem of females and their young. Young bucks butt heads to prepare to challenge the dominant male for his harem.
With its sharp horns, gemsboks need to nurse carefully. The tip of the baby’s horn is visible under its chest.
Gemsboks eat roots, wild melons, and grass. Gemsboks and other antelopes graze in the early morning, when the dew is still on the grass.
We visited the Kalahari at the end of the rainy season, after the roads become passable and before the vegetation dies back. Botswana received more rain than normal this year, so the grassland is greener than usual.
Three weeks before, the 4-wheel-drive land cruiser driven by one of our guides got stuck in a Kalahari mud hole and had to be pulled out by a larger truck. In the CKGR and the other areas we visited, our vehicles had to stay on the roads, but detouring around mud holes is permitted.