Get the best out of the Kgalagadi.
Over the years, I have spent close to a hundred days photographing wildlife in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Some days are action packed as experienced cheetah mothers chase down springbok lambs in dry riverbeds, or African wild cats leap off the ground to catch unsuspecting sand grouse in midair. But most of the time life in the desert is still, slow or out of sight, and you end up driving for hours with nothing more than the odd gemsbok herd, jackal, or dust devil to keep you entertained. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way – if you know what to look for, and where to look for it, those long, frustrating drives may just become a whole lot more rewarding.
1. Sit tight
They say patience is a virtue, but there isn’t much merit in sitting at a waterhole for hours in the middle of the desert – unless you’re sitting at the right waterhole. In the Kgalagadi, it’s not so much about how long you sit at a waterhole, but rather at which waterhole you sit. You might be lucky and see a brown hyena come down to drink if you spend enough time at Rooikop just south of Nossob, but chances are you’ll fall asleep to the sound of the creaking windmill long before there’s any action. Rather park off at Cubitje Quap 10 km north of Nossob, where you’re virtually guaranteed to see hundreds of birds coming down to drink right throughout the day (mornings are best for doves and sand grouse and midday for raptors). Springbok, blue wildebeest and lions also drink here regularly, as well as kudu, which are not common in the park.
Other waterholes that are definitely worth spending time at are Craig Lockhart, Samevloeiing, Kij Kij, Marie se Draai and our two favourites: Polentswa and Grootkolk.
2. Keep moving
Although spending the morning at a typically productive waterhole can be very rewarding, there’s always the ‘all-your-eggs-in-one-basket’ risk. It’s worth changing tactics and trying to cover as much ground, to check out as many waterholes as possible every now and then. Early mornings are the best time of day, when predators (especially the local lion prides) come out to drink before the sun gets too hot.
Just remember always to stick to the speed limit!
3. Scan the dunes and ridges
One of the biggest mistakes that visitors to the Kgalagadi make, is to search only the Auob and Nossob riverbeds. Though the riverbed vegetation usually attracts a lot of prey species like springbok, blue wildebeest and gemsbok, it’s from the dunes that predators get the best outlooks to observe them. Lions, leopards and cheetahs all use the higher areas as vantage points to search for prey, so make sure you look carefully on all the dune crests, between the tall tufts of grass, and especially along the calcrete ridges for leopards.
4. Look closely
There’s one big disadvantage in trying to cover ground fast – you’ve got very little chance of spotting camouflaged animals, of which there are many in the Kgalagadi. So, on those days when you’re not trying to see as many waterholes as possible or staking out your favourite drinking place, drive very slowly and scan every rock, bush, fallen branch and tree canopy carefully. Challenge yourself to spot the invisible and you’re bound to see something special. Leopards, African wild cats, Verreaux’s eagle-owls, Cape cobras and many more, smaller creatures are all there to be seen and photographed, often very close to the road.
5. Stay in camp
As is the case in most busy national parks, game viewing is usually very good in camp, and the Kgalagadi is no exception. Yellow mongooses and ground squirrels soak up the sun in front of their burrows, while scaly-feathered finches, yellow canaries and violet-eared waxbills drink from the pools of water below the taps. Owls hide in the trees, geckos poke out of slits in the tree trunks, and at places like Nossob and Grootkolk, everything from steenbok to leopard comes down to drink at the camp waterhole. Take some time to search for and appreciate these relaxed animals; they might just provide the best photos of your trip.
6. Pack a picnic basket
Finally, it’s worth spending time at the park’s picnic sites, which are dispersed regularly along both the Auob and Nossob riverbeds. Because the birds here are so used to people, you can get extremely close to them. There are few places in the world where you can take better photos of acacia pied barbets, Marico fly-catchers and white-browed sparrow-weavers.
Remember, feeding the wildlife is not allowed, but a bowl of fresh water goes a long way in the Kgalagadi.