Big Desert. Big Cat Country. A Safari to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

C. Fraser Claire

Where to stay, what to pack, and why we love Kgalagadi.

While the question has always been how to survive in the desert, I would argue that – once you’ve fallen in love with red sand dunes – how do you survive without it?

Kgalagadi Links:
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Quick Travel Tips | The Magic of Nowhere: Destination Inspiration from Mabuasahube in Botswana | Surviving Without The Desert: Destination Inspiration From Kgalagadi, South Africa | What To Pack For a Safari To Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park |

Kgalagadi lies in the terrestrial spike of South Africa, bordering Namibia and Botswana. It is Africa’s first transfrontier park – shared between South Africa and Botswana. This is the famous Kalahari – a scorched land of sand, San, and desert-adapted wildlife. In such an inhospitable place, you'd expect very limited pockets of life. On closer inspection, there is exquisite, hardy natural abundance - proving that life in unexpected places makes for some of the most special observations. If you’re willing to brave a trip during the wet summers, an emerald desert, dramatic skies, and drifts of yellow devil thorn flowers are the reward. It’s wrestled with my favourite past safaris and has humbly become a place I think of every day – without fail. Desert sand has found its way into my very consciousness and, from now on, I dream in Kalahari hues.

This ancient land has seen the landscape change and all species within it have adapted. This is the marvel of time and existence at work. This has been an underwater world; it has been a land of plenty. Today, the earth’s history is ground to dust under the feet of wildlife that ekes existence from the gifts of the seasons – the miracle in that which is typically overlooked. In places, the ridges are lined in layers of rock – notches in the walls of time; a graph to the age of the Earth, her changes, and her capacity to change all living things. In the afternoons, the sky decides between charcoal clouds, intense sunsets, or muted light against the sand – a land of long shadows that can be both tranquil and violent, a land of contrasts. →

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Male Lion Near Tweerivieren

Lion Outlines
It felt like there were lions around every bend on this trip to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. From walking the dunes in a spray of sand to casting a regal outline on the horizon, we were lucky enough to see a fantastic cross-section of lion behaviour. The park also has a limited road network, preserving the integrity of these ancient dunes - and this lion connected us to the unknown in the most unforgettable way.

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Game Viewing - Cheetah

While there is evidence of white settlements in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, it is primarily the historical abode of the Khomani San: a people on the brink of extinction, a symbol of our fragility and the power of resilience to survival. Their existence in this place – along with the place itself – is extraordinary. The brutal landscape, limited water, and agile wildlife make it seemingly uninhabitable. Yet the San thrived in this place, merging existence with the existential.

The San are said to have spoken of two hungers - a physical hunger and, perhaps the most significant hunger: the hunger for meaning. The daily reality, a life of survival, is considered a form of second creation. This routine is two-dimensional - a physical hunger. Of incredible gravity (the one that sees substance over-rule sustenance) is the hunger for meaning - first creation. A large part of San spirituality lies within the trance dance. In a state of trance, the San experience heightened emotional intensity – one that is conducive to healing and change. This augmented form of consciousness and transformation gives way to the first creation – where all of creation is felt rather than named.

The idea of first creation comes alive in Kgalagadi. For me, it is a story that almost defies telling. 30 lions, more cheetah than I can remember, one magnificent leopard in six days. Airborne kestrels with clasped talons in a fight for the skies, somnambulant eyes of a Giant Eagle Owl, previously unseen bird species attracted by the illusion of plenty. That is a sightings report to be lived rather than read about.→

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park wildlife - hartebeest

Desert Outlines
The stained glass window of dawn is a portal of peace between the biting heat of the day and the added threat of predators by night.

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As a wildlife destination, I am awed by how outstanding this place has been, but there’s something about the landscape that elevates every sighting to the realms of the truly remarkable. Watching a lioness stalk in perfect lavender light, more exposed than in stealth. Getting gooseflesh in the heat as a pride of lions walked within arm’s length of the open car window. A wildebeest calf running on instinct. A glimpse into the systems that have worked and will continue to work even when no-one is watching. This is where creation is felt.


Our initial base was in a chalet at Tweerivieren, a place that serves as both desert national park gate, border with Botswana, and first of the camps when entering the park from South Africa. The landscape in this area is the dry riverbed that forms the natural boundary between the two countries. This is flanked by chalky-looking calcrete ridges and part of the game drive thrill is the search for cats in caves and crevices.

We arrived early and decided to wait for check-in on a game drive - easily one of the world's most extraordinary hotel waiting rooms. Our first 15 minutes gave us more out-in-the-open action than the cave cats we were expecting. Time stopped and we watched as a co-ordinated hunt of a young wildebeest by a cheetah mother and two sub-adult cubs turned into a clash of motherhood - the cheetah's instinct to hunt, the mother wildebeest's turn of retaliatory horns to protect her clawed-down calf. A lion added to the dust and chaos - a thick-maned nemesis patrolling the daylight real estate of these slender cats. Safari made – although, little did we know, this was merely introducing us to the tempo of the desert. →

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Birdwatching - Owl

Kalahari Tented Camp is one of my favourite camps - it cages humans in and allows wildlife to roam freely among the dunes and between the tents.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Wildlife - Gemsbok

Times of Plenty
Perhaps one of the most iconic creatures to roam Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is the gemsbok. These remarkable antelope are adapted to living in extremely dry and desert conditions. Watching them lap up the puddle spoils of the rainy season was an amazing chance to see them living in a land of plenty for a change.

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We moved on to Kalahari Tented Camp – one of my favourite camps ever for locking humans in caged tented suites with kitchen tents and barbecue stands, allowing wildlife to roam freely from the low-walled patio and beyond. Our tent looked over the Auob riverbed, with a small waterhole and dunes into the distance. On the way there, we watched a leopard patrol the calcrete ridges, disappearing into caves and re-emerging – a fresco of spotted cat against the gnarled rock.

In the morning, I perched on our tent’s low wall with coffee for a quieter start to the day - watching the slow traverse of wildebeest walking down to the waterhole in front of our tent. Desmond, the manager, came round. “Can you see anything down there? That’s because the lions are behind you.” From the back of our tent, the intense eyes and alert ears of a lioness watched us from the shifting citadel of a red dune. It became a morning in my pyjamas, following a lion and lioness until they disappeared into the shade for the day.

On our last night at Kalahari Tented Camp, I woke up to the best sound in the world – a lion roaring into the emptiness of the desert. His challenge went unanswered – for today – but he carried on until the new day split the horizon from the dark earth. War cry? Lament? Waypoints down the riverbed to direct the pride home? We followed his spoor at first light until we found him on his patrol – co-ordinates left in the burnt red sand of the desert. →

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Birdwatching - Secretary Bird

The Meaning of Birds
Birdwatching in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park adds another layer of excitement to this desert safari - and this is not always confined to the skies. I've never seen so many secretary birds in one location and my camera reel is full of these magnificent birds in flight, on the hunt, eating snake spaghetti, or simply dotting the dunescape.

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We took the long, sandy road northward to Nossob and were immediately struck by the remoteness of it. The next days would be marked by the blush of sun on sand and grass. And there were lions – lots of lions – like a heartbeat of power walks, the bend and flop of giant paws, playful nudges, heaving sleeping bellies, and the stalk through the grass. At one point, a male passing the open car window was close enough to touch – his bulk through the long grass like a breath while we held ours.

We followed this harmony of lion sightings all the way back to Tweerivieren when our stay was over too – the lions appearing like crotchets and quavers along the sandy stave. We’d leave a loping lioness only to round the bend and find a coalition. This is a melody any lion lover could play on repeat for a lifetime. When we got to the end of the road, we both sat in the car at the gate – contemplating a coda. We’ll never know the words. →

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Sightings - Jackal

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Sightings - Lion

The Lion Sleeps Tonight - And Most Of The Day
In the heat of the day in the desert, lazy lions don't go far. After finding a pride of lions on an early morning drive from Nossob, we followed them as they sourced the best shade for a day-long nap. Whoever coined the phrase 'Sleeps like a baby' should look to our leonine friends for the true kings and queens of slumber.

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Mata Mata Waterhole. Cheetah drinking

Spotted at a waterhole near Mata Mata
The attraction of waterholes in the summer heat is irresistible for thirsty wildlife and people hungry for great sightings in equal measure. From the long approach through the grass to the cheetahs' aqua antics, we witnessed it all - following this family until they disappeared into the dunes.

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Leopard Sightings

Looking For Cats in Caves Along Calcrete Ridges
Seeing cats in caves gives sightings a sense of the prehistoric. Eyes strained for any hint of rosette, we watched this gorgeous cat walk along the ridge line, ducking into caves and crevasses along the way - a fresco of leopard etched into this incredible landscape.

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Safari - Ostriches

Fast Feather Dusters
It's not uncommon to see herds of animals or flocks of ostriches like a second line of the horizon in the desert. Dust and feathers go so well together.

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Safari - Sociable Weavers Nests

Master Thatchers
Colonies of sociable weavers create nests that are a marvel of engineering - and a useful landmark and photographic opportunity for self-drive safari-goers.

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Kgalagadi Links:
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Quick Travel Tips | The Magic of Nowhere: Destination Inspiration from Mabuasahube in Botswana | Surviving Without The Desert: Destination Inspiration From Kgalagadi, South Africa | What To Pack For a Safari To Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park |

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