This is the thirstland, a place of thorn trees, giant weavers’ nests and creatures adapted to life among the red sand dunes. It’s the Kalahari in south-eastern Namibia and it’ll share its wonders with anyone who looks with an open spirit. When you visit Kalahari Anib Lodge near Mariental, don’t miss the chance to enjoy a sundowner drive in Namibia and feel the Kalahari's heart beat.
We joined guide Levi Newili on a nature drive late one afternoon, jogging along sandy roads in the 4x4 and discovering how termite mounds pepper the earth. ‘Termites are self-organised and make the mound using saliva to stick sand particles together one by one,’ he said. ‘The queen is for reproduction only, not to control or direct the termites. The structure you see above ground is used for temperature regulation and as a lung to allow oxygen in and get rid of carbon dioxide, but the termites actually live entirely underground.’
Go on a walk or a nature drive here and you’ll quickly realise that the Kalahari is almost as much a feeling as it is a place. When the vehicle stops so you can watch ground squirrels shading themselves with their bushy tails, ostriches taking a dust bath, or a herd of red hartebeest loping along a ridge of a dune, be still for a moment, feel the heat begin to seep from the day, smell the dust and the grass, perhaps hear the yelp of a jackal.
These are moments to treasure, when you realise why many people’s eyes soften with memories when you say the word ‘Kalahari’. It’s not just a nature experience, but a spiritual one.
We watched springbok pronking across the veld, their backs arching, legs stiff, all four hooves hitting the ground at once in what appears to be an impossible feat. We admired the horns and colouring of the gemsbok – Namibia’s national animal. They’re ingenious browsers who get enough water from wild melons and have a special system to cool the blood to their brains, making them well adapted to semi-arid conditions.
Blue wildebeest kicked up dust nearby. If you’re lucky, you might even see the stately giraffe snacking on the treetops or Africa’s largest antelope, the eland, which can weigh up to a whopping 900kg.
You might also see the kori bustard walking slowly through the veld foraging for a tasty insect or small lizard. They’re partial to tree gum too (in Afrikaans the bird is known as the gompou, or gum peacock). A San guide once told us that hunters used to tie a bit of gum to a thong and attach the other end to the tree. Once the bustard swallowed the gum, it became attached to the tree by the thong until the San came back licking their lips for a good dinner.
The rainy season here in the Kalahari is from December to April, and 57mm fell about six weeks before our May visit, bringing life and some greenness to the veld. ‘But the veld is still stressed because there has been little other rain this year,’ Levi said.
What I love about a nature drive like this is that it’s not all about big game. There’s a chance to meet and learn about some of the plants and smaller creatures too.
Take the trumpet thorn bush, for instance. A spiny shrub about a metre or two high, with greyish leaves, it’s named for the sweetly scented whitish-pink tubular flowers that festoon the bushes in spring. The San chew the roots for stomach ailments and use the sticks to rub together to make fire, as well as for their arrows. It’s also called the papwielbos (flat tyre bush) thanks to its thorns that can reach up to 50mm long.
Its cousin, the smelly shepherd’s tree or stink bush, is more common in rocky areas. Although flowers that appear in spring and summer have an unpleasant smell, the berries are sweet and much loved by the San and birds alike. The San also ferment the berries to make traditional beer, while smoke from burning the branches helps them communicate with the ancestors.
‘This is clever, because less grass under the tree gives better visibility to protect against danger from snakes,’ said Levi. Rosy-faced lovebirds also use the nests and have a symbiotic relationship with the weavers because they give a high-pitched shriek to warn when a snake approaches. A similar relationship with the pygmy falcon helps to chase away small snakes, though the weavers pay the price for that protection when the falcon eats eggs and baby birds.
Sundowners on a dune
As the sun began to set, a small family of kudu stood backlit on top of a dune. We drove to the crest of a dune with a view and piled out to feel the cooling Kalahari sand between our toes while Levi readied a table of drinks and snacks.
Gin and tonic in hand, I couldn’t think of a better way to end a day in the Kalahari.
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