Kalahari. Breathe the word to anyone who’s been there and see a retrospective smile dance across his face. Unspoilt and hauntingly beautiful, with rippling red dunes and vast star-punctured skies, this semi-desert casts a spell that soothes the soul and unlocks a yearning to return.
For me, though, the Kalahari’s most enduring charm lies in its small miracles: a barking gecko clicking from the entrance of its dune-side burrow as the sun plummets to the horizon beneath riotously reddened clouds; a pouched mouse greedily stuffing its cheeks with seeds while a white-faced owl dozes unseen in a tree; a sandgrouse’s liquid call before it struts into a waterpool, soaking up moisture in its chest feathers to take to chicks many miles away.
Such things have drawn me back to this uncompromising wilderness again and again over 20 years.
Magnificent as the black-maned Kalahari lions are, to my mind it’s the oryx (gemsbok), with their striking black and white markings, who are kings of the thirstland. Superbly adapted to the harsh environment, they’re sometimes seen with a branch adorning their long, straight horns, looking for all the world like monarchs with extravagant crowns.
Equally diverting are the madcap antics of a boisterous wildebeest kicking up a duststorm, or the ingenuity of a suricate (meerkat) who climbs to the top of a wobbling shrub for a better vantage point from which to scan the area around his foraging family for marauding snakes or sharp-eyed eagles.
Rain is sparse and irregular in this semi-arid ecosystem. When it comes it’s often preceded by whirling duststorms and accompanied by spectacular electric thunderstorms. A threatening boom, a brief flash of lightning across blackly lowering skies, and in a matter of minutes the ground is awash with pools that quickly turn to mud.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the downpour is over, the sun peeps through the clouds, and the shallow pools begin to dry up.
All this is hard to relinquish, so I carry it away locked in my heart.
Leaving the gates of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park at first light to begin the eleven-hour drive back to Cape Town, my sadness at leaving is lifted by a glimpse of a lone figure atop a naked dune. Silhouetted against the sky, he begins an exuberant jig, happy to be alive in such a place.
I smile, promising that I too will return soon to dance on the dunes.
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