In the vast Kalahari Desert, Tswalu offers a safari experience like no other. I spent a couple of nights on the reserve – hunting with wild dogs, tracking Kalahari lions and meeting the curious meerkats – to find out why that red sand is hard to shake off.
The remoteness of Tswalu Kalahari is striking. Flying into the private reserve in South Africa‘s Northern Cape, we can see the vast desert landscape rolling out for miles and miles beneath us, nothing but rust-orange sand, undulating dunes and a peppering of hardy trees and shrubs.
We land on the Tswalu runway and are met straight off our flight by our guide and tracker team for the next two days, Kosie and Jonas. Kosie, our guide, asks us if we’re happy heading out on a game drive straight away or if we’d like to check into our room first; we don’t waste any time and immediately head out to explore the vast reserve and its unique wildlife.
A safari unlike any other
Tswalu is different from other safari lodges. For a start, the private reserve is the largest in South Africa and there’s no one else to intrude on the incredible wildlife sightings and tranquility of the desert.
Being in this remote, wild area feels incredibly special. The vastness of the reserve means that most animals have to be tracked, which is all part of the experience at Tswalu. It’s a huge contrast to Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands, where the Big Five are easily found in the small pockets of land each lodge owns. I find myself caught up in the tracking process, which is fascinating and exciting, with each sighting feeling ten times more rewarding than other safaris I’ve been on.
Then there’s the exotic, unusual wildlife found in this expanse of harsh wilderness: powerful, black-maned Kalahari lions; highly endangered pangolins; hunting packs of wild dogs; rare brown hyenas; white and black rhinos; and the ever-comical meerkats.
Tswalu provide private vehicles as standard and there’s no set schedule, so we’re free to do exactly what we want for the next two days.
We already know the first thing we’d like to see: the wild dog puppies we spotted on Tswalu’s Instagram a few days ago. Hot tip: wild dogs usually have their litters around July, so it’s a great time to visit if you want to see the cute pups.
These animals are among the easiest to find right now as they’re denning. We drive to the porcupine burrow the dogs have taken over and find the five teeny pups snuggled together outside the den and the adults snoozing nearby.
On the hunt
The next evening we come back to the same spot. The adults are preparing to hunt.
As we drive off-road to join the pack, I feel excitement bubbling up inside me. Wild dogs are known as some of nature’s best hunters due to their ability to chase their prey for long distances, unlike big cats which tend to rely on short sprints and surprise attacks. We were about to experience a David Attenborough documentary first-hand.
The dogs are just getting warmed up as we find them. Cameron, another guide, is already there with his two guests. The two guide/tracker teams communicate by radio as they drive alongside the pack, the front-runner out ahead, the others following behind.
At Tswalu, there’s a two-vehicle limit at any one wildlife sighting to keep the animals from feeling harassed and for the guests to have the best possible experience. Wild dog hunts are the exception – three vehicles are permitted, as it’s easier to follow the chase with more eyes on the pack and the dogs are the least bothered by our presence.
We spot a warthog up ahead. The pack haven’t seen it yet. “We go when they go,” Kosie tells us. If we move first, we could disturb the prey and interfere with the hunt.
The dogs stop, attentive. Suddenly, they’re off – and so are we, barreling through the bush, alongside the dogs as they race after the warthog. It foils them by dashing to a nearby burrow and backing in, its dangerous tusks fencing it in. The dogs loiter for a while to see if the warthog will come out, but it’s too smart for that, and they move on.
Next, the dogs chase a wildebeest to its herd, which immediately closes in around the two younger animals to protect them from the dogs. There’s a standoff, as the dogs weigh their chances, before slinking off, onto the next target.
We ‘run’ alongside the pack for a couple more chases, before we lose them in the dusky evening light; the last we glimpse of them is a super-charged dog bolting over the top of a dune after a red hartebeest. We’re jittery with the adrenaline of following these incredible animals on one of nature’s most famous hunts – surely one of the most exhilarating safari experiences.
Another highlight of our stay was tracking the famous Kalahari lions. These big cats are huge, powerful and healthy, their full manes a fierce black – a sign of strength in male lions.
As with most animals here, lions have to be tracked. The reserve is big enough for them to get truly lost, so it’s up to the skilled trackers and guides to find their prints and then unravel their journey. They weren’t seen the day before we set off for a morning of lion tracking, so we’ve got two days’ worth of tracks to follow; this is no easy task when the Kalahari lions are known to walk up to 20 kilometres in a night.
We start off lucky, finding the tracks almost immediately. Their paws are enormous, having adapted to act like snowshoes on the soft desert sand.
Kosie and Jonas get to work. Jonas is sat up front in his tracker chair, studying the sand in front of him and using his enormous knowledge of these lions and the land – he has lived here his whole life – to piece together their movements. We learn about the lions’ habits and their range as we drive along, eyes scanning the landscape.
After three hours of following their tracks, Jonas and Kosie suddenly get excited. The prints are fresh; the two big males are nearby. Jonas hops into the back of the vehicle, out of the ‘bait seat’ up front. Then, there they are. Two huge lions, bigger than any I’ve ever seen, truly in their prime. We get a few minutes with the brothers, the rulers of this reserve, before they collapse in a stupor for the rest of the morning.
Tracing the footsteps of the females and their cubs the next day, we were lucky enough to spot a rare brown hyena at one of their recent kill sights.
We also got to meet one the two ‘habituated’ colonies of meerkats, the Rockstars. Habituated means that they are used to a human presence and there is actually a guide employed to spend time with them in the morning and evening every day.
Shaking out the sand
Coming back home to Cape Town, the red sand of the Kalahari is still on my boots. This is a place I will always encourage others to visit for themselves – for its star-spangled dark sky and the Milky Way glittering by 8pm, the rare, well-protected wildlife, and the absolute quiet, a silence almost deafening, one finds in the desert.
For families, romantics and wildlife enthusiasts alike, Tswalu is a special, unique place – and this blog has only highlighted a few of my favourite experiences.
All images: Anton Noll.