21st July – Kalahari Meerkat Project & Rooiputs
The reason why we drove to the Kgalagadi via Van Zylsrus is meerkats. Cute meerkats. Cuddly meerkats. Famous Meerkats. About half an hour away from the hotel is the Kalahari Meerkat Project – home to the most studied meerkats in the world and the stars of the TV series Meerkat Manor. We arrive at around 7:30 am on a chilly Sunday morning and we are delighted to discover we shall be looking for the Whiskers group – the stars of the show (though none of the original meerkats in the show is still alive). And they are obligingly waiting for us a mere 300m from where we parked our car. At first only one or two poke their heads out of their burrow. It is still too cold. But as the sun warms up a little they find their courage to face the cold morning and emerge to sun themselves. They sit upright using their tail as support (like a tripod) facing the sun. They spend a long time like this and then they start running around a little, grooming and play fighting. A researcher is accompanying us and it is weighing time. They are weighed 2 or 3 times a day but they need coaxing in the form of boiled egg. We are amazed at how “obedient” they are, they just jump onto the scales by themselves without too much fuss. Except for the dominant female which totally despises this ritual. One of the meerkats is particularly friendly and the researchers suspect he might have been kept as a pet and then set free. It sits in our laps or uses us as support. Now I can say I got so close to a meerkat I could even see its fleas.
After a couple of hours we bid farewell to the meerkats and start pressing on towards the Kgalagadi. We have two choices as regards routes: we could go directly via Askham over a gravel road or else cross into Botswana about 30kms away at Middlepits border post, and use their tar road to emerge at Bokspits again 30km from the Kgalagadi. The latter approach is tempting but Botswana occasionally becomes very finicky at its borders about firewood, meat and fruits – which we had in abundance and we have no means to replace them if they are confiscated. So we take the gravel road option via Askham. I have read in a few places that the road is horrible and will break your car, but we find the road in reasonable condition. It is a bit corrugated at some points but not too much if you find the sweet spot with the speed which in this case is between 60 and 80km/h. There are a few patches of sand which are indistinguishable from the gravel so I try not to drive too fast after I get caught in the first one. When one tire is caught in sand it slows while the rest of the car continues at the same speed – this can cause you to lose control of the car or roll over, especially if you are driving fast. After a couple of hours including a refuelling stop in Askham we finally arrive to the Twee Rivieren Gate – familiar territory, and so exciting! This is the first park ever I am revisiting. 5km before the gate a new lodge has opened called Kgalagadi Lodge – it looks nice but we only stop for a cold drink. At the Twee Rivieren gate we realise the world is indeed very small. At first we are the only car in the parking lot until another car pulls up besides us a couple of minutes later. It is another Bushlore car – a Hilux. After a quick glance at the number plate we realise we have met our trusty car from our trip to Zambia and Zimbabwe in August/September 2012. Talk about coincidence.
Our last border crossings with a car have been unpleasant so we were delighted at the ease with which this one went. The new office at Twee Rivieren is not only nice, but efficient. All paperwork was handled within 20 minutes. On the Botswana side they don’t even have the police or customs so the car goes through without any paperwork and without paying any fees. Back at the parking lot we deflate our tires and finally venture into the park, straight to Rooipuits, the campsite on the Botswana side which would be our base for the next 2 nights.
Nothing much is seen on the way there, and we arrive at approximately 2:30pm. It is very very windy and cold and it would be very windy throughout the rest of our stay in the Kalahari. They call them the August winds but it seems mother nature did not get the memo about the August part. As is the tradition we crack open a couple of Windhoek beers and just enjoy the ambiance.
Then we set about making dinner – our special burgers marinaded in peri peri sauce and spices, in a toasted bun filled with salsa, peri peri sauce, nachos, red onions, cheese and mayo. Delight.
We catch a glimpse of the new lodge they have built just by the campsite, called Ta Shebube. It would be hard to miss it actually as it is just beside the campsite. It seems to be still under construction even though its website stated it was due to open the month before (I can confirm it has opened by now). Campsites 1 – 4 face away from the lodge, while 5 and 6 now have a nice view of the lodge. I wonder how the posh guests will feel having a view of us camping commoners. We are booked on pitch number 2 but I think the best one is number 4 closely followed by number 1. Both have lovely open views. 2 and 3 have slightly inferior views. The showers have water as well as basins for the dishes. The toilet is a longdrop and is in reasonable state, though a gas mask would have been nice. The toilets and shower structures even have little peepholes so that you can check whether any mischievous fauna is inside!
By the time we finish our dinner the sun is setting and we prepare for our first night of sleeping in the tent, but first we have a sundowner.
The night is very quiet except for some springbok that graze nearby and some very distant lion roars. It is also very very cold (below 0) and we are glad we brought along our mountain sleeping bags that we had bought to trek in the Andes in Peru designed for -20C. Today I think they are my best investment ever. Thankfully the winds seem to be restricted to daylight hours only and we can sleep in peace while still being able to listen for any animal noises.