11 May 2009

Stranded comfortably in the Kalahari

A long time ago, in a post far, far away (check my January archives), I mentioned a Kalahari sunset. This weekend I saw one for the first time, and then again for a second (unforeseen) time. It was so serene out there in the veld. After a long day of driving in a stadium-seating safari vehicle, setting up camp, eating and a game drive, our last vestiges of daylight were too short.
My roommate Alex decided he wanted to go out into the "bush" one more time, and when he discovered it was going to cost more than a small herd of goats if he went alone, he invited all of us to split the costs. Our safari company took several groups of international students from UB in recent weeks, all of whom gave the guides high marks but lamented the lack of wildlife. In any case we got very excited at the prospect of traveling one last time before the mammoth flight back to the US. Four of us went and we were joined by seven UPenn medical students and residents working at the local hospital, Joe the trusty Motswana guide, and Tim, the gregarious Rhodesian safari operator.

Joe picked us up on campus right around 9 am on Saturday morning, followed by the UPenn students. The three-hour trek up to Khutse Game Reserve, adjacent to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) transitions from national highway to a seemingly endless gravel road crowded with feral donkeys. Another hour of slow driving in the reserve brought us to our campsite, one of a handful huddled together, all complete with rudimentary shower and bathroom facilities.

While Khutse itself is an amazing place, the CKGR offers up the most incredible stats: larger than Switzerland or Denmark, and even larger than Swaziland and Lesotho combined, and is the second-largest game reserve in the world. For those interested, Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve is the largest. Our Saturday afternoon game drive included a sojourn into the CKGR. The landscapes found in the Kalahari Desert are not the sand dunes of the neighboring Namib Desert nor the barren stretches of the American Southwest. Instead it can be called verdant at times, as it is covered in hardy plants and grasses. The soil is very light, most likely from the high concentration of minerals (especially salt) that manifest themselves as pans.

These flat expanses of short grass are perfect for viewing game, and we saw more than our fair share of ostriches (or ostrii, as Alex would prefer the plural to be), red hartebeest named for their heart-like shape formed by their horns, springbok, steenbok, bat-eared fox and wildebeest.

The flying varieties were equally incredible. Bustards are the heaviest bird able to fly and secretary birds seem capable of pecking a lot more than an Underwood-5 typewriter. Our great hope for this trip was the rarity of spotting a lion, not literally of course, but our trip was feline-free: no lion, no cheetah, not even the faux type, the meerkat. The closest we got to realizing our dream was a herd/pod/armada/colony (oh Lord, the confusion of animal collective nouns) of ground squirrels who looked like little Timons with long tails. It was an incredible change of pace from both Gaborone and our other game drives in northern Botswana. The medical students told jokes around the campfire with punchlines like "And so he gave him Vitamin K!", which were met with roars of laughter from medical students and distant jackals alike.Our morning driving went off the hitch, not without one. A bolt on our tire broke during the trip and the safari vehicle was deemed to unsafe to drive back to Gabs. The plan was for the UPenn students to head back first in Tim's Land Rover while we (Joe, CIEE students and one (un)lucky Penn student) were to drive the ailing truck to the lodge right outside the reserve and wait for a rescue car. The caveat was that the rescue car was coming from Otse, at least three and a half hours away. We got to the lodge just before noon and were not "rescued" until half past seven in the evening.

I say "rescue" because we spent the lazy, hot afternoon tanning around the lodge's pool reading ancient National Geographics lying around as well as novels like my handy volume of Henry James. Tea was served all afternoon and two meals were on the safari company. We made out like the fiscally-strapped college bandits we are. Finally, around 11 pm we arrived back on campus, fully rested and yet extremely tired. It must have been the crisp, untainted Kalahari air.

The Kalahari weekend was a perfect note on which to end our Botswana and indeed, African, travels. I have one more final tomorrow afternoon, followed by a Wednesday packed with packing. I will have just a couple more posts up before I get home, so keep coming back for a bit longer.

Thank you for following my semester in Africa and see you all soon enough!

No comments:

Post a Comment