Trip report -- Kgalagadi Transfroniter Park, et al.

Old May 15th, 2008, 10:50 AM
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Trip report -- Kgalagadi Transfroniter Park, et al.

We’re just back from three weeks in South Africa, and what a great trip it was. We spent most of the time in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. I thought Safaridude’s recent report of his time there was excellent. I’d like to add some of our experiences.

We flew from Chicago to London on a daytime flight, and stayed overnight in London. We like doing this because we’ve found that we suffer less from jet lag if we arrive in the evening, rather than in the morning after trying to sleep on a plane. After a day in London we flew out of the new Terminal 5, and it was a very good experience. The Galleries Lounge has all the amenities you have time (and tummy!) for, plus views of the runways, which is nice. Had a great BA flight in business class to Jo’burg, where we spent the day relaxing in our old haunt of Rosebank.

The next day we set out for The Elephant Sanctuary at Hartebeeseport. Because of a truck stuck in a tunnel we had to detour, and we arrived late for our morning tour, but we joined it in progress and enjoyed the hands-on experience with elephants and the lecture on elephant behavior, physiology, etc. Lunch was much more elaborate than we expected, three courses and quite tasty. Then came the elephant ride! Jim and I were the only two of our group who opted for this, and it was quite fun, although not a whole lot different from pony rides at a carnival. The staff, though, took lots of pictures of us, with our own cameras, and we have some great shots of it. This is definitely a tourist attraction, but a good one.

After this, we took off for Vryburg, a small town where we spent the night at a nice, homey, B&B. From Vryburg we went on to Upington, the jumping-off point for the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

Our B&B in Upington was the Otter’s Rest River Lodge. What great hospitality we experienced there! Following advice gleaned from the Sanparks forum, we bought supplies for our 10 days in the park: vacuum packed meats from the butchery, vegetables and fruits from the greengrocer, and staples from Checkers. We exchanged our small rental car for a 4x4 bakkie, packed our worldly goods into it, and set off for the wilderness.

The amount of game we saw in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was just astounding. Every day we saw many gemsbok – the park used to be called the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park – ostriches, red hartebeest, springbok, secretary birds, kori bustards, wildebeest, black-backed jackals. We also saw lions on four different occasions, a Verreaux’s Giant Eagle Owl, gray duikers, steenbok two or three times, bat-eared foxes, one spotted hyena, and the two high points for us: a cheetah mother and cub on a kill, and a leopard mother and cub!

We also saw eagles, goshawks, two vultures on a nest, spotted owls, Cape cobras, African wild cats, giraffe, slender mongoose, and ground squirrels. These are almost as cute as meerkats, and very similar in behavior.

We arrived a couple of days after very good rains, so the desert was lush with greenery and many flowers, as well as desert cucumbers and a kind of melon that gemsbok like to eat.

In Kgalagadi we spent one night at Twee Rivieren rest camp, three nights at Nossob, three nights at Kalahari Tent Camp, and three nights at Kielie Krankie. The first two are regular rest camps with the usual Sanparks chalets and campgrounds and shop; the latter two are wilderness camps, with not so many people (8 tents at the tent camp, 4 dune cabins at Kielie Krankie) and no shops, and no fences. We enjoyed both types of camps. The solitude at the wilderness camps is incredibly good for the soul, but there is scant opportunity for discussing the day’s sightings with others. The traditional camps offer lots of opportunity for meeting and socializing with your neighbors. I think anyone visiting the park should try for a mix of wilderness camps and regular camps.

Cooking for ourselves was very easy and convenient. Although we ate at the restaurant at Twee Rivieren, we self-catered for the rest of the ten days we were in the park. All camps were very well-equipped with kitchen supplies. We joked that we had to drink white wine in the red wine glasses, since that was all they provided, and there were no champagne flutes at all! We had to toast our leopard sighting with champagne in burgundy glasses. Really roughing it!

Some comments on the Sanparks accommodations:

The Twee Rivieren chalets are duplexes, either very new or recently redecorated with African-theme fabrics for the curtains and duvets. Our chalet was one open-plan room with the kitchen indoors, along with beds, a table and chairs, and plenty of closet space. There was a large patio with braai and table and chairs. The bathroom was big, with lots of counter space.

Nossob rest camp looked older and a bit tired. There we had a separate kitchen, three bedrooms, bathroom and shower, and a porch with braai and table and chairs. But there was no art work on the walls, and the feeling was pretty utilitarian. On the advice of a Sanparks forum participant, we ordered roosterkook, a kind of bread, at the office. It was baked at the camp, and it was really good!

The Kalahari Tent Camp units are really nice! There is a cooking tent and a sleeping tent, connected by a boardwalk. The side walls of the kitchen tent are made of sand bags which had been sprayed with some sort of material that dries hard like concrete. The roof is canvas. In front of the kitchen tent there is a gravel patio with braai. The sleeping tent is luxurious – beautiful wood floors, canvas chairs, African-themed fabrics on the beds – we felt like Ava Gardner and Clark Gable in that movie whose name I can’t think of right now. Our patio looked out over the dry river bed, where herds of springbok and the occasional wildebeest grazed every morning. The only problem we had was the cold! The three coldest days of our trip were spent here. We were warm enough at night with the lovely warm blankets we had, but it was nippy drinking our morning coffee and tea! I’d advise people to book here in the summer, not the beginning of winter.

Our dune cabin at Kielie Krankie was the most elegant of our accommodations. The four cabins of the camp are high on a dune, overlooking a waterhole and the never-ending beautiful desert. They’re built with an ingenious entry lane with gates that keep critters out. The kitchen on one end of the cabin, and the bathroom on the other end, are canvas, while the bedroom in the middle has three solid walls, and one wall of windows with a door opening onto a lovely deck with a braai. It was wonderful to wake up and be able to see the desert almost in the room with you.

Some highlights of our game sightings:

A Verreaux’s giant eagle owl is really GIANT. These things are huge. It’s hard to believe they can fly.

We saw a couple of Cape cobras, and learned that they like to live in trees with sociable weaver birds’ nests, because the eggs are a great source of food for them. They range in color from pale yellow to a bright almost orange.

One of our two sightings of an African wild cat was on a game drive with the ranger. The cat was in the process of killing a puff adder. It was a real fight, but the cat won in the end. The ranger said it’s not very common for these cats to eat puff adders.

Our first lion sighting consisted of 4 youngish ones, three males and a female. They were right by the road, and we (and lots of other people) watched them for a long time as they stretched, lay down, got up, and finally ambled down the road and into the bush. Two days later, early in the morning, we saw a lone male lion walking down off the dune ridge toward the water hole. We watched him walk, drink his fill, and then walk along the valley and finally back up to the top of the dune. We watched him for almost an hour. This sighting was especially nice because we were the only people around. The next day we watched a lone male lion walking on the top of the dune. It’s amazing how invisible they can be when they’re behind low vegetation. We also encountered a group of sleeping lions. And on our last day in the park, we came across a whole lot of cars with people all staring in the same direction. Sure enough, under a tree was a BIG male lion with a huge dark mane. He was just sleeping, stretching, yawning. Pretty neat!

One late afternoon we were driving and came upon lots of stopped cars. The attraction was a mother cheetah and cub munching on a springbok. They sat up to look around, then went down to eat (making the cub invisible in the grass), then stood up, stretched, ate, looked alert every once in a while, ate some more, and so on. We were able to watch for about 45 minutes, changing our vantage point a couple of times to get a better view. The mother was beautifully marked; the cub still had some baby coloration, also beautiful. The mother had a radio collar, I assume as part of the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project I saw reference to. We talked to people who had seen the actual kill, and said it was breathtaking. They (and we) were hoping to see if jackals would come and steal the meat, but it got late and we all had to get back to camp before the gates closed, so we don’t know how it ended. Back at camp as we were cooking dinner we heard hyenas, maybe coming from the cheetah kill. We liked to think so.

The morning that we left Kalahari Tent Camp and headed to Kielie Krankie, we were driving moderately slowly when suddenly a big cat came out of the grass. At first we thought “cheetah”, but no, it was a leopard! She walked along the road, crossed in front of us, and sat looking toward the other side, and calling. I said “Jim, she has a cub over there!” She continued calling, looking at us occasionally, and finally re-crossed the road. There was the cub, just barely visible in the grass! They walked along and we followed slowly. A Cape cobra appeared, causing the cub to jump. The mama was in the road often enough for us to admire her beauty thoroughly. The cub stayed at the edge of the road in the long grass. At last the mother started up over the dune with the cub following, popping in and out of view, until they both disappeared over the dune. What a thrill!

We spent 10 days in Kgalagadi. It was just right—long enough, but not too long.

Next we went to Karoo National Park. More about that when I get some more time to write it up.
Celia is offline  
Old May 15th, 2008, 11:18 AM
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Thanks, great report. I visited KTP in July 2006, also staying at Kalahari Tent Camp, which I thought was very nice -- interesting to hear that there are even nicer lodgings.

I did see a cheetah kill (after watching for 4 to 5 hours) near Kalahari Tent Camp.

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Old May 15th, 2008, 03:28 PM
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Thanks for the great info on Kgalagadi. You had some great cat viewing including the wildcat killing the puff adder. Hope you found appropriate glasses and beverage to toast that one too.
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Old May 16th, 2008, 12:02 AM
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Thanks for the report. Was the 4x4 really necessary and if so for what part of your trip? TIA
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Old May 16th, 2008, 08:02 AM
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Michael, your reports on KTP helped us plan our itinerary. Thanks.

No, we didn't need the 4-wheel drive aspect of the bakkie. What we did need was the space. In addition to our suitcases, we had a big cooler and a couple of boxes full of food, (and wine, and beer), enough to last us 10 days. There was no way it would have all fit in any but the biggest of cars. We also wanted the extra height that a truck gave us, for better sight. We especially appreciated that because of the recent rains and the resulting vegetation.

We had the 4x4 only for the 10 days we were in KTP. Driving from Jo'burg to Upington we had a little bitty VW, and from Upington to the Cape, a little bitty Kia.

People complain about the roads in the park, but they weren't that bad. The last 40 or 50 k's before you get to the park were terrible, but they are building a new road there. Within the park they drag the roads pretty often - we saw this twice - and that takes out some of the bumpiness. The terrible washboarding that people complain about was only evident in a few places. Most were just fine.
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Old May 16th, 2008, 08:52 AM
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Can I ask some questions?

You mentio that you were on a drive with a ranger, was this a one off if so how did you arrange it.

I am surprised that you felt that the 4x4 was not really necessary, many of the trails in the park and some of the camps are only open to 4x4, I know that a lot of the roads are supposedly usuable by normal cars, but I would not wish to risk it.

I am amazed that the road to the park is still bad they were supposed to fix it years ago.

The main cause of corrugations (washboarding) is supposedly the use of 2 wheel drive vehicles.

It sounds like you had a great time, just out of interest how far in advance did you book?

Old May 16th, 2008, 09:03 AM
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Celia~Welcome home! I've been waiting for your report, excellent! Less than 4 months to go for me. Sounds like you had a great time!

Is it easy to find the Butchery, green grocer or supermarket in Upington? Anything special we need to bring besides champagne flutes?
How many people in the guided game drive? Do they sell gin in the shops in KTP? How did your meat hold up during the 10 days?

Thanks for the nice report, hope you post some pics soon!
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Old May 16th, 2008, 10:59 AM
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Great report, I have to do that sometime, sounds like a blast.

napamatt is offline  
Old May 16th, 2008, 11:34 AM
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About the ranger drive -- at the camp office, you just book for the evening drive or morning drive. They do them every day, if enough people book. I think it's 4 people minimum. The night we went there were about 8 people, I think. The cost was not high; about R120 per person.

Yes, there are some roads that are restricted to 4x4s, but we didn't use any of them. Some people think the cause of the washboarding is people not reducing their tire pressure; this is the first I've heard it attributed to 2x4 vehicles.

We booked last September, and were in the park in mid-April. I found the Sanparks site invaluable for this. Because you can see what's available for any date, you can plan an itinerary based on the camps you want.

About finding the shops in Upington, it's very easy. Except, we looked and looked for the Pick N Pay and never did find it, until we were back in Upington at the end of the trip. I don't know how it could have been so invisible -- it's the anchor for a big shopping center. But we didn't see it in spite of searching for it. So we went to the Checkers instead. There are two butcheries, I think, and two grocers. But Upington is only about 6 or 8 streets wide by 8 or 10 streets long, and laid out in a grid, so you can easily cruise the "downtown" blocks to find what you need.

The only thing we needed that wasn't provided (other than the champagne flutes!) was a colander. Now, I don't know why we decided we wanted to eat pasta in the bush, but for some reason we did, and draining it took some ingenuity. Finally we turned the vegetable grater upside down, put a little plastic bag at the bottom of it, cut a hole in the bag, and dumped the spaghetti in the grater. That worked fine.

I don't know specifically if the shops have gin; they certainly have whiskey and brandy and a lot of other stuff. I'll ask Jim when he gets home, I think he'll remember. Among the wines they have are some from the Orange River area, which is near the park. We enjoyed those.

We had the meat vacuum packed and frozen, except for the boerwoers. It was just frozen. It all held up beautifully. We ordered it from the butcher the day before we picked it up. I think they need time to do the vacuum packing, but I don't know whether they need a whole 24 hours.

Upington is pretty much an Afrikaans speaking area, so it was useful to know the words "slaghuis" for butchery and "drankwinkel" for liquor store.

We DID have a blast, it was everything we could have imagined.

I'll try to post some pix, but not until week after next. We're tied up all next week.
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Old May 16th, 2008, 02:01 PM
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Old May 17th, 2008, 02:43 AM
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I thought I might have some questions, but you just about covered everything! Sounds like a great trip.
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Old May 18th, 2008, 12:59 PM
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Nice report, full of useful info and very appealing--even for people like me who are wary of self-drive.
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