The Kalahari, one of the African continent’s most evocative names, occupies much of central Southern Africa and, even today there are places within it where man seldom ventures. It is called a desert, which it really is not, and beyond the fact of its existence, is relatively little known by the outside world.  It is a place of mystery and has about it an aura of the unknown while in fact, although much still remains to be discovered, a great deal is known about the Kalahari.

Daar is maar net ‘n paar plekke in die wêreld waar die noem van ‘n enkele naam genoeg is om by enige mens wat dit ken en waardeer, ‘n rykdom van herinnerings en ‘n ongekende hunkering te ontsluit. Die Kalahari is so ‘n plek. Selfs vir die gesoute besoeker aan die Kalahari bly die natuurskoon van hierdie landstreek ‘n konstante bron van verwondering en ontdekking.

Vir die oningeligte besoeker is die Kalahari ‘n eentonige landskap van reëlmaat. ‘n Kenner van die Kalahari sal egter weet dat selfs twee opeenvolgende dae nooit dieselfde is nie, en dat daar telkens ‘n nuwe ervaring en ontdekking wag op enige mens wat bereid is om fyn te kyk en deeglik op te let.

Dit is ook ‘n plek van opportunisme waar veral die vaalste landskap in ‘n oogwink in ‘n paradys van kleur kan verander wanneer dit reën. Die Kalahari is ‘n dankbare plek wat mildelik reageer op die geringste toegif van die natuur. Dit is die ontdekking van die produk van hierdie reaksie wat die besoeker telkens boei en aangryp.

Wanneer die Kalahari se plantegroei voor ‘n besoeker ontvou, staan ‘n mens verstom oor hierdie rykdom van vorm en kleur wat so suksesvol is teen die aanslae van ‘n dor klimaat. Dan wil ‘n mens graag meer weet, en veral dan is dit die kennis en ervaring van ware Kalahari-mense wat help om die wonder verder te laat ontvou.

Ten spyte daarvan dat die Kalahari meer dikwels as ‘n plek van son en sand beskou word, het dit ook ‘n rykdom van grasse wat die lewensaar van die voortbestaan van talle wildsoorte van hierdie streek is. Daarby skep die baie bolplante, wat ná ‘n goeie reënbui oornag kan verskyn, skielik plate van kleur wat ‘n mens na jou asem laat snak. Waar daar gister nog kaal sand was, is daar môre ‘n besonderse tuin. Die bogrondse lewe van sommige van hierdie bolplate is egter kortstondig en opportunisties. Ná hulle blomtyd mag van hulle selfs vir jare bogronds verdwyn, om diep onder die sand te sluimer totdat die regte hoeveelheid reën op die regte tyd hulle weer tot ‘n malse skouspel aktiveer. Die rankers van die Kalahari, soos die tsamma en wildekomkommertjie, is vir talle diersoorte van die Kalahari ‘n waterbron wat die verskil tussen lewe en dood kan wees. Om hulle en hul rol in die Kalahari te leer ken, is eweneens soos om ‘n hele boek oop te slaan. Verskillende soorte opslagplante wat oornag verskyn en dan weer verdwyn, voltooi ‘n verstommende prentjie van die plantegroei van ‘n streek wat net deur ware kenners aan ons oorgedra kan word.

The wider Kalahari is a vast region of sandy, porous soils that extends across much of south-central Africa. Only in its southern parts, though, does it come close to the popular perceptions of a desert: here, there are great, rolling red dunes, dusty plains, ancient riverbeds that seldom flow with water, and a sparse plant life which, for most of the year, lies withered beneath the scorching sun.

Nevertheless, this harsh land, its scant grasses and hardy thorn-trees support a surprising number and variety of life forms – animals, birds, reptiles and insects that manage to cling to survival because they have adapted superbly (and often ingeniously) to the pitiless rigours of the desert environment. Herds of gemsbok and graceful springbok, wildebeest and hartebeest roam the great sunlit spaces, their movements across the hot, dry plains determined by the rare rains and the gift of short-lived pasture they bestow. In turn, the antelope provide food for the large carnivores of the desert – cheetahs, lions, leopards and hyenas. Below these on the size scale are other animals, less visually striking perhaps but just as fascinating in their struggle for life, and in their drive for species immortality.

The Gemsbok

The gemsbok is superbly adapted to desert conditions, able to live happily for months on end without drinking water: it gets its moisture from the plants that, somehow, manage to survive and, here and there, even luxuriate on the sun-blasted, formidably inhospitable terrain. For an animal of its size, too – adult bulls weigh in at a healthy 240 kilograms ( 529 pounds) – it has an unusually low metabolic rate, which lessens its need for food and water. The animal’s physiology and behavioural patterns are geared to the conservation of energy and fluids. It avoids the heat of the day, lying up in the shade or, in places where there are no trees, so positioning itself that the smallest possible area of its body is presented to the sun. On especially torrid days its temperature rises a few degrees above normal so that it doesn’t waste precious water panting – and it then gradually re-radiates the stored-up heat during the chilly hours of the night. Its muzzle contains an intricate network of vessels in which the blood is cooled by the moisture of its nasal passages, a mechanism that protects a key part of the brain from what could otherwise be the lethally high desert temperatures.

In a word, the gemsbok is marvelously in tune with its Kalahari environment. So too are the other animals, and the plants, that inhabit these forbidding spaces. Many have evolved, each in its unique fashion, equally ingenious adaptations to the harsh conditions – the extremes of heat and cold, the lack of surface water, the scarcity of food – and together, they have created coherent habitats in which the cycle of life, fragile and miraculous, is maintained through collective dependence.

The wider Kalahari is a vast region that stretches from South Africa’s Orange River northwards, across eastern Namibia, Botswana, western Zimbabwe and into Angola, Zambia and Congo ( Zaire) – a total area of more than 2,5 million square kilometers (0,97 million miles²), or ten times the size of Great Britain. It is commonly termed a desert because of its sandy, porous soils, its blistering summers, its far and often featureless landscapes, its low and unpredictable rainfall and its almost total lack of surface water. But only in a few places does it match the popular images conjured by the word, and is more properly defined as ‘wilderness’, ‘thirstland’ and, rather more technically, ‘semi-arid biome’.

For the most part – and for most of the time – the Kalahari’s broad plains are mantled by a thin coat of grasses and by swathes of savanna and thorn scrub. In those areas where underground water lies fairly close to the surface, and especially when the rare rains fall, the countryside resembles parkland. Indeed, in a few areas the Kalahari is graced by an almost tropical lushness, a fertility conferred by the relatively generous rains of the northern parts and the rivers that flow down from the uplands of Angola.

Prominent among these is the Kwando, which twice changes its name – first to Linyanti and then to Chobe – as it loops northeastwards to join the mighty Zambezi 70 kilometres (44 miles) upstream from the Victoria Falls, and whose reaches are magical in their moist luxuriance. Even more notable is the Okavango, a major watercourse that flows across Namibia’s Caprivi ‘Strip’ into northwestern Botswana, where it runs through a narrow, 100-kilometre (62-mile) long panhandle to fan out over the Kalahari sandveld in a magnificent wetland delta famed for its life-giving lagoons and labyrinthine channels, its papyrus beds, palm-fringed islands, riverine forests and richly endowed floodplains. These swamplands, however, are the striking exception in an otherwise very dry region.

To the west and southwest are the sandy wastelands of eastern Namibia (beyond whose central plateau lie the gigantic dunes of the Namib Desert and the craggy Kaokoveld). To the west, and once linked firmly to the Okavango system, are two of the world’s largest saline pans, segments of the Makgadikgadi complex of vast depressions that, millennia ago, were part of an inland sea the size of and perhaps even bigger that East Africa’s Lake Victoria. In those ancient times the well-vegetated countryside sustained a wondrous array of wildlife, but it is thought that seismic disturbances reduced the flow of the northern rivers (and redirected the Zambezi River away from the central basin) to create this wilderness of salt and clay.

When the brief rains come the Makgadikgadi basin is transformed: the depressions are covered by thin sheets of water and flamingos, pelicans, waters and all manner of other waterfowl arrive in their tens of thousands (one sighting is said to have encompassed a remarkable million and more birds). The short-lived ‘lakes’ also attract game animals, notably herds of wildebeest, zebra and red hartebeest, from the waterless plains. But for most of the year the pans – Ntwetwe, Sowa, the smaller Nxai and Lake Mopipi – are barren, blindingly white in the searing African sun, their lifeless surfaces deceptively animated by a myriad mirages that shimmer and dance in the burning air.

To the south are the sun-baked plains of central Botswana, endless expanses of level, usually monotonous countryside. Here again, though, the leak landscapes do have their ephemeral charm. In springtime, just before the wet season, the acacias are bedecked in their yellow and white blooms, and when the rains come the crimson lilies and wild hibiscus, the acanthus, ammocharis and many other ground plants bring splashes of modest colour to the land.

The blossoms are short-lived, many are infrequent; the lilies flower for less than four days, the vellozias just once every three of four years. And then, after the brief interlude, the wilderness reverts to character, displaying little more than its scanty grasses and hardy thorn trees. And as you travel farther southwards so the ground cover becomes thinner until, eventually, you enter a region of high red dunes and ancient watercourses, a ‘true’ desert that extends across the invariably bone-dry Auob and Nossob rivers and into the Gordonia region of South Africa.

The Botswana section of this immense, parched-looking and sometimes hauntingly beautiful thirstland is home to the Bushman or San people and to small groups known as the Kgalagadi (the word from which Kalahari is derived), who arrived in the better watered eastern parts of the region about 800 years ago, bringing with them their livestock, subsistence agriculture and knowledge of metals. By the mid-19th century they had penetrated westwards, and have since lived in scattered, for the most part impoverished, desert communities surviving on the creatures they hunted, on wild plants, on the modest crops of sorghum and beans they cultivated and the few goats they kept.

The Tswana people, who comprise the majority of the wider region’s inhabitants, began to appear in numbers from the latter part of the 18th century, also occupying the Kalahari’s eastern fringes before fanning out to establish vast cattle ranges in the grasslands of the north-central and northern parts of what is today Botswana.

Later on, and farther south, came small groups of other peoples – Ndebele, Boer, Nama and Baster herders who preferred the hardships of isolation to life under Cape colonial rule, The Basters, mixeddescent folk of Bushman, Korana, European and slave origin, trekked into the remotest parts of the southern Kalahari to form the nucleus of what became the Mier community. Other pastoralists penetrated even deeper into the sand country.

More clearly associated with the desert, though, are the Bushmen ( also referred to as San, Khoisan and, occasionally, as Basarwa and Quena), the earliest inhabitants of southern Africa.