“The wild dogs are on the move!” Our guide Kosie puts down the radio and hurries towards the den where we find five three-week-old pups abandoned. The alpha female, their mother, had tried to tuck them safely away several times, but the tiny youngsters just wouldn’t stay put. Eventually, the inexperienced mother gave up and left them. Crossing our fingers for the puppies, we set off again to find her and her pack doing what wild dogs do best: hunting.
This is the Kalahari, a 360,000sq mile desert that sprawls across Botswana and Namibia. The southern section spills into South Africa’s Northern Cape, a semi-arid region that receives just enough rain to avoid being classified a desert. Instead it goes by the local name of the ‘green Kalahari’. It’s home to the largest private game reserve in the country: Tswalu Kalahari, my 440sq-mile base for the trip. It’s a long way from anywhere, but that’s why it’s so special.
It’s evening and everything is golden. The rust-orange sand flashes past the car, the sinking sun burnishing the pale, bleached grass. We find the dogs trotting through the savannah, bushy white tails wagging. Among them is the new mother, lactating as she runs; it seems she’s forgotten her pups for now. The leading dog spots a warthog and sprints after it, the others in hot pursuit. In most safari destinations, when wild dogs vanish into the bush, vehicles don’t stand a chance of following. But here, the open plains allow us to hurtle alongside the animals — a hair-raising, wildlife documentary-style perspective.
The warthog eludes the dogs by backing down an aardvark burrow, its sharp tusks preventing the hungry canines from following. Then the dogs are off again, a young wildebeest in their sights. Kosie swerves around deep burrows and hardy shrubs, careful to keep a safe distance from the pack. The wildebeest calf manages to leg it back into the protection of its herd. The adults turn to stare down the pursuers, who pause, unsure, before deciding against a confrontation and moving on.
Finally, as the sun sets and the sky turns a dusky pink, we lose the dogs; they disappear over a sand dune hanging off the back of a doomed red hartebeest. But we’re elated — some of us possibly more so having avoided seeing the hartebeest’s gory end.
Zooming around the bush is thrilling enough, but Tswalu Kalahari isn’t just a place where you hunt with wild dogs. During my stay I find a pride of powerful, black-maned Kalahari lions — a rich reward to a chilly winter’s morning spent tracking. I also sit with the meerkats, the region’s rock stars, in one of two habituated colonies; admire the athletic elegance of a cheetah, and keep an eye out for the extraordinarily rare pangolin. But Tswalu Kalahari is so much more than just a luxury safari reserve — it’s an also area of impressive conservation credentials.
South African billionaire philanthropist Nicky Oppenheimer took over a hunting concession in 1998 to create the reserve. His aim was to restore the southern Kalahari; the name ‘Tswalu’ means ‘a new beginning’ in Tswana. Also passionate about scientific discovery, the Oppenheimers invite researchers to track the impact of climate change on aardvarks and ground pangolins, and to study the reserve’s impressive 75 species of butterflies (the whole of Britain has 59). In 2008, the Tswalu Foundation was set up by Nicky’s son, Jonathan, to fund such conservation projects. It also runs a local school and clinic, along with the Tracker Academy, a programme for Khomani San (bushmen), and other Northern Cape communities, to train as trackers and ambassadors for wildlife conservation.
The southern Kalahari provides a different experience to so many reserves and parks in South Africa where the Big Five practically throw themselves at you. You have to work for it here, spending time tracking the animals through the wilderness. It’s a slow style of safari that encourages visitors to understand this fascinating ecosystem and the challenges of conservation. And when, or if, you do get those exhilarating wildlife experiences — like a heart-pumping wild dog hunt — it’s infinitely more rewarding.
Published in the April issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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