Lioness at Piper Pan

The Kalahari is synonymous with lions and Piper Pan dished out daily sightings of these iconic predators

The Kalahari, ‘land of thirst’, is a parched wilderness and primeval landscape of sand, stone, sparse grassland and thorn-scrub. Echoing every night with the primordial roars of the black-maned king of the African savannah, the wide-open spaces and big skies of central Botswana’s Khutse and Central Kalahari game reserves are like no other place on earth. My brother-in-law joined me for an overland exploration of this oft-overlooked wild corner of the sprawling Kalahari and we discovered the ultimate wilderness escape for any nature-loving 4×4 enthusiast.

Moreswe Campsite

Moreswe Campsite

The name Khutse, which means ‘where one kneels to drink’ in Sekwena (the local dialect of Setswana), reveals that the area was once part of Africa’s largest inland lake. Today, however, the sun-baked reserve experiences drought-like conditions for most of the year, giving rise to a distinctive terrain of low dunes, sparse grasslands, thorny scrub and the occasional scraggly tree, peppered with more than 60 shimmering saltpans.

Despite being one of the most arid regions in all of Southern Africa, we were fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to witness the truly awesome spectacle of the first Kalahari rains breaking across the parched African savannah.

We heard the wind before we saw it. A dust cloud around three kilometres tall raced across the desert landscape engulfing everything in its path before unleashing the first drops of rain to pelt Khutse’s parched pans in nearly a year. An eerie orange light filtered through the dust and clouds painting the landscape otherworldly colours such as I’d never witnessed before.

With only a couple of giraffe for company, we watched double rainbows melt and reform across a brooding sky while big raindrops thumped into the thirsty earth. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle that brings me goosebumps just thinking about it.

The rains arive

The first Kalahari rains were accompanied by otherworldly skies that seemed better suited to Mars

Although the Kalahari is home to a plethora of wild animals, animal densities are low and game viewing can be highly variable in the desert. While this might not be the best places to view wildlife, the timeless Kalahari is a genuinely wild place of soulful solitude. Boasting the ultimate get-away-from-it-all vibe, the Central Kalahari boast a desert wilderness experience bar none. So, if remote desert wilderness, self-imposed isolation and the sound of lions roaring in the night are your thing, then – like me – Khutse and the Central Kalahari will probably become one of your favourite 4×4 destinations in all of Africa. Check out www.botswanatourism.co.bw for more.

toilet

An unwanted visitor in the long-drop toilet!

Amazingly, during the week we spent exploring Khutse, we never saw another person or vehicle; and during our six-day stay in the southern section of Central Kalahari we saw no more than a handful of adventurous souls. Unfortunately, our desert adventure came to an untimely end at Piper Pan deep in the Kalahari when our Chinese-made Steed 5 double-cab inexplicably gave up the ghost one morning and set in chain an unbelievable sequence of events. In the end our vehicle recovery saga turned into an even bigger adventure than our originally planned Khutse-Kalahari desert sojourn!

In the end – after a four-day wait – the Trans World Motors recovery team finally located us and – after an accident and six breakdowns of their towing vehicle – we finally reached Maun. Escaping the clutches of the Kalahari was an unbelievable ordeal. By the time we finally reached Maun’s Old Bridge Backpackers (www.maun-backpackers.com), I could have sworn that the first bitterly cold Saint Louis I cracked was the tastiest and most refreshing beer I’d ever gulped down!

Driving across Marushele Pan under a fiery sky after the first big rains

Driving across Mahurushele Pan under a fiery evening sky after the first big rains had hit Khutse