There is a peculiar feeling about being in the desert. I have not fully understood the feeling - I probably need a few more trips to fully comprehend it - but I have glimpses of it. And this is my attempt to describe it.
If one takes the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) map and points right at the middle of it, that is the general location of Matopi Campsites. It is one of the remotest campsites in the country. It is literally in the middle of nowhere.
There is not much at Matopi. Just a few Shepherd’s Trees (metopi) and an eerie looking dysfunctional pit latrine. There is no water source around. No expansive views, , just desert shrubs. Matopi is where one feels completely disconnected from the modern world.
There is freedom in getting disconnected from the telephone network, no TV, no Internet, and no notifications. You’re away from the life of little LED lights on small screens calling you to scroll through your mobile phone because some stranger you identify as a friend on the Internet, even though you never really met, has added a shaking image of themselves raising their half full glass and you must come and press heart emoji to show your love before scrolling down to the next boomerang.
In Matopi, the connection you make is with nature and most importantly with yourselves. This is the place where one start noticing ants, small plants, their leaf pattern, flowers and smells. Without any clutter, you see, hear, smell, and feel more of your environment.
I like travelling without a mirror because I do not want to distract my travel experiences with my own narcissism. So, I let my travel mates be my mirror. This is how humans used to live and the desert wilderness, in the middle of nowhere, at Matopi, offers just that.
The Nossob River, which originates in the eastern slopes of the Otjihavera mountain range, east of Windhoek, is the main highway in the KTP. The river is dry and is said to flow about once a century. It forms the Botswana/South Africa boundary from Union’s End to Bokspits at its confluence with Molopo River.
Although it may flow briefly after occasional heavy rainfall, the Nossob, like most of the desert rivers, is believed flow underground and provide sustenance to the unique desert vegetation.
Through the KTP, there are number of manmade waterholes dug along the river to provide animals with much needed water. The road that meanders along the dry riverbed therefore offers a front row seat to some of Kgalagadi’s most amazing animal sightings.
There are herds of gemsboks, with their immaculate long horns, springboks, red hartebeest, their cousins in the Ugly Five, wildebeests, and the bushman’s revered elands. There are predators lurking around the waterholes. The lightning-fast cheetah loves the open riverbed for those deadly chases. There are black maned jackals, hoping to score some leftovers or ambush on small prey.
There is the agile caracal that can almost fly and catch doves mid-air. There are shy leopards that camouflage through the grass and watch everything from the tops of Camel Thorn trees. Then there is the king of the desert jungle, lions. The regal and big desert lions that love to walk and sleep on the roads because they rule the jungle. And there are plenty of birds, including big raptors, like Bateleur, the ‘slay-queen’ that is the Secretary Bird with its long legs and beautiful eyelashes. There are Bustards, Owls, Doves, Sandgrouses and loud Francolins.
All these animals and birds come together at the manmade waterholes, which are oases in the dry Kgalagadi. Driving along Nossob, one could wonder what would have happened to all these thriving population of wildlife if man did not help tame this desert by providing waterholes.
It is perfect display that demonstrates that although humans are blamed for all nature’s destruction, the desert is a testament that humans are valuable for conservation and not all animals could have made it if it was not for the human intervention.
I always find the first desert human settlers suspicious. There must be some big or pressing reason why those humans left fertile lands and chose to live in an inhospitable place like the desert. A place with very cold, dry winters, extremely hot, long summers with an average rain of less than 300mm. With poor soils, blinding dust and salty waters, why would anyone want to live here? That is why I always feel that the first people who chose the desert as their home were either running away or searching for something big. Standing next to the lone grave of Hans Schwabe, German geologist and diamond miner, who is reported to have died under mysterious circumstances in 1958 at Polentswa Pan along the Union’s End roadis the microcosm of first settlers of the desert.
Exiting the KTP through Two Rivers, on the road to Bokspits, through Struizendam, one is presented with the resilient humans of the desert that made Kgalagadi home. I love the people of the desert. I believe their patience, resilience, and existing in such harsh environment and climate conditions is key in defining the character of the people of Botswana, south of Lake Ngami.
I believe it is that desert DNA that Batswana, south of Lake Ngami, are generally unhurried. We are the grandchildren of the humans that, slowly but surely, successfully tamed a desert.