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Rosemund Handler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Iconic Kalahari: Secrets of summer

Gems of isolation abound in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, but there are two places that delight above all others. Their life-affirming beauty stays with me long after I’ve left, islands of meditation which soothe my passage through the abundant potholes of back-to-normal life.

One of these places is the hide at Nossob camp. In the heat of December, sitting on a wooden bench, I gaze out at nuances of weather and a showy sunset that strews scribbles of cloud and colour, brilliant hues flowing and circling like a girl in some exotic dance. It’s a painting by desert gods, and beholding it, I feel like one of their chosen. As the lowering sun swathes the horizon there is a crackling of fire, a lurking storm that plays noisily with the clouds. The thunder retreats, colour fades and the hide light comes on. A curtain of moths descends like winged fairies. On a kameeldoring branch close by, a spotted owl appears, unfazed by the light.

The desert silence blossoms almost palpably. Cameras on all sides peer, lenses armed for the next shape to materialise beside the water.

A thirsty brown hyena pads to the waterhole under cover of the short-lived dusk, ignoring the cries of black jackals and the airplane landing of a secretary bird. A wondrous creature, this hyena, his shaggy coat better suited to an icy Kalahari winter night, his shy gaze quite unlike the bright unblinking stare of the more common spotted hyena. He drinks watchfully, the hammer blow of night diminishing him to an outline that vanishes into the dark.

It’s December 2012, and the heat at Nossob pounds relentlessly at the corrugated iron roof of our prefab that boils in summer and freezes in winter. There’s no air-conditioning at Nossob, and it’s lights out at before 10pm, so you’re there for love; pure love. Night brings a faint whiff of cool air and I envy the campers who, with jackals, snakes and voles for company, breathe and sleep far easier in their open tents than we do in our stifling room. We leave the door open for a while, though the air barely stirs. I wake in the small hours to a rustling from the kitchen. I pad out gingerly to close the door, mindful of a previous summer when a snake, seeking shelter from the heat, found it by nestling in the kitchen cupboard which I had left invitingly open.

In the morning we breakfast on our little verandah, every move eyeballed by a hopeful yellow mongoose, adept at begging on his hind legs. The early morning air is still and already warm, our view the magnificent kameeldorings of Nossob, great, generous-hearted green trees which grace the camp with canopies of shade.

When I tell people we’re off to the Kalahari in December, I’m asked how we can stand the heat. It’s the best time to go, I reply, but they’re not listening, they’re telling me about their plans for coastal or river trips.

Summer in the Kalahari is bountiful for visitors. Visibility is superb, as it always is, but the heat offers fascinating and uncommon viewing, like the partnership between a honey badger and a pale chanting goshawk. The badger is engaged in a vigorous early-morning vole forage while the goshawk is poised to pounce in the wings, or warn the badger by taking to the skies if danger lurks. It’s still the birthing season, and springbok and wildebeest are in full throttle, young everywhere, nurseries crouched delicately n the scrub with mothers watchful nearby. We come across a springbok which appears to be in the throes of giving birth; but what emerges instead is the placenta, a huge slab of meat which she proceeds methodically to consume, licking the last stain of blood from the sand and from her body in her efforts to deter predators. It’s a compelling sight, and we sit riveted in the heat for more than an hour.

Along both the Auob and the Nossob riverbeds, scores of desiccated eland carcasses litter the waterholes and the roadside. Theories abound as to the causes of their deaths. Poisoned water? Lion rampages? According to one expert, drought in Botswana forced a mass exit of desperate eland in search of water, and their deaths were probably due to a build-up of cyanobacteria and blue-green algae in the waterholes, which can poison very thirsty, weakened animals.

The rains have been half-hearted up to now, and the long dry season has forced animals to spend risky time closer to waterholes. As we drive out of camp a big male lion leaves the Nossob waterhole, trailed by a lioness and three half-grown cubs. Further on, we find a pair of mating lions, the fourth sighting of our visit, this time in the road beside the car, much too close to our little vehicle for comfort. There is much amusement inside the sports utility vehicles which surround us as a ferocious pair of yellow eyes, mere inches away, glares through our window on the driver’s side.

The visitors here at this time of year are mostly South African or Namibian and considerate summer devotees, a far cry from the lion-hungry tourists of Kruger. While cats may still be the biggest prize, many stop for all manner of creatures, birds and squirrels and even oogpisters, the Kalahari cockroaches, high-stepping in the roads. The season often rewards patience by revealing unexpected sights and action.

Another favourite Kgalagadi haunt is Kielie Krankie, where five brave units, the ochre of the Kalahari dunes, perch atop a large dune, looking down at a rolling panorama of sand and bush and, in a dip below, a waterhole.

Breathing at Kielie is a different experience: the desert air clings to your tongue and crackles in your nostrils, and the primeval vista is unlike any other. Half-asleep on the deck in the heat of the day, I am roused by the sight of a leopard loping down the dunes to the waterhole. Willem, the resourceful tourist assistant, tells us that she lives nearby with her cub.

The roof of our beautifully laid-out unit is shared with a sociable weaver nest. At such close quarters we are privileged to witness the truly communal soul of these industrious little birds. Steadfast, patient and disciplined workers, they could teach humanity volumes about how to live in peace with one another.

In the morning we are wakened by Willem, who has encountered a massive puff adder at the door of the next unit. As we watch he manipulates his snake stick, calmly relating a recent experience with a cape cobra while he captures the puff adder by securing it behind the head, then manoeuvres it, writhing, down the track. He releases it into the bush. Over a metre long, the body is as thick as his upper arm, and Willem explains that the snake is a she, and she’s pregnant. Before she slithers unhurriedly away, the puff adder lifts her head in our direction, as if bidding us farewell.

That evening we sip wine and watch lightning splinter across the sky from ten kilometres away. Advancing rapidly in a glorious display of sound and light, the heavens crash overhead, split open and cataracts of water drench the dunes. I stand in the hard sheets, tasting the sting on my tongue, inhaling the fragrance of water pumelling desert. Its thirst, and mine, are quenched. At least for a while.

By the end of two weeks life has become simple, both condensed and magnified by the immense vistas and the enormous sky. The impenetrable stillness has penetrated me, unlocked the cramped, electric narcissism of city life and freed my captive spirit. I feel as insignificant and pure as a grain of sand. I feel renewed. At least for a while.

Originally published in Escape Times of June 4, 2013.


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