“Kalahari” is derived from a Setswana word meaning “The Great Thirstland” – so the first thing Bart and I did after our rendezvous was to head for the Francistown bottle-shop.
My bus had blown its engine just outside Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, and I was happy to see that the Britz Hilux that Bart had hired was infinitely better equipped and maintained than any of the long chain of crowded pick-ups that had trundled me across the Matobo Hills. We filled up with 170 litres of fuel and 60 litres of water, and then piled in enough steaks and ribs to feed all the lions in Kalahari for a week…and enough rum to keep us in Cuba Libre sundowners until the next rainy season if necessary.
Bart Vandepitte is no stranger to Kalahari expeditions and over the years has notched up over a million off-road miles through Southern Africa – firstly as a biologist with Botswana Wildlife and more recently as a guide. Though Belgian, he has developed a bushman’s eye for spotting wildlife that is barely even hinting at its own existence: a cheetah’s ears flickering above the grass; a pale chanting-goshawk giving away the position of a honey-badger; the slightest hint of activity in a herd of a thousand springbok that could only be caused by wild-dogs. Then, having spotted them, he can reel off the names (to suit his clients) in English, French, German, Afrikaans, Latin, often Setswana and Spanish, or his native Flemish.
Never to be underrated among the talents of a good guide is a store of bush-stories – and five days later, as we relaxed in camp on the edge of Deception Valley, Bart still had a few up his sleeve. I poured out another round of rum while he recounted the time that he and a Botswana Wildlife colleague trekked six miles through the southern-Kalahari savannah without seeing game for their pot before they finally spotted a steenbok…which was cunningly positioned so that the first narrowly-missed bullet shot the headlamp out on their Land Rover.
Just beyond the reach of our hurricane lamp, a pair of jackals whined worriedly at the scent of barbecuing ribs and in every lull in our conversation I could hear the pool-ball click of territorial barking geckos – “The Chirp of the Kalahari”. We knew that the local pride was hunting on the pan not far off and that there was a leopard in the vicinity. (I woke in the night to see his shadowy form slip past the vehicle yet I was unable to find his spoor on the rocky ground next morning – but Deception Valley is renowned for stranger mirages than this).
There is something refreshingly exciting about being in an environment where, for once, man is not “apex predator”. Even the decision of whether to wander out to the edge of the lamplight to drain off a little bit of that Cuba Libre carries an altogether unfamiliar weight in the African bush. There are few times in the usual round of modern life that such a mundane act brings with it the possibility – however remote – of being eaten by a 400-pound monster with five-inch fangs.
The African bush at night is a fine place for self-analysis. “Do I really need to go?” I asked myself.
The decision that I didn’t was provoked mostly by one of Bart’s stories. It was up north near Selinda, an area that is particularly famed for its big cats, that he was once surprised at just such an inconvenient time – with nothing but his “trouble-shooter” in his hand – by a male lion. Everybody knows that the standard advice when faced with a lion is not to run, but I had never spoken first-hand to anybody who had actually tested this theory out under such horrifyingly vulnerable conditions. Even allowing for the tricks that such an incident can play on the passage of time, Bart reckoned that he spent more than five minutes staring into those amber eyes and fighting the primal instinct that told him to flee.
The stalemate was broken when they heard a roar from the direction of the nearby waterhole and the lion simply turned and trotted away. It was only then that Bart was finally able to release his vice-like grip on that part of his anatomy, which – roughly at the point of greatest proximity to the lion – had seemed to be at most risk throughout the ordeal.
If watching wildlife in Africa is on your bucket list, don’t miss this break-down of the best places in Africa to see animals. Ever come face-to-face with a wild animal? Here’s what you’re likely to see. And – for tips from a pro on how to photograph wildlife, take a look here.