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A Retrospective: Kgalagadi Transfrontier, Willem Pretorious, Bontebok and DeHoop - April 2008


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“Once Africa is in your blood, …” a South African colleague reminds me. No complicated, self-reflective explanation needed then. When you’ve got to go to Africa for the eighth time in your life, you’ve got to go. So, I simply zip up my duffel bag, which is semi-permanently packed for Africa anyway, and head for the airport.

 

This is an eclectic safari. Aside from the renowned Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, our party of three would visit The Willem Pretorius Game Reserve in the highveld, and Bontebok National Park and De Hoop Nature Reserve, representing the Cape fynbos environment.

 

Itinerary (April 2008):

 

Willem Pretorious Game Reserve – 1 night at Aldam Estates

 

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (guided by Kalahari Safaris) – 1 night at Twee Rivieren, 2 nights at Nossob, 2 nights at Kalahari Tented Camp

 

Bontebok National Park and De Hoop Nature Reserve – 2 nights at Aan de Oever Guesthouse

 

 

Willem Pretorius Game Reserve

 

Richard D. Estes in his “The Safari Companion” writes about the highveld in South Africa -- “the black wildebeest, blesbok, springbok, and quagga once ranged there in the same manner and abundance as the white-bearded wildebeest, topi, Thomson’s gazelle and plains zebra still range the Serengeti ecosystem.” Unfortunately, hide hunters decimated the black wildebeest at one point a century ago to a population of about 300. Thanks to a concerted effort by a few concerned farmers, the black wildebeest occur in many isolated populations now and are no longer endangered. The quagga (a race of the plains zebra) wasn’t so lucky. They were shot out. Somewhere in the world, I presume, the fading hide of the last quagga hangs on a wall.

 

The Willem Pretorius Game Reserve near Bloemfontein lies very much in the middle of the highveld. The drive from Bloemfontein is like driving through Nebraska, with wheat-like grass extending to the horizon. It is easy to imagine what it must have been like before the decimation of the herds. But now, the pristine grasslands are occupied by cows and sheep and interrupted by tarred roads. The odd cell tower and ubiquitous power polls remind one that it is indeed the 21st century.

 

We stay over at Aldam Estates, which is immediately adjacent to Willem Pretorius. Aldam is very much a weekend retreat for South African families, offering angling and hiking as well as game viewing. The chalets are nice and clean, though not luxurious. As long as there is a braai facility and a shop to buy meat and beer, does anything else matter to South Africans?

 

The reserve is divided roughly in half by a man-made dam. On the first afternoon drive, we explore the northern section, which is rocky and hilly, with acacia shrubs being the dominant vegetation. Among the game spotted are southern giraffes, buffalos, impalas, greater kudus, elands, mountain reedbucks and white rhinos. The surprise of the day is a tame herd of sable antelopes. Sables are not indigenous to the highveld, but introducing non-indigenous species appears to be the South African way sometimes. Inside the Aldam Estates gate on the way back, we spot blesboks, zebras and gemsboks.

 

The next morning we set off to the southern section of Willem Pretorious. On this treeless, classic highveld biome, we encounter the black wildebeest. Smaller than the regular wildebeest, the black wildebeest boasts a truly beast-like, grotesque head and bleached golden tail – exuding a raw, medieval characteristic. Black wildebeests roame the reserve in several large herds and are complemented by smaller populations of blesboks, springboks and red hartebeests. In all, Willem Pretorius, though not a prime big game destination, is a perfectly pleasant warm-up offering a representative glimpse of the highveld.

 

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Black Wildebeests

 

I cannot not help but think of the movie Jurassic Park as I leave Willem Pretorius. What if someone was bold enough to recreate the highveld of old by acquiring private farms adjoining the reserve (this has been done in other parts of South Africa)? What if the black wildebeest, blesbok and springbok are able to roam freely over a large area as they did two hundred years ago? Reintroduce lions, cheetahs and wild dogs and – bring back the quagga. The quagga is thought to have been nothing but a race of the plains zebra anyway. What if?

 

Here is an interesting website: www.quaggaproject.org

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

 

You almost have to rub your eyes when approaching the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park from the air. Ripples of parallel sand dunes simulate ocean waves. The turbulence caused by the strong thermals makes the waves come alive. Then, a long gash in the earth breaks up the monotony of the dunes. That is the fossil riverbed of the Nossob running along the eastern boundary of the park. The Aoub runs along the west. The Nossob and the Aoub are the lifeblood of Kgalagadi. Though these rivers almost never flow anymore, the riverbeds retain moisture and contain the most fertile soils in the ecosystem.

 

We would spend the next five days exploring the Nossob and Aoub riverbeds as well as the northern dune road, which connects the two riverbeds. We would be guided by Pieter and his assistant Bianca of Kalahari Safaris. There would be no fancy accommodations or specially built vehicles (open vehicles are not allowed inside the park), and there would be no five-course meals (Pieter and Bianca did the cooking in our self-catering chalets and tented camps). This is a genuine South African safari. This is how South African families spend their holidays.

 

On our first afternoon game drive, we drive up the Nossob riverbed from our base in Twee Rivieren (meaning two rivers, as the Nossob and Aoub meet there), the administrative headquarters of Kgalagadi. April is near the end of a five-month rainy season in Kgalagadi. Most exceptional rains this year provide lush greenery around Twee Rivieren. The first few kilometers on the Nossob riverbed proves to be a bit claustrophobic. The riverbed is narrow, and the escarpments rise on both sides of the riverbed road. Dense bushes on either sides of the road somewhat impede visibility. It feels rather like driving on the fairway of a stadium-type golf course. In fact, bushy patches remind one of saguaro-filled waste areas. Big herds of gemsboks, springboks and smaller herds of wildebeests and red hartebeests are relishing the season of plenty in Kgalagadi. They seem to be in excellent condition – especially red hartebeests, their brick-colored coats shimmering in the sun.

 

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Gemsbok Herd

 

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Gemsbok

 

The next day, we drive 150 km from Twee Rivieren to Nossob Camp. About half way in between the camp is what Pieter describes as the driest stretch of the park. But there is still plenty of game. Gemsboks, the masked swordsmen of the Kalahari, are literally everywhere. It is hard to believe that there are reputedly just a few thousand in the park. We may have seen them all on this one drive. The Nossob riverbed must be, bar none, the best place in Africa for raptors. Due to the loose, sandy soil, burrowing animals such as rodents flourish, providing an all-you-can-eat buffet for birds of prey. It seems that one out of every ten trees has a bird of prey on it. Bateleur, tawny eagle, brown snake eagle, black-breasted snake eagle, martial eagle, pale chanting goshawk, lanner falcon, pygmy falcon and giant owl are each sighted numerous times.

 

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Juvenile Martial Eagle

 

Nossob Camp is frozen in time. The chalets look as though they haven’t been maintained since opening. Looks are deceiving, as everything is functional. Most of the guests are South African families on holiday with their own 4x4 vehicles. Those who don’t want to pay for chalets can use the campsite. There is a floodlit waterhole where people gather especially after dinner. Black-backed jackals steal the show.

 

On our second and last morning on the Nossob riverbed, we have an incredible lion encounter. The pride male is in the midst of hassling his three-year old son, perhaps attempting to kick out the young male from the pride (kind of like sending your kids to college, I suppose). This is normal lion behavior I had only read about. Seeing it in real life is electric. The pride male is growling and spitting at the young male, and with a sudden burst of athleticism, leaps at him with paws leading the way. All of the females appear to be agitated by the episode. From an anthropomorphic point of view, the young male appears to wear a sad and confused expression on his face that seems to be thinking, “Daddy, why are you doing this to me?”

 

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Lion

 

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Lion

 

Later in the day, we cross the northern dune road, which leads to the other riverbed on the western side, the Aoub. The vegetation on the dunes is quite different. Acacia mellifera bushes proliferate amongst patches of sour grass. Other than a few steenboks, very few animals are seen in the dunes due to the season of plenty on the riverbeds. When succulent vegetation dries out on the riverbeds, gemsboks, red hartebeests and some springboks disperse into the dunes in search of lesser quality, but plentiful fodder. Wildebeests apparently remain on the riverbeds.

 

Our accommodation on the Aoub riverbed is at the Kalahari Tented Camp. Recently appointed, Kalahari Tented Camp is an attempt to address a slightly higher-end market. The tents are similar to those one might run into in, say, Tanzania or Botswana. However, there are important differences. Each tent unit comes with a parking space (since most visitors are self-driving) and also a separate kitchen/refrigerator tent – and of course, a braai facility. No, this is not Tanzania or Botswana. In South Africa, you must cook your own meat.

 

The Aoub is crawling with cats. We see lions and cheetahs each day, though most of the time they are spotted well away from the road. Cheetahs on the Aoub use the terrain to their advantage when hunting springboks. Because there are dune escarpments on either side of the riverbed (making it stadium-like), cheetahs spend much of their time on the escarpments looking for suitable prey, and then doing the actual hunting on the riverbed.

 

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Cheetah

 

The springbok, the national animal of South Africa, is worth a mention here. While abundant and, on surface, uninteresting, springboks can actually bring hours of entertainment. Springbok male territories are well defined and spread out along the Aoub riverbed (as they are on the Nossob). Females drift in and out of territories at will, and the territorial males compete to corral as many females as possible. The art of stealing and corralling a female springbok involves the male chasing and herding one female at a time, accomplishing this task with a surprisingly swine-like cry. We watch one particular male at work on the riverbed one afternoon. While the females are relishing the new sprouts of green grass on the riverbed, this male spends the entire afternoon running, chasing, herding and corralling. Apparently, he does not eat or drink when carrying out his mission. As he adds females to his territory, some invariably drift out. When we leave for our afternoon game drive, he has 13 females in his territory. When we return that evening, he has 9. For a male springbok, life is hard, and then you die from a cheetah.

 

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Springbok Herd

 

Note: We were exceptionally lucky with the weather. It was never too hot or too cold – which is quite unusual for Kgalagadi. The best weather is from mid-March to mid-May and then again about six months hence. For those who plan to self-drive, I recommend a vehicle with some height. The Nossob road, especially close to Twee Rivieren, is a bit sunken; since open-top vehicles are not allowed, low bushes near the road can impede visibility. The Aoub does not have that problem. Kgalagadi isn’t for everyone. If you are looking for five-star luxury, go to Singita. If you want to see a remarkable living desert, Kgalagadi rocks.

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Bontebok National Park and De Hoop Nature Reserve

 

Beneath the spectacular Langeberg Mountains (about 2 ½ hours east of Cape Town), Bontebok National Park in Swellendam is a cozy place where one can view the gaudy, brown and white antelope called the bontebok. Once thought to have been reduced to 17 individuals (again at the hands of the hide hunters), bonteboks are now plentiful. The national park authorities try to limit the bontebok population to about 300 inside Bontebok National Park. Surplus animals are captured and reintroduced to other reserves.

 

On an afternoon drive, we spot bonteboks, Cape mountain zebras (another formerly endangered species), red hartebeests and vaal rheboks. A recent bush fire has damaged about half of the park, and we are not allowed to drive there. Since Bontebok National is host to a unique ecosystem called Cape fynbos, fires are not welcome. Cape fynbos is part of the “Cape floral kingdom”, and it contains some 6,000 endemic plant species.

 

We stay at de Oever Guesthouse in Swellendam. At the edge of town, Aan de Oever is a lovely, quiet bed & breakfast with a stunning garden. Swellendam is one of very few cities in South Africa where it is still safe to walk around at night. We stroll through town for dinner on both nights of our stay at Swellendam.

 

On our last full day, we drive south toward the ocean from Swellendam through a series of sheep farms in order to reach our last destination, De Hoop Nature Reserve. So often the cliché “the best kept secret in Africa” is overused. Not so with DeHoop. This little reserve boasts beautiful Cape fynbos vegetation, exquisite white ocean side sand dunes, dolphins in the ocean and game. There is gentleness in the air at De Hoop. It reminds me of the Pacific Coast. The only downside is the presence of horse flies, but compared to tsetses, horse flies are tolerable.

 

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DeHoop Sand Dunes

 

Because there are no large predators, you are allowed to leave the vehicle at De Hoop. On a couple of occasions, we stalked bonteboks and elands on foot, while being mindful of Cape cobras, which are apparently abundant at DeHoop. We find the bonteboks and elands to be quite tame. Cape mountain zebras, ostriches, and chacma baboons are also spotted. There is also a Cape vulture colony, but we did not have enough time to see it.

 

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Bontebok

 

So beautiful and relaxing is DeHoop, I vow to return next time I visit Cape Town. Come to think of it, it’s more like next time I visit DeHoop, I might drop by Cape Town if time allows.

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Love your reports, Safaridude. This one fits the billing in every sense!!! THANK YOU!!! (Yes, I'm shouting ..... it's allowed I think) ...... What do you say, Twaffle???

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Love your reports, Safaridude. This one fits the billing in every sense!!! THANK YOU!!! (Yes, I'm shouting ..... it's allowed I think) ...... What do you say, Twaffle???

 

To the report or the shouting? I don't have a problem shouting, always shouting at the children or the dogs! :D

 

Game Warden doesn't like shouting as he lives in Portugal and you know they are much more genteel there than in Australia … :lol:

 

Seriously, great report and how lucky to see the lion action. De Hoop sounds blissful and I really like the dune photos. We don't get many reports like this, ambling around SA viewing some of the lesser known areas so very rewarding to read. THANKS!

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Now, she's shouting too!!! :D:lol:

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I have been meaning to return to Bontebok park. The accommodation there is really quite good, and you can even fish in the Breede river while you are there. Its a weekend trip for us.

 

Did you know that Swellendam is one of the oldest towns in SA?

 

I miss the black wildebeest on my farm. They were such characters. Unfortunately the wildlife department gets squeezed into making rules that are not always in the interests of the animals.

 

Thanks for the report on places are seldom visited.

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Thanks everyone. Here are some landscape shots...

 

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Willem Pretorious

 

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Kgalagadi Transfrontier

 

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Bontebok

 

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DeHoop

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Great report! Really love the dune shots.

 

(no shouting here).....

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I have been meaning to return to Bontebok park. The accommodation there is really quite good, and you can even fish in the Breede river while you are there. Its a weekend trip for us.

 

Did you know that Swellendam is one of the oldest towns in SA?

 

I miss the black wildebeest on my farm. They were such characters. Unfortunately the wildlife department gets squeezed into making rules that are not always in the interests of the animals.

 

Thanks for the report on places are seldom visited.

 

 

Yes Dikdik, you are well placed to spend some weekends providing us with reports and photos of some of these nice places which are off the radar … with photos! :lol:

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Great report! Really love the dune shots.

 

(no shouting here).....

 

 

I always knew that you were a gentleman Pangolin, now it has been confirmed. :lol:

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You go the most interesting places. That daddy lion is serious about his son's sendoff and you even caught his spittle's intensity! What a description of the of life of a springbok. The hide and seek cheetahs hardly seem capable of ending a life in that humorous pose. A most handsome bontebok at Bontebok is a fine conclusion.

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Shout! everyone.

 

Lynn, those cheetahs were marking/urinating on a particular tree on the Auob riverbed. That tree, apparently, is used by several cheetahs in the are to scent mark.

 

That photo of the bontebok was taken actually at DeHoop (note the white sand). They are plentiful at both Bontebok National Park and DeHoop.

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Here are a couple of more photos from the lion interaction at Kgalagadi -- in which the pride male was hassling his 3-year old son, perhaps trying to kick him out of the pride.

 

This is an agitated/distressed female:

 

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Here is the 3-year old male who was being kicked out... obviously confused.

 

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As the mother of a teenage son, that last photo makes me incredibly sad.

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Safaridude

Posted Yesterday, 09:41 PM

This is an agitated/distressed female

Wow, what a look! Agitated, indeed...

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Hi Safaridue, nice trip report and great pics,

I was in the KTP Oct last year, great place we spent 13days exploring the whole of the park..4x4 self drive

I liked the Bots side of the park the most v v quite not to many people and large open pans..

Did you notice many Giraffe over at Mata Mata, they have been introduced for the benefit of us tourists, sad but true. They seem to be doing well …

:angry:

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Bushwalker,

 

Yes, I saw a handful of giraffes about 20kms south of Mata Mata. Apparently, giraffe used to occur in Kgalagadi a long time ago (there are consistent historical records of this, apparently), so it is a re-introduction, not an introduction. Nevertheless, I find it likely that giraffes were vagrants in Kgalagadi -- never real permanent residents.

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Hi, this topic seems to be some what debatable…, when talking to Prof. Anne Rasa at Kalahari trails, she explained that bones which were found were more likely to have been washed down many many years ago.. She was quite clear and seemed somewhat of an expert in this matter.And very upset by there re? Introduction. Anyway it’s good to see them doing well, we were lucky enough to see them in a mating game. Lets hope they cope with such an arid environment. (man made water holes will make sure of it)

I agree with you ,think they may have been nomadic.

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Bushwalker,

 

That is quite interesting. I didn't mean to sound so authoritative on the subject. For whatever it's worth, in Wilf Nussey 's "The Crowded Desert - The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park" (Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park's former name), it says the following:

 

"Giraffe are not as out of place in the Kalahari as some people might think. They roam the deeper desert in Botswana and in the 1970s a reckless pilot crashed because he flew very low to look at a small herd and the wing of his plane struck one.

 

These elegant animals vanished from this region probably before it was declared a national park. They diminished under the guns of hunters until their numbers reached the point where they could not regenerate sufficiently to survive ordinary predation.

 

The last known giraffe in KGNP died near the Nossob River and its fate is enshrined in the name of the place, Kameelsleep. 'Kameel' is the abbreviation of 'kameelperd', Afrikaans for giraffe, and 'sleep' means 'drag' -- where its carcass was dragged across the riverbed into Botswana by the hunter who shot it."

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And here they are on the Auob Riverbed...

 

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