Central Kalahari – April 2019

Towards the end of last year, and after a particularly frustrating day at work, I decided to send out a few mails to booking agents in Botswana on the off-chance that I might be able to secure a few (relatively) last minute bookings for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Fortunately Botswana Footprints came through for me and my itinerary was confirmed as follows:

  • 19 April – Khama Rhino Santuary
  • 20 April – Passarge Valley Campsite 1
  • 22 April – Sunday Pan Campsite 2
  • 23 April – Motopi
  • 24 April – Letiahau
  • 26 April – Sunday Pan Campsite 4
  • 28 April -South Camp Nxai Pan
CKGR April 2019 Route

As the trip would be over Easter, many of my mates had already made holiday plans for that period. So I decided that this would be my first solo trip into the bush!

19 April – Johannesburg to Khama Rhino

19 April – 621km

I left at 3am to try and avoid the Easter traffic. At first everything was going well, the roads were busy, even at that time, but the traffic was not too bad. Unfortunately as I approached the weigh-bridge close to Bela Bela the numerous buses and trucks on the road waiting to go through the weigh-bridge brought traffic to a standstill. Not the most relaxing start to the trip!

Just over an hour later I cleared the traffic and turned off the N1 towards Modimolle and Lephalale. Unfortunately the combination of it being Good Friday and still very early in the morning meant my breakfast options were pretty limited. McDonalds McMuffin it would have to be! 

I chose the Stockpoort border post as its typically pretty quiet and I expected lots of people to be travelling through the border today. Unfortunately even at the tiny Stockpoort border there as a queue of about 10 cars waiting to go through. All in all the border took 1hr 40 mins to cross which I suppose isn’t bad for Good Friday. Costs at the border amounted to R230 (P150).

I arrived at Khama at about midday and stocked up on wood at P25 per bag. That afternoon I took a drive down to Serwe Pan where the game was prolific, with sighting of rhino, eland, zebra, giraffe, impala and springbok. 

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Rhino at Khama with a herd of eland in the background
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Sunset at Khama Rhino Sanctuary


20 April – Khama Rhino to Passarge Valley 1

20 April – 480km

I was up at 6am as there was another long day of driving ahead. In Letlhakane I stopped at the very well equipped Spar to stock up on a few items I had forgotten at home. In Rakops I filled up with diesel at the Puma garage and soon thereafter turned off the tarmac towards Matswere Gate.

Check in on arrival was efficient and friendly. They had wood for sale but I didn’t ask the price as I had already stocked up. There was also a tap for those who would rather wait till the last minute to fill up water tanks (although I understand the water is brackish and the supply is unreliable). 

Matswere Gate the Eastern entrance to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Having already spent many hour driving my focus now was on getting to camp so despite encounters with the usual suspects of gemsbok and springbok I made my way directly to Passarge 1 campsite. Passarge 1 is a large, shady campsite. Its situated on a slope so finding a flat spot for a rooftop tent was a bit of a challenge. Facilities consist of long drop toilet and shower enclosure with a bucket. As with all campsites in the CKGR there is no water. There is a not much of a view, with the valley only visible through the gaps in the trees.

Passarge Valley Campsite 1
Facilities at Passarge #1
Bucket shower at Passarge #1
Longdrop toilet at Passarge #1
Passarge #1

21 April – Passarge Valley

21 April – 134km

I was up up early with the plan being the head towards Sunday Pan. The sunrise enroute was spectacular and the Passarge valley was filled with large herds of gemsbok and springbok. There was very little action at the Sunday Pan waterhole with the exception of a very friendly jackal who trotted up to my car and lay down in the shade of my vehicle.

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Friendly jackal at Sunday Pan waterhole
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Little Egret at Sunday Pan waterhole

On the way back I had a fleeting glimpse of a honey badger crossing the road but he quickly disappeared into the bush. I drove Leopard Loop before returning back to camp to read and relax. That afternoon I took a short drive towards Passarge #2.

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Gemsbok in Passarge Valley

22 April – Passarge Valley to Sunday Pan

22 April – 101km

I woke to the sound of thunder and rain in the early hours of the morning. By the time the sun rose the rain had stopped and I was on the road to Sunday Pan at first light. Although it didn’t seem like a lot of rain there were parts of the road that seemed more like rivers. The Landy handled it without a problem and the pools of water were a novelty to go splashing through.

I didn’t see much on the way to Sunday Pan but the fresh elephant dung on the road was a welcome sign that there may be elephant in the area. At Sunday Pan I stopped to chat with a safari vehicle driver with a crew of bedraggled looking tourists on the back. By now the rain had started up again and they didn’t look very happy! Their mood didn’t seem to improve when I told them that I hadn’t seen anything on the drive over to the Pan.

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Dark clouds over Passarge Valley
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A very wet Gemsbok
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Weavers enjoying a rare bath

As my next campsite would likely still be occupied this early in the morning I drove to Deception Pan. The cats remained elusive and the only predators in sight were two jackals squabbling over the remains of a very old carcass. 

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Ostrich near Deception Pan

In the afternoon I headed to my new camp – Sunday Pan #2. The camp is large and flat. Only downside is that you are relatively close to the road.

Sunday Pan #2
Sunday Pan #2
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Weavers hard at work at Sunday Pan #2

Whilst enjoying my first sundowner of the day the roaring started – and it was not far away! I jumped into the landy to try and find them but a quick circuit of Sunday Pan proved fruitless so I headed back to camp to resume the sundowners. Soon the roaring started again so I decided to finish my sundowner on the roof of the landy. For the view of course! Sadly despite lot of roaring I didn’t actually see the lions that night.

23 April – Sunday Pan to Matopi

22 April – 126km

There was more rain in the early hours of the morning. The road back along Passarge Valley now truly did resemble a river. Solo travelling, especially in tricky driving conditions is not ideal for game spotting. I was finding that I had to keep my eyes firmly on the road the whole time. For all I knew I could have driven past a whole pride of lion, cheetah, leopard and never have noticed… At least that was my explanation for why I had yet to see any cats!

It was a long drive to Motopi Pan which I took pretty slowly stopping often along the way. I stopped in at Passarge #2 along the way. It has a great view over the valley but is visible from the road. Still with the low levels of traffic in the CKGR you are unlikely to be disturbed much!

Passarge #2

Motopi Camp 1 really does feel like the middle of nowhere. I can’t see any reason to stay here unless you are in transit from Tsau Gate or (like me) nowhere else was available. The camp itself has one large tree which provides a little bit of shade and the usual CKGR toilet set up. After a long morning drive and with another long drive coming up tomorrow I set up the hammock and settled in for the afternoon.

Matopi #1
Matopi #1

Sundowners were enjoyed on the roof of the Landy again as it really did provide the best view. The lions roaring in the distance were less of a factor this time!  

24 April – Matopi to Lekhubu

24 April – 163km

I was again up early in the hope of finding something at Motopi waterhole which was about 7km away. Unfortunately aside from some guinea fowl and a lone jackal the waterhole was bereft of life. As I had another long day ahead I decided to press on. The drive took me through some of the most beautiful scenery the park has including San and Phokoje Pans. I briefly contemplating extending my drive down to Piper but with +160km of driving to do in one day already I decided to push on to Lekhubu.

Sunrise at Matopi
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Jackal at Motopi waterhole
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Rare sight of wet warthogs in the CKGR
Kalahari Junction

Just before the turn off to Letihau camp I finally spotted a large Kalahari black maned lion lying in the shade of an acacia, right next to the road. Shortly after I’d seen him another vehicle pulled up next to me to find out what I was looking at. I frantically pointed to the lion in the front of them that they were heading directly towards!

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Male lion resting in the shade of an acacia

They turned out to be a very friendly couple from Zim who were travelling with one of their children. We spent the rest of the afternoon together with the lion who spent his afternoon sleeping. His only movement of the day being to move from the (now) sunny side of the bush to the shady side. It was only at about 5pm that he decided it was now cool enough to move off. In convoy we followed him down the road hoping he would meet up with his pride or at least give us a roar. We followed him for over an hour before daylight started to fade and I had to head to camp. 

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Big yawn after a hard days sleeping!
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He stared right at me before heading off on patrol
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King of the Kalahari
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Sunset patrol

25 April – Lekhubu Camp

Lekhubu campsite has no facilities whatsoever – Not even the usual long drop / shower set up. It’s a few hundred metres off the main road without much of a view and the shade from the trees is minimal.

Lekhubu Campsite
Lekhubu Campsite

Up at 6am as usual and after making coffee it was time to see if I could find my lion friend again. Scattered all along the road was fresh elephant dung and I was excited at the chance at the rare prospect of seeing an elephant in the CKGR. Instead only 6km from camp, in the middle of the road, was the lion.

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The same male lion the next morning

This time he was accompanied by 2 lionesses. It was photographic heaven as the golden light from the rising sun was perfectly positioned to take snaps of them. As luck would have it as I was taking a short video clip of him he decided to roar – and his roar was answered by another sub-adult male who stood up out of the long grass next to the road. Other lions emerged out of the grass (I counted 7 in total). They all the walked a short distance down the road stopping to pose occasionally in the perfect light.

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Sub-adult male
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Father and son greeting
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Letiahau lioness
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Perfect morning light
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Lioness in the golden glow of morning

After spending another 90 mins with the them all alone I was joined by my friends from Zim – they wondered if I’d spent the whole night with the lions! – but sadly that’s against the rules. With the pride settling down in the shade 50m or so from the road I did a short drive to Letihau waterhole and back. After all the driving of the last few days I was looking forward to a day spent chilling in camp with the plan being to try and find the lions again in the afternoon. 

That afternoon, with the GPS marking the spot of the lions location, I drove back to see if I could find them again. From the level of the car I couldn’t see them so I climbed up onto the roof to see if I could spot them from that vantage point. I was just about to give up when one of the lionesses stood up to move into a shadier spot – they were still here! As it was still only around 4pm I decided to head to the Letihau waterhole and to come back from the lions later. As becoming the norm on this trip there was nothing happening at the waterhole. As I got back to the lions I again had them all to myself. Sure enough as the sun sunk lower into the sky the lions starting stretching and moving until they all moved out into the grassland on the side of the road.  

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The sub-adult male in the afternoon
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The pride starting to wake up
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Sunset after spending a happy day with the Letiahau pride

26 April – Lekhubu to Sunday Pan

26 April – 103km

I went for a short drive in the morning to see if my luck would hold and I’d find the lions again. But all good things come to an end and there was no sign of the lions. It was time to break camp and to head to my last camp in the CKGR, Sunday 4. 

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Dueling springboks
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Red hartebeest on the move
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Northern Black Korhaan

I arrived at camp to find that I’d (accidentally) saved the best campsite for last. Sunday 4 is a beautifully big, shady campsite with views out over Sunday Pan and a very short drive from the Sunday Pan waterhole. The only downside if that your neighbours at Sunday 3 are quite close. Although you can’t see them, if you had noisy neighbours you would hear them. With the hammock set up I was all ready for a lazy day in camp. 

Sunday Pan #4
View from Sunday Pan #4
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Pale Chanting Goshawk
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Ground Squirrel

27 April – Sunday Pan

I decided on another early morning loop of the pan – which up until this point had not been very successful in terms of game viewing – but the animals never show up when you expect them and suddenly I caught a glimpse of a solo male cheetah walking along the road beside me. I followed him for a good 15 minutes before he disappeared into the bush. What a fantastic sighting!

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Male cheetah scent marking
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Morning patrol
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Just before he disappeared into the bush

My afternoon drive was short but eventful. I was keen to get back to camp early to set up for my attempt at photographing a star trail. The longer your are able to take photos for, the longer your star trail. I was planning to spend at least 5.5 hours taking photos. This meant I would have to stay up to change the battery mid-session. Staying up meant sitting alone in camp with no lights on. Needless to say in an unfenced campsite in the middle of the Kalahari this was a bit of a nerve-racking experience! But the time passed without incident and this was the result.

Star trails over Sunday #4

28 April – Sunday Pan to Nxai

28 April – 274km

And just like that my time in the CKGR was at an end – but not without throwing one more surprise at me. Having driven through Deception and out of Matswere Gate – there was a lone bull elephant charging through the bush, I grabbed my camera and managed to get a snap of him before he disappeared. 

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Rare sighting of an elephant just outside the CKGR

I had decided on the scenic route from CKGR to Nxai so I drove via the Makgadigadi Reserve crossing the Boteti River at Khumaga. The river was low enough to cross without having to make use of the ferry service.

There was a lot of activity along the Boteti, with large herds of zebra coming down to drink.

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Zebra on the Boteti river
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And more Zebra

After a long, sandy and game free drive, I arrived at South Camp. On checking I asked if the waterhole was still very active only to get the sad news that most of the big herds had moved on. It was my own fault for not doing the research but apparently the best times to visit Nxai are between September and November. The campsites at Nxai are position in the shade of some large trees, but unlike the CKGR, most are relatively close to each other so you can see and hear your neighbours. Also unlike the CKGR, Xomae who manage the campsite, provide ablutions with running, hot water from by solar panels. After the solitude of the CKGR it felt a little claustrophobic but it was only going to be for two nights. 

South Camp #5
South Camp #5

Sadly the officials words were true and the only activity at the waterhole was a few bull elephants.

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Bull elephant at the Nxai Pan waterhole
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Afternoon drinks

Back at camp the was a constant procession of bull elephants walking through the campsite. Some coming extremely close – but all of them very relaxed.

Later that night I was sitting next to the fire with the only light being the flames when I saw a MASSIVE bull walking straight towards me. I stayed put assuming he would see me and swerve off but he kept coming closer and closer and closer until he was only 2 away from me. I have NEVER been that close to a wild elephant. I slowly stood up to move close to the car and from his reaction it was obvious he hadn’t seen me as he reared backward. Fortunately he was super chilled and he just continued on his way – detouring around me. 

29 April – Nxai to Nata Lodge

29 April – 245km

Back at the waterhole in the morning and and the only sign of life were 2 black backed jackals. Despite the fact that I had booked and paid for another night I decided that if there was no game to found at Nxai there was a better place to spend the day – next to the pool at Nata Lodge!

On the way I took the small detour to Baines Baobabs. I has been before but I had forgotten how truly spectacular they are – really worth seeing.

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On the way to Nata I saw a bakkie flashing its lights at me – the bakkie turned out to the the Botswana police and they said they I was doing 90km/hr in an 80km/hr zone (technically I was still in the game reserve). They were extremely polite and professional throughout the whole process but be warned – I’m sure they have lots of success patrolling this section of the road as its good quality flat asphalt and you can easily travel much faster than I was going. 

A happy and relaxing day was spent poolside and I stayed the night in their very well appointed safari tents.

Pool side at Nata Lodge
Safari tents at Nata Lodge

30 April – Nata back to Johannesburg

The trip back to Joburg was uneventful and the border crossing at Martins Drift was quick and efficient. In total I’d covered 3228km with fuel consumption between 12 and 14l/100km. Diesel in Botswana was readily available at P9.50 per litre and all the fuel stations I used (including Rakops) accepted credit cards.

CKGR April 19
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3 Comments on “Central Kalahari – April 2019”

  1. Thank you for your trip report. You were really lucky with lions and the cheetah. When we were travelling in CKGR in April 2017 we saw only one male lion.

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