Into the Valley of Deception: The Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Published on: 17/06/2024


Photo title: Elephants in Deception Valley


Photo Credits: Sarah Kingdom

The sheer scale of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is breathtaking, words like ‘vast’ or ‘extensive’ don’t do justice to the sheer size of the reserve. Mile after mile of open spaces, stretching out in every direction, as far as the eye can see. Open plains that blend into a sea of undulating sand ridges, broken only by the occasional flat-topped acacia tree. Established in 1961, as a sanctuary for the San/Baswara people, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, situated right in the middle of Botswana, at the centre of the Kalahari Basin, is the largest and most remote game reserve in Southern Africa. Bigger than the Netherlands and covering almost 10% of Botswana's total land mass, at 52,800km ², this is the second largest wildlife reserve in the world.

The word ‘Kalahari’ comes from the Tswana word “kgala”, loosely meaning ‘thirst’ or ‘dry up’, and the Kalahari is indeed a land of great thirst. This is a land devoid of surface water, a harsh and inhospitable wilderness, though technically a semi-desert, with grasslands, scrubland, and arid savanna.

Few people visit here. Only a handful in any given year. It’s not uncommon to spend days exploring CKGR without seeing another soul. The entrance gate is 210km from Maun and 45km from the dusty village of Rakops. Another 45km from the gate and you’ll arrive at Deception Valley, so named because of mirages that glimmer over the surface of the salt pan. In the 1970s and early 80s, American conservationists, Mark and Delia Owens spent 7 years living and researching here. They wrote a book about their experiences, Cry of the Kalahari. In 1974, when the Owens had arrived in the CKGR they wrote… “Below us lay the gentle slopes and the open plain of Deception Valley, an ancient fossilised river channel meandering through forested sand dunes. Herds of springbok, gemsbok, and hartebeest grazed peacefully on the old grass-covered riverbed, where water used to flow. The blue sky was stacked high with white puffs of cloud. Deception was incredibly serene and all we had hoped it would be.” Fifty years later nothing much has changed.

Out on drives in the reserve Kori Bustards (Botswana’s national bird) parade proudly across the landscape. The vibrant orange beaks of Pale Chanting Goshawks, vivid blue necks of Helmeted Guinea Fowl, velvet black markings on Northern Black Korans and the bright red chests of the Crimson-Breasted Shrikes all stand out in this sun-bleached landscape. Secretary birds stalk the plains, while flocks of red-billed queleas seem to float through the air like autumn leaves in the wind, while kestrels, kites and other raptors soar overhead.

Nothing can prepare you for the overwhelming feeling of the immensity of CKGR, nor its raw, wild, mysterious beauty. There is a real sense of unending space, of having the entire place to yourself. Wide, empty pans stretch interminably, appearing like endless stretches of saucer-flat earth, covered in waist-high grasses and occasionally punctuated with dwarfed trees and scrubby brush. By day the sky seems vast and wide, and at night brilliant stars dominate overhead.


Photo title: Wild Dog


Photo Credits: Sarah Kingdom

Lion, leopard, cheetah, elephants, African wild dogs, wildebeest, giraffe, zebras, and ostrich are all on the list of creatures who live here, albeit in lower densities than other parts of Botswana. Smaller carnivores like jackals, caracals, civets, honey badgers and wildcats are present, while charismatic meerkats forage in the undergrowth. The plains are alive with herds of slender, long-legged springbok, who absorb their water almost exclusively from plants, and oryx who, with their distinctive facial markings, black-stockinged legs and white socks, have an inbuilt temperature regulator to withstand the extreme heat. Families of insectivorous, bat-eared foxes are a source of constant entertainment, sporting their ridiculously oversized ears. Only averaging 55cm in length, the bat-eared foxes are regularly seen, usually close by their burrows and often with kits (babies) close by. The stars of the show though are the brown hyenas, who slink through the ancient riverbeds. With their long, shaggy, dark brown coat, short tail and pointy ears, the brown hyena is the rarest of all the hyenas and is listed as ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red List. With a global population estimated to be less than 10,000, brown hyenas can only be seen here in the Kalahari, Namibia or northwest South Africa.

CKGR is at its most enticing after the summer rains have breathed life into this usually arid environment. As storm clouds gather and lightning scythes through the sky, there is a palpable sense of relief from the parched earth and its inhabitants. The transformation is almost instant. Plants seize the chance before the sands soak up the water, and burst into life, covering the sand dunes in shades of green and yellow. The salt pans fill with water and the flat grasslands in the reserve's northern reaches teem with wildlife, including herds of springbok, gemsbok, wildebeest, hartebeest, eland and giraffe, drawn by the newly green grass. Many give birth during the height of this green season, to the delight of both tourists and predators.

The Kalahari is the ancestral homeland of the San peoples, the oldest human inhabitants of the region and one of the most persecuted peoples in Southern Africa. The Gana, Gwi and Tsila Bushmen (as they prefer to be called) traditionally occupied what is not the CKGR as nomadic hunter-gatherers - indeed, the reserve was initially established as a ‘sanctuary’ for them during the 1960s. However, a campaign to relocate the San began two decades later, culminating in forced removals to ‘resettlement camps’ outside the park during the 1990s. The move was justified along conservation grounds but somewhat conveniently coincided with the discovery of diamonds in the southern part of the reserve. Today some of the Gana, Gwi and Tsila have won a legal battle to return to their ancestral homelands, but are finding returning to their old way of life, almost impossible. The legal battle continues and is one of the most expensive court cases in Botswana’s history. One of the highlights for many travellers is to spend time with Bushmen, tracking or learning more about their cultures and traditions. The Bushmen have an intimate and innate connection to the land, and these experiences can be highly educational.

The CKGR is, without a doubt, one of the wildest parts of Southern Africa and as such offers an extraordinary antidote to the modern world. A secluded place where the immersion in nature is absolute. Surrounded by beauty it is easy to imagine you have the place to yourself.


Sarah Kingdom

Travel writer, mountain guide, yoga teacher, trail runner and mother, Sarah Kingdom was born and brought up in Sydney, Australia. Coming to Africa at 21 she fell in love with the continent and stayed. Sarah guides on Kilimanjaro several times a year, and has lost count of how many times she has stood on the roof of Africa. She has climbed and guided around the world and now spends most of her time visiting remote places in Africa. When she is not traveling she runs a cattle ranch in Zambia with her husband.

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