A guest post by wildlife photographer and travel journalist, Villiers Steyn
When people think of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, they think of red sand dunes and massive black-manes lions, but it’s the small things that make this extenisive conservation area such and extraordinary place. Ground squirrels, surricates, and even Cape cobras are all regularly seen and even photographed! It is also home to some of Africa’s shyest creatures, such as brown hyenas and caracals. So next time your body is craving the African bush, and you know it’s time for somewhere other than the Kruger National Park, head for the Northern Cape…and explore the Kgalagadi.
In October 2009 I embarked on a 42-day trip to the Kgalagadi, visiting all nine public camps and staking out all the waterholes along the Auob and Nossob riverbeds. Here are a few handy tips for future Kgalagadi visitors:
The Kgalagadi is a place of extremes. In summer it becomes unbearably hot, and in winter the nights dip way below freezing. This is typical of desert environments and therefore you should ideally try to avoid mid-summer or mid-winter, and rather try to book in the transition times. Make sure to book way in advance, though, because it is an extremely popular park.
The most enjoyable time in the park is probably March and April. The temperatures are very pleasant and if you’re lucky, there’s still a bit of greenery from the summer rains. September/October can be just as nice temperature wise, but this is also the time that the desert sand storms become a regular sight. This is not necessarily a bad thing – the dusty skies can make for some very dramatic wildlife and scenery photographs! Spring is also the best time of the year to photograph thunderstorms and lightning over the Kalahari dunes. To be honest – this is my favourite time of the year! I especially love the cloud formations that accompany the big storms.
Photographic opportunities in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Because of the relatively flat and open landscape and relaxed animals, the Kgalagadi is a wildlife photographer’s dream! Unlike the Kruger National Park, most game drives are done along two major gravel roads – one along the Auob River (in the west) and one along the Nossob River (in the east). These are fossil rivers and only flow in years of excessive rainfall, as was the case in 2000 when most of southern Africa was drenched for months on end.
A series of boreholes along these two riverbeds feed small waterholes every 8-12 kilometres and attract great quantities of animals each day. This is where a lot of the photographic action takes place…
How long should I wait?
In the rainy season (October – February) there are often a number of natural pools in the riverbeds, making it less worthwhile to sit for hours at one of the man-made waterholes. In winter, however, it may very well be worth it to sit at any given waterhole for an extended period of time. Patience pays off! Early morning and late afternoon is best for predators and most general game species, as well as for birds such as doves and sand grouse. During the heat of the day raptors such as secretary birds and vultures often come down to drink.
The big question is generally: should I stay at ONE waterhole, or should I drive a bit quicker past a few different ones? Both options can be rewarding, so use your gut feel.
Which are the best waterholes?
My five favourite waterholes (in no particular order) are:
Samevloeiing (approximately 5 km from Twee Rivieren camp along the Nossob River).
- Samevloeiing’s first great advantage is the fact that it’s so close to camp. You can head out there an hour before gate closing time, sit for 40 minutes, and still be back in camp before the game closes. It also has a unique design that allows visitors to stop on both sides of the waterhole – there is a larger parking area above the waterhole with a spectacular view over the confluence of the Auob and Nossob rivers, and a smaller loop at the bottom of the waterhole, to allow you another angle of photography. Samevloeiing attracts a lot of animals, especially springbok and gemsbok. Cheetah are also seen in the area on a regular basis.
Cubitje Quap (approximately 10 km north of Nossob camp along the Nossob River)
- This is one of the most famous waterholes in the park due to its proximity to the road and large quantities of animals and birds that drink here. The waterhole is virtually right next to the parking area and attracts massive numbers of Cape turtle doves and sand grouse every morning. Lions, black-backed jackals, blue wildebeest, springbuck and many other species drink here regularly. You don’t get a much better waterhole for morning photography than Cubitje Quap!
Dalkeith (approximately 24 km south of Mata Mata camp along the Auob River)
- Dalkeith is situated in very open, scenic veld with bright red sand dunes and picturesque camelthorn trees. This is prime lion country, but also a good area to search for bat-eared foxes and Cape foxes, which sometimes den close to the waterhole. Dalkeith is another one of the drinking places that is situated right next to the road, making it extremely easy to photograph drinking birds and animals.
Marie se Draai (approximately 16 km south of Nossob camp along the Nossob River)
- Marie se Draai is relatively close to the road and situated ideally for afternoon photography. The viewing area is a bit higher than the waterhole itself, which is not ideal for wildlife photography, but it does give you a stunning view over this very scenic part of the Nossob riverbed. It’s a very popular place for people to spend the last hour of sunlight before the camp gates close. General game drink here in great numbers, and I have seen lions and leopard here before. It’s also a great place for jackals and foxes.
Polentswa (approximately 62 km north of Nossob Camp along the Nossob River)
- What I love about Polentswa is its remote location. It’s miles away from anything and, just like the waterholes above, close to the road. A large tree in the parking area provides shade in the heat of the day and the waterhole often attracts lions and large raptors such as lapped-faced and white-backed vultures.
What about the camps?
In-camp photography is phenomenal in the Kgalagadi! The birds and animals that make the camps their home have become extremely accustomed to humans, allowing you to approach them easily, sometimes almost within touching distance!
In all three larger camps, Twee Rivieren, Nossob and Mata Mata, you can expect to see and photography ground squirrels, yellow mongoose and a variety of bird species. The bird baths (or any dripping taps or other water sources) are generally the best stakeouts for bird photography. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a snake in camp, making it relatively easy to get a photo (as opposed to photographing snakes from your vehicle outside camp).
Nossob has one of the best-designed hides I have ever photographed from, being far away from camp (thanks to a tunnel-like walkway) and looking down at a very close and productive waterhole, which attracts most species that occur in the park.
The six smaller, exclusive camps, all have their own waterhole in front of the camp. Grootkolk’s waterhole is probably the most productive of all and it’s here that I’ve seen (and photographed) a leopard coming down to drink at 8am! Urikaruus also has a very productive waterhole right on the doorstep of the four units. Here you even have a chance to see a cheetah kill from the comfort of your balcony! The smaller camps are much quieter than the three main camps, and therefore you also stand a chance to see shy creatures such as brown hyenas coming to drink here!
If you’re ever wondering whether it’s worthwhile driving so far to this desert park…it is! Yes, is far. Yes, the roads can be very bad if you’re unlucky. BUT, the wildlife photography opportunities are exceptional and the remoteness does wonders for the soul! My final advice is this: Go for longer than a week, rather stay longer at one or two camps than racing around to see them all, and book in advance!!
Enjoy the Kgalagadi!
This is Villiers’ second post of this nature on our website. If you enjoyed this guest post then check out his previous post “Wildlife Photography in the Kruger National Park“.
For more great photos by Villiers Steyn, please visit www.visionphoto.co.za