While Namibia is more famous for being the home of the Namib Desert, much of eastern and southern Namibia is covered by another – the Kalahari Desert. The Kalahari is not a true desert as it receives too much rain, but it is actually a fossil desert. So do not expect to find the tall sand dunes associated with Sossusvlei, the landscape is more one of golden grass and small red dunes.
The Kalahari Desert – or Kgalagadi, as it is known in Botswana – stretches across 7 countries – Botswana, Zambia, the Republic of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s coverage in Namibia is called a ‘desert’ principally because its porous, sandy soils cannot retain surface water, but in some areas annual rainfall can be as high as 250mm, which accounts for the luxuriant grass cover during good years.
As the Namibian area of the Kalahari Desert is covered with trees, ephemeral rivers and fossil watercourses, the reasonably regular rainfall that occurs every year allows for huge numbers of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, plant life and insects to thrive. In terms of vegetation, most of the southern segment is taken up with camelthorn, red ebony and other acacias and towards the centre silver terminalia and shrubs are common.
The bush and grass of the Kalahari Desert provide perfect ambush cover for cheetah to get within sprinting distance of springbok, hare and porcupine. Giraffes can go without drinking water for several weeks and browse various Acacia species for additional sustenance. Zebra graze leaves, grass, bark and roots throughout the area and gemsbok (oryx), surely one of Namibia’s most remarkable mammals, obtains sufficient moisture from leaves and grasses. Black-backed jackal scavenge for carrion, kill young livestock (as do caracal) and otherwise survive on insects, birds and rodents and if the opportunity presents itself, small antelope.
Primates such as the lesser bushbaby and vervet monkey, the insect-eating aardwolf and other mammals including honey badger, meerkat and yellow mongoose, are all denizens of the Kalahari Desert. Arnhem Caves, one of the largest cave systems in Africa, is situated close to Windhoek on the edge of this famous semi-barren land. A visit to its surrounding famous red sands are well-worth the effort. The giant leaf-nosed bat, the largest insect-eating bat in the world, can be found here as well as other sorts of cave wall clingers.
After mammals, birding comes a close second for many wildlife enthusiasts visiting Namibia. Species are many and varied and the Kalahari is a superb birding destination, especially to watch raptors. Expect to see martial eagle, brown snake eagle, black-breasted snake eagle, white-backed and lappet-faced vulture. The red-necked falcon will swallow swallows, snakes, bats and rodents. An interesting sight is the huge nests, housing colonies of sociable weaver birds, these nests often completely dominate the large acacia trees or telegraph poles on which they are built. The area is also home to crimson-breasted shrike, rosy-faced lovebird, Gaber goshawk, pygmy falcon and ant-eating chats, the rolling dunes and deep Kalahari sands provide ample birding and photographic opportunities.
A desert wouldn’t be a desert without reptiles and scorpions. The Kalahari purple-glossed snake lives in sandy soils and round-headed worm lizards shelter under stones in both sandy and bushveld habitats. Eastern tiger snakes climb dead trees and into buildings in search of small roosting birds and bats. One of the most common snakes is the puff adder; unlike most snakes it is fairly lazy and will not necessarily move off when it hears you approaching making it fairly easy to tread on one and they won’t hesitate to introduce you to their long fangs if you do.
But the Kalahari’s true lure lies in its eerie silence and solitude, both in the sparsely grassed plains and open spaces. Small but scattered populations of people live here. Sheep, limited ostrich farming and other agricultural enterprises dominate the erratic employment market. Today many of these businesses work together with the tourist industry. This provides much-needed additional income for farmers, job security for their employees and work on a permanent or temporary basis for the locally unemployed. Farm tours, game drives, hiking, guided Bushman walks and cultural visits around ranches large and small have enabled the region to become a popular tourist destination in its own right, especially for self-drive travelers.
The best known of the Kalahari’s inhabitants are the San Bushmen, numbering only a few thousand and squeezed into inhospitable pieces of land, where they are often exploited as cheap farm labour. The term ‘Bushmen’ is best known, referring to nomadic hunter-gather people, also called ‘Basarwa’, (in Botswana) and ‘San’ (in Namibia and South Africa.) The word San means ‘foragers’ and in modern times, (unfairly) conjure up negative connotations of backwardness, low esteem, alcoholism and even banditry.
But the Bushmen are a proud people, and are keen to demonstrate their origins and knowledge of living in the bushveld. They still retain some specific cultural and linguistic characteristics such as the unique ‘click’ language, and listening to is a wonderful experience in itself. Five types of click sounds are known to exist, with a certain ‘sucking action of the tongue’ being responsible for the noise. Each has a different position of the tongue, and combined with the way the air is released, results in different sounds.