We stayed in Sesriem for 3 days. On our last day, we embarked on a quest for diesel after finding out that the local gas station had none. The small town of Solitaire, some 80 km north, was the nearest station as per the map and we decided to push beyond it and drive around the entire Naukluft mountain range and investigate a campsite there for the following night.
We saw mountain zebra up rather close but the campsite was absolutely deserted because of the intense heat and buried inside a narrow gorge with overhanging boulders that Marie’s imagination immediately populated with what our guidebook evaluated as a “healthy leopard population”. There were no fences to the site and this lack of separation between tent and predator proved to be too much. We returned to our now familiar Sesriem campground.
The next morning, we packed up and took a slightly different road south towards Aus, where we spent another pleasant night. We had booked our following stop at a guesthouse east of the Fish River Canyon, which we intended to reach via the town of Keetmanshoop and its cool quiver trees.
As we drove away from Aus, heading east onto the nicely paved B4 towards Keetmanshoop, Marie hesitantly brought the Kgalagadi idea forward again. The gigantic game reserve was quite far and we had previously ruled it out due to lack of time and to keep things reasonable. But coming out of Sossusvlei one hardly feels reasonable and the tempting fact was that the entrance to the park lay at about the same latitude as we now were. It would just be a long drive east through the border to get there. We’d have to move fast to arrive the same day, as there were barely any options to camp along the way. We needed to find out what the entrance fees were like and if reservations were needed. We needed an ATM for cash. And we needed food. By the time we reached town, the idea had blossomed into a feasible plan.
Keetmanshoop is not an idyllic place. Isolated in the middle of too much harsh and barren overheated land, it fails at attaining the status of oasis and simply stands there
Keetmanshoop is not an idyllic place. Isolated in the middle of too much harsh and barren overheated land, it fails at attaining the status of oasis and simply stands there, providing a bit of artificial shade and regrouping in one convenient spot both supplies and supplie-es. There is no harmony to the streets and people move about slowly when they do, preferring to stand in the shade, leaning against walls, idling through their day.
We drove straight to the Tourist Office, following the international “i” sign. There was no shade to be found and we parked the poor truck in the sun, hoping it would manage to cool off magically. My Suunto watch read 40 °C in the shade. Stepping out of the car was not unlike walking into a red-hot oven. The Tourist Office was open, or rather opened, but no one was there to help. We waited for a while and finally got our intel’ from a couple of very helpful South African tour bus drivers. According to them, the Kgalagadi was a go. We stocked up on boerewors and lamb chops at the local butcher, bought more supplies at a vague grocery store, found an ATM, and made quick calls to the guesthouse and Cape Town, announcing our route change.
Then we hit the road again. It was getting late. Suddenly, as we had finally found our way out of Keetmanshoop and I was leading us unto yet another dirt road, I had a flash and wondered out loud if the border crossing would surely be open. I remembered seeing a list of border crossing opening hours on the road map. Marie scrambled for it, twisted it in all directions, unfolding and flipping until she found an answer. She looked up at me, a doubtful look in her eyes. “4:30 PM,” she said. I swallowed hard, glancing down at my watch. “We’ll just have to drive faster,” she said again, leaning towards me to eye the speedometer. I was driving at a comfortable 100 km/h, which wasn’t bad for a dirt road and still allowed for some fuel economy.
I did a quick mental calculation. At 120 km/h, we’d make it to the border between 4:15 and 4:30 PM. It was going to be very tight. I stepped on the gas reluctantly. I don’t like driving fast on dirt. A blown tire at high speed is never fun, they say, but on this volatile surface, it would be a nightmare trying to keep control. I decided to rely on the shining reputation of the BFG tires and crossed my fingers. By luck, the road was mostly large, well maintained and abandoned by all. I rarely had to slow down and kept a close eye on my speed and a tight grip on the wheel.
The landscape was incredibly boring and empty. This, it turned out, was the real desert. No beauty, no sand, no appeal. Just endless dryness, rocks, miserable bushes and the ever-present heat.
We arrived at the border at 4:15 pm sharp. I looked around as I was parking. There was nothing. This was another middle of nowhere. I wondered for a moment what the life of a border control officer could be; I though I heard the distinctive sound of colliding billiard balls through a window.
The western gate was closed behind us as we walked towards the office and I figured they had called it a day. Paperwork was expedited and we got back to the car, where we were asked to lift up the hood. They were looking for the engine’s serial number, which they compared to a list. Landcruisers must have been a high commodity in the area. We drove into South Africa and the east barrier was locked again behind us, as employee cars departed simultaneously. I looked at my watch. It was 4:32 PM. We had barely made it.
The rest of the drive took us a while but we were now driving at a slower pace. To get to the Kgalagadi, one turns left on D360, heading north into low vegetation-covered sand dunes. That intersection is the strangest place of all. No way to pinpoint where you are, a strange mix of African bush atmosphere and southern US looks. Bushmen, called San or Khoi, the Khoe-speaking hunter-gatherers of South Africa, are living pitifully on the side of the road, selling crafts and slowly but irremediably sliding down the slope of annihilation.
The landscape was incredibly boring and empty. This, it turned out, was the real desert. No beauty, no sand, no appeal. Just endless dryness, rocks, miserable bushes and the ever-present heat
Sixty kilometers later, we were at Twee Rivieren, the Twin Rivers, southernmost gate of the 38,000 km2 Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The Park lies mostly in the southern part of the Kalahari desert and is composed of red sand dunes, scarce vegetation and a few trees gathered along the dry beds of its two occasional rivers – the Nossob and the Auob – which flood and flow only once every so many years, an exceptional event keeping the area alive. Two thirds of the park are within Botswana but we were planning on staying home.
We got in and waited an hour for a group of demanding Botswanan Government employees to sort out their stay. We later registered ourselves – initiating a log system that would allow us to sign in and out at control points to insure we didn’t go missing – and then, in the most unbearable heat, we managed to find the strength to fight about our choice of campsite. It was going to be a horrible evening and a miserable night.
The Kgalagadi, a “place of thirst”, was making us pay a high entry fee.
«Roasted in the Namib» Series
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Marie’s recount: Namibia