Botswana Adventure: Central Kalahari Game Reserve

I had always dreamed of visiting the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). This large green swathe in the heart of the map of Botswana was created in 1961 as the last refuge for the Kalahari Bushmen living a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Sadly, now the bushmen have all but disappeared but remote unfenced camps in total wilderness remain.

Last year I read The Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens. It’s an account of their experiences living in the CKGR for seven years conducting research into the reserve’s lions, hyenas and jackals on a minimal budget. This was the final spark I needed. I was determined to visit in 2017.

Looking for cheetah. 

Looking for cheetah. 

4x4community has a lot of information on CKGR and I spent hours (maybe even days) ploughing through it all to plan the perfect trip. I love the planning part of an adventure, so I took the careful preparations required to visit such a remote place all in my stride.

We booked through Tara at Botswana Footprints, who came highly recommended on the forums. She was brilliant and made all our bookings for us and couriered all the confirmations to Joburg. She charges a flat rate of ZAR 500 - an absolute deal.

Some campsites in Bots are run by department of wildlife and national parks and others are run by private operators. Tara can book with both - meaning that you only have one point of contact when booking trips. We booked about two months in advanced and a lot of the sites we wanted were already full.

CKGR: Need to Know

  • CKGR is the second largest game reserve in the world and is very remote with few roads.
  • Don’t expect wildlife densities like Kruger or elsewhere in Botswana. The primary reason to visit the CKGR is the experience the remote wilderness and careful planning is required.
  • You will need to bring all your own fuel and water. 
  • A lot of the roads consist of thick sand, which will greatly increase your fuel consumption and travel times. 
  • We used 10L of water between us each day and this allowed us a very quick shared bucket shower, but we did have other soft drinks to supplement our water supply. The more water you can bring the better. There is nothing better than a bucket shower in the CKGR after a long hot day.
  • As we were traveling alone we rented a satellite phone for emergencies and the occasional call to family. We used Sat4Rent. They couriered it to Kate’s offices before the trip and collected it afterwards. It was quite pricey but a relief to know we could call if we needed help.
  • We didn’t have a fridge. Our cool box put up a good fight but after three days we were struggling for cold beers.
  • Bring lots of books - apart from game drives there is not much else to do.

Day 1: Joburg to Tuuthebe Lodge

We left Joburg at 5am with Jolene the Jimny fully loaded and arrived at the Stockpoort border post, via a refuelling stop in Lephalale.

Based on the advice we received on 4x4community we decided to use this border post because it is less busy and quicker than Martin’s Drift. The advice proved correct and we were on the other side of the Limpopo in under 15 minutes.

From the border to Mahalapye on the A1 was approximately 45km on a fast gravel road with nothing but cattle and trees to keep you company. A nice welcome to Botswana.

Once on the A1, the main motorway heading north in Botswana, the going was easy and the roads relatively quiet. We stopped for a Steers and few supplies at Palapye and then took the A14 north-west towards Orapa. We stopped for cash and fuel at Serowe, but there is not much here and would recommend that over landers pick up their supplies in Palapye.

We reached our overnight stop of Tuuthebe Lodge on the edge of the Kalahari at 4pm, roughly an 8 hour drive excluding stops from home. It was ominously hot! Luckily Tuuthebe had aircon and cold showers. While Kate napped I drove to Choppies in Letlhakane to pick-up some beers. It’s a well-stocked Choppies, which is open to 7 or 8pm in the evenings. It's not on Tracks4Africa, so ask for directions at the reception of Tuuthebe.

Tuuthebe Lodge Bird List

  • Fork-tailed Drongo
  • African Red-Eyed Bulbul
  • Kalahari Scrub Robin
  • Green-winged pytilia (melba finch)
  •  Blue Waxbill

The lodge is the perfect stopover, with nice braai facilities overlooking a duck pond. The land surrounding the lodge is a cattle farm, which you are welcome to explore on foot. After a long drive it was nice to stretch the legs and spot some interesting birds at sunset. I wouldn’t recommend camping there unless you are desperate. The sites are fine, but the traffic noise would drive you mad.

Day 2: Tuuthebe Lodge to Kori 3 (CKGR)

I was up early and filled up our water tanks from the borehole tap when disaster stuck. One of our new 20L tanks was leaking water and despite Kate’s ambitious duct taping we were unable to stem the leak. Knowing we needed more water we headed back to Choppies in Letlhakane and bought four 5 litre water bottles and left the leaking tank in the car park.

We refueled and filled our jerry cans in Mopipi, overlooking a vast salt pan. We also refueled Jolene at Rakops, where there is now a Puma filling station. We were told it now has reliable fuel. We were persuaded by the petrol attendants to buy wood here because we were told there would be none at the park gate. This turned out not to be true but we were fooled.

Left turn ahead!

Left turn ahead!

Just outside of Rakops is the turn off on to the sand road, which leads to the Matswere entrance gate to the park. There were some thick sandy sections on this road, but no major dramas. As we headed further along the sand track the vegetation got thicker and signs of human life got thinner. As we got closer to the entrance gate we started to see signs of recent fire damage. This was a sign of things to come.

We got to the entrance gate in good time and the receptionist was extremely friendly and helpful. We headed into the park and the burn damage became worse as we drove. We arrived in Deception Valley to find vast stretches of it decimated by fire.

Kori 3 is a fantastic camp. It is large and private, with some trees for shade - a real luxury in the Kalahari. It has a good view of the Deception Valley, but this was a little spoilt for us by the burn. Kori 2 also looked good, with a nice view of the valley but is a smaller than Kori 3.

We set-up camp and settled into our home for the next three nights.

Magic nights by the fire. 

Magic nights by the fire. 

Days 3 & 4: Kori 3 (CKGR)

On Day 3 we spent the morning and later afternoon on game drives without seeing anything noteworthy. During the day the temperate was in the upper 30’C, which made it hard to even concentrate on reading a book. Kate was then stung three times by insects and morale was running low. The only solution I could think of was to go on a game drive with the AC on full blast while we sipped cold beers.

CKGR Bird List

  • Black-shouldered Kite
  • Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill
  • Violet-eared waxbill
  • Secretary bird
  • Bateleur Eagle
  • Crimson-breasted Shrike
  • Red-crested Korhaan
  • Northern Black Korhaan
  • Cape Glossy Starling
  • Black-faced waxbill
  • White-Browed Sparrow Weaver

By the morning of day 4 we had decided that because of the severity of the burn and the extreme heat we would not be moving deeper into the park to our next booking at Phokoje. We decided to move on and try our luck elsewhere.

Knowing this was our last full day in the park we decided to make the long drive to the Letahiau waterhole (a 90 km round trip) where we had been told at the entrance gate of frequent lion sightings. We were in luck, about 10 km before the waterhole resting under a tree we saw two cubs and a lioness resting after a long night of hunting. We sat for over an hour enjoying the curious cubs watch us carefully whilst Mum was fast asleep.

Lion cubs resting in the shade.

Lion cubs resting in the shade.

The next day we packed up and headed off without a plan. Check back soon for that blog post!