Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Call of the Kalahari

The land with the fewest human beings is filled with life

Shakespeare, in Richard II:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demiparadise
This fortress built by nature for herself

It is no accident that one of the last refuges for wild animals on our planet happens to be the least inhabited by human beings. Botswana is one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries. It is half the size of countries like South Africa and South Korea, but less than 2 million people live in this Thirstland.

Botswana is situated in the centre of the African plateau, in line with the Tropic of Capricorn. It is landlocked; in the South by a 1800km border with South Africa, to the west by the equally arid and sparsely populated Namibia, and flanked on the East by troubled Zimbabwe. Botswana is Africa’s most successful democracy. It was once a Protectorate, known as Bechuanaland, under Britain for some years, as there were fears that South Africa’s Boers would take over the land. It was also the last domain of the world’s most endangered people, the hunter gathering Kalahari Bushmen.

Today, thanks to its diamond wealth – Botswana is home to the world’s largest and second largest diamond mines (Jwaneng and Orapa) – it has a currency stronger than South Africa’s. Beyond mining activities, there is not enough water for cattle or farming of virtually any sort. Hence the locals have left massive tracts of Thirstland unattended, unfenced, running wild.

The country is covered by a mantle of sand, the largest continuous mantle in the world. This is the heartland of the Kalahari.
The animals have adapted to the extreme conditions, and with sensory perception beyond our human faculties, are able to migrate to where it rains. These instincts, and man’s absence, have allowed wild animals to thrive in unusual abundance. Botswana, for example, has one of the world’s largest elephant herds. Interestingly, the Africa’s desert elephants are larger than their forest dwelling cousins, and are physically the largest terrestrial animals in the world.

Geologically the landscape is unusual, some would say it is an incredibly flat, featureless wasteland. But in the northeast is the massive desert oasis of the Okavango Delta, caused by a geological shift that has spun a river headed out to sea back into the desert. The result is crystal clear water and palm trees for thousands of square kilometers in what would otherwise be hot, dusty bushveld.
In the northeast are the world’s largest salt pans, the Makgadikgadi, visible from space. The Kalahari area was once submerged under large seas and lakes, hence the sandy beach residues and pans and the flatness that typifies the region.

What is unique about visiting the Kalahari is that the visitor is presented with a genuine wilderness experience. In order to reach the Transfrontier game parks in the south east – like the Mabuasahube (the name means ‘red sand’) – a grueling drive has to be undertaken on sandy roads. It is a 4x4 haven, but vehicles need to be rigged with extra fuel tanks, and ought to be stocked with plenty of food and water. Satellite phone is the only device to connect to the outside world. A breakdown in Botswana can be dangerous if one does not have a backup.

But the lack of human infrastructure, in fact an almost absolute absence in many parts, allows for a much closer connection to the animals. It is unique that in Botswana, wild animals such as lions, elephants and many other creatures, may visit humans at their campsites. Remember there are no fences. It is easy to become complacent, and to imagine, having been brought here by a powerful technology, that here man is also master of the universe. This deception is quickly corrected when one comes face to face with a lion. The look in the lion’s eye is a look of power. Although man is not the natural prey for lions, caution is advisable. If lions are seen during the day or night one should simply walk calmly to one’s vehicle and get inside.

It is a thrilling experience living on such terms with nature, looking over one’s shoulder, cautiously operating in the wilderness. It is a way of living that was once natural for us; it made us alert and mindful of our surroundings in every detail. The recent movie Into The Wild demonstrates to what extent joy and self discovery are part and parcel of the wilderness experience. This personal discovery of the natural world is what makes the Kalahari compelling.

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