Take your camera to the bathroom (and other Kalahari safari tips)

This post is part of  Kalahari  Series II – 2011 The previous post is An oasis in the desert. Also see Kalahari Series I – 2009.

This year’s trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) in the Kalahari, was our fifth visit there since 2003. Each visit we get a little smarter about how best to maximize our time there and enjoy the experience a little more. So I thought it time I wrote up what we’ve learnt about going on safari in the KTP. Those of you who might never go on a safari, may find this post amusing anyway – or just enjoy looking at the photos.

Get up early

They say that “the early bird gets the worm”. Well, in this case it’s not worms you’re trying to get, but just after dawn is one of the best times to spot the major predators, before they settle down to nap after a long night of hunting and prowling around.

Getting up early means being ready to leave the camp when they open the camp gates (in the case of the fenced camps) or when the camp guard tells you you may (in the case of the unfenced wilderness camps). This varies through the year depending on what time the sun rises.

Unless you’re prepared to get up a lot early than first light, you do not have time to have a shower and a leisurely breakfast. In winter you’re probably not going to be keen to shower in the early morning anyway. It’s much too cold! So unless it’s a day when we’re moving camps, we wake up half an hour before the gates open, have a mug of strong coffee, and get dressed. We take extra coffee “to go” and snacks and cold drinks for later, and then go on our first game drive of the day.

Leaving the Kielie Krankie camp early in the morning. ©LB/notefromafrica.wordpress.com

Be patient and get lucky

Game viewing in the KTP is all about being patient and getting lucky. Wild animals just don’t care what your schedule or agenda is. Let yourself absorb the daily rhythm of the bush, and you will see a lot more animals and notice a lot more of what is going on around you. A large component of being on a safari is being in the right place at the right time. Five minutes can make a huge difference as to whether you’re going to see that leopard out in the open, or drive past it once it’s stepped into the long grass or behind a bush. So you might as well relax about it – that aspect is out of your control.

Follow tracks

The roads in the KTP are sand roads, so you can see who has been there before you. Animals cross the roads, and sometimes even follow them for long distances. Then there are the tyre tracks of people who have spotted something interesting. If you see a lot of tyre tracks veering to the side of the road, chances are several cars stopped there for a reason.

Cars had been stopping here for days. The attraction? A den housing a hyena mother and her pups. ©LB/notefromafrica.wordpress.com

Watch for shapes and movement

More often than not if you’re on a game drive, you initially only spot part of the animal at first. This is especially true for the predators who don’t always stay out in the open. So look out for tell-tale shapes e.g. the rounded ears of the big cats. And look out for movement e.g. the twitch of a tail/ear or the blink of an eye.

Just a rock arch? ©WMB/notefromafrica.wordpress.com

Or a rock arch PLUS lion? ©WMB/notefromafrica.wordpress.com

Watch the birds and the buck

Buck and birds get really nervous when there are predators around. If most of the herd is standing staring in the same direction, or nervously milling around, you can be pretty sure there is a reason. Same thing applies if the birds are squawking angrily. The birds will make a racket if a lion walks past – or if there’s a snake close by.

Take your camera to the bathroom

You just never know what you’re going to find! In the bathroom . . .

In a “picnic spot” bathroom. ©LB/notefromafrica.wordpress.com

. . . or just outside of it!

From Weg! Magazine (February 2010) Photo: Geo Jooste

Read more about the above photo here.

Take your little compact camera

Obviously the ultimate is to have a digital SLR with a nice zoom lens to get close-ups of animals and birds or photograph those further away from the road. This year we also took a little compact camera with us, which I ended up using for most of the trip. I was surprised by the quality and variety of photographs I could take with it.

This is not a zoo – or the Kruger National Park!

There are fewer animals here than in the Kruger National Park, distributed over quite a large area. So they’re not always  going to be where you expect them to be. Talk to the locals (game rangers, field guides, camp guards) – they’re really knowledgeable about the bush and are happy to share what they know. Talk to your fellow travellers and camp-mates about any interesting sightings they’ve witnessed. It is also useful to look at the sightings boards which are set up at the main camps (Twee Rivieren, Mata Mata and Nossob), where visitors can mark predator sightings on the map using little coloured dots.

The sightings board at the Twee Rivieren camp. (Click to enlarge) ©LB/notefromafrica.wordpress.com

Pay attention to the little things

A lot of people want to see the big cats – lion, leopard and cheetah – but watching the smaller animals can also be fun and educational.

A little Cape Fox catching the morning sun. ©WMB/notefromafrica.wordpress.com

This little cutie is a young ground squirrel living at the Mata Mata camp. ©LB/notefromafrica.wordpress.com

Stay out of the midday sun

Late morning is the time to head back to camp – eat a leisurely lunch, take a shower and/or take a nap. Most of the animals are lying low, and it’s really the smart thing to do. The Kalahari sun is very harsh – even in winter. All you’ll be doing is getting hot and bothered – and probably not seeing much. Late afternoon, when things are cooling down again, is the best time to go for another game drive.

One thing you should not be doing in the Kalahari is working on your tan. This is skin cancer and heat-stroke country. If you don’t want to look pale in the bush either get a tan back home – or fake it! And remember the sunscreen – I would recommend a SPF factor of 40+.

Eat well

Stay healthy and keep your energy levels high by eating well during your stay. A little meal planning before your trip will make a huge difference. With there being no television, radio or other evening entertainment (other than going on a night-drive with a game ranger), cooking and eating nice dinners become an event.

Don’t be stupid – there’s a reason they make you sign an indemnity form

There is a whole list of rules in the KTP designed to keep you safe – mainly from being eaten by something bigger than you! These include: not leaving the camp on foot and taking a walk in the bush, and not getting out of your car while out on a drive – ever. There are very good reasons for this!

The Bitterpan Kettle: The story that gets told about this is that a visitor to the Bitterpan camp taunted the lions near the camp. One lion stormed the “kitchen” area of the camp – and did some damage. The kettle serves as a reminder to all – if a lion can do this to a kettle, what could it do to your head? (Image source: Switchback/SANParks.org Forums)

Tell people where you are going

In the KTP the officials keep track of people via a permit system. When you’re in camp, you hand in your permit at office. When you go out for a game drive, you collect your permit and take it with you. The officials make a note of it, and ask you where you are going. Tell them! If your vehicle breaks down, you can’t go for help. This is a semi-desert and you would die of dehydration and heat exhaustion if you tried to “walk out” – if something didn’t eat you first! Don’t try and “do a Bear Grylls“. There’s a lot of road in the KTP and if they know which area you’re in, they will be able to know where to start looking for you if you don’t return after dark. Also, stick to the public roads. We have heard stories of people taking the tracks used by park officials, or going onto 4×4 routes in ordinary vehicles, and then getting stuck and having to wait for ages to be rescued.

The SANParks poster which is up at every camp. How cute is that little ground squirrel in the top right-hand corner?! (Click to enlarge)

Drive slowly

Firstly, speed kills animals. Then we’ve found that driving slower than the 50 km/hour speed limit, not only helps your vehicle cope better with the notoriously bad KTP roads, but you also see more. Of course if you’re travelling long distances between camps you may not have the time, which is why you want to . . .

Stay in a camp for at least 2 days

With camps in the KTP being relatively far apart, moving on every day, means you won’t have a chance to relax and take in your surroundings. You’ll spend the best game viewing periods, just trying to get to the next camp. If you’re only in the KTP for a couple of days and want to stay in different camps, then make the travel from camp-to-camp the actual morning game drive. This means either packing most of your belongings the night before, or getting up early, to be able to leave camp at first light. We have found that the best time period to stay in one camp is 3 days. It will give you time to relax, enjoy the camp and its surroundings and also go on more leisurely game drives. When we are in one of the wilderness camps (i.e. smaller unfenced camps), I also like spending a whole day in the camp, seeing what comes to visit at the camp waterhole.

If you can manage it, I think that 10 – 12 days is a nice amount of time to spend in the KTP. You will have seen a lot by the time you leave, and be totally relaxed. By the end of a trip I usually don’t know what day it is any longer!

The Kalahari 2011 Series:

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Lifestyle/Travel, Nature/Environment


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at https://notesfromafrica.wordpress.com and http://southerncape.wordpress.com (my photoblog)


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22 Comments on “Take your camera to the bathroom (and other Kalahari safari tips)”

  1. Sarita Botha
    August 25, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    Wow! The kettle, that’s scary. I think I’ll stick to the rules, thank you.

    • August 25, 2011 at 9:06 am #

      Definitely! If I remember correctly they’ve painted the words “Lion Kill” on the kettle!

  2. August 25, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    I have yet to see Africa. I hope we get there soon.

    • August 26, 2011 at 5:20 am #

      I hope so too! 🙂 Parts of it will be like Australia, but we have some very unique areas.

  3. August 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

    Fascinating. Thank you for the tour. Do you use cell phones at all? After viewing the sandy roads, I could see how folks may get stuck especially if there’s rain. Does it rain very often? A cell phone could add to one’s security if there’s service. Since you didn’t include that, probably not.

    • August 26, 2011 at 5:18 am #

      Except for the area near the main gate to the KTP, there isn’t cellphone reception in the KTP. Some people who travel into the more remote areas, hire satellite phones so that they can call in an emergency.

      The area we visit is a semi-desert area. In a good year they get some rain in the summer months. Most of the year though, the two “rivers” are completely dry.

  4. August 25, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    This is clearly valuable advice. Thanks so much, Lisa! And it’s fascinating, as well. This is so far removed from my regular experience it’s fun to learn–to have a little window on an adventure I’ve never had–and I’ve had a good many, myself. That may be what I love the most about your blog.

    • August 26, 2011 at 5:13 am #

      Well, I am hoping that you and Sara do make it to South Africa one day – even if it’s just for a vacation. Then you can see some of the things I write about for yourself.

  5. August 25, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    Wow. I think you have to get Sanparks to pay you for such an interesting and well written piece!

  6. jacquelincangro
    August 25, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    You had me fooled with the photo of the archway! I thought there was an animal under the arch.

    I love how the little cape fox curls up just like Reggie when he takes a nap. 🙂

    • August 26, 2011 at 5:08 am #

      That Cape Fox photo is one of my favourites from the trip. When I watch the foxes and the smaller cats, I see so much of our own animals in them.

  7. August 26, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    That tea kettle is down right scary. But I’d go anyway.

  8. Lu
    September 8, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    Great tips and advice for seeing as much as you can, whilst enjoying every minute of it 🙂
    Love that little Cape Fox… not so fond of the “fang-impressions” in the kettle!

    • September 8, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

      You probably already know a lot of the stuff about game viewing. Yes, that little Cape Fox is so cute. Think I’ll have to do a “special sighting” post just on him.

  9. November 23, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    Great blog, amazing photos and posts! The one with the fox reminded me on my chihuahua… she curls up just like that! 🙂

    • November 24, 2011 at 6:07 am #

      Thank you! That photo of the fox is one of my personal favourites. They’re really small, delicate animals (8 – 11 lbs, 3.6 – 5.0 kgs) with very small, pointy faces like Chihuahuas.

      Whenever I’m taking photos of wild animals in the dog and cat families, I always see behaviour that reminds me of our dog and cat at home.

      LOVE your blog! You’ve chosen a great theme for your topic and that header image is so pretty. And that’s even before you get to the baking and the wonderful food photos . . .

      Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment!

  10. August 27, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    I so enjoyed this post. This NP is on my bucket list (at least once, preferably more than that!). Living on the other side of the globe makes it a bit inconvenient (!!) I have not had a chance to read many of your posts, but I hope you have more like this!

  11. February 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    fantastic advice…I’ll keep all this in mind for when I go there….

    • February 14, 2013 at 7:41 am #

      Ha ha! I think the advice works for most game/nature reserves – especially the ones in drier regions.

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