Suddenly there it was, in clear view: Smoothly and slowly, the cat walked along the rocky ledges of the riverbank, stopping in places to gaze across the open, dry riverbed. Impalas, nervous and alert, stared back across the grassy plain.
Unexpectedly the spotted cat had appeared, as if detaching itself from the dun-colored rocks. Its movements were effortless along the rough terrain, setting its paws deliberately, completely silent below a blinding sun and still air. We followed, astonished, for several minutes, the animal ignoring us as we inched the car forward. Eventually the leopard climbed a short slope and paused at the lip of the ridge. It uttered three deep growls before vanishing as quickly as it had appeared.
These graceful cats are just one species of many large animals that are relatively easy to observe in their natural environment within Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Kgalagadi is a vast protected area that spans from South Africa across the border into Botswana. Red sand dunes covered in sparse vegetation and interspersed by ancient, desiccated riverbeds stretch for thousands of wild square miles. The smaller section of the park, which lies within South Africa, has two maintained gravel roads and three rest camps that offer camping and accommodation — a great western alternative to the variety of safari opportunities, national and private, located throughout the eastern part of the country.
It's free of crowds but full of wildlife, and while it cannot boast the Big Five, the sheer abundance of large predators at Kgalagadi compensates
It's free of crowds but full of wildlife, and while it cannot boast the Big Five — lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffalo — the sheer abundance of large predators at Kgalagadi compensates. That's why many South Africans make the long trip.
We left Upington, the last town and gateway to Kgalagadi, at midday, allowing enough time to tackle the 160-mile drive to reach the entrance. For nearly three hours, the narrow paved road wound through emptiness of open grasslands lined by barbed wire. Occasionally we spotted scattered cattle.
The only interruptions included a single turnoff — signed "Namibia" — and an African wild cat, looking much like Felix while stalking rodents in the roadside grass. A rusty sign indicating a gas station at an indeterminate distance to the left was a bit reassuring. Fortunately, we arrived at the entrance station without mishaps and proceeded quickly to the reception.
The Twee Rivieren Rest Camp, located near the entrance, is not positioned within the quiet solitude of the center of the park, but offers a convenient start. We pitched our tent and prepared for a previously-booked night drive, one of the highlights of our visit to the park.
Visitors are not permitted to head into the park at night unaccompanied, but ranger-led expeditions are available nightly. We met our guides and the truck at the store an hour after sunset and were pleased to see we were the only participants on this night ride.
Spotlights pointed at the grasslands for two hours, and in the beams we spotted sly Cape foxes, agile genets and the bat-eared fox, which uses its oversized ears to listen for insects and other prey underground. In the occasional tree canopy we saw owls looking for an easy meals, and on the ground dozens of springhares, the kangaroo of the African plains, hopped near their burrows.
The following morning, a bit exhausted, we tackled one of the major dirt roads. It didn't take long before we came to our first abrupt stop — a group of gemsbok, large antelopes with straight, sharp, 5-foot horns, trotted towards grazing grounds. These animals, common in the park, are superbly adapted to the arid conditions of the Kalahari Desert and can go without water for a year.
Looking at my watch, I was surprised that several hours had passed — Kgalagadi is a place where hours run pleasantly into red sands.
Distracted by the number of large animals — hartebeest, wildebeest and quick springbok were some of the others we spotted throughout the day — we nearly missed the mob of meerkats scurrying across the sandy valley bottom. Atop an old termite we noticed the sentinel, an individual keeping an eye out for potential predators. We could have watched these hyperactive meerkats for hours, digging nonstop in the sand, running panicked to their burrows each time an eagle flew over, dutifully trading guard duties.
Every twist and turn along the road offered new vistas and the chance for another rare encounter. We stopped at a picnic site, where visitors are allowed to alight from their vehicles, to stretch our cramped limbs as we absorbed the still vastness. Below the cliff we could see one of the many holes drilled into the dry river to provide essential water for the large numbers of animals. Animal paths were obvious, coming at all angles to the waterhole.
Looking at my watch, I was surprised that several hours had passed — Kgalagadi is a place where hours run pleasantly into red sands — and we had to hurry back to exit the park before the gate was locked for the night.
On the last morning of our three-day stay, I observed the coming and going of the smaller animals in camp: Ground squirrels and yellow mongoose foraged like pets between tents; a large variety of small birds took advantage of a dripping faucet; Sociable weavers built intricate nests, car-sized creations constructed over the course of several generations, in the camelthorn trees.
Right before we packed up, a pygmy falcon (a pint-sized raptor, the antithesis of the many eagles and vultures in the park) landed atop our grill in search of leftovers, marking the last of many up-close wildlife experiences that Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park holds for visitors.
Driving independently to Kgalagadi allows for extended stops and personal pace, and is as simple as renting a car in either Cape Town (it takes a solid day of driving to reach the entrance, better take some extra time and do it in two or three days) or Johannesburg (there are plenty of worthwhile stops to break up the journey). Visitors must book accommodation at the park (rest camps and primitive wilderness camps are both available) through the national park website.