Scattered across the copper-coloured sand of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park lie the skeletal remnants of the unfortunate antelopes that have fallen victim to lions and drought. On one, an eland, the leathery hide drapes hollowly over its exposed bones. Although its twisted horns are still regally intact, its nostrils are disconcertingly bare. This melancholy image was my introduction to a series of amazing images by photographer Rory Bruins, who captured on camera some of the Kgalagadi’s most celebrated residents.
With one-third of its bulk in South Africa and the other two in neighbouring Botswana, this park covers an uninterrupted 30 000 square kilometres of distinctive desert landscape. A trip to the Kgalagadi involves being fully prepared and kitted out to traverse the uneven terrain in a 4×4 vehicle and to camp with basic amenities. Despite the hardship, the insistent tug of this destination is the lungfuls of fresh air and the astonishing sight of southern Africa’s desert-adapted wildlife at work.
The birds of prey soaring high above the camel thorn trees or silently perching on bare branches are some of the most exceptional visions of the Kgalagadi. About 92 of 280 bird species seen here are resident, leaving the skies to be flocked by seasonal migrators and changing one’s birdwatching opportunities throughout the year. One of the most recognisable of the eagles is the bateleur, with feathers as black as night, the fairest white under its wings and vibrant red claws that match its beak, which is capped with bright yellow. Diminutive swallow-tailed bee-eaters shine green with cheerfully yellow chins, while the crimson-breasted shrikes startle the neutral earth with their ruby-red chests.
The desert is full of smaller predators making meals out of the less defensive creatures. The yelps of black-backed jackals ring through the evenings as they call into the dark. They scavenge at carcasses hoping to fill their bellies on what others have left behind, or skulk around waterholes to pounce on bathing birds. The African wild cat could be mistaken for a domestic pet, but its pointed ears and needle-like teeth give away its true identity as a resilient desert hunter. Bat-eared foxes scurry through the grass, their cubs struggling for balance with their oversized ears, and various species of mongoose fearlessly tackle some of the Kgalagadi’s most venomous snakes.
Specially adapted to survive in the arid environment of the desert, the King of the Kalahari, the black-maned lion, rules the roost here as he does anywhere else in Africa. These lions have become particularly resistant to thirst and are able to cover vast distances in search of food and water. Gemsbok, hartebeest, springbok and eland are popular choices at mealtimes, but the lions have been known to kill without needing to eat. Pesky competitors like brown hyaenas and cheetahs also fall victim to the big cats.
The world’s largest bird, the ostrich, is flightless, but is perfectly capable of defending itself on land. Two clawed toes give this long-legged fowl an unmistakable, prehistoric footprint and a vicious kick capable of killing a lion. The males’ mating ritual is an elaborate, feathered display accompanied by a dance routine designed to impress a hen. The males boast striking contrasting colouring, whereas the females are a rather dull grey, which helps to camouflage their bulk when they drop to the ground to hide from predators. Under their maternal wings, the females shade their pocket-sized youngsters from the blistering heat of the day. The wings also act as rudders when the birds sprint, reaching speeds of 64 km per hour, their bald legs taking five-metre strides at a time.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is southern Africa’s first peace park. It was launched in 2000 when it was declared a protected area allowing for the free movement of migrating animals between the south of Botswana and northern-western South Africa. Also known as the home of the San people, the Kgalagadi is steeped in history with wonderful landscapes and sunsets that set the sky alight.
Images Copyright: © Rory Bruins.