Oh, the things you’ll see in the Kgalagadi

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.

Many eland carcasses litter the Kgalagadi, especially after their mass migrations. Some are lion kills, others are thought to have collapsed due to disease or drought.

Many eland carcasses litter the Kgalagadi, especially after their mass migrations. Some are lion kills, others are thought to have collapsed due to disease or drought.

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 bateleur eagle is beautifully photogenic with its striking colours. Here, it takes off after spotting a jackal approaching the waterhole at which it was drinking.

The bateleur eagle is beautifully photogenic with its striking colours. Here, it takes off after spotting a jackal approaching the waterhole at which it was drinking.

Once the national bird of Namibia (it's now the African fish-eagle), the crimson-breasted shrike has a bright red chest that stands out against the dry earth.

Once the national bird of Namibia (it’s now the African fish-eagle), the crimson-breasted shrike has a bright red chest that stands out against the dry earth.

Swallow-tailed bee-eaters. Bee-eaters are a vibrantly coloured family that feed on small insects. The swallow-tailed species prefers honeybees and may be seen tightly packed on a branch in a communal roost.

Swallow-tailed bee-eaters. Bee-eaters are a vibrantly coloured family that feed on small insects. The swallow-tailed species prefers honeybees and may be seen tightly packed on a branch in a communal roost.

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.

An African wild cat rests on a branch in the Kgalagadi, revealing its pointed teeth while yawning.

An African wild cat rests on a branch in the Kgalagadi, revealing its pointed teeth while yawning.

This black-backed jackal interrupted a flock of Cape turtle-doves at a watering hole in the Kgalagadi, and walked away with a prize.

This black-backed jackal interrupted a flock of Cape turtle-doves at a watering hole in the Kgalagadi, and walked away with a prize.

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 dark-maned king of the Kalahari has adapted to the arid desert environment, unlike lions of the grassy savanna regions.

The dark-maned king of the Kalahari has adapted to the arid desert environment, unlike lions of the grassy savanna regions.

Two male gemsbok lock horns in battle. Gemsbok, or oryx, are iconic desert species. Their white bellies reflect the heat of the sand, keeping them cool.

Two male gemsbok lock horns in battle. Gemsbok, or oryx, are iconic desert species. Their white bellies reflect the heat of the sand, keeping them cool.

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.

An ostrich family. The females lay eggs in nests that are merely shallow scrapes in the sand. The eggs are extremely hard-shelled and the contents of each one is equivalent to that of 24 chicken eggs.

An ostrich family. The females lay eggs in nests that are merely shallow scrapes in the sand. The eggs are extremely hard-shelled and the contents of each one is equivalent to that of 24 chicken eggs.

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.

The desert sunsets stain the skies pink and orange.

The desert sunsets stain the skies pink and orange.

Images Copyright: © Rory Bruins.

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Chloe Cooper

Hi, I’m Chloe. I’ve recently learnt that life is full of surprises and that one should learn to embrace that, as there’s little else to do when confronted with the element of surprise. This became obvious to me during the months I spent in the Kruger National Park, where my FGASA group would set out on game drive with bated breath, camera at the ready and snap-happy fingers poised. What we were to see could never be predicted. After obtaining my degree in organisational psychology at the University of Cape Town, I headed off, rather surprisingly, into the bush to learn game-rangering. Even more surprisingly, I became a qualified field guide (despite the lack of any sort of vertebrate present during my practical). I'll cut out the long, weepy story of how I came to leave the magnificent veld, and fast-forward to the part where I can happily announce that I’m living the dream – so very nearly. My job at Sun Safaris requires that I read and watch and look and listen to everything that is safari. I relish in the responsibility to write about this fascinating world, and to blog for Africa Geographic is the cherry on top. The ‘so very nearly’ part? Well that’s in anticipation of a surprise offer to visit the glorious African countries I love to read and write about!

  • Andreas

    I´ve been there a couple of weeks ago, a magic place. I definetly go back there. Probably saw the same jackal at the waterhole! Good work, enjoy!

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