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I’m sitting here with an ice-cold gin and tonic in my hand in the middle of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve surrounded by nothing but umbrella thorn trees and a canvas tent that, despite being temperamental, provides much-needed respite from the searing heat. As the sun sinks slowly beneath the horizon I notice a skulk of jackals in the distance and hear their cries – this is life in the Kalahari.

For the next three days Haina Kalahari Lodge will be my home. My focus here is to spend a day exploring the CKGR with an expert local guide, hoping to find the elusive black-maned lions (the dune kings) of the Kalahari.

After a tranquil, undisturbed night’s sleep, my guide wakes me at 05h00. My plan? To spend the day traversing the endless plains of this remote reserve. So with vigour and excitement I throw on my not-so-sexy safari gear, clamber into the open-topped 4×4 vehicle and head into the desert.

Kalahari(3)
The Kalahari Desert – this is big sky country.

Nothing prepares me for the immensity of the harsh and unruly Kalahari landscape. The endless turquoise sky fills the spaces where taller vegetation should exist. There’s an odd feeling that the ratio of sky to land is disproportionate. It’s a dizzying experience, yet magical at the same time. Punctuated by umbrella thorn trees, willowing grasses and dwarf shrubs, the CKGR is one most barren, low-lying regions in Africa and is home to the continent’s original inhabitants – the Bushmen.

The Kalahari’s distinctive umbrella thorn tree
The Kalahari’s distinctive umbrella thorn tree.

Our 4×4 twists and turns on the grey sandy roads, bashing past acacia thorn trees until we reach a vast open plain – Deception Valley. During the days of exploration, the Voortrekkers (Afrikaans settlers who trekked northwards in the early-to-mid 1800s) mistook this area for an oasis. It’s not surprising: this blue-clay pan creates a mirage of water that still confuses pilots today. You can see the heat rising off the bone-dry valley and it’s one the most alluring areas to visit – it really does mess with your senses. During high season, Deception Valley is one of the best places in Africa to view predators, and silhouettes of their sleek bodies dotted against the horizon make for award-winning photographs.

My first sighting is of a community of ground squirrels, oryx and impala, mammals that are quite common throughout the CKGR. We have driven for hours and I am feeling mildly lethargic when I finally spot my target, the black-maned lions. I notice two sub-adult males in the shade of an umbrella tree. They seem agitated and a bit skittish, and begin to swoosh their tails against the tree, breathing heavily. These lions are incredible. The black tips of their tanned colour manes look soft and inviting; but their demeanour is ferocious!

The Central Kalahari Game Reserve’s black-maned lions are extremely elusive.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve’s black-maned lions are extremely elusive.
These lions watched us closely; they are unused to visitors in this remote part of Africa.
These lions watched us closely; they are unused to visitors in this remote part of Africa.

Shortly afterwards I stumble across two females relaxing under the shrubbery on the side of the road. The welcome I receive is not warm. One of the females locks eyes with me and seems ready to pounce; the other keeps a close watch, observing the two-legged creatures with interest. I leave, unharmed, but unnerved by the experience.

Kalahari lions are tough, powerful and fierce. There’s something a bit more forebidding about them compared to the lions of the Kruger National Park. For a start, many of them are not used to vehicles – the CKGR is the second-largest game reserve in the world (the largest is Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania) and some parts are so remote that vehicles are not able to travel there. The lions that migrate from the more far-flung areas are wary of humans because of their lack of interaction.

If you’re interested in black-maned lions, arid landscapes and navigating the land that the Bushmen once inhabited, then I highly recommend a visit to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. For more information or to make a reservation at Haina Kalahari Lodge, go to the Sun Safaris web page www.sunsafaris.com

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Carolynne Higgins

Carolynne Higgins loves life, sometimes a little bit too much, she admits freely. This quality became evident at university, where she managed nevertheless to finish her degree in English, teach herself web design & SEO, study copywriting and cartooning. She's passionate about photography, writing, sketching, design, travelling and the outdoors. Recently, she has developed an odd obsession with a lion pride in South Africa's Klaserie Nature Reserve, near Kruger. Her interests are sometimes a little bit offbeat as she doesn’t particularly care for the normal, and her 'winging it' approach to travelling has led her into some interesting situations. If something's boring, Carolynne will ensure it becomes an adventure. Her current position at Sun Destinations, a company that handles marketing, sales and reservations for a number of camps and lodges, manages to curb her not-being-able-to-sit-still problem and allows her to write about travel … and travel.