The unique Tswalu Kalahari offers a memorable experience owing to its extraordinary landscape and nothing-is-too much philosophy. This was my second visit to Tswalu, having visited earlier in the year during a heat wave that saw temperatures soar in excess of 40 degrees celsius (104 Fahrenheit). Despite the temperatures, we had fantastic game viewing, but given the heat, we didn’t see aardvark or pangolin. Tswalu is considered one of the best places in South Africa to see these two primarily nocturnal animals. During late autumn and winter, it is not unusual to see these elusive creatures foraging during the day because of the cool daytime temperatures. I timed my second visit to increase the chances of catching a glimpse.
My dear friend from high school was visiting South Africa for the first time and Tswalu provide four nights of the best game viewing. This isn’t a traditional safari destination, but Tswalu Kalahari did not fail to deliver a unique safari experience.
Here are the top five remarkable moments from the trip.
Game viewing on horseback
Tswalu welcomes all levels of riders on their hour long trail rides. I was on a horse that was intent on ambling along as slowly as possible which suited me. While the horses were sure of their footing, we did have to be careful of holes and burrows as we were reminded of when inspecting a porcupine den and our trail guide’s horse sunk up to its belly in the soft sand.
Seeing game from a horse offers the chance to experience the bush from a different perspective than you get from a vehicle. We didn’t necessarily get closer to the animals than we would have in the Land Rover, but the animals reacted to us differently. Instead of being startled and running off, they regarded us with curiosity and then resumed what they were doing. Perhaps because there was no din of a vehicle, I spent more time focusing on the sounds of the bush – the birds calling, the territorial grunts of the wildebeest, and oryx hooves on the soft earth as they moved away – but the highlight was the lions calling in the distance. There is no better sound than this contact call and due to the the chilly morning, the sound carried, reverberating against the mountains.
Sleeping under the stars
Tswalu offers the opportunity to sleep out under the stars, something that is difficult on most safaris because of density and proximity of predators. The night before we were scheduled to sleep out was freezing and we nearly decided to cancel in favor of our warm suites, but sleeping out at the Malori (Malori means dreamer in Tswana) ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. The Malori is positioned on the dunes and we arrived as the sun sunk below the horizon. It is a stunning location. The en plein air bathroom is completely open to the elements – talk about a toilet with a view and the bed is under a canvas structure with a roof that is open on one side to an expansive deck meant for stargazing.
Our tracker lit the braai (Afrikaans for BBQ) and cooked lamb chops and kudu, while we enjoyed our sundowners. Our guide’s family owns a wine farm and he had selected wine for us to drink with our meal. Once instructions on how to use the radio were given, and the lanterns lit, and the food was cooked, our guide and tracker left us to enjoy our meal under the bright arch of the milky way. After dinner my friend retired, and I put on my headlamp and set my tripod on the dune. I had never experimented with astral photography and since there was not a cloud in the sky, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give it a go. While I think my composition could use some work, I was rather pleased with the image.
After an hour experimenting with my camera, I extinguished the campfire, piled on layers upon layers of clothes to combat the chill in the air, and crawled under the thick duvet. I had one of the best sleeps that night, despite being awoken on several occasions by the grunts of nearby wildebeest.
Tracking cheetah on foot
We spent the entire morning tracking cheetah to no avail. Their tracks looped in circles and we drove the roads around the block, into the block, and then on to the next block. The cheetah mum and her three sub-adult cubs were completely eluding us. On safari, it is remarkable the number of times you find the animal you are searching for based on tracks or even alarm calls of other animals, but there are times when the animals slink off or hide in the tall grasses never to be found. This was one of those times.
The cheetah were spotted later that afternoon in the area where we had been tracking them and must have nearly missed them. The next morning we decided to try our luck again. By then, they had moved up into the mountains. We drove as close as we could and then left the vehicle to track them on foot. Incredibly, we were able to get within in 30 feet of the fastest land mammal on earth. We sat down on the rocks and had an unobstructed view of four relaxed cheetah. It was one of those moments when I was glad to have left my camera on the vehicle. I wasn’t worried about capturing a perfect image, but was enjoying the warm sun on my back and the piercing glance of eight eyes that periodically peered over in our direction.
A pangolin! A pangolin!! A pangolin!!!
It was our last evening and we had yet to see a pangolin, so our guide made arrangements with the pangolin researcher to track one of the tagged animals using telemetry. We weren’t planning on going out until after dinner and our tracker decreed that he was going to find a pangolin so we didn’t have to stay out so late. True to his word, we had just started to head back to the lodge for an early dinner when he shouted, “pangolin” and jumped off the tracker’s seat. Our guide leapt out and the two embraced. I could hardly believe our luck and clamored quickly out of the vehicle so as to approach the pangolin on foot.
They truly are the strangest looking creatures. Despite their appearance, these scale-covered animals are actually mammals and feast primarily on termites and ants. Remarkably, their long sticky tongues are longer than their entire body length. The entire reason I had come to Tswalu was to see pangolin and here I was standing next to one as the sun dipped behind the dunes. I was elated, if you can’t tell by my excessive use of exclamation marks. Eventually this elusive creature became shy and curled his head under his body in a defensive position. We went back to the vehicle poured gin and tonics, toasted our tracker’s eagle eyes, and hoped the pangolin would unfurl his body. Eventually every vehicle from the lodge came to view the first pangolin to be spotted in nearly two weeks.
The sighting of a lifetime
This sighting deserves its own blog post and once the enormity of what we witnessed sinks in, I will dedicate one to the sighting of a lifetime. We were tracking male lions, but happened upon a single lioness who was lactating. This meant one thing, she had cubs. When she disappeared behind the rocks, where our tracker suspected she had a den, no one expected her to emerge with a tiny, blind cub in her jaws. The umbilical cord was still attached, meaning this cub was likely less than a week old. She proceeded to move the cub to a new den and when she arrived we saw a second cub that she had already moved. As we were leaving, our guide turned to us and said, “You know what is amazing, we are the only four people who saw this.” I can’t even count how many times we marveled at this sighting of a lifetime.
All of the guiding at Tswalu is private, meaning completely customizable to what you want to see and when you want to go on drive. We were staying at the Motse, the main lodge, but small groups can book Tarkuni, a private home, for sole use. Meals at the Motse are not served at a set time, but when you want them. If you don’t like what you see on the menu, the chef will whip something else up for you to enjoy. The wine cellar is comprehensive and extends well beyond the normal house wines on offer at other lodges. This is luxury safari at its best. During the day, you can unwind at the spa or the gym. Otherwise guests can decamp with a book or binoculars to chaise loungers surrounding the pool or to the private deck outside of their large suite. There are scheduled daily flights to/from Johannesburg and Cape Town, making this an easy destination to reach, despite its remote location. If you have the chance to visit the unique Tswalu Kalahari, you will be rewarded with an incredible experience.