Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana is the second-largest wildlife reserve in the world, home to the powerful and elusive black-maned lion. It covers over 50,000 square kilometers, of which most are inaccessible. It is the sheer sense of desolate, pristine landscape and untouched isolation that gives it such appeal, and the area is only seen by only a handful of visitors every year, making it ideal for those looking for a very private and peaceful African safari experience.
It dominates the center of Botswana, the area mostly consists of grass and bushland albeit with shallow river valleys and sand dunes and is occasionally punctuated with larger trees, like Kalahari apple, acacia, silver Terminalia sand veldt, and mopane.
The Central Kalahari National Park is the largest protected area in Africa and the largest sand basin in the world.
The Kalahari also supports a great diversity of wildlife, with many of the animals have adapted to not drinking water, but rather getting their water needs from the food they eat and limiting water loss through various adaptations.
The reserve was closed for about 30 years until, in the 1980s and 1990s, both self-drive and organized tours were allowed in, albeit in small, tightly controlled numbers.
The name Kalahari is ingrained in many peoples’ minds from an early age, holding revered status and indicating a vast desert land. What you may not know is that the Kalahari is not a true desert for it gets a higher rainfall than the average classification for a desert. It is only in the southern reaches where the sand dunes show any sign of barrenness but for the rest, the Kalahari is a vegetated area of rolling dunes and grass.
The landscape is dominated by silver Terminalia sand veldt, Kalahari sand acacias, and Kalahari apple leaf, interspersed with grasslands and dotted with occasional sand dunes, pans, and shallow fossil river valleys.
Unique desert-adapted wildlife – the semi-arid environment of the Kalahari ensures some unique adaptations by the animals that live in the area and learning these from a guide is truly fascinating. These animals have numerous ways of dealing with the lack of water in order to survive.
Interacting with ancient wisdom – the Central Kalahari is synonymous with the Bushmen people and learning of their way of life is one of the most memorable experiences in Africa.
In the harsh desert environment large concentrations of herbivores, such as blue wildebeest, oryx and springbok, can be seen at the water-filled pans in Deception Valley after the rains. Eland, greater kudu and red hartebeest can be found in smaller numbers, and following this migration are the black-maned Kalahari lion and cheetah.
Central Kalahari National Park is pure, untrammeled wilderness. The inhospitable desert habitat doesn’t support the wide variety of safari animals found in greener destinations – but sightings in this arid landscape are special.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve is unique in that it was originally established (in 1961) with the intention of serving as a place of sanctuary for the San, in the heart of the Kalahari (and Botswana), where they could live their traditional hunter/ gatherer way of life, without intrusion, or influence, from the outside world.
After the wet season, the reserve becomes a hive of activity for large herds of plains game such as springbok and gemsbok. Visitors will also be treated to wonderful sightings of wildebeest, hartebeest, eland, giraffe, cheetah, and the legendary black-maned lion.
During the dryer months, the Central Kalahari reveals wide, desolate pans, which offer exceptional photographic opportunities. The reserve is well-known for providing awe-inspiring star gazing experiences as well as for its most notable attractions such as Deception Valley, the Sunday and Leopard Pans, Passage Valley, and Piper’s Pan.
At other times of the year, when the animals are more sparsely distributed, the experience of traveling through truly untouched wilderness, of seemingly unending dimensions, is the draw.
Big herds of desert-adapted antelope, such as springbok and oryx, can be seen walking along the dunes. Predators are easy to spot on the plains. The Kalahari black-maned lions are particularly stunning, and cheetah thrives in this open country. Lucky visitors might even come across a pack of wild dogs or a solitary honey badger.
In the harsh desert environment large concentrations of herbivores, such as blue wildebeest, oryx, and springbok, can be seen at the water-filled pans in Deception Valley after the rains. Eland, the greater kudu, and red hartebeest can be found in smaller numbers, and following this migration is the black-maned Kalahari lion and cheetah.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve offers good bird watching. Over 250 species have been recorded, and the park is particularly good for raptors due to the high volume of small animals for them to feed on. Some of the big ground dwelling birds to look out for are the ostrich, secretary bird, and kori bustard.
For prime wildlife viewing and fewer crowds, you should avoid the driest times of the year and visit in the Wet season (November to March). Besides the low-season prices, this is also when animals make the most of the returning rain by gathering around the pans in Deception Valley. The trade-off is that some roads can turn into muddy bogs.
The best time to visit the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is during the wet months, from December to March. Wildlife migrates through the park with the seasons and during these months animals congregate around the pans in the Deception Valley area. However, at this time, roads can get very muddy. In April and May, there are still a lot of animals around, but the roads tend to be in better condition.
Consider the Central Kalahari Game Reserve for an exhilarating Botswana safari that’s something a little different from the norm.
We can recommend Deception Valley Lodge, the family-friendly Tau Pan Camp, and Kalahari Plains Camp. Staying at these lodges will make wildlife sightings much easier with the experience of the highly-trained field guides and trackers. Walking safaris and cultural excursions to visit the local San inhabitants are also available, proving a robust safari experience.
Flora and Fauna
In the northern part of the well-known and frequently traveled Deception Valley the majority of the wildlife is found, especially antelopes and zebras. In this area, 120 elephants have been counted. Numerous other animals like lions, oryx antelopes, springbuck, wildebeests, leopards, and ostriches can be seen throughout the whole reserve. Remarkable is the population of brown hyena which is seldomly found in other parks. Apart from an impressive abundance of birds, numerous species of snakes and scorpions can be found here, so wearing the right kind of shoes is imperative.
The fauna in the Central Kalahari is dominated by grasses, thorn bushes, and shrubs and acacia trees, which are able to survive the 10 months dry periods annually. The CKGR is part of the Kalahari Basin in which over the past centuries enormous amounts of sand have been deposited through rock erosion. The wind then formed the elongated “Sand Ridges”, dune waves that are so characteristic for the Kalahari landscape. These have been stabilized by vegetational growth so that the typical shifting sand dunes of the Namib Desert are not found in the Kalahari.
The scenery can be monotonous but the endless horizons – as the sun gets low in the sky and afternoon colors soften – are mesmerizing. The landscape is a mix of straggly bushes, including the desert-adapted silver Terminalia, patches of acacias, pans, and fossil riverways interspersed with dunes. In the Wet season, the inter-dune valleys transform into green.
There is a network of roads linking the various areas in the game reserve to provide an overall picture of the landscape of the park and for game viewing. In private areas, limited offroading is possible.
The lodges in the park have Bushmen trackers that go out on nature walks to interpret the environment for guests and in the private areas, there is the opportunity for cultural interaction in the villages.
Despite the aridity of the area, the Kalahari is one of the best birding areas in Botswana, especially so in the wet season when all the migrants are around. The Kalahari is particularly well known for its raptors due to the prevalence of small mammals.
Nature walks in the Kalahari are generally accompanied by Bushmen trackers who enhance the experience with their incredible knowledge of the area and its life.
Night drives are done on some of the private areas outside the game reserve boundaries, providing a unique look at the nocturnal creatures of the Kalahari.
With its clear, unpolluted sky the Kalahari is one of the best places in Africa for stargazing and each lodge will have a guide with knowledge of the skies.
Did you know that Central Kalahari Game Reserve is also a habitat for the Kalahari’s famous Black-maned lions, as well as cheetah, springbok, gemsbok, ostrich, and wildebeest? It is also the second largest wildlife game reserve in the world, located in Botswana.