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the great red thirst

The Kalahari Desert derives its name from an indigenous word that is variously translated as either “the great thirst” or “a waterless place.” Its arid name notwithstanding, the Kalahari is not considered a “true” desert in the same way that the Namib is. In fact, the Kalahari is home to quite a wide array of birds and animals, and its red sands support entire ecosystems of trees, grass, and shrubs.

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The first stop on our tour of Namibia, the Kalahari was a late addition to our itinerary – an accident born out of our disjointed timing. Not only did we arrive in Namibia a day before S’s parents, but also their flight was scheduled to arrive too late for them to travel to Sosussvlei – our initial starting point. Not wanting to spend two nights in the capital, we made some adjustments and squeezed an extra stop into our already packed itinerary.

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Namibia is vast, and the distances we covered were no joke. Even though the Kalahari was relatively “close” to Windhoek, it still took us close to four hours to reach it from Daan Viljoen, where we had spent our first morning. By the time we arrived in the late afternoon, S’s parents were already relaxing by the pool, watching a troupe of playful meerkats frolic in the red sand.

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Considering that the Namib was even hotter and drier than the Kalahari, the latter made for a good way to ease into Namibian travel. We went for a walk in search of birds in the vicinity of our lodge in the morning, but by 10am it was too hot to do much of anything. Not one to sit still, D made it out for a mid-afternoon walk, and though he found some new birds, including the incredible shaft-tailed whydah, he almost wished he hadn’t budged from the lodge.

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In the afternoon we went for a game drive and got pretty close to a couple of giraffes, but overall the drive left a poor impression on us. Most of the lodges where we stayed during the subsequent two weeks were owned by our safari company, Wilderness Safaris, which meant that our guide could pilot our game drives. The Bagatelle lodge in the Kalahari, by contrast, sat on a private conservancy, and all activities there were led by the conservancy’s guides. The guide/driver we were assigned had a nicer, open-air safari vehicle, but in all other respects he compared poorly to our Franco.

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We spent two nights in the Kalahari, but only one full day. Our last morning, prior to embarking on the 5-hour drive to Sosussvlei, we visited the conservancy’s cheetahs, and almost immediately regretted doing so. At the tail end of our trip – some ten days later – we stayed at another conservancy that was dedicated to rehabilitating wild cats. The cheetahs we saw there had been rescued as cubs, reared to adult age, and rehabilitated into the wild. By contrast, Bagatelle keeps three cheetahs almost as pets. They live on a few acres of fenced-off land that are clearly insufficient to their needs, and they are fed by hand instead of being allowed to hunt. It was a pitiable sight, and a sad way to end our otherwise pleasant stay in the Kalahari.

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