pangolin in the tswalu kalahari game reserve

A safari first Join our Editor Claire Trickett as she witnesses Tswalu Kalahari and a pangolin for the first time…
by 11th May 2017

When was the last time you did something for the first time? Admittedly, we all get so caught up in and consumed by our own daily routines, which, let’s face it, can be utterly soul destroying to those wild, free-spirited souls that prefer to be uncaged by the burdens of the modern world.

At &Beyond, we cater to those inner free spirits by inspiring them to get out and explore the world. Not only do we encourage guests to witness new and far-fetched destinations for the first time, but we also inspire them to experience familiar destinations through new eyes.

Venture off to faraway bucket list places and let the extraordinary landscapes, mysterious cultures, curious wildlife and delightfully foreign menus and customs blow you away. Or choose to be a tourist in your own town (or one you have visited before) and fully explore its hidden gems and unexpected surprises as if you were a first-time visitor.

I was born and (partially) raised in South Africa and chose to instinctively return to my native land almost 12 years ago. Having worked at &Beyond for those dozen years, it’s safe to say that I’ve enjoyed a few safaris in my day. Eternally grateful for having the best job in the world, I have been fortunate to experience new destinations and re-explore familiar ones too.

Last year I was able to tick off two bucket list items in one single, and truly unforgettable, weekend. And so, here is my story of exploring a new and unfamiliar landscape for the first time and witnessing the world’s most trafficked mammal up close and personal in its natural environment. An experience I will forever cherish and recommend to anyone who will listen!

With great excitement, I stepped out of the luxuriously-appointed Fireblade Aviation Lounge, situated on a private hangar in Johannesburg, and onto the exclusive Pilatus PC-12 aircraft. A mere 90 minutes later, I was transported to the enchanting Kalahari Desert and the world renowned Tswalu Kalahari, one of our preferred partner properties that I had longed to visit for many, many years.

What I hadn’t expected was the sheer size and vastness of the reserve. Covering an impressive 110 000 hectares (nearly 272 000 acres) of pristine conservation land, Tswalu Kalahari is South Africa’s largest private game reserve. Hailed as one of National Geographic’s 24 Unique Lodges of the World, and owned by the Oppenheimer family themselves, I knew this Tswalu escape would be a weekend to remember.

With a conservation ethos similar to that of &Beyond, whereby the land is preserved, its wildlife is protected and its neighbouring communities are empowered, Tswalu Kalahari boasts three luxurious accommodation options that, combined, take no more than 30 guests, thereby offering an entirely intimate and exclusive wildlife experience.

What I also hadn’t known beforehand was that guests visiting Tswalu Kalahari are automatically allocated a private vehicle and expert guide, meaning you can really tailormake the experience and set both game drive and meal times according to your own unique preferences.

Private guide Cameron and his expert, eagle-eyed tracker Jackson were the dynamic duo that would go on to reveal the many wonders and indescribable beauty of the Kalahari to me over the next few days.

At first glance, the ancient and arid Kalahari is nothing short of magnificent. With its signature russet soil, undulating sand dunes and desert-adapted wildlife, this particular portion of the Kalahari is referred to as the “green desert” with its semi-arid grasslands that dance in the wind, swaying dune bushes and iconic Acacia trees. The reserve is sheltered on the south by the rugged Korannaberg Mountains that form a picture-perfect backdrop in the distance. My first time witnessing this enchanting desertscape certainly did not disappoint.

As we traversed the terracotta terrain, we ambled past countless fascinating weaver bird nests, so ornate they almost looked like they could be African-themed Christmas trees, and blackthorn acacia trees in full bloom, their yellow and white flowers resembling a light dusting of snow.

With just ten safari vehicles traversing the reserve’s 110 000 hectares at any given time, it’s no surprise that we never once encountered another vehicle. It’s as though we had the entire reserve all to ourselves. Coming from the traffic of Johannesburg, this was a rare and most welcome privilege.

Tswalu Kalahari is home to an impressive 80 mammal species and 240 bird species and the wildlife experience is truly captivating. We witnessed everything from Hartmann’s mountain zebra, desert black rhino, cheetah, giraffe, oryx, eland, sable, wildebeest, hartebeest, springbok, roan, kudu, duiker, steenbok, ostrich and jackals, to the impressive black-maned Kalahari lions themselves.

Two female lionesses graced us with almost a full hour spent viewing seven adorable and playful two-month-old cubs. Later, before the sun gently dipped over the horizon, a mighty black-maned Kalahari lion sat next to our vehicle and called out powerfully to his brother, a sound I guarantee you won’t ever forget.

As if seeing the famed black-maned Kalahari lions, the white-belled mountain zebra and the critically endangered desert black rhino for the first time wasn’t enough, I was fortunate enough to experience two more wildlife bucket list moments, thanks to my guide Cameron and his talented tracker Jackson.

Tswalu Kalahari is home to two habituated meerkat colonies, the Rock Stars and the Gosas. We arrived at the Rock Star burrows early, just as the sun had risen, and sure enough there they all were, huddled close on a sandy mound sunning themselves to keep warm in the early morning light (my spirit animals for sure).

We sat at a respectable distance and observed the playful antics of the Rock Star colony, from the sentinel who always obediently kept watch to the comical six-week old pups that were constantly terrorising each other and their elders.

The Gosa colony is slightly more habituated and will actually let you walk among them as they fervently forage for insects, grubs and scorpions. This was such a memorable experience, as the ever-active colony went about their busy foraging, constant chirping and laughable antics.

Have you ever heard of the Elusive Eleven? If not, you can familiarise yourself here. Being able to finally tick off perhaps the most difficult of the Elusive Eleven was a lifelong bucket list moment for me.

The ultimate pièce de résistance of my first-time weekend in the Kalahari was hands-down one of the most memorable wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. I still pinch myself when recalling the full hour Cameron and I were able to spend at sunset with the most relaxed pangolin.

We left trusty tracker Jackson at one of the pangolin burrows known to the researchers and not even 30 minutes later, Jackson radioed to us that the holy grail of the safari world had indeed emerged and was busy foraging for termites and other treats.

With the most magnificent light casting shadows on the deep terracotta earth, we watched and photographed this extraordinary animal that was completely undisturbed by our presence. With nothing but the sound of his hard scales clinking as he scurried around, it was an absolute privilege to share the sunset with him and to witness his hilariously long, pink tongue as he dug around for a quick meal.

The most trafficked mammal in the world, the plight of the shy, scaly and sadly now critically endangered pangolin remains uncertain. These beautiful creatures are illegally hunted in masses for their large, overlapping scales, which are made of keratin, the same substance in our own fingernails. The same substance in rhino horn, which is also illegally traded on the black market. Did you know that one gram of rhino horn now fetches more than a gram of gold or cocaine? It is as ludicrous as it is devastating. Thanks to Tswalu Kalahari for helping to protect the pangolin for future generations.

I highly recommend the rustic, earthy glamour of Tswalu Kalahari. The private wildlife experience is like no other, with unforgettable glimpses of rare and wonderful desert species. The accommodation is elegant, luxurious and uniquely African, and the meals are wholesome and delicious.

I was fortunate to stay in one of the three spacious and beautifully-appointed family suites at The Motse, and from the comfort of the plush white couches on my own relaxing private veranda, I was lucky enough to see sable, roan, wildebeest, tsessebe, springbok, warthog and (mating) ostriches right in front of the suite. Not bad for a first-time visit to the Kalahari Desert.

Images and video courtesy of Claire Trickett.