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Our Kalahari Safari: Africa's Red Sand Savannah

The vast red sand expanses of the Kalahari Desert rise up to meet us as we touch down in our 7-seater plane in the heart of Tswalu Private Game Reserve – the largest privately owned reserve in South Africa. At over 100 000ha, Tswalu is an endless sea of undulating sand dunes, grassy knolls and rocky outcrops, and the location of The Motse camp, our home for the next 24 hours.

Tswalu is a unique experience; unlike its classic safari cousins – the Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands – or even the malaria-free, aloe-strewn reserves of the Eastern Cape, It’s not only about the game viewing. The Kalahari landscape is an attraction all on its own, as is the extra-special experiences laid on by the friendly, dedicated and passionate staff.

Our Kalahari Safari - departing Cape Town
Our early morning flight took place in a very comfortable 7-seater plane.
Our Kalahari Safari - Motse Lodge
Motse comprises the main lodge & 10 thatched suites.
Our Kalahari Safari - collared cheetah
This collared cheetah is part of Tswalu's conservation programme.

We kicked off our arrival with an action-packed game drive to the lodge, all in the capable hands of our guide, Margeaux. In less than 90 minutes we’d spotted cheetah, sable antelope (one of Tswalu’s rare animals), kudu, grey reedbuck, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, wildebeest and a few yellow mongooses! Margeaux expertly manoeuvred the safari vehicle over the sandy roads – truly one of the smoothest rides I’ve had in a reserve.

After arriving at Motse to heated towels, a refreshing drink and a lunch of delicious warthog schnitzel with cranberry mayo, I topped up on home-made iced tea and proceeded to flop onto my gorgeous 4-poster bed. Each suite is typically African in style, with oversized chairs, a private deck with lounger, a swoon-worthy outdoor shower and a writing desk equipped with everything you need.

Our Kalahari Safari - lunch at Motse
Ashley & Liesel enjoy lunch at Motse; the menu included authentic warthog schnitzel, served with cranberry mayo & giant onion rings.
Our Kalahari Safari - a day's ride
Galant Galaxy took me through a scenic part of the reserve - a truly special experience.

Tswalu is situated in the heart of the Northern Cape province and is close to the Botswana border, representing the gateway to the unique beauty of the Kalahari. The reserve was originally created by Stephen Boler, a British entrepreneur, before being taken over by South African mining magnate Nicky Oppenheimer. With plenty of manmade structures cleared, farm fences torn down and extra land bought to extend the reserve, Nicky has made it his mission to ‘restore the Kalahari to itself’.

Tswalu means ‘new beginning’ in the Tswana language and it certainly has had a rebirth; when we drove through the reserve, it looked as untouched as when the San first walked the red dunes a lifetime ago.

Our Kalahari Safari - iconic landscape
Nicky Oppenheimer's dream was to 'restore the Kalahari to itself'.
Our Kalahari Safari - owl on the road
A spotted eagle owl turns his yellow eyes on us as we drive past. The reserve's undulating dunes keep the ride smooth.

One of Boler’s initiatives was to introduce rare game to the region, and Tswalu today is the custodian of a collection of unique animals. Glossy sable and ruddy roan antelope dot the savannah, while tsessebe (Africa’s fastest antelope) and Hartmann’s mountain zebra can also be spotted. Exceptional black-maned Kalahari lions, wild dog and brown hyena top the predator list in terms of unusual game, while the absolute bucket-list animals to spot are the pangolin, aardvark and aardwolf – rarely seen anywhere else in the world.

Our afternoon game drive turned into an unforgettable experience when we heard via the radio that a pangolin had been spotted – during daylight, too! While Tswalu is one of the best places to see this unique mammal, the rangers report that they only see pangolin only about once a month. Since we were there for just over 24 hours, we considered it a Go2Africa good luck charm!

Our Kalahari Safari - roan antelope
A rare roan antelope - one of Tswalu's unique animal species.

We discovered our larger-than-expected prize hiding sleepily underneath a thorn bush. After carefully disembarking, we approached the pangolin, listening to Margeaux’s instructions. He was wrapped in a tight curl, his keratin scales overlapping each other from the tip of his head to his tail. Panoglins have terrible eyesight but their hearing and sense of smell is excellent.

Eventually we got some action: he decided to move about a little and we got a clear view of his long claws, tiny pointed snout and misty eyes. He was certainly one of the highlights on our Kalahari safari! The game drive didn’t end there: we walked among a habituated meerkat group, busy with their afternoon ferreting activities; tracked a loping anteater through the rapidly fading light; and spotted a little aardwolf gambolling along the road on our way back to camp. 

Our Kalahari Safari - our pangolin sighting
Our highlight! This scaly pangolin crept out from under his thorn bush for us.
Our Kalahari Safari - our guide Margeaux
Our very able guide Margeaux chats about tracking aardvark - another one of Tswalu's rare creatures.
Our Kalahari Safari - meercat family
We were able to walk among the habituated meerkats.

As I mentioned, Tswalu is not only about the game viewing. We enjoyed a roaring fire on arrival back at Motse, which was followed by a gourmet meal and award-winning South African wines. Our conversation turned to the guest experience. One of the unique ways in which Tswalu loves to surprise and delight their guests is by at night at Malori, a private sleep-out deck in the middle of the Kalahari savannah. There’s nought but you, all the luxury you could require, and the sounds of the bush.

Tswalu is also excellent for families; when we arrived, a family of 22 were on their way out – with children of all ages. A junior ranger programme, plenty of in-lodge entertainment and specialised activities await the younger guests, while Tswalu’s 5-bedroom villa - named Tarkuni - allows for a truly exclusive and private family experience.

Our Kalahari Safari - Malori sleepout
Malori is Tswalu's private sleepout deck. It comes complete with an uninterrupted view of the Kalahari savannah.
Our Kalahari Safari - Tarkuni Villa
The boma at Tarkuni, Tswalu's exclusive safari villa that sleeps up to 10 guests - it's ideal for families.
Our Kalahari Safari - farewell Tswalu
Farewell Tswalu, we'll be back!

As I curled up satisfied in my turned down 4-poster, I sighed a deep, happy smile at the memories of the day’s events (including a horse ride along the dunes), content that for that moment at least, I was in the heart of one of South Africa’s most beautiful natural wildernesses.

Want to go?

  • The Ultimate South African Safari is an exceptional, luxurious trip that includes beautiful hotels in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, as well as four nights each at Motse Lodge in Tswalu and Exeter River Lodge in the Sabi Sands - providing two unique safari experiences.
  • For a safari in two true wilderness destinations, the 10-day South African Wilderness Retreat includes the full Tswalu experience, as well as Camp Jabulani in northern Kruger's Kapama Game Reserve.
  • From wine to whales and then onto safari in the Kalahari, the Unique South African Experience is for discerning guests looking for something unusual and special.


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Written by Kimberley O'Sullivan. Connect with her on Google+.

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