If the word 'Kalahari' makes you think of an empty red desert then it's time you tried a safari to one of Botswana's three Kalahari parks.
Visitors to Nxai Pan National Park, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park go on guided game drives through woodland, seasonally flooded pans and rolling grasslands - the scenery is beautiful, the illuminated night sky staggering ... and then there's the wildlife.
Besides classic Kalahari animals such as zebra, wildebeest, gemsbok, eland, springbok and giraffe, these parks also have a well-deserved reputation for predators and you're likely to see black-maned Kalahari lions as well as cheetah, jackal and brown hyena with wild dog and leopard also on the list.
A Kalahari safari also presents the best opportunity to see many of Africa's smaller and more elusive animals such as wild cat, porcupine, aardwolf, meerkat and honey badger, and the birdlife is surprisingly good, especially in the rainy summer months between December and April.
You'll need to think carefully about when to go to the largely unvisited but surprisingly accessible Kalahari - it depends largely on what you want to experience.
Game viewing is good in the dry winter months as wildlife is concentrated around the few remaining waterholes; May to August is bone-dry with freezing nights while September and October are mostly dry but increasingly hot during the day.
The December rains however transform the Kalahari into a green Eden - many antelope give birth - attracting predators - while migrating zebra, buffalo and elephant herds add a surprising twist to game drives; if you can handle a bit of rain on your safari, then the early summer months of the "Green Season" (December/early January) are often considered the best time to visit the Kalahari.
The smallest of the three parks, Nxai Pan offers a great mix of desert and savannah animals in an easy-to-access environment. The sole dry-season waterhole makes game viewing simple during winter but it's during the green summer that Nxai Pan comes alive as herds of buffalo and elephant arrive. Make sure you visit nearby Baines' Baobabs, a stand of huge baobab trees marooned on a salt pan island.
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Botswana's largest conservation area, the CKGR is as big as Belgium and a whole lot more interesting. It's where to go to see classic Kalahari wildlife and the density of game and waterholes makes for a predator paradise. The springbok birthing season in December usually delivers a lot of predator action but it's a good winter game viewing destination too.
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The arrival of massed herds of zebra usually means the summer rains have arrived in the Makgadikgadi. The area's grasslands provide good grazing but if the rains are good then the vast salt pans - once part of a prehistoric 'super lake' - fill up as well, attracting phenomenal birdlife from flamingos to waders and wildfowl. The open nature of the park suits predators such as wild dog, cheetah and lion and there's always a good range of Kalahari animals to be seen at any time of year.
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