Kalahari Curtains

One of South Africa’s newest national parks is a place of space, peace and beautiful light

 

Brendan Seery

We can barely see the Kalahari bushveld around us it has got so dark. But suddenly, on the horizon, the towering cumulo-nimbus rain clouds are lit from within by a bright flash of sheet lightning. The clouds look like fragile festive paper lanterns as another bright burst off to the side lights them up.

To the west, the setting sun has left a deep pink stain on the horizon.

There are few things as beautiful in life as watching an African rainstorm from a distance, especially as evening falls.

For the parched Kalahari – here in the Mokala National Park – and the adjacent vast emptiness of the Karoo, these rains are more than just a spectacle for jaded city dwellers – they bring the promise of new life…and the saving of older life.

The drought has been terrible here in Mokala, which is about 60km south of Kimberley in the Northern Cape, and as the light show entertainment continues, we can only hope the clouds bring relief.

SA National Parks staff have been trucking in feed for some of the more vulnerable animals, like the endangered Roan antelope…and we notice many of them looking quite skinny.

mokala30Outside our chalet at Lilydale rest camp as we set up the braai one evening, we notice a weak-looking Kudu bull which has managed, somehow, to crawl its way up the slope and over a fence to try and get some of the last, emaciated green leaves from bushes around the accommodation units.

I notice two things. Normally, a Kudu would not get this close to humans (10 metres on occasion) unless it was desperate. And its ribs and hip bones are showing through. Maybe it’s just old, we think…but the next morning we see other animals struggling to survive.

For the first time – including many, many trips through Namibia’s arid deserts – I see Gemsbok where the ribs are starting to become visible underneath their cream-coloured coats.

It is an ominous reminder of how bad the drought has hit some parts of the country and how we all live in a water-scarce world.

Interestingly, one of the other threatened animal species in Mokala (it is specifically focused on threatened animals), the Black Wildebeest (the one with the golden tail), doesn’t seem too badly affected. There are even babies around, whereas there is no sign of the small offspring of species like Springok, which normally litter the plains when the rains come.

The animals in Mokala seem to know that now is not a good time to breed.

Since we visited the park in mid-December, it should have had substantial rains. Those kind of rains transform the red sands of the Kalahari and its yellow, sere grasses, into seas of green…and then it is truly one of the most beautiful areas in southern Africa.

Mokala is South Africa’s youngest national park, having only been proclaimed in June 2007. Its genesis is also a uniquely, contemporary South African story.

Not far away from where Mokala now lies, SANParks operated the Vaalbos National Park, west of Kimberley. In  November 1997, people who had been evicted from the area many years earlier laid claim to the land. The claim was valid and SANParks was not about to fight it, so the decision was made to look for an alternative site.

This land was identified south of Kimberley and confirmed by an independent report carried out by researchers from the University of Pretoria. In June 2006, a parcel of Kalahari bushveld totaling just under 20 000 hectares was bought from a number of local farmers. Shortly afterwards, SANParks began relocating the first animals. Since then, a further 9 000 hectares has been added to the park, improving the diversity of vegetation types.

A decision was made early on that Mokala (which is the Tswana name for the Camel Thorn tree , Acacia erioloba) would be an ideal place to concentrate on building up numbers of endangered species.

mokala32These include herds of disease-free buffalo, which are not infected with either tuberculosis or foot-and-mouth disease; Red-billed Oxpecker birds (which are endangered country-wide because of pesticides), which were introduced in September 2012; Roan and Sable Antelope; black and white rhino; Tsessebe and Red Hartebeest and the White-backed Vulture.

The endangered animals are for restocking other national parks.

One of the most interesting animals in the park, from an historical and biological perspective, is the plains zebra.

Scientists have observed that the southern variations of the plains zebra tend to be lighter, almost a brown colour, in the rear quarters and have stripes which fade to virtually nothing.

Mokala’s zebra are, in fact, close to the animal known as the Quagga, which was shot out of existence in the 1800s in the Karoo and Eastern Cape, but which also had an unstriped behind.

Compared to other plains (or Burchell’s) zebra, Mokala’s animals look as they sat down in a bucket of bleach for a while…

There are no large predators in the park – although caracal is listed among the meat-eaters that there are…but that doesn’t make Mokala and any less attractive place. If you want the Big Five, go to Kruger; if you want peace, wide open spaces and endless horizons and skies, Mokala will soothe the soul.

And the cheeky, funny little meerkats who populate the open plains – one always on constant “sentry duty” – will brighten up your day and more than make up for the lack of lion and elephant.

Seeing magnificent Sable and Roan and the startling, beautiful Gemsbok in the open is something you don’t always get to do in other SANParks properties.

Given the age of the park, you’d expect facilities to be still in good condition – and they are. There is a lodge at Mosu (the main centre of the park) which provides self-catering accommodation. Not far away is the “Haak and Steek” family cottage and camp. It caters for four guests in a basic, rustic way – and the adjacent campsites can be booked in conjunction with the bungalow. It is also located at a waterhole, so the game come to you and not the other way around.

The campsite at Motswedi – popular with caravanners when we were there – is billed as “luxury”…because there are only six sites (accommodating six people at each – but each has its own cooking and ablution facilities. So you won’t have to share communal facilities. The sites are in a semi-circle around a waterhole, which has an electrified fence for the safety of guests.

We stayed at Lilydale, which is at the north-eastern end of the park, and closest to Kimberley. The three-bed chalets (there are also bigger, family units) are well maintained and well-equipped, featuring an air conditioner, which was a Godsend when temperatures hit 40 degrees.

All the units at Lilydale overlook the Riet River, which has permanent water and which forms the boundary of the park. There are few finer places to spend a summer evening than on the deck of one of those chalets…trust me.

The staff were all efficient and friendly wherever we went in the park…although the check-in briefing is longer and more thorough than you get in many other SANParks camps.

For those with a more adventurous streak, you can go on a few 4×4 trails…but you need to get a permit and inform office staff of when you’ll be using them. You can also fly fish for Yellowtail in the Riet River from two locations – although you will need a 4×4 or high ground clearance vehicle to get there.mokala10

What’s not to like about Mokala? Well, one would have to say the access roads could do with a lot of work – the one from the main N12 to Lilydale was badly corrugated and, I understand, the one to the Mosu Gate is similarly bad. Take it slowly, though, and you’ll be fine. It is just a pity that, with such an amazing hidden gem, that the Northern Cape authorities (for it is they who are responsible for the access roads, not SANParks) can’t sort out the problem.

So, is Mokala for you? If you want the excitement of the Big Five, then perhaps not. If you want space and privacy (it still has comparatively few visitors, even when full) and a chance to soak in the magic of the Kalahari, then it must bee on your “to do” list.

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BOX:

IF YOU GO

  • Mokala is a malaria-free area.
  • Summer rains range from 200mm to 400mm
  • Summer temperatures can easily hit maximums of 40 or more, while winter nights see the mercury drop below zero
  • Mokala is about 600km from Johannesburg and about 800km from Cape Town
  • Contact: http://www.sanparks.org