Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park safari, South Africa and Botswana: Life and death in the Kgalagadi

The world jostles with sound and fury but there are still pristine places like the "great thirstland" of the remote Kalahari, an ecosystem empty of people, yet rich with game.

This is raw Africa in all its beauty and viciousness – unplugged and unfenced – no connectivity outside the border camps, four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicles mandatory, food, fuel, water and firewood to be carried in and no predator barriers at the wilderness camps.

Unlike the Kruger National Park or the Serengeti, game sightings in this ecological corridor that allows for animals' natural cross-border migration are often private viewings – you're lucky to see another vehicle.

The big-sky, 3.7-million hectare Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, butting against Namibia's eastern border, opened in 2000 after growing concern about wild animal slaughter in the area. This amalgamation of South Africa's Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana's Gemsbok National Park is one of the world's largest national parks, larger than many countries.

Now, this amazing place has been recognised as a cultural treasure. It is home to the hunter-gatherer, Khomani San, whose culture stretches back more than 20,000 years. The Khomani Cultural Landscape of the Kgalagadi was launched in early October, as a new World Heritage site, bringing to nine the number of sites in South Africa.

The newly inscribed site's boundaries coincide with the Kalahari Gemsbok Park, which is part of the vast Kgalagadi.

Visited and cherished by mostly South Africans, with a minority of intrepid international tourists, this sprawling duneveld, plains thornveld and salt pan reserve bisected by two ephemeral fossil rivers, has been named by South African travel magazine go! in its Kgalagadi issue as "the most photogenic of our national parks".

The Kalahari's pale-grass savannahs dotted with acacia camelthorn trees, candlepod bushes and red rolling dunes have been inhabited for 200,000 years, the domain of the San before the coming of the tribes and the traders.

Here, deep in the territory of the animal kingdom's apex predator, the powerful black-maned Kalahari lion, you don't simply experience "sightings"; you witness entire stories of the veld, as we did.

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Such veld narratives include the life-affirming four-hour spectacle of three male lions closely following a female, awaiting the onset of oestrus, signifying readiness to mate. And at the other end of the scale, the drawn-out demise of an injured lioness as she repeatedly returns to our camp waterhole during a 24-hour period, harassed by black-backed jackals.

The nervous observance of a mother cheetah, managing the herculean task of protecting and feeding her four cubs – a cheetah needs about four kilograms of meat daily and lions routinely kill cubs, though rarely eat them.

The impi-pincer moves of two young female lions as they track nine gemsbok along the ridge above our camp. The playful gambolling of a den of spotted hyena, with cubs, contrasted with their night raid of our camp bins, metres from our beds.

The ground shaking roars of lion inbetween our tents attempting a kill to the shrieks of jackals and the antics of the "clown of the veld", the blue wildebeest with his gigantic boofhead. He takes its role seriously as the sole protector of his springbok herd, charging imaginary windmills, Don Quixote-style, to "frighten" nearby lions.

The Kgalagadi demands you use every sense. Sight for game spotting, or for scanning this clearest of skies to identify Jupiter and her moons, and the white river of the Milky Way.

Hearing as, encouraged by our bird-loving companions, we identify the teakettle whistle of the pearl spotted owlet, the alarm cough of wildebeest and whistle of springbok or the hyena's ethereal howl.

Smell of the red-dune sand as the day heats from a shivery early-morning minus 1 to 30 degrees. Taste as you tuck into Karoo lamb chops and South African syrah as the waning pink-gold light stains the western sky and the Kgalagadi night cranks up for hunting. Touch for the furry, pale-coloured camelthorn pods resembling almond crescent biscuits.

Is terror a sense? Then terror of the Cape cobra, puffadders and black mambas that can slither indoors. The howl of the north wind that heralds the arrival of the thick-tailed scorpion. The swirl of a bat entering your tent. The trepidation about lions or hyenas performing their Kgalagadi trick of chewing car tyres. The leopard prints at a waterhole close to an unfenced picnic spot. The knowledge that lions sometimes lurk in the cool of the public toilet.

The alarm when a tree mouse from the shading camelthorn pops its head out of your rubbish bin, and the shudder when our tented camp ranger tells us that "lion have never come up onto the verandah, but there's always a first time". Sure enough, we identify big cat tracks below our verandah one morning.

I'm also conscious that a friend who visited recently mistook a tiny bat for a teabag and drank the brew! SANParks asks visitors to "be kind to the bats", which aren't rabid, as they eat about 200 mosquitoes a night. But mainly we experience that other sense of delight, peace, and pleasure mixed with a frisson of nervous energy as we slip into a world that requires a light human tread. It's called, I think, "being truly alive and in the moment".

We're also fortunate because this arid region has received recent rains, when, as the San say, "the sky grew legs". As a result, the animals are well conditioned, particularly the sleek sand-coloured lions, larger here than in other parts of Africa, the elegantly painted gemsbok, the russet-tinged African wild cat, the jackals, suricates, foxes, leopards, cheetahs, the swift-running red hartebeest, kudu, eland, steenbok and springbok, giraffe, wildebeest – all thriving.

Such a trip takes planning. The park's wilderness camps are small and book quickly. Make contact with SANParks as soon as bookings open.

We hire our vehicle in Cape Town and acquire (mostly from the budget South African Pick n Pay stores) our 30 litres of water for six days, plus portable coolers, food, firewood, warm clothes and binoculars for the 1100-kilometre drive north to the Twee Rivieren gate, the South African entry to the park. Here you complete the permit and park fee formalities, refuel and let your tyres down to 1.6 bar to accommodate the sandy, corrugated roads.

Kgalagadi has five entry points – South Africa's Twee Rivieren, Namibia's Mata-Mata gate and Botswana's Two Rivers, Mabuasehube and Kaa gates. You can cross borders within the park without passports as long as you depart through the same gate you entered.

Our plan is to stick to the Auob River wilderness camps this time, planning a Nossob River trip next time. It's 67 kilometres from Twee Rivieren along the Auob to our first camp, the lovely Urikaruus – an unfenced, stilted camp with only five chalets shaded by the acacia camelthorns, all overlooking the waterhole and linked by a boardwalk.

While there is no electricity, there is solar and gas power and the two-person chalets have fully equipped kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and verandahs.

The Auob is prime cheetah country and on our drive in, we see cheetahs and cubs, two secretary birds stamping the grass with their snake-proof legs to flush their prey, a pale chanting goshawk with its mouse, a kori bustard – the world's largest flying bird, frolicking Cape foxes and Africa's largest eagle, the martial eagle.

A herd of beautiful giraffes greet us at the Urikaruus waterhole, along with a truly amazing array of birds – the orange flourish of the Namaqua sand grouse arriving all together to drink, jewel-coloured swallow-tailed bee-eaters, crimson-breasted shrike, white-breasted sparrow weavers, noisy plovers, fork-tailed drongo, vultures, falcons, eagles and owls. Our South African friends are beside themselves.

You are more than likely to be woken by predators and you must never leave your chalets at night. The "gates", though there aren't any, officially open at 7am – SANParks doesn't allow night drives to protect the animals. All our best sightings are early or just before nightfall. As the wilderness camps are on waterholes, you have front-row seats to view night prowlers.

Our next wilderness camp is the Kalahari Tented Camp, about two hours drive north-west and close to the Namibian Mata-Mata gate. A word of warning – don't rely on the park shops. The Twee Rivieren shop is Harrods compared with the Mata-Mata shop, with its two wizened apples. Bring in all your food and drink, though you can pick up ice, beer and firewood and refuel.

Kalahari Tented Camp is built high on a red dune, each of the 15 desert tents overlooking the waterhole. In the distance over the ridge is the Namibian border and a far telecommunications tower festooned with a huge sociable weaver nest. These amazing apartment-block nests, often housing up to 300 birds are ubiquitous, ingenious and superbly insulated.

You are advised to drive rather than walk between the tents – it's only a matter of metres, but then there's the matter of lions. We drive.

It's at this camp that we observe the last hours of the lioness. Sad, savage, but inevitable. You won't see elephants, buffalos or hippos here – animals that require decent amounts of water – but Kgalgadi's game sightings are legendary. It takes some effort to visit this unspoiled paradise. It's worth it.

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FLY

Qantas flies from Sydney and South African Airways flies from Perth to Johannesburg. See www.qantas.com or www.flysaa.com Road distances from Johannesburg or Cape Town to the Kgalagadi are about 1000 kilometres. Book online at www.rentalcars.com for reasonable rates.

STAY

Urikaruus chalets from $168 a double. Kalahari Tented Camp from $172 a double. SANParks conservation fees for international visitors are about $30 a person daily. Buy an annual international SANParks Wild Card in lieu of fees on entry if you plan to return to South Africa. See www.sanparks.org 

Alison Stewart travelled at her own expense.

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