Tswalu is a unique lodge found in the Northern Cape of South Africa in a desert area referred to as the Green Kalahari. It is the biggest private game reserve in South Africa, covering a whopping 114 000 hectares (282 000 acres). Situated in the Savannah Biome, Tswalu lies in a transition zone between the true Kalahari ecotype and arid savannah. The undulating dunes are punctuated by the Korannaberg hills which contribute to greater habitat diversity than elsewhere in the Kalahari. In the shelter of the mountains – which also provide a dramatic backdrop to wildlife sightings – you can encounter Tswalu’s 240 bird and 80 mammal species, including Hartmann’s mountain zebra and wild dog. This incredible wildlife-rich haven was once over-run by cattle and hunting and is a massive conservation success story, has returned to its original splendour under the stewardship of the Oppenheimer family since 1998.
Our time at Tswalu proved to be incredibly generative with us seeing 29 mammal species in just three days. Some of the unique ones for the trip included sable, roan, oryx, bat eared foxes, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, Cape fox, desert adapted black rhino and even a sighting of the elusive Temminck’s ground pangolin.
During the winter months, temperatures drop steeply at night and so the typically nocturnal creatures such as pangolin, aardvark, aardwolf and brown hyena can be found moving about and feeding during the day. For wildlife enthusiasts looking to meet some new species, this has to be the place to go. One of the stand out sightings was of a highly active young, female pangolin rushing about lapping up her 20-30 000 termite and ant quota for the day.
The pangolin is widely reported as the most trafficked animal on the planet but this says nothing about the splendour of walking across the fine, red soils of the Kalahari at dusk following this other-worldly creature. Bob, one of my guests was ill on this particular afternoon but braved game drive nonetheless and despite feeling horrid to begin basically skipped back to the vehicle after our pangolin encounter. These animals are not medicine in the way that the east believes them to be but as Bob can attest, their presence is medicine nonetheless. I am so appreciative of wild expanses like Tswalu that provide a home and an important research hub to a multitude of charismatic creatures like this.
Some of the other highlights included watching a pack of wild dogs on the hunt; animals that are the most endangered carnivores in sub-Saharan Africa. Another was spending a morning watching the antics of a habituated meerkat colony at their den site. They emerge to sun themselves after a cold night underground; groom, play and then bound off to hunt. Despite their cute appearances, these creatures are the most murderous on the planet and we watched the mob chasing an intruder that had made his home in one of the outer entrances of the den site the night before. Whether you’re a photographer or just enjoy watching, these animals are a firm favourite.
Bob is a particularly avid flyer and leapt at the opportunity to see Tswalu from the air. Jen, although less keen, is the ultimate travel companion and all round ‘yes woman’. So on our final morning we did a helicopter flip above the reserve and saw 17 white rhino, a desert black rhino, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, bat eared foxes, a variety of antelope species and even a caracal from the air!
If you’re interested in a cultural experience on safari, the Kalahari is also the ancestral home of the San people, and some of their ancient engravings can be seen at Tswalu. Current research suggests these may be amongst the oldest artworks on Earth and clearly depict how important the green Kalahari was to these people as a sanctuary of physical and spiritual nourishment.
For those looking to expand the horizons of your safaris both literally and figuratively then Tswalu is for you. Motse lodge has been recently refurbished and there is a stillness and space that only the desert can provide. The horizons are steeped in soulful beauty and the sightings of special species that you don’t find elsewhere speak for themselves.
By Amy Attenborough