Daar vêr in die ou Kalahari

ON THE KALAHARI … A sign near Springbok fires a warning shot across the bows of any vegetarian traveling north along the N7 – “This is Red Meat Country” it states unequivocally, and this rings ever more true as you continue your journey towards Upington. Here, like an edifice barely secondary to the prominence of the NG Kerk, stands Skaapland, the place where human carnivores come to genuflect at the altar of red meat. Cabanossi, skilpadjies, man-sized rump cut off the carcass while you wait, unapologetically fatty lamb chops … you name the meat and you will find it here.

Navigate the mirage run along the N14 into the true Kalahari and you will enter a landscape that is Three Colours Red. Red meat still rules the culinary roost and the temperatures are red-hot, but it is the red oxide dunes that anchor this ancient desert within the collective human consciousness. From Chris Blignaut’s “Daar vêr in die Ou Kalahari” to Riaan Malan’s “Alien Inboorling”, these blood-orange sand dunes have captivated the hearts and minds of not only Afrikaners, but outdoor explorers from around the globe.

One such Kalahari hero is Prof Anne Rassa, a biologist of Welsh descent who has now put down roots here as deep as the ubiquitous kameeldoring trees. After several decades of research on animal interdependence in wilderness areas throughout the world, she settled in the Molopo region to set up the Kalahari Trails Nature Reserve. The setting – amidst arrow dunes awash with langbeen-boesmansgras and under a parabola of cobalt blue sky – allows her continued interaction with beetles and suricates, her two enduring love affairs with nature.

A night at the Kalahari Trails bush camp comes with visuals reminiscent of a scene from the movie “Paris/Texas”. Life, the universe and everything are condensed into a timeless tableau of wheat-blond grass and rippling amber sand, unfolding forever under a sky streaked with horse-tail cirrus cloud. The setting sun Van Goghs the western horizon in tones of cream through to crimson to such an extent that you cannot but believe in some kind of celestial being beyond the edge of reason.

Karyn and I spend the night in a simple thatched-roofed tent, perched on the side of a silent dune. We hunt for spiders and scorpions amidst the shoulder-high tufts of duinriet, and then drift off into dreamland where I (God knows why in this peaceful place) duel to the death with a Gargoyle Dog of Cerberus-like proportions.

ON DUNE TRACKING … Professor Rassa has a suricate by the name of Poppet, whose predecessor (Fizzle) was lured away into the wilds by a Jezebel of a meerkat chickaboo. Like Fizzle, Poppet has also had her flirtation with the “wild life”, but in her case she decided to return to her surrogate mother, albeit pregnant with four of the cutest suricates you can find this side of the Nossob.

Poppet usually accompanies The Prof on her tracking excursions into the dunes on the Kalahari trails Nature Reserve, but today the maternal bond is too strong; at the gate, she fixes the horizon with a longing stare, and then turns tail-up to disappear back in the direction of the burrow. We continue onwards with Professor Rassa, entranced by the uninterrupted flow of knowledge she shares along her hike into the local dunescape. The sandy Kalahari surface is her “newspaper” and every morning she sets forth to decipher the stories which unfolded here the night before.

Every marking in the sand imparts tiny bits of information, allowing her to interpret the intrigue and suspense shaping the lives of the micro-fauna with whom she shares this incredible space. It is all written there in the sand, from the “painted lady” spider whose dune-top dances create daisy-shaped patterns, to the kangaroo jump tracks and delicate tail-swish patterns of the springhare. A perfect ess-bend trail denotes where a blind, legless skink surfaced for a few scary minutes while barking geckos, predatory katydids and too many beetles to mention have also left their signature indentations.

Professor Rassa unearths a giant yellow ant-lion larvae with a deft stroke of her finger, having judged its position by a tiny scrawl in the sand. Then her eyes light up as she points at a butterfly-shaped pattern dusted upon the dune’s edge. “Aha, now here is something really unique! See that little sand-angel? The two tiny white stones in the centre; those are actually the eyes of a sand-burrowing grasshopper. If you want, I will tickle him out with a grass stalk and you can get a relly good photo.” She wiggles around in the sand and lo and behold, a yellowish-brown grasshopper shifts into focus, looking about as sheepish as a locust can.

To view pics of this amazing adventure, click here