The Kalahari gives freely. Days 5,6,7: Mata Mata & Torgos Lodge

We veto the idea of a dawn drive today. The children are tired after their very late night drive and so we decide to make a slower start even though we know we’re unlikely to see much as it warms up. The sightings of genet, African wildcat, bat-eared foxes and a magnificent spotted Eagle owl are enough to see us through til sunset, I figure.

People in the camp are friendly and we particularly enjoy talking to two photographers who have set up camp next to us. They are landscape specialists and travel far and wide every year to take spectacular photographs which are then published in a coffee table book; just something they do for themselves and as a legacy to leave their children. I enjoy talking to them and their interest in the children is both genuine and heartwarming. The boys are fascinated by the bread they bake over the coals each evening. The friends promise them a freshly baked slice with cheese and honey later.

Late morning bacon and eggs are thrown onto the grill along with various types of boerewors and sweet potato baked in foil, served hollowed out with lashings of butter. An after brunch slump sets in and I admit to feeling less of the romance of the bush and more of the drudgery of camp domestics. Seems a lot of time is taken up with cooking, washing up, tidying away and making up flasks and lunch or snack boxes when there are six people to feed.

We drive out late afternoon and enjoy the sunset at one of the waterholes.  My oldest son drives us back and it’s touch-and-go as to whether we’ll make the gate in time, but all’s well that ends well.

Hubby and I are making lists as to what could we do differently to make things more low maintenance and less time intensive…..staying in a lodge would be the obvious solution I say, but then pretend to be joking when I see the look on my husband’s face. I can’t help but lust after the camp set-up next to us where two dome tents are set up neatly next to each other, nicely lined up next to a neat little 4 x 4 with two silver lockboxes on top, no washing in site, no rucked up ground mats, no thousands of bags piled on top of and under campbeds. Oh well, we may not look good but at least we’re comfortable, super warm, well fed and prepared for anything from a snake bite to a flash flood. And on the positive, I am learning to let go (a little!) and reacquainting myself with relishing the imperfect.

The next day the boys wake up looking like they have spent the night rolling in a dust bath. But more than once fellow campers tell me how nice it is to see children who can play, really play, without a mobile or electronic device in sight. They make roads in the dust for their small die cast cars, and spend a good hour constructing the scenery around a waterhole (a puddle under a tap) for the plastic lion, zebra, elephant, giraffe and tiger (yes the only tiger in Africa!) which I found on the dusty bottom shelf in the small camp shop.

We see seven giraffe silhouetted against the setting sun during our end of day drive, along with teams of wildebeest, a few red hartebeest and lots of Springbok and Gemsbok.  Later the full moon is so bright that we are able to abandon headlamps and torches when to walk around the campsite. I smile politely as the third person since our journey started tells me what a pretty little girl I have (that would be my youngest son with his mop of hair and big brown eyes.).

Torgos Lodge

Packing up camp the next day turns out to be a pretty seamless operation. Despite the fact that we are travelling with too much ‘katunda’, everyone seems to have slipped into just getting the job done and we are able to leave camp mid-morning. We sail through the Namibian border post and are at Torgos Lodge within half-an-hour. The lodge is a small family-run business on a working sheep farm and it’s the ‘rest stop ‘ we’re looking for. Although the camping has been fun, it’s full-on, busy all the time and I haven’t so much as read a page out of one of the many books I brought along. Everyone is very pleased to have some time to ‘just chill’. The big ones retire to their tented chalets with books and the little ones start to plough furrows into the dust and hunt for bugs. Being out of the park means we can set up the bespoke rooftop seat which hubby has built for the children, complete with padded seats, mini seat belts and canvas bags for their binoculars and guide books.

Later we set out on a sunset drive along the riverbed and the boys are thrilled when we come across a Gemsbok carcass, bloody innards still wet on the desert sand. The breeze strokes the top of the white blond grass up against the red dunes as we drive back, the wind in our hair and the sky blushing at the brazen sun. I think about how a family is made up of all these tiny moments sewn together. Over time each child will have their own version of this trip in their memory bank. Parts of it will grow and others will fade as the experience mixes with new experiences, relationships and every day life. But the fact that it happened, that we were all here together at this time will be irrefutable and it is in the reminiscing together in the future over the years that the Kalahari magic will be created again and again.

The rest of our time at Torgos is spent walking, reading and picnicking in the dunes. The little ones make friends with some children of a similar age and, despite a language barrier, the five make up a merry posse of explorers patrolling the perimeter of the waterhole. At sunset, the children help to bottlefeed the hanslammers (orphaned or rejected lambs) and one two-week old Gemsbok (Oryx) which is being hand-reared. The Kalahari’s gifts are simple and uncomplicated and beautiful.

Tomorrow we’re off to Xaus Lodge, a lodge run privately in partnership with the Khomani San and Mier community; our last two nights in the Kglalagadi.

Things can change in the blink of an eye. Day 4: Mata Mata

My children smell of dust and roasted marshmallows. The buttery light falls gently onto their heads like an angel’s handprint; Oliver Twist urchins of the bush.

It’s shortly after 5pm and I am sitting at the fence of our camp with an ostrich, a starling and some ground squirrels for company on the other side. A group of German tourists set up their camp chairs next to me, so much for a moment of solitude. I can’t help but wonder how their night will turn out seeing as the light is fading fast and they show no signs of unpacking their tents yet.

Two ground squirrels are nibbling at my boots. There is still some warmth left in the afternoon and the rest of the camp is starting to rustle with the expectation of ‘sundowners’ and the evening meal, a braai for most it seems judging by the smell of woodsmoke and charcoal.

The children and hubby are going on a night drive at 8h30pm, so supper was early; a feast of gorgeous sticky sweet pork ribs, fire-roasted sweet pepper, garlic, mushroom and onions plus the potatoes and sweetcorn left over from last night, followed by the requisite tinned guavas and custard. The next big activity on the agenda is shower-time! The boys were ecstatic about ‘skipping’ last night (thank-you to my old friend who told me to overstock on baby wipes with their multitude of uses) but tonight we shall run the gauntlet of cold between tent and ablution block!

Earlier today I was struck again by how important it is to live in the moment, because things can change so quickly. How different things could have been tonight, had it not been that (for once!) my two boys listened to their parents.

After our morning game drive, we stopped off at the Kamqua picnic site. The boys were playing around a nearby Acacia while we poured the hot drinks. The littlest suddenly bolted back to the picnic table shouting ‘snake, snake!’ He was grinning from ear to ear and I confess to thinking that this was another one of his wild imagination games, particularly as he had already seen ‘two baby elephants and the possum his sister had spotted en route from Twee Rivieren the day before (more on the Aussie hitchhiking possum later…). But two minutes later his brother came bounding up to us saying that there was indeed a snake in the tree. It had slithered back into a hole in the trunk and so from what we could see of it, it could either have been a mole snake – completely non-venomous – or it could just as easily have been a cobra, common in these parts. Some days later I ask a guide who uses the picnic site as a regular rendezvous point and he tells me that yes a cobra has been spotted in that tree.

It’s hard to say whether the snake excitement or our prime sighting of the morning held more sway. Only twenty minutes out of camp, we found a pair of lions loping up the riverbed – a sphinx-like lioness and her brawny mate. We followed them for about half-an–hour and then went on ahead to wait for them at the next waterhole where we were rewarded with some lovely playful photographs in the morning light.

People don’t always behave well in these situations it seems. Telescopic lenses are brandished like swords – and I sometimes wonder if it would be an idea to leave the cameras, along with the guns, at the camp reception upon check-in.

The desire to capture things for the eye so easily overrides the desire to capture it for the heart, it seems.

 

Diesel and dust. Day 3: Twee Rivieren to Mata Mata

Our plans for a super early start are scuppered by cosy warm duvets and two many glasses of Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc the night before, but we eventually sort out our permit at the Twee Rivieren gate and start the chug up to Mata Mata. The atmosphere in the car is a little subdued this morning and looking across the veld with not even a springbok in sight, I can’t help but wonder whether I’ve made the right call on coming here. I feel the pressure of the children’s expectation as though it were a physical presence in of itself. Granted it’s probably me projecting as they are all kind, fairly easy-going children, but still….

But, as so many people have told me, the Kgalagadi never lets you down. And it certainly doesn’t this time. About 20km out of Twee Rivieren and shortly before the Auchterlonie picnic sight we are treated to the sight of two male cheetah under an Acacia tree. Their bloody nuzzles are rummaging beneath the ribs of a black Wildebeest. Had it not been for the tell-tale teardrop marking on their faces, one could have been forgiven for mistaking these two for leopards with their low slung stomachs fat from the feast.

We stay and quietly watch the pair tear strips of flesh off the carcass and then lazily groom each other in the dappled shade.  Three camera’s click wildly and continuously and the cheetahs stay put, seemingly unphased by our presence. It’s a beautiful thing and I am thrilled to be off to a good start.

We arrive at Mata Mata in the early afternoon. We choose our camp site for maximum shade and a good view of the fence and then start to set up camp. Within minutes an angry desert wind wips into camp and stirs the sand into angry fistfuls of grit and dust. The children wrap up like bedouins, scarves tied round their faces, as we battle to keep the canvas steady in the wind and still see what we are doing. The team soldiers on though, the little boys stand on the tent corners like meerkat sentries preventing the canvas from flipping up and away; while the rest of us do battle with a tangle of tent poles and ropes.

Finally we’re up!  Granted our tent looks nothing like the sleek military operation of the trio who have just pulled in with their still perfectly white Landrover, complete with two shiny rooftop lockboxes and two perfectly matching dome tents, but everyone has a place to sleep, we have a fire going, the milo is hot and the wine is cold.

Supper is a simple affair of lamb chops and wors, potato and sweetcorn but it fills the hole. Courtesy of big Sis, we have one bag full of sandwiches and fruit for lunch and another one pre-packed with flasks and rusks for breakfast.  We all agree that if a dustbath is good enough for the ostrich it’s good enough for us and go to bed without venturing near the showers. Always good to have something to look forward to tomorrow!

Two jackals are yelping at each other in the distance and there is the soft buzz of campsite talk outside. Sounds travels far in the bush and so I hope the gods of the Kalahari can hear me when I thank them for connecting me to this land and for allowing my children in.

Raisins in my rescue remedy: Day 2 – Keimoes to Twee Rivieren

So, its only day two and I admit I feel a little fraught this evening. The day started pretty well. After rectifying a few navigational misunderstandings (I’m heading to Twee Rivieren where we’ve booked into the new Kglagadi Lodge and hubby is heading to VanZylsRus, home of the old Kglalagdi Lodge.), we have a beautiful breakfast at Die Ou Skool. The worsies (sausages) have that special piquant flavour I so associate with the Northern Cape and Namibia and the coffee is hot and strong.

We fill up with diesel in Upington, stop off at the tourist office to check in on the flower line – the Namaqualand flowers are due to be up and out in all their glory about now and I’ve been wondering about changing our route back to see them.

Twenty minutes into the red dune route, the boys are using the tourist pamphlets to whack each other across the backseat. Big brother remonstrates with them and big sis tries to reason but coupled with the howling Chilli Hot Peppers and the wailing of Jake Bugg (my stepson’s playlist for the trip which is actually really good when listened to in isolation), I am the first to fold. Now let’s just be clear about something. I, like so many other older ‘I am not child centric but continue to helicopter’ mums, hate TV. And this is not the place to sidebar but just understand that me saying we should let the boys watch a DVD in the car, is akin to my mother eating oysters; it’s just not something she wants to do or even really can do, except under extreme duress. Hubby has packed two small portable DVD players – cheapies from Tottenham Court Road, apparently unlikely to last longer than the trip, and so each boy can watch his own movie. The silence is glorious. The big kids are beaming from ear to ear; the little ones are in heaven and werewolf Mamma starts to metamorphose back into nice Mamma.

Clumps of Barbie doll blond grass slowly start to meld together as we swallow road. It has started to cloud over making the silver grey of the roadside bushes slit silver slashes into the red sand dunes. We’re about 10km out of Askham and a pink meniscus is pulled tight over the horizon.

We stop at the Diamond Coffee Shop and I take a picture of the clinic next door to capture opening and closing times, just in case of a mishap further down the track.

At the coffee shop, my eye catches sight of an old car door hanging off a tree stump. Painted on it are the words: “ The Kalahari – a man’s heaven, a woman’s despair and a car’s hell. – E le Riche.” It’s the name that gets my attention because this is family, this Le Riche. One of my forefathers it turns out. His father was once the game warden here when it was still known as the Kalahari Gemsbok Park. This Le Riche, Elias, has written a book on plants of the Kalahari and although it’s sold out at the small general store over the road, they tell me I can buy it at Twee Rivieren. I make a note to do just that, I want to understand a little more about these people who so clearly loved this place and how it was that they came to be here and then to stay…and, of course, it makes me think of roots and what they mean. How much of what you become is about where and who you came from?

After a few more small stops to pick up ‘diamonds’ (quartz), which my  son says he is going to sell back in London for a handsome fortune, we arrive at the Lodge. The chalets are new and while they are architecturally plain to the point of being ugly, they are very comfortable, super clean inside with everything you could possibly need for an easy stay. My daughter and I are thrilled to find heaters in both bedrooms. The boys immediately scamper down the dunes outside and fall into the soft red sand to make sand angels.

I am keen to sit outside and enjoy the view. Opposite, a large herd of goats make their way home slowly across the ridge. The cacophonic bleating and slap of bells shoots me back at least thirty years to when I, too, would take the goats home off the mountain. My grandparent’s farm in Namibia. I believe we all have a place where our soul first awakens and licks at life to really taste it for the first time. The farm was such my special place. And then sometimes there are things that put the soul on ice for a while, and it only takes something as simple as the smell of dust, the prick of an Acacia thorn or the clatter of goat’s hooves on stones to tempt it back into awakening.

But hubby has other ideas; enjoying the view is not on the agenda. He has spoken to the manager and apparently there is a very nice manageable little 4 x 4 route we should try before supper. I start to say that being here is as much about the not doing things as the doing things, I mutter something about slowing down, but I can’t take the disappointment on his face, so we load up and head into the park. It is indeed a good little route and we are treated to some marvelous scenes of statuesque Gemsbok against the bruised sky before heading back to a stunning steak supper watching our first Kalahari sunset, a fat red ball slips behind the mountain. Dusk teases the night.

As I prepare for tomorrow (which, if I’m honest, has been reduced to the task of picking out the raisins from the rescue remedy tablets which have fallen out in the bottom of my bag), I start to muse on culture and how even those so similar on the surface can be so very different. Right now, it’s time to tuck in next to a sleepy little boy who having rubbed red sand into his hair today told me that “everyone knows that red sand makes your hair grow and your body strong, Mamma.” I think he has something there.

 

 

 

 

Are we there yet? Day 1: Somerset-West to Keimoes

Be ruthless, be furious, do not let anyone exit the front door with anything more than one bag, a very small bag, a bag the size of a shoe box!

This is my Bridget Jones note-to-self for future trips as I ram my feet into the smallest of nooks, a triangle of car mat between the ‘padkos’ (food for the road), a bag of jumpers and blankets, ‘soft car blankets for snuggling’ says Amma (grandma).  The trailer is full to capacity. My 7-year old is rammed right at the back, boxed in by bags, coats and more blankets, six new ones which hubby has had specially made for the trip. Next is big sis and his big brother flanking my youngest, leaving me in front with my knees pushed up into my chin sitting on a bunch of maps. But we’re all in and everyone is being remarkably pleasant to each other given the hour, so all is good.

It’s 4h10am as we pull out of the driveway, ten minutes off-schedule and I’m seriously impressed by the teamwork (Amma and my godfather’s help notwithstanding!). My fleeting moment of smugness disappears swiftly as a flask-cup of coffee lands neatly and oh-so-hotly between my thighs. “Darling I told you I put your coffee on the dashboard” doesn’t quite cut it but I let it go in the spirit of the great departure. With a wet patch perfectly positioned across the groin, we turn onto the R44 to Paarl and are officially on our way.

Strangely within twenty minutes the R45 to Malmesbury has simply vanished in the pre-dawn winelands fog and I am thrown into full-scale panic (you know the duck, or is it a swan, gliding on the surface with the feet paddling below kind of deal) as the responsibility of undesignated navigatrix smacks down onto my shoulders.

Luckily I have a ‘go-to guy’, the kind of man you go to in a fix and somehow no matter what the problem is he sorts it out, an uncle with a big heart. Now on the right road, I watch the clock til I can be sure he is awake and getting ready for work. I want to check our planned route, before we end up in Namibia and it’s all my fault, not an unlikely scenario by any means. He answers as we wait at the third roadworks stop and I feel totally together after we speak.

In the silky grey of dawn, the mist folds and falls gently into the crevices of the Cederberg. As the sun rises and we continue to curve around the mountain, the horizon turns tangerine pink and I remember why this is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Hubby decides on a shortcut between Clanwilliam and Calvinia which turns out to be a forty-minute mudslush slip ‘n slide, through the very aptly called ‘Botterkloof’ Pass (butter valley). We survive, trailer intact albeit coated in thick sludge…so much for turning up at The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park with a clean camp kitchen.

We pass places with names like Moedverloor (losing hope), Granaatboskolk (pomegranate bush pond) and Breekbeenkolk (breaking bone pond) and I can’t help wondering what misfortunes people must have suffered to have named their homes thus.

After Brandvlei, about eight hours into the journey, the terrain changes to scrub bush, salt pans and dolomite. The rocks glisten as if oiled by the sun, the road stretches ahead, straight and straighter still til it sews itself to the horizon. Giant sociable weaver nests hang from the telephone poles like Dougals flung up from the Magic Roundabout. We stop at a particularly big one to watch the birds flutter in and out of their metropolis for a while.

A few hours later and after about fifty (seriously, I was counting!) “are-we-there–yets”, we arrive in Kenhardt for fuel and sustenance. On a road as wide as a river, the boys spot a baby blue classic Chevy pick-up parked opposite the Shell garage and drool. Across the road, Oma Miemie’s Farmstall is just perfect. Pizza for the kids, my all-time favourite toasted chicken mayo sandwich, great coffee, koeksisters and milk tart.  The boys play in the dust and I see my five-year-old self in my little one’s hunched concentration over roads in the dirt. It makes me unbelievably happy.

One last push to Keimoes where we have checked in to Die Ou Skool guesthouse. It’s like coming home and the holiday has truly begun. More soon, as we move on to Twee Rivieren tomorrow after a hearty Northern Cape breakfast, I hope!  Keep an eye out for Tripadvisor links if I can figure out how to connect them to my blog.

I was born under a wandrin’ star

Tomorrow we leave Somerset-West for the Kalahari. One Landcruiser (my husband’s mistress), two boys, two teenagers (soon to be uncoupled from their i-phones like satellites thrown into orbit), too much food and far too many bags of thingsjustincase.

This blog will hopefully chart our progress, both the highs and lows. I invite you to share this two-week journey with us and hope that it’s an ‘awesome’ ride, as the boys would say!

For me the trip is sure to unlock some old memories but hopefully it will also be about making new ones. I hope the magic of the Kgalagadi will rest in small hearts and open big souls. And that’s probably as lyrical as it’s going to get….because after ten hours in the car with four children I expect my view on the world may have altered somewhat.

Alarm set. 3am wake-up!