Whilst for many people, the word ‘desert’ conjures up images of vast expanses of nothingness, the major deserts of sub-Saharan Africa are important global destinations, filled with a massive variety of wildlife, ancient peoples and majestic landscapes. There is then also the distinction between wilderness areas and deserts which are sometimes similar and sometimes radically different.
The Karoo desert, and its cousin the Klein Karoo, is the segment of land that stretches up from the southern coast and eastwards from the west coast of South Africa towards the north. Nobody has ever actually set the borders of the Karoo so it’s still a mystery where it starts and ends! It’s actually not a total desert: there is water here but very intermittent so a semi-desert would be the best way to describe it. Driving through it on the N1, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing in the entire 1 000km drive between Jo'burg and Cape Town and for this very reason, most visitors to South Africa just fly over the whole thing.
However, you’d be missing out! There are many reasons, and ways, to visit the Karoo. The Karoo National Park, for instance, is a South African National Park just outside Beaufort West (about two hours from Cape Town). Here you can see a wide variety of wildlife, including lion and rhinoceros, at least three types of eagle and big herds of zebra, springbok, gemsbok, and eland. The park also happens to boast the largest number of tortoise species anywhere in the world and has such a rich fossil history that you literally stumble across fossils everywhere you go. You can easily drive around most of the Karoo National Park in a normal car (although there are some 4x4 routes if you’d like) and there is accommodation in the park too of a good standard. As this is very much not on the tourist route, you’re pretty much guaranteed of total tranquillity at any time of year (the same cannot be said of most SANParks).
Another way of visiting the Karoo is to rather visit the Klein Karoo. This road follows the path of the Garden Route, going inland behind the mountains. You take a road trip along the R62, now dubbed the Route 62, in honour of Route 66 in the USA. This strange little road takes you through some even stranger towns, all offering a very alternative way of living. There is excellent food, really interesting art and craft and some other-worldly music and performing arts venues to boot, all coupled with a laid-back attitude. You’ll start in the eastern winelands of the Cape and travel through Barrydale, Calitzdorp, Ladismith and arrive in Oudtshoorn, which most people know as the ostrich capital of Africa but actually has a lot to recommend it architecturally and some simply superb places to stay. We’re big fans both of La Plume and also Thabile Lodge.
This utterly splendid and little-known wilderness is situated between Oudtshoorn and Port Elizabeth. It’s a vast wilderness reserve (meaning that unlike a national park, people live inside it in properties they own but the area around them is protected and only partially managed). The biggest attraction in the Baviaans is the spectacular scenery and the plant life: it’s a major component of the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is the smallest yet most diverse floral kingdom on the planet. The Baviaans is enormous, covering over 5000 square kilometres, which makes it about 25% the size of Kruger.
You can either travel through from east to west or west to east, but be aware that the eastern half can, at certain times of year, necessitate a 4x4 and the road is very thin. We can’t get enough of Sederkloof, which is just a destination in itself on the western side of the reserve but there are many more superb accommodation choices too.
Much more famous in global terms than either of the above, the Namib Desert has become iconic for its unique landscapes. It may actually be one of the most photographed deserts in the world. With its various different colours of sand, dried out lakes, it is one of the most arid places on earth, so arid that not even microbes can survive and as such, the natural processes of rot and rust simply do not occur here (great news if you drive an Alfa Romeo). If you thought the Kruger was big at 20 000 square kilometres, try the Namib at 81 000!
The wildlife in the Namib has to be pretty odd to survive such aridity and of course this is a reason to visit on its own. One of the very few sources of moisture is the Atlantic Ocean fog which rolls over the enormous sand dunes and the plants and animals have adapted to trap water droplets from it (one beetle, not spider, even builds webs to catch fog). There are though, perhaps incredibly, large mammals which live here, including gemsboks, ostriches and even elephants although with the size of the desert, you will be lucky to see them.
Confusingly, the Namib isn’t actually totally within Namibia: much of it is within Angola and South Africa, as it stretches along the Atlantic Coast so to avoid confusion, a park called the Namib-Naukluft National Park, which is entirely within Namibia, has been created. This makes visiting the desert much easier than previously. Many visitors are content to visit Sossusvlei, where the eerie dried up lake with the multi-coloured sand dunes are to be found, and a bit of the Skeleton Coast (so called because of the vast number of shipwrecks on it caused by the fog). Unlike the other desert areas mentioned here, the Namib is now completely uninhabited by humans and so trying to visit more than the Skeleton Coast and Sossusvlei independently is challenging.
A visit to Namibia and the Namib is at least a week-long commitment but very worthwhile. It’s best to either view it as a northern circuit or a southern circuit, with the northern being the easiest to visit independently.
The granddaddy of all the deserts mentioned so far is the Kalahari, at an enormous 900 000 square kilometres, it’s dwarfed only by the Sahara and the Gobi (if you exclude Antarctica and the Arctic). Whilst most of it is in Botswana, just like the Namib, it also crosses into Namibia and South Africa.
The two unique things about the Kalahari are that it’s almost totally flat and that it has one seasonal river which floods every year. These two facts combine to create the Okavango Delta, which is the marshland that the Okavango River floods every year to a greater or lesser degree. As such, many people argue that the Okavango area of the Kalahari is not a ‘true’ desert, although on the other side, the water is highly unpredictable sometimes flooding hardly occurs. Rainfall can be as much as 500mm or as little as 100mm and in any case the Delta only floods for at most three months of the year, or less than a month in some years (the rest of the year being bone dry).
When the Delta floods, it obviously attracts a wealth of animals to its shores. Such a wealth that in fact the animal sightings here are amongst the most prolific on the whole content during the flood season. Meerkats, due to their rather endearing antics. have become a reason to visit the Kalahari on its own but the desert also plays host to hyena, wild dog, lion, cheetah and many more large, and often migratory, animals besides.
Another major drawcard of the Kalahari are the San people who can be shown to have lived in the area for over 20 000 years. This makes them one of the oldest extant peoples on the planet who are sadly constantly threatened by their own government and South African mining concerns. Visits to them in themselves are controversial but becoming more possible.
Perhaps ironically for such a dry place, the largest underground lake ever discovered sits right below the Kalahari and has a name straight out of a Tolkien novel: Dragon’s Breath Cave. It was discovered by accident as late as 1986 and has still not been fully explored.
Visiting the Kalahari completely independently by car isn’t so easy (in fact it’s demanding) and so for this reason, many visitors combine Gaborone (the capital) with the Delta, the Makgadakadi Pans and Victoria Falls in one trip. You need about five days to make this worthwhile but a week would be better.
Let us know !