Thursday, March 3, 2011


The Kalahari is a huge semi-arid area, a sand-filled basin in the west of the southern African subcontinent, covering almost a third of it. The name Kalahari is derived from the Kgalagadi word for 'the land which dried up', 'the dry land' or 'the thirstland'. It doesn’t sound attractive, but desert areas are very special, rich with rare and interesting creatures and plants. And people. The Kalahari is among the last refuges of the Bushman or San peoples.

The animals that live there are remarkably adapted to the area. The Springbok – South Africa’s national animal – can live off the arid vegetation in the sand dunes right through the dry winter months without drinking, finding enough moisture in the water-hoarding plants to keep going. The magnificent Cape Oryx (known locally as the Gemsbok) is widely distributed and successful in the Kalahari. There are even elephants who manage to find a living in the desert in Namibia. 

The Kalahari game reserve has an interesting history. The le Riche family has a long relationship with the area. In 1899, Christoffel le Riche and his wife Martie moved just south of the existing reserve. In 1899 their first son Johannes was born, and in 1904 their second son Joseph (later known as Joep).

After considerable excitement but very little action during the first world war – this part of the Kalahari borders what was then German South West Africa- the area was proclaimed as a National Park in 1931. Johannes le Riche became the first game warden. Le Riche and his assistant – Gert Januarie – patrolled the area on horseback. This was not the safest activity in the world because although lions tend to leave humans alone, horses are regarded as fair game. Staying on a horse in full flight from a lion is certainly not something I intend to attempt! (Actually staying on a horse under any circumstances is beyond me.) Nevertheless, although they had many adventures, they survived for three years.
Auob river, dry (as usual)
Their deaths were extraordinary. The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park – as it was then known – is bounded by two rivers the Auob and the Nossob. Auob means ‘bitter water’ and Nossob means ‘dark clay’. The river beds stretch between the sand dunes and calcrete ridges and are natural migration paths for animals, and now roadways for visitors. Subterranean water flows below the surface supporting the acacia trees and other vegetation along their banks. What they don’t do often is flow with water on the surface. That happens about every fifty to a hundred years.  But in 1934 they came down in flood. Johannes and Gert didn’t drown, but they succumbed to malaria in the heart of the Kalahari desert.

Brown Hyena
Johannes’ brother Joep agreed to become warden on a temporary basis. He stayed for another 36 years. One of his many achievements was to recommission the water holes which had been drilled during the war, thus supplying water points in the beds of the Auob (bitter or not) and Nossob for the animals and so encouraging them to stay in the game reserve. Another was towing my parents’ car back to camp after we had broken down fifty miles up the Nossob road. In those days he knew every visitor and where they were supposed to be. Don’t try it today.
I was eleven at the time. I remember the midnight journey as bumping through a perpetual cloud of the finest grey river dust with almost no visibility. The only highlight was a nocturnal aardvark flashing across the road between the two vehicles.

Joep met many interesting characters and had many tales to tell. But that’s another story…

Michael – Thursday.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, evocative stuff Michael. I would love to go one day.