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With its undulated and expansive landscape, Tswalu encompasses barefoot luxury at its finest. Stretching over 271,816 acres of vast Kalahari terrain, you will want to kick off your shoes and stay here forever.
You know it’s a hot day when the warthogs not only come to lap up the precious water at the watering hole, but have a roll-around in it as a cooling off attempt. Even the wildebeest are gathering at the same hydration point to try and quench their thirst.
Hot summers and cool winters form an integral part of one of the last Eden’s in South Africa’s largest private game reserve. They form the backdrop for a green Kalahari when the summer rains descend on the unique red earth, springing about a transfusion of life-sustaining greenery for the preservation of existence in this otherwise barren wilderness.
My visit to Tswalu Kalahari is fraught with firsts – first time in a Pilatus PC-12, first time to the Kalahari, first time with a private safari guide and tracker, first time seeing Kalahari black-maned lions; the list goes on and on; making it an exceptional experience from the get-go.
The red earth stretches as far as the eye can see, with greenery dotted like a Claude Monet masterpiece. As Captain Antonie Froneman starts the descent into the sprawling topography, it soon makes me realise that in spite of the sweltering heat, the Kalahari is one of the most beautiful and diverse panoramas in the world.
I am welcomed at the airstrip by head guide Chris Erasmus and tracker James Sekwe and after a 30-minute drive through the reserve where we spot oryx, giraffe, tsessebe and Namaqua doves in their breeding dress, the very friendly Tswalo duty manager Rachel Victor greets me at reception with a cool refresher towel.
“Your suite is almost ready,” she says, “in the meantime; please sit down for breakfast or lunch.” Head chef Alewyn Malan is at hand to discuss food allergies and menus with me, tailor-made to your preference. “If we don’t have it in stock, we will source it for you, and fly it in,” says Alewyn. Really? Yes, just another part of the Tswalu ‘we will cater for your every need’ magic.
My table on the veranda has a view of the watering hole, where a myriad of animals come to drink at all times of the day. It is my first ever sight of a roan antelope and a sable antelope. After brunch, Rachel walks me to my accommodation, legae 6, where after an informative show-around of my impressive dwelling for the next two nights, I order a delicious frothy cappuccino and watch the passing wildlife from my oversized wicker chair. I’m slightly startled by the influx of animals and the shortcut past my room is a wonderful surprise – suddenly a warthog appears out of nowhere while the wildebeest and their calves run up and down right in front of me.
I am scheduled to meet Chris and James at reception for my helicopter flight over the reserve and I’m giddy with excitement. Not only to fly in the Agusta Westland 119 single engine helicopter, but to get an eagle eye view from my comfortable cream leather seat up in the sky. Gus van Dyk, director of wildlife is sitting beside me, explaining the conservation efforts of Tswalu, restoring the Kalahari back to its beautiful self. The helicopter flight is a wonderful addition to the already exciting extra offerings at Tswalu – you can either book a conservation educational or enjoy a Korannenberg mountain picnic with uninterrupted views of the southern Kalahari.
Back on terra firma, Chris and James are ready to take me on my first game drive. I had been asked what I would like to see and having done some research on Tswalu and the animals that inhabit the region, I know I want to see the Kalahari black-maned lions. We happen to be in the part of the reserve when the lions roam, so finding them should be a piece of cake, or so I thought. Once again, the interaction and kinship between guide and tracker yields the desired result – find tracks, follow them and with the right amount of intuition and animal behaviour knowledge, the animal will be in your sights before you know it.
The Southern Pride’s big male lion is lying fast asleep not quite in the shade. Under the tree next to him, three sub-adult lionesses are having a slumber. We sit and take in the absolute magnificence of these beasts for a good hour before they start moving about. The male opens his eyes momentarily and rolls onto his back to continue his siesta. Suddenly, a female sparks his interest and it is rumoured that he has been mating with her. She has just come out of oestrus and gives him a nasty smack when he gets too close for her liking. We all laugh out loud when he sniffs where she has sat and proceeds to do the flehmen grimace.
After this incredible sighting, we set off to find a suitable sundowner spot on top of a ‘koppie’ (hill). Chef Alewyn and the rest of the kitchen staff have pulled out all the stops to put together a picnic with trimmings deluxe – beef burgers, potato salad, beef kebabs, lamb ribs, chicken drumsticks, a selection of fruit, chocolate mousse and any tipple that tickles your fancy. I quietly contemplate skipping dinner because this was just too much delicious food. Rachel had jokingly told me earlier that no guest is allowed to leave until they have gained at least eight pounds, which by the look of my eating habits during my first day at Tswalu is easily attainable.
I freshen up before dinner which is a veritable feast of ‘My Inspiration – by Alewyn’, consisting of grilled octopus or chilled cucumber soup or springbok tartar for starters, grilled sea bass, kudu wellington on potato rosti, duck breast on a sautéed vegetable or fried tofu disks. I opt for the kudu wellington on potato rosti served with baby beets, spinach puree, glazed carrots and a cranberry port reduction and truffle salt made to perfection. After my filling picnic, I ask for a single serving of vanilla ice cream instead of the dessert choices consisting of plum, mint ice cream and liquorice meringue or Amarula tiramisu.
Time for my pre-sleep nightly ritual of a clean(s)ing shower with Kalahari shower products. It’s difficult to choose between the inside or outside shower, because standing outside I will witness the star-spangled sky above and might forget to shower! Clean and refreshed, I dry myself with the fluffy white towel before climbing into my enormous bed, draped in cream and light blue linen with the dropped mosquito net.
The following morning is overcast with a smidgen of rain falling, which means the road will have fresh tracks on it from a ‘blank slate’. James thinks he spots African wild dog tracks and all of a sudden, we are in hot pursuit of them, but we seem to be driving in circles. They must be somewhere and as we approach the clearing, I smell the distinct odour that can only be that of a wild dog. They are huddled together in the cool weather and as soon as the sun makes an appearance, they start playing and running amok. We follow them through the reserve – chasing baboons up the mountain and stalking guinea fowl. These callous hunters will eat just about anything.
It’s still drizzling and James is certain he has spotted cheetah tracks. They lead to a dead end. Chris backs up and turns the vehicle around and there they are, two brothers lying under some shrubbery.
Tswalu is home to the most prolific bird species – spotted eagle-owls, Kalahari scrub-robins, pale chanting goshawks, Southern anteating chats, fiscal flycatchers, African red-eyed bulbuls and the adorable sociable weavers.
Another cornerstone of Tswalu is the Tswalu Foundation, spearheaded by Dylan Smith. Apart from the conservation work they do on the reserve, the foundation focuses on how to further empower the youth through knowledge and research on the impact of climate change and the human effect on the landscape. With a research centre based at Tswalu, the contribution to the sustainability of the animal species as well as the landscape form critical components of the longevity of critically endangered species such as pangolin.
It is late in the afternoon and there is a surprise in store for me – a visit to the meerkat colony. I have never seen meerkats in the wild, let alone walked to them on foot. Having been habituated to people in their vicinity, they scratch in the ground all around me in the hope of finding something to feed on. I am completely in awe of the cuteness factor and they don’t seem to mind my presence. It is time for them to enter their burrow, but not before the little ones enjoy some playtime and the mom grooms the smallest of the lot before sending him off to ‘bed’.
With so many firsts for me, have you ever felt the Kalahari sand between your toes? Here at Tswalu Kalahari, you will experience barefoot luxury at its best. Go on, book a trip here. Take your shoes off. You know you want to.
Thank you to Jeannine Orzechowski for making the arrangements and to Tswalu Kalahari for hosting me.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Tswalu operates a daily scheduled service between Cape Town International Airport and O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg directly to the reserve’s own airstrip. Get there in style in Fireblade Aviation’s Pilatus PC-12 pressurized private aircraft, complete with Bushmen paintings on the exterior of the plane. More information on flight times and getting there by road is available on www.tswalu.com