What distinguishes the Kalahari from a true desert is that the average rainfall across the area is higher than 250mm per year. Like true deserts, the Kalahari has precious little surface water. It’s only during the wet season that some of the many ephemeral pans and river courses have open water available.
The Kalahari has been described as the land of the vanishing rivers. The central Kalahari is home to some ancient rivers in Deception Valley that have not had water flow for thousands of years. The southern and western Kalahari, however, is home to the Molopo, Moselebe, Kuruman, Nossob, and Aoub rivers, which only flows during very wet periods. Ancient, fossilised riverbeds in the southern Kalahari like the Phepane River are also not uncommon. A section of the Molopo River that flowed through the area where !Khamab is located, changed its course 2-5 million years ago and its remnants are still visible as a line of pans through the reserve in a south-westerly direction.
There is no evidence of any permanent flow in these southern Kalahari rivers for the past 12 000 years. Species living in the Kalahari permanently have had to adapt to long periods without surface water.
Never-ending red dunes are the first image in most people’s minds when they think of the Kalahari. This is somewhat true. While it is the largest sand expanse in the world, dunes are only a distinguishing characteristic where the Kalahari stretches west to the Namib desert. In large areas of the central and southern Kalahari, as well as areas further north and east, dunes are absent. Here the landscape is characterised by gently undulating, largely featureless, sandy plains.
The sands of the Kalahari, red due to a thin layer of iron oxide covering the grains of sand, are very deep and originated from the Pleistocene period. Although most of the sands are wind formed, they have been in place since then. They are not characterised by the “moving sand” tendencies witnessed in other deserts. Large sand sheets up to 200m deep mean there are few areas with exposed bedrock and hills or koppies are limited.
The surface characteristics for most of the Kalahari are a combination of these deep sandy plains, longitudinal dunes, and exposed pans, often with calcrete edges. The Kalahari sands are covered with an abundance of vegetation. The drier, south-western Kalahari Desert has few trees or large bushes. Scattered drought-tolerant shrubs and grass tussocks covering the dunes can be found in this region. The slightly wetter southern, eastern and central Kalahari has more trees and drought-tolerant shrubs and grasses. In the wetter north and north-eastern parts, closer to the Okavango Delta, there are denser woodlands, an increased species diversity and a much denser grass cover.
The Kalahari has the lowest plant species to area ratio when compared to other regions of southern Africa, despite the variation in rainfall across the region. Floristically it is regarded as lacking in a variety of species and has few endemics. For an arid savanna, it is quite densely covered with grasses, shrubs and trees. The lack of variety should not take anything away from some of the distinctive species of the Kalahari.
Distinctive flora ranges from impressive camelthorn and shepherd’s trees to shrubs like raisin and puzzle bush and plains covered by bushman’s grass. The Kalahari is also home to many creeping plant species like tsamma melon and gemsbok cucumber. These plants provided food and water to early San inhabitants and many animal species during dry periods, while the unique devil’s claw has many medicinal uses.
Few animal species epitomise the image of the Kalahari quite like the famed black-maned lions or the majestic gemsbok. As with the floral component, the Kalahari also has few endemic fauna species. But the variety of species that call the Kalahari home are second to none. Apart from lions, other predators such as leopards, spotted hyena, brown hyena and the endangered African wild dog and cheetah live here. Coupled with herbivore species such as eland, blue wildebeest, red hartebeest, springbok, giraffe, zebra and even elephant and rhino in the north and east, the Kalahari provides a wildlife spectacle like few other places in Africa.
The Kalahari was once an open system, where animals were free to roam and migrate in search of available resources. This meant they migrated this semi-desert landscape by following thunderstorms into areas of higher seasonal rainfall. Open water is scarce, except during the rainfall season when pans can keep water for short periods, and animals that lived here had to adapt to this waterless land. Only species adapted to survive without water for long periods could live in the Kalahari permanently. The movement of those species less adapted to the dry conditions depended on the rainfall and the availability of surface water in the many pans, or in the rivers that had water during the short, wetter periods.
In the southern Kalahari, indications are that the flow of the Molopo River and most of its tributaries in South Africa has become heavily reduced in recent history. This is due to an increase in the number of irrigation dams being built, coupled with a declining trend in rainfall. The more regular flow of the Molopo River in the past, and with its origin in such as buffalo and elephant into the eastern Kalahari.
!Khamab’s location along the Molopo suggests it would have experienced the movement of most of the typical Kalahari species into, and through, the area historically. During above-average wet periods, there were rare visitors from the bushveld savannas to the east, and species such as elephant and buffalo moved west along the river course looking for the nutritious grazing offered by the Kalahari sweetveld.
Permanent human settlement and agricultural activities were excluded from the area before the 1940s due to a lack of permanent surface water and the absence of technology to drill boreholes and bring the deep subterranean water to the surface. Therefore, limited intensive livestock farming took place before then, making the Molopo area available for wildlife, and natural animal movements into the area occurred until fairly recently. Unfortunately, as technology improved to extract water from the depths, agricultural activities increased, and livestock such as cattle and goats became the dominant animals in the area.
The increase in agricultural activity resulted in more fences, which prevented animal movements from the east and north into the region. Over time the area available to wildlife shifted further north into Botswana towards the central areas of the Kalahari. This happened all along the outer edges of the Kalahari basin, resulting in many diverse fauna species of the Kalahari being limited to few natural areas. Other species can now only be found in fenced game reserves.
The lack of permanent surface water, coupled with a more regular flow of the Molopo River in the past, and the subsequent movement of wildlife species from the Western Bushveld into the Eastern Kalahari, has driven the conservation strategy and management plan of !Khamab Kalahari Reserve.
Some species have become almost synonymous with the Kalahari. Think of the Kalahari and in your mind automatically wanders to regal gemsbok, black-maned lion, curious meerkat, magnificent camelthorn trees and croaking black korhaan! Although all these species can also be found elsewhere, there is something special about seeing them in the semi-desert of the Kalahari.
The Kalahari has been called a predator’s paradise. You will find all of southern Africa’s large carnivore species at !Khamab. Lion, leopard, African wild dog, cheetah, spotted and brown hyena all call !Khamab home. Also, many of the smaller, and often shy carnivore species are present. Black-backed jackal, caracal, aardwolf, African wild cat, honey badger, bat-eared fox, Cape fox, meerkat and two mongoose species are always special to see.
Lower in the food chain you will find the typical ungulate species of the Kalahari. Adapted to survive in this semi-desert with only short periods of available surface water are gemsbok, eland, giraffe, red hartebeest, steenbok, and springbok.
With permanent water now provided in nine waterholes, species that were known to be present in large numbers as they migrated through the area during wet periods in the past are now flourishing. Blue wildebeest and zebra are flourishing at !Khamab and form an important food source for the large predators on the reserve. !Khamab’s proximity to the Molopo River puts the current location of the reserve in the historic migration routes of many species that moved west, following the river course – before humans occupied the area and fences prevented migration in large numbers. Elephant, buffalo, kudu and small populations of both rhino species now occur permanently on the reserve.
The Kalahari is also well known for its raptors, and !Khamab provides a place where many can soar in the skies. The reserve provides a safe place where two vulture species – the white-backed and lappet-faced vultures – can build their nests in tall camelthorn or shepherd’s trees. Other common raptors include bateleur, secretary bird and several eagle, owl, falcon, goshawk and kite species. The reserve is also home to other birds that are synonymous with the Kalahari. This includes the largest bird in the world, the ostrich, and the heaviest flying bird, the kori bustard.
!Khamab falls within the Eastern Kalahari Bushveld Bioregion which is part of the Savanna Biome, and the vegetation is classified as Molopo Bushveld. This vegetation type comprises a mixture of open and closed savanna, with a stronger grass component than some other areas of the Kalahari, particularly the dune veld. Typical tree species commonly found throughout the Kalahari are camelthorn, shepherd’s tree, false umbrella thorn, blackthorn, and silver cluster leaf. There is a well-developed shrub layer, as well as many creeping species such as tsamma melons, wild cucumbers and gemsbok cucumbers which are important food and water sources for animals during dry periods. Early humans also used these species as a source of food and water.
An outstanding feature of the Eastern Kalahari Bushveld is the presence of endorheic pans of varied sizes scattered throughout the landscape. The floors of these pans are covered with short grasses and dwarf shrubs, which provide food to short grass grazers and browsers alike. Notably, springboks use them almost exclusively at times. During wet periods these pans often keep water for several weeks, which serves as important water sources to the typical adapted Kalahari species. This, and the high nutrient composition of the soils, at times, attracts hundreds of ungulates of various species during the wet season. The predators are never far behind, and this provides a wildlife spectacle like few other places in southern Africa.
Want to experience the magic that !Khamab Kalahari offers? Then contact us for a tailor made safari with exclusive use of our lodge. Perfect for intimate breakaways or that special occasion. It will only be you and your chosen company around the fire, the pool or on a game drive. Talk to us to customise your !Khamab Kalahari adventure.