Tswalu – The Red Kalahari
The Kalahari is Africa’s most unique safari destination. It’s a desert – there’ll be plenty of sand and smooth-lined dunes in your view – but the Kalahari is also a landscape of trees and grassland, mountains and wetlands. And far from being a harsh and uninhabitable environment, the Kalahari is home to an astonishing diversity of wildlife with some of the rarest and most sought-after animal sightings in the world.
You can visit the Kalahari and view its wildlife in several countries – notably Botswana – but if you are looking for the purest distillation of the Kalahari experience, then South Africa’s Tswalu Reserve stands head and shoulders above everyone else.
The country’s largest private reserve, Tswalu protects a great swathe of red-sand Kalahari and its wild animals. And because Tswalu lies at an ecological junction between savannah and desert, the animals are a fascinating mix of familiar savannah species – giraffe, buffalo, zebra, warthog – and arid-area specialists such as brown hyena, oryx gazelle and black rhino. All the top land predators are there: cheetah, leopard, spotted hyena, wild dog – and Kalahari lions come in extra-large size with black manes.
What Tswalu is really famous for, however, is its ability to deliver regular sightings of the truly rare and elusive animals of Africa: the ant-eating trio of the aardvark, pangolin and aardwolf as well as perennial favourites like honey badgers and bat-eared foxes. The pangolin sightings are especially impressive; this writer spent five years on safari in Botswana and never even saw their footprints let alone an actual animal.
Tswalu is a private operation and an unashamedly top-end one. You’ll fly there from Johannesburg and stay in complete luxury with the pleasure of exceptional service. There are three camps – the Motse offers couples and family suites, the Tarkuni Homestead is a private-use villa and Loapi Tented Camp is where to go for complete privacy. Together, the camps total just 40 beds which gives Tswalu the lowest guest footprint (beds per hectare) in the whole of South Africa. And since each booking is guaranteed a private vehicle with field guide and professional tracker, a Tswalu safari is truly a bespoke and exclusive experience. Your safari programme is built around your interests and includes game drives, guided walks and horse-back safaris but make sure you leave some time for the classic Kalahari experience – meeting a family of habituated meerkats.
It’s a wildlife photographer’s dream (there’s an in-house photographic guide and a specially equipped photo-safari vehicle) but the range of accommodation and ambience means the camps are equally suited to honeymooners and families. Other features at Tswalu include star-bed sleep outs, fine dining and spa treatments.
But this is no gratuitous show of wealth: Tswalu is deeply involved in wildlife conservation and is committed to local communities. Scientific programmes have resulted in boosting the populations of endangered animals like black rhino, wild dog, pangolins, the roan antelope and brown hyena while community commitment means Tswalu draws its human resources from the area, runs a guide training academy and provides free primary health care to anyone living with a 100 kilometre (60 mile) radius.
It does come with a price however; Tswalu is never going to be the cheapest part of your safari but it will more than likely be the highlight. And the rates you pay go towards keeping this part of the Kalahari and its animals protected for perpetuity. And sometimes that’s a price worth paying.