Camping in the Kalahari - Namibia Weekend Adventures, Part 2
After an awesome experience in Etosha, we’d start our next weekend adventure camping in the Kalahari Desert. (NOTE: Chipp wanted to buy some calamari to cook just for the fun of saying he made calamari in the Kalahari. Jenna nixed that idea…).
The Gods Must Be Crazy and Ukrainian Resourcefulness
There are some movies you just need to watch before doing certain things. Well, the 1980 classic The Gods Must Be Crazy definitely falls into that category if you’re heading into the Kalahari Desert.
Neither of us had seen the movie for years, but it definitely stands the test of time - still absolutely hilarious and bitingly satirical at the same time. The Tuesday night before venturing into the red sands of the Kalahari (albeit to camp in a reserve, not rough it in the bush…), we threw this on and laughed pretty much to the point of our faces hurting.
And, along the lines of San people self-sufficiency, Chipp had a bit of a “wardrobe malfunction” prior to this trip. With limited backpack space, he traveled with two pairs of pants - jeans and hiking ones. Wearing the latter fairly hard, a tear in the crotch blew out into a full blown split.
Chipp: “Welp, looks like I’m going to need to pick up some new pants before getting on the road tomorrow.”
Jenna, channeling her Ukrainian resourcefulness: “Oh no you’re not. I’ll sew them.”
And sew them she did - no waste there!
Lessons Learned: Shopping for Camping
Loading all of your food and drink into the bed of a pick-up calls for a little more organization than simply stocking a pantry. Instead of just buying in bulk and figuring out a meal from the ingredients on hand, car camping requires a more deliberate, somewhat reversed approach.
We learned pretty quickly that it’s far more efficient to 1) identify the meals you’ll cook, then 2) come up with a shopping list built around each of those meals. This probably won’t seem revolutionary to most people, but it helps a ton when organizing a list to structure the categories as: Wednesday dinner, Thursday breakfast, Thursday dinner, etc. This approach definitely helps avoid food-related SNAFUs (can’t very well get a dozen more eggs or a box of pasta in the middle of the Kalahari!).
So that’s the routine we established. Pick up the car, swing by a grocery store, and go meal-by-meal for the next few days (and drink-by-drink - just as crucial to a culinarily successful camping trip!).
Bagatelle Kalahari Game Ranch
Fully provisioned, we drove south out of Windhoek to our destination, Bagatelle Kalahari Game Ranch. Pitched as a place where the savanna and Kalahari meet, it lived up to the description.
As we pulled through Bagatelle’s gates, a red sand path - a distinct characteristic of the Kalahari Desert - wound through the waving grass of the savanna. To our left and right, parallel sand dunes running for miles formed a secluded valley. Looking at satellite imagery, the uniformity of these linear dunes makes them look almost manmade. Stretching from northwest to southeast, hundreds of these band-like dunes extend east into the heart of the Kalahari, forming the boundary between the savanna and the harsh desert.
A private game reserve, Bagatelle offers something for everyone. We’d be camping at one of the outlying sites, a spot with a balcony-type structure and private bath. In terms of truck camping, this is pretty much peak leisure.
But, Bagatelle also has stunning private cottages atop these dunes - would be great for a family. And, there’s a main lodge with individual rooms, a beautiful swimming pool, and a bar and restaurant. In retrospect, we would’ve spent a few days here, with one full day devoted to lounging around this pool - and frequent trips to the tiki-style outdoor bar!
Game Drives and Kalahari Dunes
Wanting to make the most of our time at Bagatelle - and with great memories from Onguma - we signed up for an afternoon game drive. Unlike Etosha - a public park - Bagatelle doesn’t allow guests to drive themselves through the grounds. As we’d learn shortly, this restriction largely has to do with the craziness of trying to drive up and over the sand dunes that split the reserve into a series of parallel channels.
Drinks in hand, we hopped into the open air seats of a Land Rover with a handful of other guests. For the next couple hours, we bombed all over the reserve, looking for game and [quite firmly] holding on when our driver would floor it up and over impossibly-steep-seeming dunes - wild ride.
In addition to the adrenaline-pumping ride itself, we also had the good fortune to see a couple rhinos. Due to their endangered status, game reserves throughout southern Africa host them to A) prevent poaching, and B) help “make” more rhinos… And the Bagatelle ones - Grace and Rudy - had a little rhino in the works! Apparently rhinos have 16- to 18-month pregnancies, so we didn’t get to see their little one, but it’s pretty exciting for Bagatelle.
Cheetah Conservation in Namibia
Related to endangered species, Bagatelle is certified by the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) as a conservation site.
CCF imposes extremely strict rules for cheetah reserves, because they want to simultaneously protect the cats while not encouraging domestic breeding (i.e. people turning a place into a “cheetah mill” to breed and illegally sell cubs). In that line, every certified reserve needs to have a minimum amount of space for each cheetah to run and live - far larger than the limited confines of zoos.
And, no reserve is allowed to breed cheetahs, so they need to be separated by gender. Instead, the purpose is to take cheetahs that wouldn’t otherwise survive in the wild (mostly due to their mothers being killed) and raise them under the watchful eye of trained reserve personnel.
At Bagatelle, these trained personnel are led by a Scandinavian guy who, for lack of better terms, is an absolute cheetah whisperer. He’s devoted his entire life to caring for these animals, and it shows with the relationships he has. With many of the orphan cats raised from the time they were tiny cubs, they have extremely strong bonds with this guy.
One cheetah in particular - Flash - is almost more like a dog than a cheetah when it comes to playing with the trainer. After bottle feeding the cat through its early days, there’s a near-maternal relationship - even to the point of Flash hopping into the front seat of his pick-up for drives around the reserve!
Lil’ Sebastian and an Astronomy Session
After some post-drive “sundowners” up on the dunes, we headed back to our campsite to get the braai going. As we’ve written, it’s a long process, and we wanted to eat before our evening stargazing plans with Bagatelle’s staff astronomer (perk of staying there, and definitely an amazing experience in Namibia, which has some of the least ambient light in the world).
But, before heading to the outdoor observatory, we had an evening visitor. As we stood around the fire, the flames kicked off enough light to see maybe 20 feet around our campsite. This limited vision led to quite the jump when we first heard - then saw - some sort of animal making its way towards us - not an ideal situation if surrounded by wild animals.
Arming himself with a pair of tongs, Chipp braced for, well, anything coming our way. Turns out the nerves - and “weapon” - were quite unnecessary. Straight out of Parks and Rec, a Lil’ Sebastian-esque mini horse strolled right into our campsite and made himself at home - apparently one of the more domestic Bagatelle animals.
Laughing at the absurdity of the situation, we gave the guy an apple, let him lap for a while at the slop sink, then watched him continue on into the darkness - probably to give the next campsite a fright!