In a remote national park on the border of South Africa and Botswana, Ann and Steve Toon stalk the trail of the legendary Kalahari lions.
It’s Summer in the Kalahari and the temperature, normally an energy-sapping 30-something degrees Celsius, is pushing 44. The wind is picking up and purple clouds, the colour of a bruise, are gathering. Serious rain is on the way. A herd of skittish springbok antelope hightails it to the dunes, and the swirling sand fills our mouths and eyes with grit. With no chance of picking up fresh tracks, the search for our big pride male lion is abandoned until daybreak.
Back at camp, while turning chops on the braai (South African for barbecue), we’re treated to a mother of an electrical storm above the distant dune ridges. It lights up the campsite with long flashes of piercing white light, like someone’s flicking the switch on a fluorescent lamp. Luckily the rain doesn’t come until much later, but when it does, the relentless drilling noise it makes on our tent means we’re hardly rested when it’s time to hit the trail again at sunrise.
At least it’s stopped raining. Provided we get out before anyone can spoil the trail with their tyre tracks, the wet sand should preserve any fresh pugmarks. The search is on for the black-maned bruiser who, like a tawny-skinned Tony Soprano, heads up the local pride. We’ve named him Big Daddy because he’s a massive brute and has recently fathered cubs. They’re old enough to be tumbling along with the family group, so there’s a chance we’ll catch up with them. Although, in these parts, the mortality rate for young lions is high. Abandonment and starvation are common, if the jackals don’t finish them first.
The lions of the Kalahari are legendary, topping the bucket list of every self-respecting bushwhacker in southern Africa. Experts will tell you there’s no real difference in physique between them and other African lions; that other lions can have luxuriant dark manes like this and other males can grow just as big. But they’ll also not deny that when you see a Kalahari male standing proud in this arid landscape he’ll appear bigger, more handsome and far more imposing than his savannah cousins.
We’re staying at Mata-Mata rest camp on the South African side of the remote Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. This vast national park, straddling the border with Botswana, is renowned for its big cat encounters. In addition to the famous lions, it’s also one of the best places on the planet to see a cheetah at full tilt, while the leopards, elsewhere shy and elusive, can be as bold as brass. Mata-Mata nudges the border with Namibia. The tourist track from here runs parallel with and close to the dry riverbed of the Auob, which flows only once every one hundred years. The open terrain is prime territory for wildlife watching, although it’s not the place to tick off the big five – there are no elephants, buffaloes or rhinos here. Instead you get close encounters. On successive game drives over subsequent days, you can follow individual animals, observing their behaviour and piecing together their stories. Along the way there’s the chance to meet some of the other critters – meerkats, ground squirrels, foxes, jackals, giraffe, brown hyena – who play cameo roles in this daily drama.
Despite its stifling temperatures and dramatic storm bursts, summer is one of the best times to see lions, who lounge close to the waterholes and patrol the riverbeds where prey like wildebeest and gemsbok gather after rain.
From the moment we leave camp our eyes are fixed downwards, scanning the trail before us. The secret stories of the Kalahari night are laid bare in this complex tracery of animal tracks. Here, there are the tiny tramlines of a tok-tokkie beetle, so-named because he makes a ‘tokking’ sound as he bumps his rear end on the ground to attract a mate. There, the jaywalking steps of an opportunistic jackal. He got sidetracked, digging out a rodent burrow, before moseying on his way. Swirling hoof prints highlight where a herd of wildebeest thundered over the sandy banks in a panic, disturbed during their nocturnal feeding.
Following tracks like this is the best chance to pick up the resident pride male before he disappears into the shade to rest. Lions can spend 20-plus hours sleeping each day so there’s only a narrow window of opportunity to see him at his majestic best.
It means skipping breakfast, but a combination of adrenaline and panic fuels the morning’s search. Tactics are discussed. Should we stake out Craig Lockhart waterhole, a popular meeting place for his pride, or Dalkeith waterhole on the edge of his range? For six days we’ve followed our lion through this wilderness in the hope he’ll lead us to his youngsters, but in the past 48 hours we haven’t seen a whisker.
Our attention is caught by the ‘wee-chee-choo-chip-chip’ flight calls of sandgrouse on their way to water. The birds must be an omen because not only do we notice there’s a huge rainbow hanging over the dunes, but there in the road is also a set of plate-sized prints, unmistakably lion. We slow to a crawl following the heavy impressions, picturing the alpha male laying claim to this track in the dead of night with his swinging, muscular movements. He might be anywhere by now and we could be stymied if his tracks leave the road, but the terrain here is open and, unless he’s already flat out under a thorn tree, there’s a faint chance we might still pick him up.
Then we’re on his tail, literally, being hypnotised by the cocoa-coloured pompom of fur flicking from side to side. Some 250 kilos of Africa’s largest carnivore is nonchalantly planting one gigantic paw in front of the other, creating the very trail we’re following. He’s not bothered by our intrusion. Even the thrum of the approaching engine isn’t enough to divert him from his progress. It’s only when we draw to a complete stop that he turns his massive head, disdainfully, to face us.
It’s difficult to describe just how vulnerable you feel when your eyes meet the unwavering stare of a predatory lion. We’re close enough to see the scars on his muzzle. From the look of his full stomach, he has been away on a kill.
The male stops, shakes out his mane then lifts his tail to scent-mark the nearby bushes. He yawns before settling down on the sandy bank by the track. There’s no sign of the other pride members. It’s highly likely this is the end of the morning’s excitement so we relax a bit and have a snack, as you do when you’re parked next to a huge male lion.
Suddenly he’s alert, staring intently beyond our vehicle. Through binoculars we make out the distinct shapes of two lionesses ambling this way. There, among their legs, are three fat cubs. When the youngsters join the male, they begin pulling his tail and play-fighting in the shade right by us. They’re comical to watch. One even peeps out at us from behind a tree trunk, fascinated, no doubt, by the constant clicking of our cameras.
The sighting is typical of the intimate wildlife encounters that reward your patience in this magical place. But heart-warming as this little domestic scenario may seem there is no room for sentiment or complacency. Big Daddy’s cubs may be safe for today but tomorrow in the Kalahari the daily struggle for survival starts over again.
Qantas flies daily from Sydney and Perth to Johannesburg. South African Airways has links to Upington, about 260 kilometres from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. You can buy provisions there and hire a 4WD. qantas.com.au flysaa.com
There is a broad range of accommodation from campsites (US$21) to self-catering chalets (US$70) at three main rest camps: Twee Rivieren, Nossob and Mata-Mata. There’s also one private luxury lodge. xauslodge.co.za
A daily conservation fee of US$23 per person also applies. For bookings and information visit the park website. sanparks.org
Although very hot, summer months are best for seeing big cats. Self-drive at dawn and dusk when the cats are most active. Stake out waterholes and check the tops of dunes with binoculars for lions and cheetahs prospecting for prey in the riverbeds. Also check the shade under trees for lazy lions or cheetahs on the prowl. Ranger-led day and night drives and walks are available.