Merely saying the name Kalahari summons all sorts of images; vast expanses of red shimmering sands, multitudes of roaming animals, a wide, star-filled night sky and the famed Bushmen, who call the Kalahari home. And at the desert’s heart is !Xaus Lodge in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Sitting obstinately across the borders of three different countries, the 60 million-year-old Kalahari Desert sends the clear message that it doesn’t care for any of our modern constructs of nation states.
And while the lines in the sand mark the limits of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, each dune of the desert is like the Kalahari is shrugging its broad shoulders.
Those same lines blur when you’re there too.
There’s something about being in this ancient landscape, seeing its incredible nature, learning its secrets and meeting its peoples, that makes you feel small and insignificant but great, eternal and part of it all at the same time.
Check out our video walkthrough of !Xaus Lodge and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park:
Visiting this remarkable landscape feels like you have the very sands of time beneath your feet.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, officially established in 2000, takes up a large part of the Kalahari Desert. And if the names Kgalagadi and Kalahari seem similar to you, that’s because it’s the same word.
Kgalagadi is the Khomani San people (also known as the Kalahari Bushmen) word meaning ‘great thirst’.
Within the realm of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is the !Xaus Lodge – a refuge from the wilderness and a connector to the culture in the Kalahari.
!Xaus Lodge – safari in the Kalahari
There are plenty of accommodation options for safari in the Kalahari and within the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, but !Xaus Lodge is different. It gives you a more authentic experience and an opportunity to make a positive impact to the indigenous population of this part of Africa.
This cultural connection isn’t something you’ll find in many other safari lodges.
Where is !Xaus Lodge and how do you get there?
About 25km from the western border of the Transfrontier Park and also where Namibia begins, !Xaus Lodge is in the spear of South Africa that sticks up from the Northern Cape, squeezing in between Namibia and Botswana.
As addresses go, I don’t envy the postie who has !Xaus Lodge on their route. “91st Dune, off the Auob River Road” will take you to the front door of the lodge, but who’s counting dunes?
The lodge really is in the middle of nowhere.
From the provincial town of Upington and its airport, you have a two-and-a-half hour drive north to the park’s border control. The high fences and strict regulations have a number of purposes. They keep the animals in the park and poachers out, they ensure visitors are equipped and have paid their fees.
It’s also a land crossing into Botswana.
From the border, you have about 20km of sandy, bumpy unsealed roads to drive until you come to the meeting point where your guide from !Xaus Lodge will transfer you to a company vehicle – and then you start counting dunes!
91 dunes take up about 50km of the desert, so the drive is a long one. But what a journey it is.
What animals are you likely to see there?
From the moment you enter the park, the amount of wildlife you see jumps impressively.
Because of the sparseness of vegetation and tall trees here in the desert, it’s easier to spot creatures as you drive around the park.
Of course, because they’re wild animals living in a vast landscape, it’s impossible to guarantee a spotter’s list.
However, here’s what we saw, and apart from the three male black maned lions lying by the side of the road and the eland (South Africa’s largest antelope and the Khomani people’s most sacred animal) our trip wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
Sociable weaver bird
White backed vulture
Pale chanting goshawk
Big game & predators
Black maned lion
African wild cat
African wild dog/Painted wolf
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park doesn’t have elephant, rhinoceros or hippopotamus.
What does !Xaus mean?
!Xaus Lodge was built in this location, far from the main road and the river for a few reasons. But mostly, it’s here because of the waterhole below the lodge. At a certain angle, the waterhole looks a bit like a heart, hence the name.
The word !xaus means ‘heart’ in the Khoisan language of the Khomani San people. Both the ‘!’ and the ‘X’ represent the clicks many of the languages in Africa use. ‘!’ is a click from the front of the mouth where your tongue leaves your alveolar ridge.
The ‘X’ is from the tongue leaving your soft palate at the back of your throat – though sounds similar to a ‘k’ sound in non-click languages.
It’s a complicated set of sounds to make, so it’s not frowned upon to just say ‘Kaus’ – rhyming with ‘house’.
There’s a good reason why the lodge has a Khomani name:
Why is !Xaus Lodge so special?
Apart from being the only safari lodge this far in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, !Xaus Lodge is also run and staffed by actual Khomani San people who are the rightful occupants of this land.
State park borders were established here in 1931 which resulted in dispossession and eviction of San from their homelands.
The government built !Xaus Lodge in 2011 to give the Khomani with a money-making business part of an ongoing reconciliation programme. You can find out more about the Khomani’s battle with the government here.
The NGO for the Transfrontier Park help with things like marketing, logistics and hospitality training, but all profits all go back to Bushmen.
What this gives you as a guest – apart from knowing that your money is helping the cultural heritage of one of Africa’s first nation peoples – it also means you’re incredibly close to the knowledge of the land.
There aren’t many that can say they’ve met and travelled with a real Kalahari Bushman.
What’s the lodge and the rooms like?
Both for safety from animals and for minimising impact on the environment, the whole lodge is up on stilts.
From the main lodge, which has a pool, the dining room, bar, reception, shop and viewing areas, the 12 chalets are set out along a wooden walkway perched on the top of the 91st dune.
Below the lip of the dune, the waterhole, which is usually dry but always has a large water-filled trough, stretches out before you – 1km across and 3km around. From the veranda in your room, you can see wildlife coming to drink from miles around.
Inside, the chalets are fairly simple, with sparse decorations, though the novelty of the wooden walls and roof give interest enough. Beds are large and comfortable, as are the loungers on the balcony.
The bathroom runs off the bore water from a deep-drill well. Amazingly, the water is very saline, which makes the shower a bit strange and unsatisfying. A clay pot of drinking water is regularly topped up though.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all made by the Khomani staff. The meals are served at the big communal table in the main lodge. Food is a mixed bag, though always tasty. Transporting goods from Cape Town and Johannesburg present their own challenges.
As for the bar, you’ll find a good selection of South African wine and beer – even craft brews from nearby Upington called Kalahari Craft Beer, which is excellent.
What activities does !Xaus Lodge offer?
Day and night drives across the dunes in the lodge’s safari 4×4 with fully open sides offer incredible views of the desert and its wildlife. There’s also a sunset drive that ends in drinks high on a dune looking out across the park.
There’s an early morning hike from the lodge with an experienced Khomani San tracker. We were with Castro – an absolute genius who can spot an animal spore or an insect burrow from 100 yards. You point out a bird and he’ll tell you what it’s thinking.
One of the most incredible experiences though is the visit to the Khomani camp. Not far from the lodge is a spot where local San people gather to make traditional jewellery and ornaments with wood, bone and ostrich eggs.
A short walk from the lodge takes you to their camp where you get to meet Bushman elder. He explains a short history of his people, shows some primitive weapons they still use, shows how to make fire by hand and teaches you some Khoisan words.
He also introduces you to his family.
You must be accompanied to do this though. The proximity to a water source means it’s not safe to go anywhere beyond the lodge without a guide.
If this story isn’t enough for you, here are some other reasons why you should visit South Africa.
We really didn’t know what to expect from our trip to the Kalahari. But we left feeling like something inside us had changed. It seems that Africa has that constant effect on you.