One Night in the Kalahari Desert

South Africa Travel
by Alexandra Orford Feb 26, 2013
MatadorU travel writing student Alexandra Orford spends a night in the Kalahari.

To me the Kalahari is horizontal lines. Wide, blue sky and a flat, endless horizon lined with waist-high veldt grass and khaki shrubs. Occasionally acacia trees break the lines, but even their tops are stretched wide.

Night comes and the cooling plants release their fragrances. The scents of wild sage drift through the air. The winter months’ temperature variations still amaze me. Days are often in the mid-20s (Celsius), and the nights drop close to freezing. I put on a jersey.

We huddle around the camp fire laughing and telling stories of a tall, graceful giraffe fluttering his long lashes and licking one nostril with his dexterous purple tongue; of elephants who gently touch each other, and draw long drinks and blow bubbles with their trunks at the waterhole; of the hornbill inspecting lunch with his curved, heavy beak.


Our bellies are full and warm from the potjie kos (Dutch, meaning “little pot food”), cooked in a three-legged iron pot.

    “I think once our ancestors made fire, they had potjie kos.”

    “Hunting and gathering for the pot.”

    “Delicious stews made up of what they came across. Gemsbuck meat and morama beans the one day, and springbuck meat and tsama melons the next.”

    “Layered in the order they were found.”

    “Slow cooked and marinated in gravy made up of the ingredient’s different juices.”

    “A real taste of the land. No dish ever alike.”

    “These days, we cook what we find in the villages along the way. Not quite the same, but it works.”

Fire turns to coal. Insects scuttle and chirp in the background. Every now and then we hear the call of the black-backed jackal. We begin to settle down.

Dung beetle

At the edge of our coal light, a dung beetle determinedly pushes his dung ball. We quietly watch him for a while.

    “Did you know that dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate, just like us?”

We turn and look up. There is no moon. The Milky Way is spilled across the sky. I catch my breath. In the Kalahari you can feel big as you observe something small, feel tiny as you realize you are part of an infinite universe, and feel your soul is too large for your chest, all at the same time.

Eventually we go to bed.

A pride of lions wake me. Not making a sound, I lie still in my sleeping bag and listen. I feel privileged, thrilled, a little scared. The theory is that I am safe in a tent. Deep down inside, or maybe not so deep down, I am not convinced the millimeter-thick tent fabric is enough to protect me. My wildly beating heart agrees.

A short while later, the roars and grunts have faded away. I crawl out of my tent to see dawn spilling over the horizon. The air smells icy and sweet.

Amongst the ashes of last night’s fire are a couple of hot coals. I add kindling and wood. Soon they start burning and the smoke mixes with the smell of frost on dry veldt grass. I place an old battered kettle on a grill over the flames and wait for the water to come to a boil.

A little later the lid is rattled by steam. I grab the kettle’s handle with a cloth and pour myself a cup of coffee. Then I sit back, take a sip, and watch the yellow sunrise. There is very little pink in the sky, as the air is so pure.

The others are still sleeping. It’s peaceful. Birds gently sing the day to life. When I exhale, my breath makes white plumes.

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