If you look at a map of Botswana, there is a large area of land (over 50,000 km²) right in the middle that has absolutely nothing in it. There is soft sand and scrub brush, and open areas of grassland and salt pans. There is only one road, and it is as flat as the rest of Botswana. So what’s the fascination with this remote piece of the world?

Khutse Game Reserve

Our route starts from Johannesburg via Gaborone into Khutse Game Reserve. So our introduction to the Kalahari is from the south and we intend to drive north towards Deception Pan over the next five days. After a first night at Mokolodi Game Reserve near Gaborone, we now enter Khutse, which is a pleasant enough game reserve, typical of most in Botswana with a large, thatched, reception area and friendly locals.

We have a campsite here, situated between Khutse Pan 1 and Khutse Pan 2. We score camp number eight, but it doesn’t really matter since we are the only ones here! The camp has a tree, an open fireplace, a pit latrine and bucket shower (of which the bucket was missing), and a whole lot of open space. This is a good introduction to wild camping with no fences at all and it is as primitive as can be – or so we thought because it can get even simpler out there in the CKGR!

Is It Hot enough?!

The Khutse Game Reserve is one of the smaller national parks covering an area of around 2,500 km². It has a similar geography to the CKGR with wide open flat areas, grasslands, and many salt pans for game viewing. However, the pans and waterholes are dry! And it was hot, as hot as we’ve experienced anywhere with temperatures reaching 47 degrees. Nobody told us there was a heat wave coming through!

We have a very pleasant night here. It is super quiet of course, since the camps are about twelve kilometres from the gate and in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t spot much game besides a stray kudu and some springbok (rather nice) and at night we didn’t hear much in the form of lions either (maybe a hyena call or two).

In what would become the norm for the next three weeks we are all up bright and early (the sun is also up rather early in the morning). The temperature is already rising quite rapidly at eight a.m. so we elect to start rolling. More because we didn’t an accurate idea of how long the drive would be. We had one hundred kilometres to cover, and boy did we work for it!

Are we in the CKGR yet?

The CKGR adjoins the Khutse Reserve, but there are no fences or gates, just a line on your GPS that indicates you have, indeed, crossed over into the CKGR. We have cut through the top-most eastern piece of Khutse and are headed for the Kukumane kraal (although we didn’t know this at the time).


Most roads around here are super-straight and are known as ‘cutlines’. This indicates cutting through the bushveld in the direction you wish to go, whether it be north or west. There are no hillsides to go around, and no deep rivers or ridgelines to divert your course. Nor is hardly anyone here that owns a piece of land (we’ll get to that point in a minute) so you just head straight in the direction you want to go and it eventually becomes the main (and only) road. Although, ‘road’ is a loose term…

So the going is pretty tough. The sand is soft, like beach sand, which means extra effort is required, from both the engine and the driver. You also need to keep your momentum, and keep moving, because if you stop you may not get going again and dig yourself into a self-made ditch. This is especially true when the temperature rises and the sand turns into powder, literally into dust. Traction is soon rather difficult to maintain.

the ‘bronco’ hilux

This is a big factor in the Hilux. It has soft suspension, designed for washboard and potholes. On, and in, this sand the rear starts bouncing like a pogo stick once you get some speed. So you’re forced to back off and slow down into the clutches of the ever-present super-soft sand. A fine balancing act goes on here – preserve forward motion versus bouncing yourself to a premature demise. This is certainly not a relaxing drive!

Things are far better in the Landcruiser. The suspension deals with the ‘yomps’ in the sand far better and you can keep up your speed without penalty. The V8 also seems to add some extra torque into the mix. Which is very much needed after we pass the Kukumane settlement.

The Khoisan and (UN)Settlements

As if the driving wasn’t challenging enough already (although highly enjoyable), it is about to get a lot worse. And this is partly the fault of the government, never mind the remote semi-desert conditions. Conditions we came for in fact.

There is only one ‘road’ around here, one little twin-track (which is called a ‘tweespoor’ in South Africa and has a ‘middelmannetjie’ (a central ridge) over which you drive. This twin-track is a single lane (so you need to go ‘off-piste’ in order to pass (non-existent) oncoming traffic) and, as mentioned, it is pretty darn dead-straight and lined with bushes and thorn trees doing their best to tear off a wing mirror. So there isn’t much in the way of a diversion or a different route. This is it!

About halfway from the Khutse Pan campsites to the Bape campsite is the Kukumane Kraal. This kraal appears through the scrub brush with several goats, cattle and donkeys hiding from the heat under a random tree. It seems almost improbable that anyone could live here. But then you probably aren’t a Khoisan.

Some local Khoisan History

The local Khoisan people have lived here for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years, but were displaced out of the Kalahari in the 1990s. The government of Botswana claimed they were a drain on resources(?) and moved them out of the CKGR to a new village called New Xade. New Xade is about seventy kilometres from the eastern Xade gate and about 110 kilometres west of Ghanzi. We came through New Xade on our travels and it is quite a remote and empty environment.

The government ‘paid’ the Khoisan people in cattle, which around here is quite good currency. But when you are moved from your ancestral home, it is sparse compensation indeed. This ‘displacement’ ruling was overturned in the early 2000s and many Khoisan elected to return to their beloved Kalahari, although the number of San living here is only in the hundreds.

This is a harsh environment. If we were stranded here, we might not last a week. But the Khoisan understand the harsh semi-desert like no other, and they are used to living out in the bush. What has hampered their efforts at self-sustainability as hunter-gatherers, is that hunting is now banned in Botswana. Even on penalty of death.


Add the drought conditions, lack of borehole maintenance, and the commitment by the government to provide the minimum needs, and it means that a water truck tackles this track bringing water to the Kukumane kraal. This could be viewed as a noble gesture in some ways, but by limiting their traditional lifestyle, the government is obliged to keep a truck running through the reserve. An oxymoron in terms of ‘dumbing down’ the next generation of Khoisan and changing their customs, making them dependent on help from outside.

there’s only one road

This large twenty-ton 6×6 truck is also the source of our own (very much less severe, but severe nonetheless) problems. The weight and wider track of the wheels pulverize the sand so much that we are nearing the limits of traction through this area. Progress grinds to a halt and we are forced to deploy the winches in the Landcruisers numerous times to extricate ourselves from the clutches of the fine soft sand.

As I said earlier, there is no alternative route, there is no other track, we are committed. And the blazing sun doesn’t help either! Temperatures reach well into the forties and the merciless heat from the sun is reflected off the light-coloured sand. As long as we are mobile it is okay, but we struggle in sections where the sand is like powder, and battle the hot sun and rather large thorns littering the ground. Thorns that go right through a flip-flop – who wears flip-flops in these conditions?! Well, individuals trying to stay cool, that’s who!

Bape Camp

Bape camp is gratefully reached by the late afternoon. Although ‘campsite’ is a generous term. It is a tree and some ash from a previous campfire. And that’s it!

As we look around we appreciate the remote simplicity of our surroundings. And is Botswana flat? Oh, yes, completely. Partly as a result of the lake that used to be here. But that was 500 million years ago, give or take… So we don’t have much of a vista, there are thorns everywhere and the incessant heat is forcing another beer down my throat…

unfenced camp

Am I complaining? Not at all. This is why we’re here. This is why I wanted to come here all those years ago. The Kalahari IS remote. It IS dry, dusty, and hot, and way in the back of beyond! There is nobody else here, you’re all alone, just a small group of friends in their (ever-more-reliant-on) trusty vehicles. It is absolutely silent. A small stirring of the air and a breath of wind. You look up and to a blue sky and a big round fiery sun. You pull the back of your hand over your brow, soaking up more sweat. And you realize you are a full day’s drive from anywhere!

This last thought stays with you as you scan the perimeter for wildlife. A perimeter without a defined edge – like perhaps a fence. It is just open, open to the elements and any other wildlife that fancies coming over for a visit. A campfire is made with the wood we bought off the side of the road leaving Gaborone. A town that now seems impossibly far away.


Mental calculations accompany the evening braai. How much water do we have? How much fuel do we have? And crucially, how much beer do we have? We don’t see any animals, only a few birds and some insects. But the overriding feeling is of isolation and solitude. And that is what the Kalahari does best.

There are only two camp pitches (basically a GPS coordinate) in this area. The next closest is north to Xaxa or south back the way we came, each of which is one hundred kilometres away. And Xaxa is even more remote, sitting almost exactly in the middle of the CKGR. So, if you want remote, this is way up there!

The morning ablutions are taken care of with a spade in one hand and toilet paper in the other. Dig your hole, do your business, and cover it over again. No flushing out here! No running water either. Nor a rubbish bin, so you take it all with you. Leave it as you found it. I can’t express enough how wonderful that idea is. There is nobody around. And you wouldn’t even know someone had come through this camp. Just amazing.


We mentally brace ourselves for another hot day in the sand. And the track doesn’t disappoint. More of the same – like yesterday, thanks to our big water truck. Soft, powder-like sand, bouncing in the Hilux, the desert heat, the perpetual line on the Garmin with its tiny little screen on the dashboard goading us forward with stupidly optimistic arrival times. We try and comply, but are beaten back by the sand. This is supposed to be a road?!

Brush and thorn branches thwack off the cars as we try to keep a semblance of speed. The constant bouncing off the rear bump stops is a constant companion, as well as the steering wheel that follows the twin track almost like autopilot, and the grumble of the engine labouring in the conditions.

just a GPS coordinate

Our windows are cranked down and the dashboard reads 46 degrees. We really need a little more speed to cool us down. The five-litre bottle of water seems to evaporate of its own accord as we drink for our lives. And while I admire the two-man crew in their 6-wheel-drive truck for their fortitude, that weekly water delivery is making us work!

A random side-track catches us unawares, and a quick glance at the GPS tells us that Xaxa campsite is down that way for twelve kilometres. And a tough twelve kilometres it is. Same conditions – bouncing, speeding up, easing up, more power, a bit of steering; and repeat… In the distance, a low hill emerges. That is our goal, those are the GPS coordinates.

There’s nothing here

Xaxa campsite is a random tree (what else) on a slight rise overlooking a solar-powered borehole (when it is functioning) about three hundred metres away. We arrive early in the afternoon, the one hundred kilometres dispatched within seven hours, no less…

We celebrate this victory by seeking shelter under the vehicle awnings and move the sun along by sheer willpower. The temperature is still in the forties and our only option is to raid the beer stash – we have to stay hydrated! Binoculars are produced in order to keep an eye on the elephants hogging the waterhole. Wood is scrounged off the roof rack and preparations are made for the braai. Fancy making more heat in this cauldron!

That night was surreal. Elephants in the valley below, a clear night sky with enormous expanse of Milky Way, lions roaring about two hundred metres away. And they didn’t stop from midnight until five o’clock in the morning, every half an hour. All around were the sounds of birds. And they start quite early in the morning – well before sunrise.

What I most enjoyed was the privilege to be here. There are a limited number of campsites, and you can’t get here without booking a campsite. The number of people here at one time is very limited, and all the better for it. Spare a thought for the enormous area that has been put aside for a game reserve (the size of The Netherlands but without the 17 000 000 people). It is a huge privilege to have this resource available to the wildlife and to let nature run its course (the indigenous Khoisan excepted of course – but they have been here for centuries).

The impact of tourism

It is humbling to try and get your head around how small you feel in this environment. How lucky we are to have this opportunity to experience these vast landscapes, especially considering how busy our towns and cities are.

There is an argument to be made on the impact that tourism has on the environment. One of many finger-pointing exercises in which Carbon Footprint is the buzzword (still) where we are made to feel guilty for the amount of travel we do. Even the work commute is up for discussion, or a quick weekend away to the coast. Your car is scrutineered, and your shopping habits are critically examined – is it local and organic? Do you subscribe to recycling?

I am very well aware of the amount of impact I have with my lifestyle. I am also very aware that we have downsized and reduced our material possesions to the bare minimum, and we don’t even buy anything anymore, besides the sustenance we need.

limited numbers

So criticise away if I say that tourism does help the environment. If done correctly. I mean – limit the number of people to the bare minimum, and use that revenue to preserve the remote isolation. If I do the sums (and my maths may be a little skewed) there may be only 200 people (visitors) in the whole CKGR at any one time (excluding the Khoisan – who belong here and perhaps give an added benefit to the ecosystem (but that is another discussion entirely)).

By limiting the number of people in the park at any one time it limits the impact and preserves the area for the nature and the wildlife. So by implementing an economic barrier to entry by charging a lot more for the privilege of a campsite, you can maintain the reserve in the best possible way. Tourists (responsible tourists) contribute in the form of an economic injection, with a small impact in terms of feet on the ground. Tell me that isn’t better than mining the whole area to destruction.

Anyway, be that as it may, it is an incredible place to visit. The remoteness, the silence, the heightened senses, the increased awareness of your surroundings. The battle with the elements, and mental and physical toughness needed to get to your campsite. The self-reliance and the vulnerability. And the relaxing into the moment, above all.

So do we need to find the exit or continue through the Kalahari?