Next stop: Kalahari Desert

A new road makes it easier to travel through Botswana

There are few enough wildernesses left, even in Africa, but the Kalahari Desert is undoubtedly one of them.

About the size of France, the Kalahari begins at the Botswana frontier, a four-hour drive from South Africa's industrialized heartlands of Johannesburg and Pretoria. It stretches north and west beyond the Namibian frontier, 700 miles from the Orange River at Uppington in the south to the Chobe River in the north.

Rainfall is in many places too plentiful for this to be a true desert. But in the drier south and west, "fossil" rivers like the Auob, Nossob, Molope, and Hanahai might flow once a century or once a millennium. In the north, one of southern Africa's main rivers drains the Angolan highlands into the Okavango swamps, a river delta that dries up 550 miles from the sea.

The only human inhabitants of this great wilderness are scattered villages of Kgalakgadi tribesmen, small groups of San (or "Bushman") hunter-gatherers, and bands of Herero and Mbukushu migrants from Namibia and Angola. The tiny settlements and empty sand tracks appear on few maps, and food and gasoline are scarce.

Until recently, a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle was indispensable for all but the outermost fringes of this vast wilderness. But in the past year, the Botswana government completed the Trans-Kalahari Highway, a tarred road all the way from Jwaneng, an hour from the capital Gaborone, to Ghanzi, a small cattle outpost that is the only town of note in the entire western Kalahari.

This seems like good news for the people of the Kalahari, eager for more tourism and development and a cheap way to bring their goods - mainly cattle - to market. The road that once took a 4x4 a day or more to negotiate can now be driven in five hours in a normal car.

For the romantic and the outward-bound, it is the end of yet another frontier. But the country on either side of the new road is still classic Kalahari bush, where armies of acacia thorns skirmish towards the distant horizons and the long grass stands yellow in the dry winter sun. At night, headlights spotlight furtive jackals, immobile donkeys, placid cows and - most dangerous for those unwisely traveling the unfenced road at speed - skittish herds of large antelope like kudu and hartebeest.

The once-fabled oasis of Ghanzi turns out to be a one-street village, its tin roofs and dusty trees only a little higher than the all-encompassing bush, the approach road running close to the airstrip's single tarred runway.

It is a friendly, surprisingly busy place that feels as if it has been caught slightly by surprise by the new road's unexpected visit. Back in May, somebody stole 90,000 pula (about $45,000) from a car belonging to the manager of the legendary Kalahari Arms Hotel, a tin-roofed hostelry. It was the biggest theft in Ghanzi's 130-year history and the local police are blaming the new road for bringing in strangers.

Willie de Graaf has bittersweet feelings about the new road. A local white rancher, he spent much of his life driving cattle on the 40-day trail down to the border town of Lobatse. But the Trans-Kalahari highway has put an end to Botswana's cowboy way of life. Sitting with his wife, Annetjie, in the living room of their comfortable ranch, six miles off the dirt road and 40 miles from town, Mr. De Graaf has no doubts that it is now quicker and cheaper and safer to move the cattle by truck.

Does he miss the life on the trail? "I think I really miss it, but I wouldn't want to do it like before," he says carefully. "I was on the trek route for seven months in the year, for 25 years. It was a hard life and it was lonesome.

"There are a lot of people that say they preferred the old desert road but I think I had enough of it," he says. "It's not fun anymore to drive on a bad road."

Ghanzi may have been tamed by the tarred road, but it is still the gateway for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Africa's largest protected wilderness. Here, about 300 San Bushman hunter-gatherers still eke out a living, despite efforts by the Botswana government to persuade them to leave. The Kuru Development Trust, a San-owned body, estimates that another 1,200 have left their ancestral home in the past two years.

Inside the reserve itself, the San settlement of Xade (the name begins with one of the strange San "click" consonants, like the noise used for ghee-ing up a horse) has been deserted for nearly a year now, thanks to the government resettlement program. As we drove through, a huge flock of vultures rose from under a large acacia tree beside the road.

That night we camped in the bush. Plenty of lions are still left in the Central Kalahari, and as we cooked beans and boer sausage on a fire we found ourselves continuously sweeping around us with a torch beam, looking for great eyes that shine like headlights. The bush seemed to close in as it got darker. It was silent and very, very wild.

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