The Kalahari has a total extent of about 350 000 square miles, most of it falling within Botswana.
The name still baffles, but many believe it is a bastardisation of a Hottentot word, #karri (hard), which Burchell writes as Karriharri and Gordon as Macarigari. Both Moffat and Forbes, however, think it was named after a tribe called either Kgalagad, Kgalagadi or Makgalagadi. Moffat also maintains that this tribe lived in the Khalagari or Kalagare, words which mean “dry, waterless place” ie a desert.
Geologically the Kalahari is a structural basin. When about 200 million years ago southern Africa was still flat and unnamed, it was covered by a shallow sea, as evidenced by the sea shells still to be found everywhere in the arid interior. Then the upheavals came and massive volcanic surges created the mountains along the coasts. But what goes up must come down, and a huge dent in the earth’s crust was to become the Kalahari. Gradually this enormous basin was filled through erosion of the surrounding rocks and although it is not known where the red sand originated, enough rain must have fallen to wash down the colluvial deposits. Later prevailing winds formed the parallel dunes, stretching in a northwesterly direction.
The Kalahari is classed as a semi-desert, with huge tracts of excellent grazing after good rains. It has an annual rainfall of 200 mm, mainly between January and April. In summer, day temperatures may soar over 40°C, while winter days as a rule are sunny with night temperatures often below freezing. Two dry rivers, the Auob and the Nossob, run through it. Dense vegetation grows along the beds, sustained by underground water, to which animals also have easy access by digging drinking pools.
For decades the Kalahari Gemsbok Park, proclaimed in 1931 to protect migratory game, especially gemsbok, rivalled Kruger - if only to the connoisseur. A large tract of desert impeccably husbanded by the Le Riche family, it spanned more than 1 million hectares, with an area of similar size immediately adjoining it across the Botswana border. The park housed a multitude of animals: springbok, gemsbok, lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, various antelope, bat-eared foxes and others, as well as an abundance of birds, especially raptors. The Nossob is rated as one of the best places in South Africa to view these, when during the summer months large numbers of migratory eagles, kites and falcons move through the park.
During the late 1990’s it was combined with the adjacent Gemsbok National Park in Botswana and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was born.
The Kgalagadi comprises an area of over 3.6 million hectares which makes it one of the largest conservation areas in the world. Part of it has been given to remnants of the indigenous Bushman clans, people who there seek to revive their old nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life, both for themselves and for the lucrative tourist trade.
The Kalahari also, of course, was home to the famed Monomotapa, an ancient empire with the golden city Vigiti Magna as its capital. Many claim to have seen its ruins, but none have effectively uncovered it. One of the most credible sightings was by G.A. Farini, a Canadian showman and explorer whose real name was William Leonard Hunt. In 1885, while on a hunting trip with some Griqua in what later became the Gemsbok Park, he claimed to have seen a rounded wall partially covered with sand. In his book Through the Kalahari, he subsequently wrote:
On digging down nearly in the middle of the arc, we came upon a pavement about twenty feet wide, made of large stones. The outer stones were long ones, and lay at direct angles to the inner ones. This pavement was intersected by another one at right angles, forming a Maltese Cross, in the centre of which at one time must have stood an altar, or some sort of monument, for the base was quite distinct, composed of loose pieces of fluted masonry.
After taking photographs, which were later exhibited in London and Berlin, and making sketches, the party left to continue their hunting. Whatever it was they had found, was again covered by the shifting dunes.
Was what Farini saw a wall or merely a rock formation? It was never recovered even though numerous search parties were sent out after Farini told his story. Finding a lost city in the Kalahari could indeed be likened to looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack...