Botswana: Park Experiences Rejuvenation Due to COVID-19

Twee Rievrien — Bracing the chilling winter weather, we set off in the wee hours of the morning from Tsabong for the legendary Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park situated deep in the wilderness of the Kalahari Desert spread on the banks of the dry Nossop River and the Aub River bed.

The 4x4 Toyota Land Cruiser cruised through the dusky quite morning covering a distance of about 300km to the park which is beautifully appointed at Twee Rievrien translated to mean Two Rivers where the Nossop and Aub River streams meet. The journey takes 240km on tarred road from Tsabong to Bokspits while the remaining kilometers are on gravel road from Bokspits to Twee Rievrien.

After a long journey we safely arrived at the park entrance at around 7am and we were just on time to enjoy a beautiful Kgalagadi sunrise on the horizon radiating golden petals stretching over outwards into the rich blue sky tinted with a chorus of greys radiating warm hues.

The idea was to enter the mighty transfrontier park and experience the thrilling safari, enjoy the delightful surprises and connect with nature in an adventurous way.

The desire to embark on the journey was to witness the state of the park following the reopening of tourism outfits for local tourists after the abrupt closure on account of mitigating the coronavirus pandemic spread.

We deliberately set out in the early hours of the morning to enjoy the prime safari experience when wild animals came out to graze in the early hours of the morning.

Even though it is peak season for most tourism outfits nationally, not a single tourist could be seen wandering on sight. We were the first visitors to set foot in the park on the Botswana side and we wanted to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the park and find out if any local tourists have ever set foot in the park.

Interestingly, the park which is located on the western part of Kgalagadi South, right on the hoof of the Botswana map, is home to a wide diversity of flora and fauna boosting of gemsbok, springbok, wildebeest, hartebeest, leopard, hyena, antelopes, cheetah, lions and bird species, including the protected Kori Bustard. It is no wonder Botswana dominates the charts as a top safari travel for its scenic tapestry containing rare and diverse wildlife which are found in few other places.

Park manager, Mr Leabaneng Bontshetse welcomed us at the gate, but kept his distance to observe COVID-19 health protocols.

He was accompanied by a stern looking police officer and a wildlife official on guard at the entrance to the park which was recently closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak. We exchange our pleasantries, get registered and have our temperatures recorded.

Then we get back in the vehicle, buckle up and brace ourselves for the unknown in the wilderness.

With adrenaline rushing through my spine, I prepare my binoculars and open my small eyes wide to relish every moment of the adventure. Notably, the park opened soon after an announcement was made to open the park to local visitors. The park, which is sandwiched between South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, is jointly owned by South Africa and Botswana covering an area of 38 000km² of the Kalahari Desert. Jointly owned by the two countries, the largest side of the park is on the Botswana side spreading over 27 000km² while the remaining is in the South Africa side.

The park, which is the second largest in the country after the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), is undoubtedly a magical corner of wilderness safari where the two countries have joined forces to conserve wildlife without erection of any border fences to allow free movement of the wildlife.

"Wild animals know no boundaries therefore they are allowed to roam freely in the park. It is marked by beacons to show the Botswana side and the South Africa side of boundaries," he said, pointing at a cement beacon as we pass through a signage pointing to Mata Mata Border which is located between South Africa and Namibia.

He said their role as wildlife officers was to maintain a natural ecosystem in the park by making sure that there was minimal human interference. "When an animal dies, no one is allowed to pick it, or cook it or even pick a stone or anything, the park environment should be left natural," he said.

Mr Bontshetse noted that the abrupt halting of tourism activities to curb coronavirus had given rise to new patterns of wildlife movement in the park, as some wildlife from other conservation areas as far as Mata Mata appeared for the first time in years.

"We don't have giraffes in the Botswana side of the park, but recently all of a sudden we experienced an influx of giraffes in the park for the first time in a long time. This shows that tourists somehow affect the movement of animals."

He narrated that he had worked in the park for almost eight years and had never seen a giraffe in the park, but that during the lockdown giraffes made their way through the park. He suggested that the giraffes behaved like that because there was no disturbance caused by tourists therefore they had all the freedom to move around the park. "They were about 25 in number. It was the first time we were seeing them and we suspect that that might be because they were not disturbed by movement of tourists," he said.

As we drive through the park, we occasionally approach an awe-inspiring sight of a throng of hundreds of antelopes calmly browsing through the dry winter grass. A galore of gemsboks are also visible in the distance grazing on a beautifully appointed horizon marked by heaps of auburn sand dunes. Sights of birds squawking sweet melodies which blend beautifully with sounds of other animals give one a true sense of the wilderness.

Occasionally stopping to take snapshots, I stepped outside the vehicle and noticed fresh lion prints. My heart stopped for a second thinking I may have just put myself to be a breakfast for the lion.

Nonetheless, the park manager assured me that the prints showed that the lion had gone the other direction and chances were that it may not retrace its footsteps as antelopes were just nearby which were prey.

He allayed my fears as we continued to document the journey through photography.

He divulged that when coronavirus outbreak hit the globe they began to experience an influx of tourists which called for action, as it appeared tourists from neighbouring countries saw the wilderness a safe haven from the virus.

However, that was managed as all were evacuated from the park and park employees placed under quarantine where fortunately none tested positive for coronavirus.

Currently, there are no tourists entering the park and he said they would continue to patrol the park to ensure that wild animals were safe from poachers. He also said they ensured that wildlife did not encroach on human settlements and cause human wildlife conflict.

Furthermore, the park offers a tourism experience like no other where those who dare to embark on extreme safari experience have a track which is untouched where tourists cruise through rough terrains where there is no shop nor village nor anything in sight but a sandy road and the wildlife which could be a dangerous expedition if one is not prepared to navigate.

He said some tourists relish adventure and therefore the park has every option to satisfy customer's demands.

He noted that COVID-19 has negatively affected business hence it would take a long time to recover and host international tourists from all over the globe. However, he encouraged locals to visit the park to enjoy the scenic, untouched nature and keep tourism going.

"Entrance to the park to enjoy this beauty is very cheap. We charge around P20-30 per person per day, camping fee is P30 per day. One needs a 4x4 vehicle, camping equipment, a caravan or they can book in one of the lodges inside the park," he said.

Source : BOPA

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