Returning to my happy space: Thirstland

Story and photos by Louise de Waal

Driving through the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park gate after a three-year absence, feels like returning to my happy space. This endless arid landscape of red dunes, dry river beds, and camel thorn trees, swallows me in my tiny rental car, but that doesn’t take away from the pure excitement I feel to be back.

The Kgalagadi (meaning salt pan or ‘thirstland’ in San language) is a phenomenal semi-desert of grass covered dune systems in hues of yellow-brown, pink, through to deep red. The red colours are created by weathering of clay minerals in the soil under high temperatures and prolonged dry spells, releasing aluminium and iron oxides. The more yellow the sand, the higher the moisture content when the oxidisation process took place.

The first dramatic rainstorms, starting around November, bring these iconic red sand dunes back to life. Even the limited annual rainfall of 150-350 mm is just enough to keep this Thirstland thriving. The rains initiate a patchwork of annual and perennial plants that form the solid base of the desert’s delicate food chain.

Even so, I drive through the parched Auob River valley at the end of the dry winter season, and wonder how anything could ever survive this harsh environment. However, evolution created ingenious adaptations to both plants and animals to survive the long draughts, the intense heat during the day, and the extreme cold at night.

I stop at the Kamqua picnic site. Some Wildebeest and Oryx are crossing the road, while Springbok are seeking relief from the midday heat under the canopy of a camel thorn tree. A Yellow mongoose virtually runs across my feet and sociable weavers are trying to steal my lunch. This setting reminds me why the Kgalagadi’s never-ending landscapes, its big skies, and glorious silence are so intoxicating. It’s nature in its simplest and purest form.