The dry heart of the dry south of a dry continent, the CKGR is an awesome place. If remoteness, desert silences and the sound of lions roaring in the night are your thing, this could become one of your favourite places in Africa. Covering 52,800 sq km (about the size of Denmark), it's one of Africa’s largest protected areas. This is big-sky country, home to black-maned Kalahari lions, a full suite of predators and a wonderful sense of the remote.
In the heart of the park, gemsboks, springboks and bat-eared foxes are common, as are lions, leopards, cheetahs, jackals and brown hyenas; wild dogs are also possible. Estimates by research scientists working in the reserve suggested minimum 2016 populations (including the contiguous Khutse Game Reserve) at around 800 brown hyenas, 500 lions, 300 leopards, 150 African wild dogs, 100 cheetahs and 100 spotted hyenas.
If that sounds like a lot of predators, remember, however, that the desert environment ensures that wildlife densities are far smaller than in places such as Chobe or Moremi and you may spend a week in the reserve and see very little of note. Then again, while you need patience to see the wildlife here, the reward is that whatever you do see, you might just have to yourself.
Birds are numerous around the ancient river valleys, with sightings of larger species such as ostriches and kori bustards (the world's heaviest flying bird) almost guaranteed. Desert-adapted species are other drawcards, with the Kalahari scrub robin, a common visitor to campsites, a much-sought-after prize for twitchers.
The CKGR is perhaps best known for Deception Valley, the site of Mark and Delia Owens’ 1974–81 brown hyena and lion study, which is described in their cult-classic book Cry of the Kalahari. Deception Valley's appeal also owes much to the variety of its landscapes. This broad valley, lined on its eastern and western shores by light woodland climbing gentle hills, is all about swaying grasslands, tight clusters of trees and roaming gemsboks, springboks and the occasional predator. It's a beautiful spot around sunrise or sunset, while Deception Pan, at the southern end of the valley, can feel like the end of the earth at midday.
Deception is one of four fossil valleys in the Central Kalahari – the others are the Okwa, the Quoxo (Meratswe) and the Passarge – that were carved out by ancient rivers, bringing topographical relief to the virtually featureless expanses. The rivers themselves ceased flowing more than 16,000 years ago.
Passarge Valley is far quieter than Deception Valley – we spent an entire afternoon driving along its length one July and saw not one other vehicle. On the said afternoon, we did, however, see a male lion, a cheetah, gemsboks, bat-eared foxes and a honey badger. There is a waterhole (artificially pumped to provide water for animals throughout the dry season) at the southwestern end of the valley.
The 39km from the Passarge Valley waterhole to Motopi Pan takes you through classic Kalahari country with rolling dune-hills covered in thorn scrub, acacias and light woodland, with some lovely views out across the plains en route. Motopi Pan itself is a lovely spot late in the afternoon, with the waterhole regularly visited by gemsboks, giraffes and ostriches, with lions never far away. The low hills that separate the three Motopi campsites include some of the CKGR's more varied topography and on one visit we spent an entire morning with a pride of lions around here before another vehicle appeared over the horizon.
The Western Pans
Some 26km southwest of the main loop through the central section of the reserve, Piper Pans is well worth a visit; you'll pass through here if you enter the reserve at Xade Gate and plan to head towards Deception Valley, or if you're completing a north-south (or vice-versa) crossing. The appeal here is a series of interlocking pans encircled by good trails, lightly wooded surrounds and the last of the good wildlife watching if you're heading south.
We've seen cheetahs and kudus around here, have heard reports of lions, and you're almost guaranteed to see wildebeest and good birdlife around the waterhole, even in the heat of the day.
Tau Pan is, as the name suggests ('tau' means lion in Setswana), reasonable for lion sightings, while we also saw cheetahs and aardwolves when we were last here. Both San Pan and Phokoje Pan are similar, with bat-eared foxes, gemsboks and hartebeest all possible.
The Far South
You're a long way from anywhere down here. Xade Gate and its campsites inhabit the site of the old San settlement that was based around Xade Pan, although nothing remains in evidence. Wildlife is generally scarce all across the south, although a pride of lions with cubs was centred upon the Xaxa waterhole when we visited. The landscapes here are generally flat with golden grasslands, fewer salt pans than further north, and thinly scattered vegetation such as the acacia thorn and Kalahari apple-leaf everywhere.
The main campsites are Xade, Xaxa and Bape. And as far as the trails are concerned, remember that they involve some of the more challenging conditions in the CKGR. Due to its remoteness and the fact that only a trickle of traffic passes through here (you may travel a whole day or two without seeing another vehicle), the trails aren't as well maintained as some others, with plenty of overhanging branches grabbing at your vehicle as you pass. The stretch between Xade Gate and the turn-off to Xaxa waterhole is deep sand in parts, particularly at the western end, and you may need to reduce tyre pressure to avoid getting stuck. As always, driving in the early morning when the sand is colder and less loose tends to make for easier going.