The Korannaberg are pretty impressive, as mountains go. And flying over them on the approach to a much anticipated exploration of the southern-most reaches of the Kalahari is quite simply breathtaking. As much as the landing on the tarred strip at Tswalu Kalahari reserve is welcome.
The 90-minute flight from OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg has been uneventful, but the scenery for the last half an hour has been a revelation – this arid region of South Africa is known for its soaring daytime temperatures and tough, hardy people. There’s a town not far from where I land called Hotazel, for goodness sake!
Tswalu Kalahari, as its name implies, is a desert retreat. But not just any desert retreat. Owned by the legendary Oppenheimer family (whose relationship with Diamonds is equally legendary) this used to be a ragtag collection of hunting and cattle farms. Now it’s an award-winning private game reserve, and, at just over 100,000 hectares in size, the largest one in private ownership in the country.
As soon as Nicky Oppenheimer bought Tswalu in the late 1990s he stopped hunting. And started a long and arduous programme to restore the Kalahari to itself, to reintroduce rare and endangered species like the desert black rhino and beautiful black-maned Kalahari lions and to uplift and empower the communities living on his land.
Some 15 years down the line all of the above boxes have been ticked. And how. Tswalu Kalahari is out of this world, and not in a frothy, travel-writer caricature sort of way, but literally – the landscape is other-worldly, with gently rolling dunes seemingly going on forever as they spread out beneath said Korannaberg, which tower, parched and imposing, over this endless, dry place.
But these dunes are far from lifeless, and indeed are packed with some of the most interesting inhabitants Africa has to offer… Meerkats, pangolins, brown hyena, gerbils, gemsbok, the aforementioned rhino, cheetah…
All of them are here and in numbers too. And thanks to the fact that the BBC made a documentary here, the meerkats are remarkably habituated. Which means they’re easy to get close to.
Accommodation at Tswalu is equally impressive. There’s the Moste, with its enormous and welcomingly cool “legae” or suites, a couple of which are family orientated with two bedrooms instead of one. Each legae looks out over the endless vistas of the desert, known as the “green” Kalahari because it actually gets more moisture here in the south than the central regions in nearby Botswana do.
The legaes are beautifully laid out and equipped for the ultimate in desert dwelling – air conditioning, open fireplaces (nights get cold here, even in summer) immaculate furnishings, comfy couches on the outside deck… You know the routine…
Then there’s Tarkuni – an exclusive house for 10 guests. And now a sleep-out option at the Malori – a self-contained deck in the middle of the desert where slumber parties can be held for two!
But I’m not here for the comfort, or the fabulous spa therapies – I’m here for the great outdoors.
At Tswalu you can explore that great outdoors in a variety of ways – on a vehicle, on foot or on horseback. Or even via a hot air balloon. And a visit to the community at the staff village is a must. This is where you see what Tswalu is giving back to people and place. And realise what an awesome place this really is.
If you could dream up the perfect destination, Tswalu would definitely come very close!