Hiking the red dunes of the Kalahari in the Northern Cape

Best of EcoTravel, Hiking: By Susan Parker-Smith, 22 November 2023. EcoTravel article

Driving up to the Kalahari, the road stretches out relentlessly to the horizon, mirages hovering ahead, and sociable weaver nests making lollipops out of the telephone poles flashing past. It’s a 1,000+ km drive from Johannesburg or Cape Town, to reach the northern corner of South Africa, squashed in between Namibia and Botswana, but visiting this semi-desert region is worth the journey.

Our first day’s hike of 18km started nearby at Zoutpans Game Lodge – visiting a private reserve gave us the chance to walk the red dunes, and see plentiful game. It was hot, and we soon realised that water, sunscreen and broad-brimmed hats, are a must. A more painful lesson was allowing the fine silt-like sand to seep into our boots. Blisters were inevitable. We hiked between 12km and 18km over each of the five days, on terrain ranging from soft dunes to hard sand and rocky shale, and for some, uninitiated feet and new shoes paid the price.

The Kalahari salt pans

Between the dunes lie a series of vast, shimmering salt pans, their sheen creating the illusion of water, but close up, hard baked earth offers dry disappointment. Where there is water, it is generally brackish and undrinkable. The salt deposits on many of the pans are mined, and the main routes up to the Northern Cape are lined with an endless procession of salt trucks.

We hiked onto Zoutpan, the earth cracking underfoot as the vast pan surrounded us. Later, we had the opportunity to float into a salt pool (impossible to sink in 110% salinity) and scrubbed the mineral rich mud onto our skins. After we had rinsed off, our bodies felt silky and in the days that followed our nails seemed to be stronger. There is definitely a “dead sea spa” opportunity to be explored here.

A pinch of Salt The extreme dryness of the Northern Cape and the enormous pans makes the area ideal for salt mining. Production starts with the pumping of brine from suitable openings in the floor of the pan into large, relatively deep dams where some concentration takes place. The brine is then allowed to evaporate in fairly shallow concentration dams until ready for crystallisation. Saturated brine is subsequently transferred to a series of shallow crystallisation pans where further evaporation takes place, resulting in salt deposits. The coarse salt crystals are harvested and rinsed in a saline solution, then transported to processing plants for refinement, packaging and distribution.

There are so many pans in the area. Hakskeenpan or Hakskeen Pan is a mud and salt pan in the Mier region covers an area of approximately 140 km2. Verneukpan, a 57km long and 11km wide salt or mineral pan, just northeast of Brandvlei, and south of Kenhardt, is well known for cars aiming to break speed records and parasailing. Hiking the pans is meditative – vast nothingness and clean silence.

Camels, Meerkats and Vultures

Being kissed by a camel, eating camel milk ice cream, or having a Meerkat forage for scorpions your mouth is unusual, but not entirely unexpected in the Kalahari. On our trip, we visited a camel farm and a meerkat sanctuary, both highlights of our experience.

Sudanese Dromedary camels, originally imported into South Africa in the 1950s to patrol the northern borders, are now being farmed for their milk at Koppieskraal farm. With tremendous health benefits, the delicious milk which tastes similar to cow’s milk, has been consumed by the Bedouins for centuries. At Koppieskraal, it is made into milk powder and a range of skincare products for the local and export market.

The Kalahari Trails Meerkat Sanctuary, enroute to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, is a delight. We were captivated by these curious and playful creatures, standing warming their bellies in the early sun, and scampering in and out of their burrows.

Vultures frequently circle the skies or rest in the Acacias, but seeing scores of vultures converging on a vulture restaurant at Dreghorn Game Farm was wonderful. Situated on the Molopo River in the Green Kalahari, Dreghorn is a well-stocked hunting lodge, and they frequently put out wild game carcasses for the vultures.  Oryx, red hartebeest, ostrich, impala, giraffe, blue wildebeest and meerkat, are among the animals found on the farm – as we hiked over the dunes, game teemed across the valleys.

The hiking is great, but the whole red dune experience is really also about spending time with great people in wide open spaces. The combination of walking in big skies, fresh air and brilliant sunshine giving you a vital feeling of wellbeing. Of course, sunset drinks on the dunes overlooking the Kalahari and delicious food, always topped off the experience. The catering was superb – lamb and venison dishes generally dominated the menu in the area, but vegetarians are well-catered for.

Hiking the Kalahari Red Dune Route with Trisport

The owners of Trisport, Hano and Sonja Otto, are wonderful hosts – both extreme sports people with a love of nature and the outdoors, they bend over backwards to give their guests a great experience. Their company Trisport offers a range of trail running, hiking, and mountain biking races and tours. Their boutique tours offer the great outdoors with slackpacking comforts and good food. For more details about or to book the Red Dune Hike visit: http://www.trisport.co.za/

Getting there:

It is over 1000km from Cape Town or Johannesburg to Askam. We drove from Cape Town, so we took the N7 up to Vanrynsdorp, then turned off  onto the R27 to Niewoudtville, Calvinia and Brandvlei, and on to Upington, and Askam. The roads were good, barring the endless stream of  salt trucks. It’s a good idea to stay over either in  Niewoudtville or Calvinia.

From Johannesburg the best route to take is via the N14 to Upington and then north to Askam.

The other option is to fly to Upington and hire a car – the corrugated and sandy/muddy roads demand an offroad vehicle, so this can be expensive, but it offers easy quick access to the region.



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