Tswalu…..just the word makes me long for the Kalahari Desert again! I first fell in love with the notion of visiting there when Tayla mentioned that this vast private reserve of nearly 250,000 acres (roughly one quarter the size of the state of Rhode Island) was only accessible to guests of Tswalu, a maximum of about 28 people. I am by no means an antisocial person, but one of my criteria for this trip was that I didn’t want to run into a lot of people or vehicles at any given animal sighting.
But that wasn’t the main reason I became interested in this property. I did some in-depth reading on their website and saw that there was an on-site research foundation and guests could learn about some of the studies being done on the Kalahari ecosystem and how to best manage this unique environment and its resident flora and fauna. Any opportunity to learn from experts is a welcome one, not only for me, but for my daughters as well. We’re dedicated students of life who know a little something about the research process and its importance in helping us understand more about life. I was willing to pay a little extra, knowing that some of our expenses were investments in the protection of this area and the animals that live there.
And once I arrived at Tswalu, I was convinced that this is an area worth protecting. The richness in wildlife was mind-boggling. While MalaMala offered a lot of familiar species, Tswalu was home to some unique residents like the Ground Pangolin, Aardvark, Aardwolf, Bat-Eared Fox, Cape Fox, Meerkats, Sociable Weavers, Pygmy Falcon, Secretary Bird, Cape Cobra and Brown Hyena, to name a few. Additionally, there were opportunities to see cheetah, the dark-maned Kalahari lions, black and white rhinos, as well as a host of beautiful hoofed mammals like the Gemsbok (Oryx), Springbok, Sable, Giraffe, Mountain and Plains Zebras, Roan and Eland.
To me, Africa has always been more than just the Big Five. I knew that I wanted to experience as much of what this vast continent has to offer on this trip, but I really didn’t expect to be so captivated by the Kalahari. I had read that Tswalu wasn’t the place for a first-time safari-goer, largely because sightings can sometimes be scarce in a place that is so vast. However, I also appreciated the fact that this unique setting held the potential for some really special sightings. My whole approach to safari is to see what I can see in the snapshot moment of time when I am there. If we made an honest effort to look for animals but didn’t see any, I could be satisfied in our attempt. After all, I am only a visitor in the home of the animals that live here, and they are not obliged to entertain us!
That being said, we had such fabulous sightings here that even our guide (Helen) and tracker (Sips) were amazed at everything we saw! Helen had planned out a full and busy schedule for us, based on the responses we provided on the WanderingThru questionnaire, but it seemed like every time she stated we would have a casual, relaxed bumble through the dunes, we saw things that were simply magnificent! The rich red sand and dirt of the Kalahari coupled with the varied shades of green grasses and trees set against a deeply blue sky was simply stunning. Our drives often took us onto the rolling dunes that offered vistas unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was serene, peaceful and magical, and I miss being there.
As isolated as Tswalu is, everything about the accommodations is luxurious. In addition to generous indoor living space, the outdoor living spaces were equally inviting and unique. The food was phenomenal, and that doesn’t even include the unique dining experience known as Restaurant Klein JAN. Every overnight guest at Tswalu is invited to one dinner at this culinary showcase, the culmination of a vision by Michelin-starred chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen. Every detail of this experience is a testament to the time, effort and creative genius of Chef Jan and his team. It was, without a doubt, the most sensual dining experience I have ever had. From the sound of simulated rainfall to the aromas in the cheese room, to the feel of the wine glasses with the exquisitely thin stems, to the way each course is visually presented, and finally the taste of everything. It was captivating!
Tswalu is a special place that is worth visiting, but I would highly recommend getting familiar with some of its unique features, adventures and denizens ahead of time by reading the many blogs and articles on their website. In addition to the private guide and tracker assigned to you throughout your stay, Tswalu offers other opportunities to enjoy the reserve, such as a horseback safari, sleeping out on a platform under the stars (which we were scheduled to do, but a rainstorm put a bit of a damper on that plan!), hiking to see the ancient rock etchings in the Korannaberg Mountains, and having a picnic dinner under the stars while being serenaded by the black-backed jackals. Couple that with meeting some of the staff at the Dedeben Research Centre or meeting researchers out in the field to observe their work, and you’ll get a better idea why we chose to stay five nights here. We were busy the whole time, but each experience and the safari drives were simply amazing. Take full advantage of all that this place has to offer!
I honestly feel that we all left a piece of our heart in the Kalahari, but we also brought a piece of the Kalahari back home with us. It will be a visit that I will fondly remember for the rest of my days, and even with all the other areas to explore in Africa, I hope to return someday!