Kalahari Green and Red

i-4b3767c0dfcec976f84cb124e1252933-sands.jpgI have a childhood memory of a troop of baboons, waiting among nearby rocks on a sun baked kopje, taking notice of nearby humans and watching and waiting until they saw a weakness and finally moving in for the kill, barking, grabbing, ripping livid flesh with long sharp canines, howling like wolves. And for the longest time I thought that memory was a scene from a movie called Flight of the Phoenix. But it turns out it was a scene from a movie that showed up on my doorstep this morning. And some time between that childhood memory forming and the DVD's delivery I actually went to the southwestern desert of Africa, straddling the border of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, and the baboons did indeed have their way with me. But it wasn't as bad as it was in the movie; In fact it was a rather fun adventure.

i-74a05a52304fa23ab9491abefa64bfb3-gidget.jpgThe childhood memory is linked, strangely, to Gidget. Remember her? Sally Fields, who does those bone loss commercials these days, was Gidget. It was 1965 and I was a little kid. I had been to the movie theater once before, and that was to see Mary Poppins, and that would have been in 1964. Then, the next summer (we did not see a lot of movies back in those days, what with all the trouble hitching up the horses to the wagon to go into town and all) my two sisters, BJ and Bunny got stuck with me (the baby of the family) and we all went down to see the new Gidget movie, which had just come out. But when we got to the Palace Theater, the lines were around the block and it was obvious that even if we stood in the line we would never get tickets to the showing of this blockbuster film to end all films. So we walked a few blocks to the other movie theater that existed in Downtown Albany in those days (anyone remember its name?) to see whatever film happened to be playing there. And it was the Flight of the Phoenix.

This was, as it turns out, to be the first adult film (as in not a kid's film) that I was to see, and I only remember fleeting bits of the original. And one of my memories of the film is the final scene when one of the protagonists is killed and eaten by a troop of baboons. From the sun baked kopje. But very recently I learned that I had confused Phoenix with another movie that came out in the same year ... 1965 ... called Sands of the Kalahari. I wonder if it was a double feature? In any event, after figuring this out I decided to watch Sands to see what memory it might spark and was surprised to find that it was not available as a DVD. I had assumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that all movies had been converted into DVD. All the good ones, anyway. Even more surprising was that the studio had plans to put the film on DVD and it would be out in a few months.

So I pre-ordered it, and now, I'm the first kid on the block to have a copy of Sands of the Kalahari!

I'll review the movie for you another time. As an Africanist with an interest in US and Western conceptions of Africa, I make it a point to watch movies about or set in Africa, no matter how painful that may sometimes be. For now, I thought I'd take the opportunity to show you a few photographs of the region, where I've spent a bit of time and done a bit of poking around, otherwise known as "research."

The Kalahari is part of a system of arid lands running from the Atlantic coast of southern Africa, in Namibia and South Africa, across the interior to include large parts of those two countries as well as Botswana. What makes the Kalahari unique is probably the long, linear dunes that run for hundreds of miles in a northwest to southeast orientation. The dunes represent sand that is being moved by the wind from several different origin points (at least five) which were originally, a very long time ago, large deltas of rivers running from long-worn away mountains into an ancient sea that has not existed for eons. As the sand marches southeast, it reaches terrain that is lower in elevation than the rest of the Kalahari, and probably with less steady winds, so as the red Kalahari descends to the south, the dunes become less well defined and eventually break up into sand sheets rather than sand dunes.

Then, they fall into the river. The dunes and sheets of red Kalahari sand eventually come to the Gariep, or Orange River where the wind blown sediment mostly falls into the river (thus ... "Orange" River) and is eventually washed into the sea. Kinda near the diamond coast, where the baboons of the Sands of the Kalahari ate that guy in the movie.

South of the Orange River, the locals, especially tour guides and naturalists, like to call the region the "Green Kalahari." Which is rather funny if you look at a picture of it:

The Green Kalahari. The flat stuff in the foreground is granite. The bumpy hard stuff in the distance is gneiss, into which the granite intruded eons ago. The rare brown and greenish spots are plants. For scale, the plant to the right of center in the foreground is a tree about 15 to 20 feet tall. The ridge in the distance is the approximate border of Namibia, the photograph is taken from a point in South Africa. The Orange River flows from right to left, in a deep canyon and out of sight.

Yeah. That is a little like calling one of the world's largest glaciated regions "Greenland." The region south of the Orange River is actually quite dry. Well, OK, it's more complicated than that, but this is probably worth explaining in some detail.

Rains in the region come from two places: Nowhere and the middle of nowhere. The rains from nowhere come from the northwest, and that hardly ever happens, but when it does, it comes in the form of thunderstorms that are more likely to hit you with lightning than hit you with rain. When they come from the middle of nowhere, to the south (otherwise known locally as "Pofadder") they are the "gentle rains" or as the Ju/'hoansi people call them, the "female rains." These rains come from the south every few years and now and then reach the Orange River, but not always, and every once in a while go north of the Orange River into the Kalahari proper.

This means that the farther north you go, the less rain you get. However, owing to the strangeness we know of as geology, the farther north you go the more water you have. The rain that falls to the south of the Orange River runs off the rocky surfaces shown above and into the river, such as depicted here:

The Orange River Canyon. I would call this breathtaking.

That's the canyon just south of Augrabies Falls. Very little water falling to the south of this river is retained locally. It all runs away from the point it landed, and either evaporates back into the air almost instantly or flows quickly into this river, where it heads out to sea (and much still evaporates along the way). Much of the water that falls to the north of the river, however, seeps into the sands and joins an underground water system that is exploited by the various plants that live in the area, including trees and grasses.

For this reason, approaching from the south with, say, a herd of cattle and only traditional technologies such as those used by 17th and 18th century Boer farmers or Bantu pastoralists, you would never get near the Kalahari desert before your cattle would starve for lack of grass most of the year. But once you are in the Kalahari, there is more forage than one might expect, generally used by the local well adapted animals such as the gemsbok or the springbok.

Gemsbok (Oryx gazella) Oryx gazella

Back to the canyon for a moment. This truly is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, and I've been to places that are officially labeled as "the most beautiful place on earth." (See King Leopold's Soliloquy and The Story of Wally the Waterbuck.) The Orange River canyon does not compare to the Grand Canyon in size, but in some ways it exceeds it in beauty. And if you ever go there, don't forget to obey the signs on the Dassie Wanderpadel and turn back before you cross the Leap of Death and the Crawl of Doom to reach the very tip of Arrow Point.

Arrow point. Don't go here. If you do, you must leap across the Leap of Death and crawl through the Crawl of Doom.

Because it isn't really worth risking your life to be in the most amazing place you'll ever visit.

Anyway, north of the Green Kalahari is the Red Kalahari, and it is red because all the sand that covers it is clear but coated with a layer of iron oxide that makes it look red.

The Red Kalahari The red dunes in the distance overly a generally white layer of hard pan which is seen on the surface between dunes, and as shown here, in rivers. Which, in turn, are generally dry as a bone.

The Gemsbok shown above is one of the denizens of this region, and is famous for being loaded with adaptations for living in a habitat where it is quite possible for an individual to spend its entire post-weaning life never drinking water from a pool or stream, only receiving moisture from the food it eats (though this is probably rare). This is also the home of the more widely ranging springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis ...see this). The springbok are numerous today but, along with the wildebeest, were much more numerous in the past before human interference (mainly in the form of fences to keep international borders closed or to separate wildlife from cattle) broke up the ancient migratory pathways in the region (see No Way Home).


Wildebeest, alone.

This is also the home of one of the healthier, larger, and more visible populations of wild cats ... as in the wild animal that is a cat that is the wild ancestor of our domestic cat (see Cat Origins).

If you visit the Kalahari you'll see evidence of people who lived there long ago, supposedly herding sheep that were bred specifically to live here from stock left ashore somewhere nearby by ancient mariners from the middle east. I'm not vouching for that story, but the sheep here are different.

Remains of a sheep herder's village in the Kalahari.

One of my fondest memories of my third visit to the Kalahari happened to be caught on film and is shown here:

Julia drew her first face ever in the sands at the top of a dune in the Kalahri. After drawing the first one, she drew dozens more and it was hard to get her to stop so we could move on.

Outside the sand sheet of the Kalahari -- which by the way is part of the largest single terrestrial sediment deposit on the current earth, a sand sheet that runs from the Orange River all the way to the Congo, covering much of Angola, a huge portion of the Congo, and parts of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa -- the ground tends to be rocky hard scrabble. Rocks are employed in useful ways in these parts. This is an example of local rock-based technology at the border crossing between South Africa and Namibia:

Nakop weather station. With some training, anyone can learn to use The Rock.

And this is an example of rock-based technology as practiced in the later part of the Early Stone Age, probably between 500,000 and a million or so years ago:

Hand ax from a large site last visited by an archaeologist several decades ago that we looked in on more recently to see if it is still there. It is.

In truth, the baboons hardly ever gang up on lone humans and rip their livid flesh and eat them and stuff. They make a good show of being tough, but ultimately run away to sneak up and steal your lunch another day if you are not careful. And, no cinematographic effort I've ever seen has captured the magic of this landscape or the uniqueness of its denizens, which I've only touched on here. If you ever travel to the region, make sure you visit Augrabies and this part of the Kalahari. Very few people outside of South Africa do. I've lived in or near Augrabies for many months, and in all that time I've only met one set of North Americans who were not with me, a family of Canadians passing through. To me, this would be like visiting Yellowstone and only ever seeing people from Billings.

For more on the Kalahari click here. For more on Africa click here. The Congo Memoirs are here. And, the Lost Congo Memoirs are here.


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I really liked this place. The fact that the cattle breeding using old technology so there is nothing wrong, after all these things mankind began many centuries ago. Antelope looks pretty good. Such a beast would be the perfect trophy for any hunter.

No baboon story? Awww. I love baboon stories. An old friend of mine always said he found them a bit creepy because they're strong beasts and they seem to sit around observing and planning and then acting on their plans. He wasn't comfortable having intelligent strong beasts around.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 03 Aug 2011 #permalink

Wow! This place is a gem for a wild life photographer like me, the deserts & the rocky mountain areas are just sensational. Thanks for sharing.

Interesting travelogue, but my favorite part was the phrase, "...on the current earth"
That says so much about the stretch of time and our brief experience of it. I would like to use that phrase every day.

By Barbyrabaker (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink

I want to go!

I think she drew a 'Wilson' in the sand

Nice hand axe.

As a native of South Africa I read this with keen interest. I think you have exactly captured the spirit of the place. The Orange River Canyon is truly beautiful, but we like to keep that fact to ourselves. Just one tiny correction but I think "Dassie Wanderpadel" should be "Dassie Wandelpad".

I really enjoyed your article on the Kalahari, but I do have two points I'd like to make.

The one hundred or so kilometer-wide strip directly along the Atlantic coast, from the Gariep (or Orange) river in the south to the Okavango river in the north (all along the coast of Namibia) is called the Namib desert. It's by far the oldest of all the deserts in the world. There is a wide region of semi-arid lands between the Namib and the Kalahari deserts. Nowhere does the Kalahari actually come even close to the Atlantic ocean.

The second point might be regarded as nitpicking, but you call yourself an Africanist and as such you should be aware of how often people from the North (my own Afrikaner people included) have insulted and dehumanized the indigenous people of Africa in so many ways. One such way is how Northerners seem to ignore the local names (and the way they are spelled) due to ignorance or laziness. What you call the 'Dassie Wanderpadel' is in fact spelled as the 'Dassie Wandelpad', which is the Afrikaans for 'Hydrax Hiking Trail'.

I do not mean to offend you in any way whatsoever, but as a local and a devoted South African (and yes, a 'white' African), it really irritates and frustrates me when Northerners won't make the effort to get their facts right.

Other than that, thank you for a truly beautiful article, and your pictures are really superb. I shall certainly make a point of following any further postings on your website.

By Nico de Lange (not verified) on 19 Aug 2011 #permalink


The wanderpadle reference was an inside joke for some colleagues not meant to offend. It turns out I'm an Africanist with a sense of humor... I think I addressed that in a comment.

I'll have to check .. If I said or implied that the kalahari extended to the Atlantic, i'll modify that because it doesn't!

I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Have you boon to Augragies?