The Valley of Deception

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The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) covers almost 10% of Botswana’s land mass. While the more ‘traditional’ safari animals such as lion and giraffe are found here in numbers, CKGR is also home to more unique and specialised animals, like the bat-eared fox, the wild dog and the very special brown hyena.

Know before you go

• Travel: From Maun, it is 210km to the dusty village of Rakops, 45km from there to the park gate and a further 45km to Deception Valley. If you are self-driving, a 4×4 is essential. Occasional heavy rains make the roads challenging.

• Stay: Sarah was collected from Island Safari Lodge in Maun and looked after by Island Mobile Safaris for her trip to Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

American biologists Mark and Delia Owens spent seven years researching the brown hyenas of CKGR. Read about this in their book Cry of the Kalahari. When they arrived in 1974, they wrote… ‘Below us lay the gentle slopes and open plain of Deception Valley, an ancient fossilised river channel meandering through forested sand dunes.

Herds of springbok, gemsbok and hartebeest grazed peacefully on the old grass-covered riverbed, where water used to flow. The blue sky was stacked high with white puffs of cloud. Deception was incredibly serene and all we had hoped it would be.’ From the moment I read their book, I wanted to see this magic place for myself. Forty-five years later, I finally got the chance, and it seemed like nothing had changed.

Expect herds of springbok grazing in the Valley of Deception

We came to visit in January, after the arrival of the summer rains. The northern section of CKGR from Deception Valley to Piper Pans was covered in sweet grasses where thousands of gemsbok, springbok and wildebeest grazed. At our campsite in Deception Valley, we found spacious tents with camp beds, mattresses, pillows and sheets and even an en suite loo and bucket shower. This was serious glamping.

Birding enthusiasts will not be disappointed, as birdlife here is rich and varied, from ostrich to Botswana’s national bird, the Kori bustard, and all shapes, sizes and colours in between. In this stark landscape, the bright-orange beaks of pale chanting goshawks, the black velvet markings of Northern black korhaans, the bright-purple cheeks of a violet-eared waxbill, and the vivid crimson-splashed faces of tiny green-winged pytilia stand out.

Wildebeest, giraffe, jackal, civet and wildcat all added themselves to our list of sightings on our first game drive.

But the star of the show was the bat-eared foxes, diminutive insectivores that stole my heart.
At sunrise the next morning, the world awoke around us and we headed into the park. Deeper into Deception Valley, we stumbled upon cheetah, found a pair of mating lions and watched giraffes amble across the plains as we drank our morning coffee. An incredible sighting was of something much smaller, a Cape cobra and an African ground squirrel battling it out in what appeared to be a life-and-death fight. Clearly trying to protect babies in her nearby burrow, the mother squirrel time and again bravely faced the fangs of the cobra, ducking and diving, left and right, darting in and out to take bites at the snake.
For half an hour she kept this up, and for half an hour we sat with our hearts in our throats. Eventually, the snake gave up the fight and left the scene, with the squirrel still giving chase.

On our final evening in the reserve, I at last got to see the animal I had been waiting years to see. A brown hyena, just as I had read about in the Owens’ book. As we headed back to camp, just visible in the fading light, we spotted a hyena with its shaggy, dark-brown coat, short tail and pointy ears.

We caught a glimpse as it melted into the darkness, but it was still a memorable encounter to celebrate on our last night in the reserve.

Insectivorous bat-eared foxes are the star of the show at the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

The facts

• The reserve was originally established in 1961 as a place of sanctuary for the San tribesmen to live their traditional hunter-gatherer way of life, without interference from the outside world. The reserve was closed for about 30 years, only opening up again in the 1980s and 1990s when self-drive and organised tours were allowed, in tightly controlled numbers.

• Because it often receives more than 254mm of rainfall, the Central Kalahari is not a true desert. It has none of the naked shifting sand dunes found in the other great deserts of the world.

• The brown hyena is the rarest of the hyenas, and is listed as Near Threatened on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature List of Threatened Species, with a global population estimated at less than 10 000.

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