There may be over 440 Kalahari lions in South Africa and Botswana's Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, but they proved elusive for much of our stay. Luckily, other wildlife was far more obliging...
Nothing can prepare you for the experience of being in the Kalahari desert. It is vast. It is beautiful. And this harsh environment, with its huge skies and the endless sweep of rippling red dunes dotted with hardy acacia trees, conceals such a wealth of animal, bird and plant life that it is also humbling.
We entered the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park through the gate at Twee Rivieren after an early morning drive from Upington (described in my guide "Drive time: from the Cape to the Kalahari"). There are attractive stone lodges for rental here, which can be booked, like all accommodation on the South African side of the park, through the SANParks website (www.sanparks.co.za). There is also a lovely thatched restaurant, pool, informative visitors' centre, shop and the first of only three petrol stations.
We did not linger, however, for we were aiming for a truer desert experience at one of the seven unfenced wilderness camps to be found in isolated spots within this vast reserve. Kielie Krankie, our first destination, was a further 90 minutes' drive into the park. We had to be installed before dark, for there is a risk from predators and scorpions underfoot. It was early December, and with temperatures pushing 40°C, the air dazzled and shimmered around us, alive with the harsh metallic buzz of invisible cicadas. Our car cooling system was noisily threatening to give up the ghost, and I wondered whether anyone would ever find us if we broke down, for we didn't pass another soul.
Desperate to spot a lion, I saw their sleeping forms under every acacia tree, but alas, the deep dark pools of shade were misleading. Maybe I did pass one black-maned beauty dreaming of his last kill; I will never know.
We stayed in two wilderness camps: Kalahari Tented Camp and tiny Kielie Krankie, where we were totally alone except for the enigmatic armed warden in a nearby hut. On our first night, we watched the sun setting over the red sandy plain that seemed to stretch towards infinity, and felt like the last people on earth. As a tiny steenbok tentatively lapped at the small salt pan below us, we saw his drinking water catch fire.
Over the next few days, as we drove between the camps, we saw very few people and even fewer lions. Even at Nossob, where there is a predator information centre, and where lions are often spotted, the big cat count remained at nil. But no matter. By this time, we were so thrilled by the other wildlife we had seen that it no longer seemed important. We spotted creatures big and small, from ground squirrels to the stately gemsbok (or oryx); creatures as sprightly as the springbok or as sedate as the giraffe, spreading wide its legs to dip a long neck towards the water hole; solitary creatures like the black-backed jackal, and herds of antelope, such as red hartebeest, seeking protection in numbers. And oh, the magnificent birdlife - the bee-eaters, the strutting secretary birds, bateleur eagles, and so many more.
Two evening sightings will remain with me forever: a spotted eagle owl perched on a branch while her chicks played beneath her, and a family of bat-eared foxes emerging from their burrow. It was such a privilege to share this moment, just before sunset, with these wild creatures.
Indeed, it is a privilege to stay in the Kalahari, described as "one of the most pristine conservation areas on earth". The largest area of the park lies within Botswana, and if you should wish to go beyond the South African border, camping reservations can be made through the Parks and Reserves Reservations Office (email@example.com; 089 2673180774).
If self-catering is not your scene, then all is not lost. Tucked away in this genuine wilderness lies a touch of comfort at Xaus Lodge, a 24-bed thatched luxury lodge. This is owned by the Khomani San and Mier communities, who have regained possession of their traditional homelands through a recent agreement. Here, you can enjoy some unique cuisine and learn some of the arts of the original hunter-gatherers from one of their few remaining descendants.
After seven days, we had to return to Cape Town, sorry to leave, but relieved that our cooling system had held out until the very last day, in spite of the testing conditions. But first we had to gather some souvenirs of that mystical place. As we grew closer to the gates at Twee Rivieren, we pulled up by the side of the road to pick up some of the soft furry grey pods that lay scattered under a group of camel thorn trees. I cautiously opened the car door (for leaving one's vehicle is not really permitted), and broke the sultry silence.
"Shhh!" came a warning. There was a car half-hidden in front of us, and its occupants were signalling frantically at me to get back into the car. We had found our lions! Snoring gently, and languishing in various patches of shade beneath the adjacent trees, they lay, one fine male, two females, and a large cub. Fortunately, we had seen them before they saw me. One stirred slightly, flicked a fly with its ear, and resettled into sleep. We stayed, overawed, for at least half an hour, before time constraints prised us away.
Farewell, Kalahari - and please never change.