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My rental car only takes me so far: I drive 20 miles an hour down the Red Dune Route of ruts and red dust into South Africa's Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The preserve, known as the “land of thirst,” makes up a swath of Kalahari Desert that is located at the confluence of northwestern South Africa and southern Botswana.
I've been instructed to abandon my buggy at the dry Kamqua waterhole and wait for the four-wheel drive truck that will shuttle me over 91 sand dunes, the remaining 20 miles to my destination. An hour later, I arrive looking like Mad Max at the remote resort oasis that is !Xaus Lodge.
!Xaus is a word of the local San Bushmen. The Bushmen speak Nama, a language punctuated by "clicks" of the palate. The exclamation point denotes a "click," so that !Xaus is pronounced by a "click," followed immediately by what sounds like "house" with a "K." So, [click] "kouse." The trick is to blend the [click] and the "kouse" seamlessly. I practice, but my mouth feels dry — my excuse for never getting it quite right.
The plunge pool beckons as I'm led down the raised boardwalk to my room, one of 12 individual thatched chalets of rich hardwoods and soft pillows. On the desk, there’s bottled water as well as a list of resort rules: Water is scarce and consequently should be limited. Water, food, booze and fuel are all hauled in from the closest outpost nearly three hours away. There’s no Wi-Fi access or cellphone reception, and the resort operates on a generator. Lights must be out at 11:00 p.m.
Later, it is suggested that I remain on the raised boardwalk at night. The lodge is unfenced.
”A week ago we had lions,” the porter says.
The lodge overlooks an enormous heart-shaped salt pan below (!Xaus means “heart” in English) and sits at the heart of more than 123,500 acres of the park, which was returned to the Khomani San community and the Mier community in 2002. The communities own the lodge, and it's managed for them by Transfrontier Parks Destinations. However, the communities receive a monthly stipend from the lodge and provide the majority of the staff; young members of the communities (shy and with wide smiles) are apprenticed to learn hospitality management skills and ancestral Bushmen practices and knowledge.
The remote !Xaus Lodge is situated within South Africa's Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. // © 2016 !Xaus Lodge
!Xaus Lodge’s dining room and deck // © 2016 !Xaus Lodge
Enjoy a dip in the swimming pool. // © 2016 !Xaus Lodge
Guests have opportunities to learn from the trained guides. // © 2016 !Xaus Lodge
Game drives promise sightings of a variety of animals, which may include lion cubs. // © 2016 !Xaus Lodge
There are 18 species of antelope in the park, including gemsbok. // © 2016 !Xaus Lodge
Enjoy a sundowner with the Kalahari sunset. // © 2016 !Xaus Lodge
My first dinner is served in the traditional boma, where we dine around the fire and beneath flickering lanterns. Dinner is butternut squash soup, gemsbok stew and malva pudding, accompanied by South African wines. After dinner is a nighttime game drive. We spotlight prowling jackals, bat-eared foxes, African wild cats, aardwolf and the fast-hopping spring hare, also called the Kalahari kangaroo. Then it's back to the lodge for stargazing and hurrying off to bed before the lights go out.
The following morning is a walk among the dunes with two local Bushmen. They demonstrate the proper "click," while showing us shrubs and grasses utilized by their ancestors for everything from numbing pain to suppressing appetite. Afterward, we visit a small, recreated Bushman village, where community members shoot bows and slender arrows into tsamma melons, one of the best sources of water in the Kalahari, and burn wonderful petroglyph-like figures onto clean white antelope bones.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is composed of more than 14,500 square miles, almost twice the size of Kruger National Park and nearly the same size as the Netherlands. It was established in 1999, through the merger of Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. We only cover a small portion of it on our afternoon game drive, but it is plenty enough to find the 18 species of antelope in the park, in addition to dozens of ostriches, two poisonous cape cobras, a leopard, a cheetah and a pride of the coveted black-maned Kalahari lions — about 450 of these magnificent creatures live in the park.
Any respectable game drive concludes with a sundowner, and this one did not disappoint. My final Kalahari sunset is a beautiful burnt amber glow, punctuated by the lone camel thorn or quiver tree. We then returned to !Xaus Lodge to wash off the dust before dinner. The heart-shaped salt pan below serves as a welcome reminder to use the water sparingly.