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The Kalahari Desert’ “The Great Thirst” of Africa – Africa Facts Zone

Story Highlights

  • About the Kalahari Desert
  • Wild Life in the Kalahari Desert

Africa Facts Zone presents The Kalahari Desert, a large semi-arid sandy savannah. The Kalahari is the southernmost desert in Africa. It is the sixth biggest desert area on Earth and the second biggest in Africa after the Sahara. It merges with the Namib, the coastal desert of Namibia in the southwest.

Kalahari is derived from the Tswana word Kgala, meaning “the great thirst,” or Kgalagadi, meaning “a waterless place”;  the Kalahari has vast areas covered by red sand without any permanent surface water.

The Kalahari Desert covers much of Botswana, the eastern third of Namibia, and the Northern Cape Province’s northernmost part in South Africa.

About the Kalahari Desert

The area is possibly best known for the San people, or Bushmen: hunter-gatherers whose long history is told in ancient rock paintings throughout the area. Sadly, their way of life is threatened by the modern world, but there are a few places where they still manage to survive. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve was established as a sanctuary for the nomadic San Bushmen and is now home to spectacular large herds of plains wildlife and accompanying predators.

The San people have lived in the Kalahari desert for 20,000 years as hunter-gatherers.[15] They hunt wild game with bows and poison arrows and gather edible plants, such as berries, melons, and nuts, as well as insects. The San get most of their water requirements from plant roots and desert melons found on or under the desert floor. They often store water in the blown-out shells of ostrich eggs. The San live in huts built from local materials—the frame is made of branches, and the roof is thatched with long grass. Most of their hunting and gathering techniques replicate our pre-historic tribes.

One of the most surprising Kalahari Desert facts is that it is not a desert in the word’s strictest sense. It is a semi-desert. The driest areas receive 110–200 mm (4.3–7.9 in) of rain per year, and the wettest can receive more than 500 millimeters (20 in) in very wet years.

Even where the Kalahari “desert” is dry enough to qualify as a dessert in the sense of having low precipitation, it is not strictly speaking a desert because the ground cover is too dense.

Traditionally, an area has classified a desert if it receives less than 10 inches (250 millimeters) of rain annually. A more accurate definition of a desert is a region where “the evaporation rate is twice as great as the precipitation.” This is true for the southwestern half of the Kalahari. However, the northeastern portion receives much more rainfall and, climatically, cannot qualify as a desert; yet, it totally lacks in surface water. This is because rain drains instantly through the deep sands here, leaving the substrate completely devoid of moisture.

Also Read: The Khoemacau Copper Mine Botswana, Africa’s Largest Copper Mine

Wild Life in the Kalahari Desert

The wildlife found in the Kalahari Desert has to survive the arid conditions. The wetter north has a wider and greater variety of wildlife than the dryer south.

The arid-adapted game includes springbok, gemsbok (oryx), wildebeestkudu, steenbok, and duiker. The Kalahari is home to desert specialties such as meerkats, bat-eared foxes, cape foxes, and brown hyena. One of the more unexpected Kalahari Desert facts is that all three big African cats can be found here –cheetahleopard, and the famous black-maned Kalahari lions.

Birdlife includes the secretary bird, Kori bustard, ostrich, and various prey birds, including the martial eagle, giant eagle owl, falcons, goshawks, kestrels, and kites. The landscape is dotted with huge nests of sociable weavers, built precariously on trees and telegraph poles.

Many reptiles also live in the Kalahari, including Cape cobras, puff adders, and numerous lizard species. Remarkably some amphibians can also survive here, including the bushveld rain frog and the tremolo sand frog. It is incredible to hear the frog chorus commence as soon as the rains arrive.

Vegetation and flora in the Kalahari

The dryer south-western Kalahari Desert has few trees or large bushes—just scattered drought-tolerant shrubs and grass tussocks. Hoodia cactus grow here, used for thousands of years by the San people to ease hunger and thirst. Other edible plants found here include tsamma melons and gemsbok cucumbers – used by animals and humans.

With more rain, the central Kalahari has scattered trees (several species of Acacia) and more shrubs and grasses. There are woodlands mainly made up of camelthorn acacias in the wetter north and east. Endemic to the Kalahari, the camelthorn is a crucial part of the desert ecosystem, producing nutrients that encourage other plants to grow around its base and providing shade for animals. Other trees that grow in this area include shepherd’s tree, blackthorn, and silver cluster-leaf.


There are several wonderful tented camps and lodges for visitors, which allow you to experience the tranquility, wildlife, and vast panoramas of the Kalahari. A stay in the desert contrasts wonderfully with the lush wetlands of the Okavango or the bush and savannah of other Southern African parks. For more details, contact Wildlife Worldwide.


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