The first three times we visited the Kgalagadi Transfontier Park in South Africa we just showed up and booked our accommodations right at the gate. We knew there were some mysterious Kalahari wilderness camps that were supposed to be incredible, but they booked up far in advance so we had no chance of staying in one. (except for one lucky break with the Kalahari tented camp). Therefore, we always wound up tent camping in the main rest camps or in back-country sites like in Mabuasehube. We love Kalahari camping so we never really minded, but in the back of our minds we always wondered what these coveted wilderness camp chalets might be like.
This time we decided to do things a little differently. Each year the KTP gets a little more popular and even the campsites are booking up in advance, so we bit the bullet and planned ahead. It was only 6 weeks before our flight was leaving and I decided to start searching for accommodation in the Kgalagadi. Surely it was too late for anything other than camping! Imagine my surprise when I found availability at some of the wilderness camps during Hal’s birthday week. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
“We need to book this right now!” – I screamed.
It was urgent. Now or never. Somebody must have just canceled their reservation and the spot would disappear quickly. So we took it. We managed to get a couple of nights at Urikaruus wilderness camp and one night at Kieliekrankie wilderness camp. There were a couple of nights available at other wilderness camps but we thought about it overnight and they were gone by the next morning. The next morning! When it comes to the Kgalagadi wilderness camps, if something you want is available, take it and don’t think twice!
Arriving at Urikaruus
Urikaruus wilderness camp sits about halfway between the Twee Rivieren and Mata Mata rest camps, about 500 meters off the main road behind a dune. Guests that are not booked at Urikaruus are not allowed to enter the chained drive. You can’t even bring in a guest for a drink. That is how private the wilderness camps are in the Kalahari.
After scanning for lions sleeping under the bushes beside the road, I got out of the car and took the chain down so we could drive in. As soon as I put the chain back up I felt a sense of accomplishment, of pride, and excitement. We were officially at Urikaruus! We did the impossible! We drove down the small sand dune and as the road bent to the left, the dry riverbed appeared. And there, perched amongst a few shady trees, the four units of Urikaruus looked out over their own private waterhole in the Auob riverbed. One of them was going to be our home for the next three days.
The Unique Chalets at Urikaruus Wilderness Camp
The units at Urikaruus were unlike any chalets we’d ever seen. The first impression was of gypsy wagons perched on stilts, connected by a suspended walkway. Each unit was comprised of two small buildings sitting at different heights. The taller one housed the bedroom, bathroom, and a small balcony. A short flight of stairs connected it to the kitchen and the main deck. This is where we would spend most of our time at the wilderness camp because it faces a lit waterhole that no one else in the park has access to. You can see the waterhole from your bedroom, but since the kitchen and deck are closer to the ground you can be closer to any animals walking by.
Each unit is only suitable for 2 people, and they don’t make exceptions. Also, young kids are not allowed. This is an unfenced camp and you need to be aware of your surroundings. It is fairly common for a pride of lions to take shelter under the units on hot days, so this is definitely not the place for young kids. It will be just you and the Kalahari wildlife.
Talk about exclusivity!
When we arrived at camp, the manager showed us around and told us about the wildlife sightings that they had the past few days. These are also recorded in the sightings book in each cabin. I must have spent a good half an hour reading back over sightings that happened years ago. Kalahari lions, leopards, hyenas, jackals, giraffes… all these Kalahari desert animals can appear at any time so keep your eyes peeled.
“I am not sleeping tonight at all!” I said to Hal. I just wanted to sit on the deck all night to see what the Kalahari animals were up to. The thought of sitting quietly on the deck late at night and seeing a pride of lions walk by gave me goosebumps.
Even though there are three other cabins at Urikaruus, everyone comes here for the same reason: peace and quiet, and a true Kalahari experience without being stuck in the campgrounds.
The Kalahari wilderness camps are fantastic if you are traveling from abroad and don’t have camping equipment. While some car rental companies in South Africa will rent you camping equipment, some people just don’t want to bother with that. It can be a hassle. That is the beauty of these wilderness camps. They include a kitchen with all the basic supplies and a fridge with freezer. If you visit during the hotter months when temperatures can get pretty extreme, you will really appreciate that cold freezer. The units are simple so if you want luxury then this may not be the place for you. But the real luxury is being in this place, in the center of the park with no one else around but your three neighbors.
Wildlife Sightings In and Around Urikaruus
One of our many favorite wildlife encounters occurred early in the morning a few hours before sunrise. We were both asleep (yeah, I didn’t pull an all-nighter on the deck after all) but this strange sound woke me up. It was a series of deep bass tones in a groovy little song that Hal later described as someone playing the tuba. It went on for a long time, so I crept out of the bedroom’s sliding door and peered into the darkness. I couldn’t find the culprit until I took out my torch out and searched for eye shine. Then I saw the tuba player. It was a Giant Eagle Owl (also called a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl) sitting on top of the flood light. It sounded something like this:
We had many other great wildlife sightings just sitting on our deck with binoculars in hand, a good African animal behavior book (this is our favorite), and our favorite drink. The Kalahari desert animals will come.
We really wanted to spend all our time at the cabin just watching the wildebeest and giraffe walk by, but at the time of our visit there was an active hyena den a couple of miles away and those little rascals were just too cute to resist! We also found some bat-eared foxes nearby and that’s where we spent our evenings.
It was during those evenings that we realized another bonus of staying at Urikaruus. Everybody in the park has to be back at their camp by sunset, and Urikaruus sits about halfway between them. So, if the other visitors want to get back in time, they’ll have to leave the Urikaruus area approximately one hour (or more) before sunset. Since you are staying right around the corner, you have more than an hour in the park all by yourself (unless one of your three Urikaruus neighbors happens to drive by)! The same goes for the morning. Though the chalets have the same gate opening and closing times as the campgrounds, you will be the first ones out in the middle of the park for about an hour before guests from the camps reach the area. This is especially awesome if you are watching an active hyena den!
One of our most memorable moments occurred on our last morning at Urikaruus. We left our unit at sunrise and headed south to see if the hyena clan was around. We were barely out of the Urikaruus driveway when we noticed some strange drag marks on the sand road. It came from the riverbed and it headed down the road in the direction we were driving. We also noticed some tracks beside it, spotted hyena tracks. We looked at each other and realized that a hyena had made a kill right in front of our room that night and she was dragging it back to the den! I knew I should have pulled an all-nighter! This is the kind of stuff you can experience if you stay at Urikaruus. Since we were the first ones out, nobody had driven over the marks and we were able to track them all the way down the road. Always check the sandy road for tracks and other signs of wildlife! To identify tracks while on a safari in Southern Africa, get yourself a good wildlife tracks field guide, we use Signs of the Wild.
We followed the tracks and as we had guessed, it lead us right to the hyena den. There the clan was feasting on a recent kill. It is always satisfying to learn you’ve correctly interpreted wildlife signs, but suddenly we thought of someone else: “Limpy”. Limpy was a wildebeest calf that we saw the day before at the Urikaruus waterhole. Due to an injury in a back leg he could hardly keep up with the herd, but his mother and a young friend always stopped to wait for him. We couldn’t help but assume that Limpy was the unfortunate victim from the night before.
However, later that day we saw Limpy alive and well. Mom must have hidden him well beneath a bush. Whew!
Is the Kgalagadi the Best Place to See Cheetahs in the World?
Another reason that Urikaruus is one of the most popular camps in South Africa is because this stretch of riverbed (between Urikaruus and Mata Mata) is considered the best place to see cheetahs in the entire world, and that certainly has been true in our experience. It is not uncommon to see multiple coalitions of cheetahs in a single day, making it the perfect place for a cheetah safari. And of course it is one of the best places to spot the beautiful black-maned Kalahari lion.
Is This Place For Real?
Ok, now you must be thinking…this place must cost a fortune!
Nope. Staying at Urikaruus costs less than $130 a night per cabin! What’s the catch then?
Well, reserving a cabin is almost impossible. The booking system opens up each month one year in advance, but within half an hour after bookings have opened, everything is fully booked. So if you missed that tiny window, how can you ever stay at Urikaruus?
You must check the Sanparks website every day for openings due to cancellation and be prepared to reserve and pay if you see something you want. This means, you have to either be very lucky with your dates or you have to be totally open for anything. If you are open, then you will find a spot. I’ve been watching the site for months and lots of openings pop up. SANParks makes it pretty easy to cancel bookings without penalty (if completed far enough in advance) so it happens quite often. This is your opportunity.
Things to Consider when Planning a Stay at Urikaruus
• One thing to keep in mind when planning a visit to the Kalahari is that Urikaruus doesn’t have heat or A/C. They provide you with a fan for those hot summer days and a couple of very warm blankets for winter. But you might be surprised at how cold it can get so you need to be prepared with tons of layers. Temperatures can easily drop below freezing at night!
• Another thing to be aware of is that there are no power plugs in the units. If you need to charge your camera batteries or phone, make sure to bring an inverter to plug into your car’s cigarette lighter.
• Bring all the food you will need during your stay. The shop at Mata Mata and the one at Twee Rivieren are just a bit too far. You can do it, but you’ll be spending most of the day traveling back and forth to the shop. Plan ahead, bring all your food, fuel up completely at one of the main camps, then relax and enjoy your time around Urikaruus.
• Also keep in mind that three of the units are double rooms, meaning there are two single beds. If you want a double bed, you need to reserve the honeymoon cabin.
• One of the best things about Urikaruus is that you don’t need a 4×4 to access it, unlike some of the other Kgalagadi wilderness camps. You can drive right in with any sedan, even a compact car! (But make sure to lower your tire pressure so you don’t mess up the roads too bad!)
When is the best time to Visit the Kgalagadi?
Anytime! Each day is different and each day is going to be awesome. Believe me. The hottest summer months will bring lions sleeping in the shade under your unit. The coldest winter months will have more wildlife out during the daytime. You can’t go wrong in the Kgalagadi!
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