Mokala National Park is almost slap-bang in the middle of South Africa, lying off the N12 which connects Beaufort West (via Kimberley) with Klerksdorp and Potchefstroom. It’s surprising, though, how few people really know about this park. Just southwest of Kimberley, it’s a lovely reserve, with its cayenne-pepper-red Kalahari sands and mix of acacia woodland, pockets of open grassland, and tumbles of ancient lava boulders dressed in a scorched and polished sheen. Mokala is the Setswana word for the camel thorn tree, the most visible and striking acacia species in the park, distinctive for its pretty grey-sateen half-moon shaped pods.
Our first night’s stay was at Mosu Lodge, a sprawling thatched complex of reception, restaurant and earthy thatched chalets in the southwest of the park. Our two chalets had ringside seats onto the large waterhole, and the night’s braai produced steady animal theatre … majestic-horned kudu sidling up, zebra drifting soundlessly in and out, a behemoth eland, then a train of them, all melting out of the darkness and back into it.
Throughout the park is a series of game-viewing loops that bristle with possibility: chance encounters with unusual species such as tsessebe, roan and sable antelope, black and white rhino — those that Mokala has made its aim to protect, embodied in its slogan ‘Where endangered species roam’. On our drives, chance (or Lady Luck) delivered to us our tsessebe, a family of nine including juveniles, staring dully out of champagne-coloured eyes; a haughty inspection by four strangely light-skinned giraffe; a frisky crowd of springbok; and the only animals that were distinctly skittish, a herd of eland, stately, moving with grace, but oozing guarded suspicion.
But it was on our way to an open picnic site among bent and bowed camel thorns that our pulses spiked. Some 100 m away, two dusty grey shapes shifted in the brush and, yes, indeed, it was those denizens of the bushveld so highly endangered today … white rhino! We were even more astonished when another three took shape between the trees, trailed by a baby. The three of us watched for a long while, thrilled at the privilege of witnessing it.
We’d conquered the southwest of the park (note: there are also luxury camp sites here); it was time to travel north through the centre, ending the day at Lilydale Camp in the north eastern extremity. The cottages here are not as luxurious as Mosu, but are pleasant all the same. Lining the crest of a ridge, the views are expansive down to the Riet River and across the scrubby savannah.
It was a day of rare sightings. Outlined on a bouldered kopje with the nimble stance of a mountain goat was the masked face and backswept horns of a roan antelope. And then, our first solitary sable antelope, magnificent barrel-vault horns curved over its dark coat. Dense black speckles strung out along a grassland ridge materialised into blue and black wildebeest practising for the migration. And through the woodland, we had furtive glimpses of a sizable herd of buffalo bearing heavy bosses. It sounds like a steady, constant parade ꟷ but infinite patience is required; the density of the acacia woodland pockets is a challenge to wildlife viewing and there are long periods when nothing stirs. But a park to be ticked off your next list? Definitely.
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