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Next stop: Kalahari Desert

A new road makes it easier to travel through Botswana

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There are few enough wildernesses left, even in Africa, but the Kalahari Desert is undoubtedly one of them.

About the size of France, the Kalahari begins at the Botswana frontier, a four-hour drive from South Africa's industrialized heartlands of Johannesburg and Pretoria. It stretches north and west beyond the Namibian frontier, 700 miles from the Orange River at Uppington in the south to the Chobe River in the north.

Rainfall is in many places too plentiful for this to be a true desert. But in the drier south and west, "fossil" rivers like the Auob, Nossob, Molope, and Hanahai might flow once a century or once a millennium. In the north, one of southern Africa's main rivers drains the Angolan highlands into the Okavango swamps, a river delta that dries up 550 miles from the sea.

The only human inhabitants of this great wilderness are scattered villages of Kgalakgadi tribesmen, small groups of San (or "Bushman") hunter-gatherers, and bands of Herero and Mbukushu migrants from Namibia and Angola. The tiny settlements and empty sand tracks appear on few maps, and food and gasoline are scarce.

Until recently, a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle was indispensable for all but the outermost fringes of this vast wilderness. But in the past year, the Botswana government completed the Trans-Kalahari Highway, a tarred road all the way from Jwaneng, an hour from the capital Gaborone, to Ghanzi, a small cattle outpost that is the only town of note in the entire western Kalahari.

This seems like good news for the people of the Kalahari, eager for more tourism and development and a cheap way to bring their goods - mainly cattle - to market. The road that once took a 4x4 a day or more to negotiate can now be driven in five hours in a normal car.

For the romantic and the outward-bound, it is the end of yet another frontier. But the country on either side of the new road is still classic Kalahari bush, where armies of acacia thorns skirmish towards the distant horizons and the long grass stands yellow in the dry winter sun. At night, headlights spotlight furtive jackals, immobile donkeys, placid cows and - most dangerous for those unwisely traveling the unfenced road at speed - skittish herds of large antelope like kudu and hartebeest.

The once-fabled oasis of Ghanzi turns out to be a one-street village, its tin roofs and dusty trees only a little higher than the all-encompassing bush, the approach road running close to the airstrip's single tarred runway.

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