1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kalahari Desert

KALAHARI DESERT, a region of South Africa, lying mainly between 20° and 28° S. and 19° and 24° E., and covering fully 120,000 sq. m. The greater part of this territory forms the western portion of the (British) Bechuanaland protectorate, but it extends south into that part of Bechuanaland annexed to the Cape and west into German South-West Africa. The Orange river marks its southern limit; westward it reaches to the foot of the Nama and Damara hills, eastward to the cultivable parts of Bechuanaland, northward and north-westward to the valley of the Okavango and the bed of Lake Ngami. The Kalahari, part of the immense inner table-land of South Africa, has an average elevation of over 3000 ft. with a general slope from east to west and a dip northward to Ngami. Described by Robert Moffat as “the southern Sahara,” the Kalahari resembles the great desert of North Africa in being generally arid and in being scored by the beds of dried-up rivers. It presents however many points of difference from the Sahara. The surface soil is mainly red sand, but in places limestone overlies shale and conglomerates. The ground is undulating and its appearance is comparable with that of the ocean at times of heavy swell. The crests of the waves are represented by sand dunes, rising from 30 to 100 ft.; the troughs between the dunes vary greatly in breadth. On the eastern border long tongues of sand project into the veld, while the veld in places penetrates far into the desert. There are also, and especially along the river beds, extensive mud flats. After heavy rain these become pans or lakes, and water is then also found in mud-bottomed pools along the beds of the rivers. The water in the pans is often brackish, and in some cases thickly encrusted with salt. Pans also occur in crater-like depressions where rock rises above the desert sands. A tough, sun-bleached grass, growing knee-high in tufts at intervals of about 15 in., covers the dunes and gives the general colour of the landscape. Considerable parts of the Kalahari, chiefly in the west and north, are however covered with dense scrub and there are occasional patches of forest. Next to the lack of water the chief characteristics of the desert are the tuberous and herbaceous plants and the large numbers of big game found in it. Of the plants the most remarkable is the water-melon, of which both the bitter and sweet variety are found, and which supplies both man and beast with water. The game includes the lion, leopard, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, buffalo, zebra, quagga, many kinds of antelope (among them the kudu and gnu), baboon and ostrich. The elephant, giraffe and eland are also found. The hunting of these three last-named animals is prohibited, and for all game there is a close time from the beginning of September to the end of February.

The climate is hot, dry and healthy, save in the neighbourhood of the large marshes in the north, where malarial fever is prevalent. In this region the drainage is N.E. to the great Makarikari marsh and the Botletle, the river connecting the marsh with the Ngami system. In the south the drainage is towards the Orange. The Molopo and the Kuruman, which in their upper course in eastern Bechuanaland are perennial streams, lose their water by evaporation and percolation on their way westward through the Kalahari. The Molopo, a very imposing river on the map, is dry in its lower stretches. The annual rainfall does not exceed 10 in. It occurs in the summer months, September to March, and chiefly in thunderstorms. The country is suffering from progressive desiccation, but there is good evidence of an abundant supply of water not far beneath the surface. In the water-melon season a few white farmers living on the edge of the desert send their herds thither to graze. Such few spots as have been under cultivation by artificial irrigation yield excellent returns to the farmer; but the chief commercial products of the desert are the skins of animals.

The Kalahari is the home of wandering Bushmen (q.v.), who live entirely by the chase, killing their prey with poisoned arrows, of Ba-Kalahari, and along the western border of Hottentots, who are both hunters and cattle-rearers. The Ba-Kalahari (men of the Kalahari), who constitute the majority of the inhabitants, appear to belong to the Batau tribe of the Bechuanas, now no longer having separate tribal existence, and traditionally reported to be the oldest of the Bechuana tribes. Their features are markedly negroid, though their skin is less black than that of many negro peoples. They have thin legs and arms. The Ba-Kalahari are said to have possessed enormous herds of large horned cattle until deprived of them and driven into the desert by a fresh migration of more powerful Bechuana tribes. Unlike the Bushmen, and in spite of desert life, the Ba-Kalahari have a true passion for agriculture and cattle-breeding. They carefully cultivate their gardens, though in many cases all they can grow is a scanty supply of melons and pumpkins, and they rear small herds of goats. They are also clever hunters, and from the neighbouring Bechuana chiefs obtain spears, knives, tobacco and dogs in exchange for the skins of the animals they kill. In disposition they are peaceful to timidity, grave and almost morose. Livingstone states that he never saw Ba-Kalahari children at play. An ingenious method is employed to obtain water where there is no open well or running stream. To one end of a reed about 2 ft. long a bunch of grass is tied, and this end of the reed is inserted in a hole dug at a spot where water is known to exist underground, the wet sand being rammed down firmly round it. An ostrich egg-shell, the usual water vessel, is placed on the ground alongside the reed. The water-drawer, generally a woman, then sucks up the water through the reed, dexterously squirting it into the adjacent egg-shell. To aid her aim she places between her lips a straw, the other end of which is inserted in the shell. The shells, when filled, are buried, the object of the Ba-Kalahari being to preserve their supplies from any sudden raid by Bushmen or other foe. Early travellers stated that no amount of bullying or hunting in a Ba-Kalahari village would result in a find of water; but that on friendly relations being established the natives would bring a supply, however arid the district. The British government has since sunk wells in one or two districts. Though the Ba-Kalahari have no religion in the strict sense of the word, they show traces of totemism, and as Batau, i.e. “men of the lion,” revere rather than fear that beast.

The Kalahari was first crossed to Lake Ngami by David Livingstone, accompanied by William C. Oswell, in 1849. In 1878–1879 a party of Boers, with about three hundred wagons, trekked from the Transvaal across the Kalahari to Ngami and thence to the hinterland of Angola. Many of the party, men, women and children, perished of thirst during the journey. Survivors stated that in all some 250 people and 9000 cattle died.

See Bechuanaland. Die Kalahari, by Dr Siegfried Passarge (Berlin, 1904), is a valuable treatise on the geology, topography, hydrography, climate and flora of the desert, with maps and bibliography. The author spent two years (1896–1898) in the Kalahari. See also Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, &c., by David Livingstone (London, 1857).