Discovered in 1986 by a bug collector working at the National Museum of Namibia, Dragon’s Breath Cave is so called because of the humid air that emerges from it.
In the belly of the dragon lies the largest underground lake in the world. So far, divers have only been able to plunge down to 130 metres but it goes far deeper. The lake contains clear, fresh water where the only living creatures are the rare golden catfish, white shrimp, and tiny worms.
It is ironic that the fifth largest desert on Earth (the largest is Antarctica, classified as a cold winter desert) conceals a vast reservoir of water that even its local inhabitants, the San people, didn’t know about.
The Kalahari was once a much wetter place, where ancient Lake Makgadikgadi covered some 80,000 sq. km. to a depth of 30 metres. The Okavango, Zambezi, and Cuando rivers all once emptied into this lake, but 10,000 years ago it dried up.
The desert itself came into existence approximately 60 million years ago. Sand sheets evolved during the Pleistocene Epoch (some two million years ago), and they have remained ever since, encompassing most of Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa. The Kalahari gets its name from the Tswana word Kgala (“great thirst”) transmuted into Kalagare, meaning “place without water”.
The Kalahari has huge areas that are good for grazing and that support more animals than are found in a true desert. It also has several game reserves and other conservation areas. Temperatures can reach 40ºC in the summer, but in winter the Kalahari has a dry, cold climate where the temperature drops to 0ºC.
The Kalahari is the ancestral land of the Bushmen or San people, who have no collective name for themselves. The names San and Basarwa are sometimes used, although the people prefer the “Bushman”. They have a creation legend that explains why water is their ancient symbol of life:
“The legendary hero, Mantis, appears at the time of the beginning of the world, when the face of the earth was covered with water. Mantis was sent to find the purpose of all life, and asked the bee to guide him. Mantis was carried over the dark and turbulent waters by the bee. But after many days of searching, the bee became weary and cold as he searched for solid ground, and Mantis felt heavier and heavier.
The bee struggled bravely, as he flew ever more slowly and sank down towards the water, but at last he saw a great white flower, half open, floating in the water, awaiting the sun’s first rays. The bee laid Mantis in the heart of the flower, and planted within him the seed of the first human being. Then the bee died.
But as the sun rose and warmed the flower, Mantis awoke, and there from within him, from the seed left by the bee, the first San was born – out of water.”
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince, “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”