The pilot of the four-seater Cessna meets me at the small Maun airport, Botswana’s gateway into the country for all safari-goers. Most of them are greeted there by bright young people in the crisp kaki uniform of the handful of safari companies that operate in the lush, waterlogged world of the Okavango Delta. My turn will come, but not today. I am headed into the sun-baked emptiness of the Kalahari, the great desert that covers about 70 percent of this landlocked southern African country roughly the size of France.
Magic in the Makgadikgadi
The plane drones on for an hour over a flat, featureless terrain all the way to the milky blue horizon. This is the Makgadikgaki, one of the largest salt pans in the world (4,600 square miles – or and area of 12 000 square kilometers). Then the barren eternity is interrupted by an improbable line of fan palm trees. As we get closer, acacia also materialise, then large green canvas tents. “Jack’s Camp,” my pilot volunteers as he begins his approach toward the oasis’ dusty landing strip. I am handed over to my awaiting guide and one short rocky ride later we stop in front of a sprawling tented pavilion that has me questioning whether I haven’t just stepped into a mirage!
The polished teak floor is covered with mellow oriental carpets. Inviting lounges flow into each other, decorated in a safari style that harks back to the opulence of bygone era. There is a library, a bar with an antique pool table and a well-stocked drinks chest, a dining room with a long mahogany table that can easily seat a dozen. The walls are lined with natural history drawings, century-old photographs and engravings of long ago safari scenes. Display cases are filled with museum-quality local artifacts. My own tent is decorated in the same vein, including the bathroom where all the features and the washbasin are antique copper buffed to a flawless shine.
But what of the safari?
Jack’s Camp’s surreal luxury setting, with service to match, is only the beginning. The activities are adapted to the experience of desert life. Sunrise finds me silently waiting for a community of meerkats to emerge from their multiple burrows. Although wild, these gregarious squirrel-sized mongooses are sufficiently habituated to humans that they are unconcerned by my presence. I am able to closely observe their young at play and their rituals as they set out on their daily foraging for insects, fruit and lizards.
I marvel at the daily sight of hundreds of zebras and wildebeests arriving from the Boteti River to the west on their yearly migration to the pans. I have the pleasure to walk with Cobra, a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder, member of one of the oldest cultures on the planet, who shows me the plants and foraging methods that ensured the survival of his ancestors for millennia. I gape at the sight of the Chapman’s baobab, a giant with a seven-pillar trunk 85 feet (25 meters) in diameter, the largest and oldest baobab in Africa (estimated to be close to 4,000 years old). Nineteenth century explorer David Livingstone initials can still be seen, carved upon its rock-like bark. I have my first ever sighting of an aardvark, this particularly rare and elusive nocturnal animal.
Riding into the sunset
The most unforgettable experience of my visit to Jack’s Camp is a sunset ride deep into the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. Our guide leads our small caravan of quad bikes (their balloon tires only skim the fragile crusty surface where heavier vehicles would sink) to what is truly the middle of nowhere. The copper sun slides from the cloudless sky behind the gleaming line of the horizon. With the rising moon, the surface of the Pan turns ghostly white. I lay down on my back on the warm salt crust and stare up. In this otherworldly space, unchanged for millennia, my eyes fill with countless stars, and my ears with a silence so deep I can hear my own heartbeat.
Good to know
- Jack’s Camp is the flagship property of Uncharted Africa a safari company founded in 1993 and managed by Ralph Bousfield, a naturalist and conservation expert who comes from a long line of African pioneers and adventurers. His own father Jack, after whom the camp is named was a legendary African hunter and safari operator.
- To contact Unchartered Africa, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Jack’s Camp is decorated mainly with original family antiques.