When the late explorer Jack Bousfield asked what lay in the Makgadikgadi of Botswana, he was told: “Nothing; only idiots go there.”
“Fine,” he said, “that’s the place for me.”
Go there, and it’s at once glaringly obvious that the idiots were on point because the nothing that captivated Bousfield is in reality a beguiling shifting wilderness with a raw beauty that affects one to the core.
Welcome to the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in northeastern Botswana, home to an immense salt pan, the sandy remnant of a superlake, which stands today as a bleached crusty flatland during the dry months.
Come November and December though, seasonal rains begin to fall and the desert is transformed as the cracked earth becomes a watery haven for a multitude of creatures, including zebra in vast herds that begin their annual pilgrimage from the Boteti River across the pans, lured by the mineral-rich grasses that carpet the pan fringe.
After the Serengeti, this is the world’s second-largest terrestrial migration, and one of the best places to observe part of it is from Jack’s Camp, a premier lodge named after its original founder, Bousfield, and settled on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans in the Kalahari.
It is undoubtedly one of the continent’s most evocative safari properties.
Aside from its intriguing locale though, expert guides curate experiences that go beyond a typical safari where the demand to see bucket-list animals is usually accompanied by claustrophobic crowd clutter.
Jack’s is the antithesis of all that and blissfully remote, where Wi-Fi is a dirty word and guests embrace the rare opportunity to truly disconnect digitally, pull back the pace and be in the moment, a luxury for city slickers.
Meerkat on the lookout. Picture: Allison Foat
A haven for meerkats
The drive to Jack’s Camp is a long, hot and dusty journey along a road ravaged by potholes.
But then Jack’s materialises on the shimmering horizon, heralded by a grove of skinny molokwane palms reaching into the milky blue African sky and, instantly, all is forgiven and forgotten.
Designed in Bedouin style and sumptuously decorated with campaign furniture, Persian rugs, antiques and African art, Jack’s is an authentic 1940s throwback to the safari camps of yesteryear.
Sidewalls and ceilings are draped in plush fabrics in hues of sienna and burnt umber, inspired by the colour of old leather hunting aprons.
The main tent – the Mess – sets the scene, the airy nucleus that houses a billiard room and bar (with a superb wine list), a lounge-cum-library, and the spacious dining area with its assemblage of artefacts, fossils and heirlooms, a small-scale museum of cherished items collected over time by the Bousfield family.
This is a storied camp like no other.
Jack’s location within a 1 million acre private reserve in the Makgadikgadi showcases the surroundings in spectacular fashion and there is loads to discover.
Game drives offer close encounters all year round with desert-adapted species such as springbok, steenbok, elephant, brown hyena, oryx, the Kalahari lion and cheetah.
Specialist guide Ruh and camp manager Charles at the Mess tent. Picture: Allison Foat
Fifteen minutes from camp is the wild meerkat colony, a gang of inquisitive little creatures which, in a split second, will scramble up the back of your jacket and use your head as a lookout post.
Natural Selection and Uncharted Africa, owners of Jack’s Camp, have been running this meerkat habitation project for a decade and being able to engage with the adorable suricates in their natural habitat is the stuff of dreams.
No touching is allowed – they are there to be observed only, and of course to be hosted on your hat!
Another stunning activity is a cool canter out on the plains with the horses from nearby Camp Kalahari.
Quad biking into the Ntwetwe Pan is exciting – cruising in convoy, faces wrapped Arabian-style against the onslaught of dust as you head out across the blanched sands to get a sense of the scale of the salt pans that cover an area the size of Switzerland.
Over a G&T and snacks, procured miraculously by the brilliant guide Ruh, you learn more about the topography and background of the ancient environment.
Swimming pool pavilion. Picture: Allison Foat
For the lazier among us, herd gazing from the comfort of a chaise in the sleek swimming pool pavilion, the only one in Africa, is an enticingly decadent option, especially when it involves a glass of chilled Chardonnay.
Night time brings its own wonder. After an elegant table d’hôte dinner, the stars start to twinkle and the warm air carries the nocturnal conversations that stir your heart – the grunt of a lion or the bark of an impala.
Jack’s Camp is safari seduction at its best, where every opportunity is made to showcase the magnificence of the region while simultaneously keeping an eye on conservation and ethical tourism.
It’s an antidote to all that’s wrong in the world, the perfect “nothing”. Pula!
Foat was hosted by Natural Selection Explorers
South Africans are eligible for excellent rates via Natural Selection’s Explorers Club programme – visit naturalselectionexplorers.co.za or phone 021 001 1574.
For Jack’s Camp, the rate for Explorers Club members starts at $410 (R5 868) in green season and goes up to $1 400 (R20 037) in peak season, per person per night, based on two people sharing on a fully inclusive basi