With all the comforts of the Kalahari
Adventurer Ralph Bousfield's desert hideaway has all the luxuries a visitor might need - but is it a little over the top? asks Anjana Devoy
Sunday 14 February 1999
As he charges fees of more than $500 (about pounds 300) per person, per day, for personal service in the Kalahari desert, one could be forgiven for thinking he was out to fleece the hapless tourist. But money is not his main motive. He is, at least in part, affected by the experience of having had to make a forced landing in the bush in 1994. He and his model girlfriend, Catherine, emerged unscathed, but his father Jack - a local legend - was badly injured and trapped inside the plane. He died in hospital the next day.
Ralph and Catherine built Jack's camp as a memorial to Bousfield Sr - who dubiously entered the Guinness Book of Records as the man who slayed 44,000 crocodiles - at the very spot where he had kept his own more basic camp since the early Eighties: the edge of the great Makgadikgadi salt deserts. This is a place which locals believed only idiots visited. Today, Ralph uses the spoils of tourism to fund research and conservation projects on the Kalahari and its animal life.
Like its owner, Jack's Camp is an enigmatic, remote and unpredictable place. Located at the very edge of a vast area of salt pans - once the largest freshwater lake in Africa - the environment is extreme, the vegetation spiky and hostile. Resident animals are loners with stamina, as are the people. On the pans, you have to be able to survive on thin - and very hot - air: it can be a long time before you see something you might want to eat.
When I arrived, it really did feel like the camp at the end of the world. For the 55 minutes it took to get to Jack's from Maun airport, our little Mozzie 206 buzzed low: after the claustrophobic atmosphere of the manicured South African parks we had recently visited, one sole elephant swinging balefully through the bush below seemed a hundred times more dramatic than the dozens I had counted crossing the road, three feet away from my air-conditioned car, in the Kruger National Park.
In the camp, attention to detail on set would have made Ismail Merchant cry. Our fresh-faced guides all came from the finest English universities and couldn't be faulted for enthusiasm. The tents were deeply romantic; green canvas with iron four posters, floating white mosquito nets and cool, crisp linen. Threadbare persian carpets on the floor led onto a verandah.
Space in the desert is not at a premium; the eight two-man tents were pitched at sufficient range to be able to march starkers to the wonderful en-suite, hot, out-door bucket-shower room. Next door to that was the ultimate in camping luxury - a perfect sit-up loo, incongruously plumbed in; a throne where you could sit and contemplate the starry-skied universe above.
Around the mess tent, in which pink gin and delicious lunches were served, there were photos of the craggy, weather-beaten Jack wrestling crocodiles, swinging through trees, charting Africa. But where was our adventure and, come to think of it, where was Ralph?
After three days of superb outdoor meals, spotting magnificent birds, 360-degree panoramas of migrating beasts, lion tracking, bush-walking, siestas, camp fires, archaeological digs and beautiful relaxing scenery, I felt restless. They even planned mirages which turned into drinks cabinets at sunset. Beautiful though it was, it all seemed at odds with the spirit of Jack the explorer. Did luxury tourism really mean you had to take the lowest common denominator for adventure? To top it all, the rains had come, which meant that we could not venture out on the "creme-brulee-topped" salt pans, because the moisture beneath would have made us sink in the great Makgadikgadi.
However, relief was at hand. On the fourth day, the weather was freakishly dry enough for us to venture out on the quad bikes - Jack's avant garde solution to travelling seamlessly over the craterous surface of the pans. Half moon-buggy, half skidoo, we twisted our kokoi (turbans), adjusted our goggles and dreamed of Tom Cruise speeding into the sunset.
I am to vehicles what Jeremy Clarkson is to knitting patterns, by my fears evaporated seconds after my quad bike began to throb over the crunchy, sugary sands. Letting Chris (our guide) and David fly ahead, I lagged behind alone to enjoy the mirages and grass islands shimmering around me. Then, catching up, we stopped to watch the most romantic and fantastic ephemeral sunset, pouring molten over the mute, silhouetted rain clouds.
As darkness fell, Chris ordered us to pick a direction and walk for 15 minutes alone. Solitude is not my big thing. I rarely even go out without my mobile phone in London. But the feeling of release and elation I found in this kind of space was incomparable to anything I have ever experienced. It is completely brain cleansing. The skies were so big that I was obliged to use God in my imagery. Sixty kilometres away, 180 degrees-worth of electric storm cleaved the brilliant skies and yet I remained dry. We rode home pillion, air streaming through our clothes, hair flowing in the wind.
Hilarity was added in the 6ft 6in of Zulu warrior guide going by the name of Super Sundae (pronounced like the ice-cream). On a spin to the nearby village of Gweta, where Super lives with his wife and girlfriend, we sampled the local village beer - an experience from which some, such as Ralph's best bushman friend Cobra, never recover. Learning that the desert equivalent to gnocchi was roasted termite in butter was more of a shock to the system. But when, over lunch, Super told me only three Western tourists had asked to see where the local people live in eight years I felt proud to have visited. Seeing how the people of Botswana live (well, if simply) added some reality to a trip which was, after all, to Africa.
It seems as though Ralph will never rest. Planet Baobab, a complex devoted to the less well-heeled traveller will be completed later this year. And San Camp, the even more exclusive site where socialites Henry Dent Brocklehurst and Lily Maltese spent their honey moon, continues to attract the elite and famous in search of the slightly different holiday.
To my deep regret Ralph himself never turned up. And I never met Catherine. But maybe I didn't need to. Their mythical characters were blended into the spirit of their empire, spreading at the edge of the sands.
Art of Travel (tel: 0171-738 2038) can provide a round-trip from the UK for pounds 2,300 per person, staying at Jack's Camp for five days and including all flights, a guide (not Ralph), all food and accommodation.
When to go
The best time to visit Jack's Camp is between June and September, when the pans are dry enough to quadbike over (although there is minimal wildlife at this time). Possible excursions during this period include the Kubu island five-day trip at US$350 per day per person. All luxuries included.
More of Ralph can be seen in the series Uncharted Africa, Fridays, 8.30pm, over the next seven weeks on the Discovery Channel.
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