Botswana is the stomping ground of safari guide, naturalist, botanist and archaeologist Ralph Bousfield. He explores the country’s otherworldly Makgadikgadi Pans and luxury lodges with Lisa Grainger.
Flying in a tiny Cessna over the Makgadikgadi Pans – the world’s biggest salt flats , in the centre of Botswana – is an odd experience. Through the cockpit windscreen, the view is so extensive I can see the curvature of the earth, the outline which delineates our round, solid planet from the ever-darkening blue of outer space.
On the far side of the desert, a great pipe of white dust spirals into the atmosphere like a giant straw of sherbet. Below, in the midday sun, the salt-encrusted pans twinkle, our plane’s fly-like shadow the only sign that we are in fact on Earth – and that man exists here at all.
The experience of soaring above such an other-worldly part of our planet is made more surreal by the company I am keeping. My expedition through Botswana is with Ralph Bousfield , the co-owner of Jack’s Camp and San Camp, and one of Africa’s most experienced guides, who in 1990 was so badly injured in an air crash that doctors weren’t sure he would live.
The pilot was his father, Jack, listed in the Guinness Book of Records for the dubious distinction of having hunted 53,000 crocodiles. When a cable snapped and the plane plummeted into the bush, Ralph was so burnt trying to extract his fatally-injured father from the wreckage that he spent two years in hospital in a protective pressure suit.
Everything but his face was fried. Surgeons were able to construct new ligaments in one arm and rebuild the palm of a hand from skin on his buttock, but his upper body and feet were so damaged in the fire that he can never expose them to the sun again or go without shoes.
That he survived is both a medical miracle and a blessing to those who love the bush and Africa. Jack Bousfield brought Ralph up to be not just a keen naturalist (he found a hippo fossil from the Pleistocene era when he was 14, to the delight of the Smithsonian Institution ) and botanist (he can tell you more about the prickly hoodia xerophyte than you might care to know) but an ethnographer who regularly talks at Harvard. From early childhood, he was surrounded by Zu/’hoasi Bushmen, speaking their complicated click-based language, and learning from them how to hunt.
To experience these communities with someone who knows them intimately is the main reason for going to his camps. A small group of Bushmen live nearby, and it is with them that guests can walk into the desert, discovering extraordinary uses for ordinary-looking plants (the Kalahari sand raisin bush to make bows, rare blood-red bulbs to treat upset stomachs) or learn how to hunt or squeeze water out of a desert melon.
For centuries, the Bushmen were treated badly. Local tribes captured their golden-skinned women, Boer farmers wanted them as intelligent, bush-savvy slaves, and their own governments seemed intent on “educating” them in formal classrooms rather than leaving them to be taught by elders in the biodiversity-rich Kalahari. What they all failed to recognise is that Bushmen are one of the last connections we have to our original African ancestors. They are living links to the skills we had – and have lost. As Ralph admitted, “If I knew a quarter of the things these guys do, I’d be a seriously knowledgeable man.”
Walking with them in the morning from Ralph’s newly built San Camp – a romantic collection of creamy canvas tents set among a scattering of palm trees – we get a sense of how connected they are with nature and how instinctively they react to it. Spotting a porcupine burrow, a loin-skinned man dives, and furiously digs with his spear, to try and excavate a creature (to our relief, without success). Young hunters shyly show us how to make rope with tree bark, and create little traps. Women lure us, chatting excitedly, to bushes, to gather little bitter red fruits, which they chew with gusto (and we quietly spit out).
We stumble across ancient stone arrowheads scattered in the sand: among the hundreds that Ralph has found in their private concession, including three of the biggest Stone-Age axes ever discovered. And, best of all, that night we sit with Ralph under the stars around a fire, as the desert dwellers celebrate as they have done for millennia: stamping their feet, singing, drumming and ululating, as their children watch, curled up beneath blankets, from beneath a velvety roof peppered with stars.
Ah, the stars. One of the great treats of a trip to Africa is being in the middle of nowhere. This part of Botswana was once Africa’s largest super-lake, and is now encrusted with salt pans the size of Switzerland. With 31,000 square miles of wilderness all around me, it is not just quiet; it is also so dark you can barely see your hands.
Having driven into the desert one evening on quad bikes, zooming into the darkness like modern-day Lawrences of Arabia, kikois wrapped round our heads, we are told by the aptly named Super Sande , a genial 6ft 6in Zulu who has been guiding here for 20 years, to stand in a circle with our backs to each other, walk outwards and count to 40, then lie down. “Don’t talk,” he instructs. “Just lie and take it in. I’ll call out in 40 minutes.”
At first, it is hard to concentrate in the unfamiliar silence. Every sound appears to be magnified: the crunch of sand under my boot and the rustle of my cotton shirt, making me wriggle and inadvertently open my eyes. Slowly I relax, my breaths deepen and I begin to appreciate the silence throbbing in my ears. And as I look into the night, the stars appear: one, then 10, 100, 1,000, then millions, in patterns and constellations that whirl and twinkle endlessly across the sky.
|Fast facts about Ralph Bousfield:|
|Father||Jack Bousfield (crocodile hunter)|
|Ralphs studies||Nature Conservation (thesis on Wattled Crane)|
|Ralphs work||Established Botswana first Wildlife Orphange and Education Centre.
Built and runs Jacks Camp
Co-produced and presented tv series on Discovery Channel, “Unchartered Africa”.
Owner of Uncharted Africa Safari Co.
I recognise the curved tail of Scorpio, and the guiding lines of the Southern Cross. A satellite whizzes overhead, then a shooting star. I start to spot planets, and black holes. The next thing I know, I’m being shaken by Super. I’m so utterly chilled out, I have passed out, lulled into semi-consciousness by the rare deliciousness of silence, blackness and nothingness.
Here, you can not only hang out with the Bushmen but quad-bike into the desert, spot desert lion, watch skulking hyena and hunt with habituated meerkats (one of whom sat on my head). And you can do it all in such comfort that you can relax – and even fall asleep in the middle of nowhere, knowing someone will take care of you.
When Jack Bousfield set up camp here in the 1960s, it was to get away from western civilization. (He apparently asked locals what was out there, and when they replied “Nothing – only idiots go there”, he said: “Great, that’s the place for me.”) What Ralph recognized, with the help of his former partner Catherine Raphaely , is that while many travelers wanted to experience this wilderness, they also wanted to be cosseted in comfort.
At Jack’s and San, the pair have created what look like set pieces from a Merchant Ivory film: glamorous shelters on the edge of the desert that seamlessly combine romance and nature. Each is furnished in the manner to which a maharajah or British officer might be accustomed: Jacks in military khaki and rusts, San in pale creams, furnished with elegant four-posters, chests of drawers littered with silver-framed family photographs and books, and faded Persian carpets.
There are capacious rain showers and elegant colonial washbasins in the bathrooms. The communal areas are equally cinematic: a circular tea tent at San, with floor cushions on which to while away the afternoon with old African maps; elegant dining tables adorned with white linen cloths and silverware; museum cases filled with treasures such as leopard skulls, fossilized bones and Stone-Age arrowheads . And there is very good food: orange-yolked eggs for breakfast, still-warm scones for tea, morning coffee delivered to your bedside in a silver pot covered with a red velvet tea cosy.
Not that I had much time to luxuriate in all this. I was accompanying Ralph on a private escorted safari – of which he does about three a year – and the next stop was the Okavango Delta. It might be just an hour’s flight away on a small plane, but the delta is a world away from the crunchy desert sands of Makgadikgadi. Created by the Okavango River flowing into a shallow depression in the earth, it looks like a jigsaw of greens from the air: islands covered in olive trees, pools fringed with lime-colored reeds, channels colored with lurid algae, and dark tributaries inhabited by crocodiles. Together, these make up an aqueous wilderness the size of Devon. Although a fraction of the land is taken up by Motswana villages, a sizable area is set aside as the Moremi Game Reserve – and it is to the edge of this that we head with Ralph, to visit the watery part of his homeland.
Having explored Africa with demanding clients for decades, Ralph has ensured that everything is just so. As we fly in, buzzing the tiny dirt airstrip before landing, to ensure there are no elephant or buffalo in the way, a vehicle is waiting beneath a shady tree to collect us, its coldbox packed with gin and tonic. A 20-minute drive away, the boat’s cheery crew have loaded ice buckets, wine and pre-packed lunches for our day’s adventure.
Setting off through narrow river channels, at first all we can see is reeds, riverine forest and sky. Then Ralph begins to alert us to the teeming life amid the greenery: the rarely-seen sitatunga , with a two-toed hoof to help it walk in the mud; grazing buffalo, harrumphing as we glide into their territory; an elephant, swimming, its trunk raised like a submarine’s periscope; a malachite kingfisher , with iridescent sapphire chest; pale waterlilies that open like little pink powder puffs in the sunlight.
After a few hours of gliding through channels, we take a swim in a crocodile-free pool, then lunch on Niçoise salad as we sit on camping stools, trailing our toes in the cooling water. Finally, we reach our destination – a densely forested island on which a simple but comfortable camp has been set up. Around a fire, a ring of mosquito nets has been erected to form a space furnished with thick downy mattresses, duvets and hot-water bottles. Later, at a dining table set with lamps and pressed linens, we are served a three-course dinner prepared by two chefs who have even baked bread in a makeshift oven comprising an old school trunk filled with coals.
Every bit of this mobile camp has been driven by road then brought by boat to the middle of nowhere – a place where the only other signs of red-blooded life are the roar of lions in the moonlight and the crashing of elephants in the trees behind our tents. It is wild luxury in the wilderness, a combination that clearly works. Returning guests have included filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen , Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson (who said the experience was “even better than driving an Enzo Ferrari” ) and aristocrat Henry Dent-Brocklehurst , who spent his honeymoon here.
All of them want Ralph to guide them, which costs an extra £1,600 per day but is well worth it. What you get for your money is a few days with a man who looks like Jim Morrison, has the brain of David Attenborough, and is as happy rolling up the sleeves of his bespoke jacket to dig a Land Cruiser out of the mud as he is pouring fine wines. He really is a one-off.
I still wear my ostrich-shell bracelet, made by a Bushman, to remind me of the trip’s highlights: the sparkling Milky Way; the sounds of goat-skin drums and voices reverberating in an otherwise silent African night; the intoxicating smell of campfire smoke and fine whisky. It conjures memories of a remote place and its ancient people, the main reason for visiting this bewitching region of Africa.
Date: 4 March 2013