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It’s the silence that hits me first. An overwhelming nothingness, a deafening lack of noise. This isn’t a well-behaved polite hush or muted calm. Rather, it’s something so primal, so alien that for a moment, my senses freeze as I take in the blank expanse of the Makgadikgadi salt flats in northeastern Botswana, surrounded by the Kalahari Desert.
I’m sitting in my tent at San Camp, huge and airy and white as a sun-bleached bone, on a bed softer than my own, looking at the handsome teak chest of drawers where my clothes are unpacked and neatly folded. I gaze at the porcelain loo, complete with wooden seat, and the vast, tropical shower. Bookshelves bulge with tales of mighty explorers and photographs, too, in silver frames, of a rugged, bearded man with soft eyes and a pipe clenched between his teeth. This is the legendary Jack Bousfield, the greatest crocodile hunter of them all—53,000 of the buggers, shot, skinned and delivered to the grand couture houses of Paris, where they were made from brilliant killers into killer bags. But he left that all behind, the hunter-turned-conservationist, the wildlife warrior. The nearby Jack’s Camp is named after him. This is his world, and his spirit looms large.
As my body starts to adapt, the silence becomes less intense. Well, less savage, anyway. The heat of the day is fading, and small birds dart about the bush. Fifty yards away, in the colonial comfort of the mess tent, I hear the tinkle of cup on saucer. For the first time, I drink in my surroundings, start to appreciate that I’m somewhere truly extraordinary. My reverie is shattered, though, by a high-pitched electronic beep, a sound that suddenly seems embarrassingly incongruous. Instinctively, I reach for my phone; it’s telling me the battery is dying. But there’s no reception here. No broadband or satellite. Not even electricity.
I’m out of contact with my wife and family. I feel lost again, a minute speck in an ocean of blinding white. Here we’re not on the far edge of civilization; rather, we’re at the very heart of the wilderness. I stare out over the sand and into the vast, brilliantly pale nothing. It’s mesmerizing and oddly soothing. In the far distance, I spot shimmering figures. I look closer. Nope, just palms, stark against the horizon.
I leave my tent, zipping up tightly behind me. This is the real wild. No fences or gated safety. “Always stick to the ” I was told as I arrived.“Never stray.” It sounds like the sort of advice doled out to credulous young men in old Hammer movies, as they set off to sort out the affairs of the Count. The truth, as I find out later, is rather less dramatic. The philosophy of San Camp is about respect, for both the animals and the ecosystem. We’re here as temporary, privileged guests. Tread softly, leave not a trace.
Ralph Bousfield, Jack’s son and the co-owner of Uncharted Africa (which operates three tented camps—San, Jack’s and Camp Kalahari—all within a few miles of one another) with Catherine Raphaely, smiles and waves me into his teak-lined Land Cruiser. Tall, broad-shouldered and whippet-thin, he looks as if he just stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad. His teeth gleam, and thick brown hair cascades down his back. His safari jacked is fitted. But this is no preening dandy: Bousfield is the real deal. He is without swagger or bravado, just a gentle charm and a knowledge quite astonishing in its depth and breadth. A trained botanist, sought-after expert in Bushman traditions and respected archaeologist (at age 14, he unearthed a hippo fossil from the Pleistocene era, a find that got the Smithsonian Institution very excited indeed), he wears his learning lightly.
“This is my home, a complete addiction,” he says as we head out onto the well-worn tracks for our first game drive. Dusk is fast approaching, and the light drains like water from a sink.“Coming back here, from anywhere in the world, is a weight falling off my shoulders,” he says.“I’ve lived everywhere—New York, London—but never for too long.” A home like this, though, despite its beauty, does not exactly offer cozy suburban comfort. He and his late father, Jack, have battled every disease Africa could hurl at them. “Malaria,” he says with shrug, “too many times to remember.” Dysentery, black water disease. “That nearly did us in,” he says in his soft, warm voice. He smiles often and has a low chuckle, seemingly without a care in the world. But he knows pain. For all the cosseted bliss of San Camp, it is a brutal environment. “Existing is a daily battle,” he says. “Out here, we’re just another animal.” In 1992, he was flying with Jack when a cable snapped and they dropped out of the sky. He managed to drag his fatally injured father out of the burning plane but suffered burns so bad that he spent the next two years clad in a protective pressure suit. Most of his body is so horribly scarred, it can’t be exposed to sunlight.
He doesn’t dwell on these things. “Look, there—yellow mongoose. And a bat-eared fox. Wow. Look at those huge ears. Perfectly evolved,” he says. As he drives, his eyes scan every inch of road and bush. “Jackals at three o’clock.” They stop for a moment, catching our scent, then disappear off into the distance. “So underappreciated. And incredibly successful predators. They’ll eat anything, from berries to grubs to carrion.” He shakes his head in admiration.
Suddenly Super Sande, Bousfield’s great friend and right-hand man, calls us to a halt. Sande is six foot six inches of Zulu might, seemingly chiseled from obsidian, with eyes as sharp as any rock kestrel. “Ralph, there’s an anteater a mile or so away,” he says. Bousfield frowns: “At dusk? They’re shy and nocturnal. Christ, that’s rare.” Then he grins. “Let’s go.” As his eyes flicker left and right, he gestures all around us. “This is the very cradle of civilization—every cell in our bodies knows this is where we came from.” He stops the car.
This is lion country. But rather than guns, the two guides carry small Bushman spears. “No gun?” I ask.
“No,” says Bousfield, as we approach the anteater. “My father used to say that if you don’t have a rifle, you won’t have to shoot anything.”
To be honest, I’m amazed there are any beasts at all. High up in the cloudless sky a few hours earlier, flying in from Maun (Botswana’s tourism capital), I’d seen mile after mile of grasslands like a dull and dusty rug rolling out toward the horizon. I scanned the ground below for something, anything, save this infernal bush. Where the hell were the animals? Bousfield laughs when I tell him. “It’s all about looking closer. This isn’t the sort of place where the lions appear on the dot of six to eat their dinner, watched by crowds of slavering tourists. Not that I have any problem with that way of doing things,” he adds. ”It’s just not about ticking off the Big Five here like at the other big camps. It’s rather, well, more emotional.”
Like being five feet from an adult Cape anteater as it snuffles blindly through the sparse vegetation. “Besides the very long and sticky tongue that they force deep into the termite hills, they’re great diggers, burrowing far faster than three men together ever could,” Bousfield says.
There’s not much light now but enough for Bousfield to bend down and pick up some termites. “Try one. But avoid the ” I bite into the body. It’s rich and nutty and faintly sweet. “Without termites, there would be nothing. Everything in this whole place starts with the ” he says.
Bousfield’s eyes remain on the ground. “Look.” He squats and points at a tiny patch of sand, where a mortal battle is taking place between a Matabele ant—huge, the size of half my little finger, with three modes of attack: pincer, sting and formic acid spray—and a minuscule spider. The latter has wrapped half of the ant in its web, and the end is in sight.
“Who’d have known?” whispers Sande, who has appeared beside us. “You’ve seen your first kill.”
We climb back into the jeep. Five minutes later we stop again. My eyes adjust in the gloom, and I see a neatly laid fire. Sande bends down to put match to wood, and as the flames crackle to life, they illuminate a table draped in white linen. We settle into director’s chairs, chew on fresh peanuts, sip icy white wine and watch the stars come out. Two hours at San Camp and I never want to leave.
That’s the thing about Bousfield and his camps: No detail is too small. Even the food: There’s seared kingfish, fresh guacamole and Bang Bang chicken. The beef is magnificent, the soups are sublime (especially when dosed with pili-pili ho-ho, that colonial condiment of gin spiked with chile peppers and sherry). Before you know it, you’re tramping through the sand, back to your bed with its cool cotton sheets and brace of hot water bottles, and drifting into a deep, dream-painted slumber.
After a breakfast of exceptional coffee, eggs Benedict and fresh fruit, it’s meerkat time. This may be the world’s most habituated group. “Not tame,” stresses Bousfield. “They’ve had ten years to get used to us. The babies are born underground, and it’s key that when they first appear, at about two weeks, that someone’s here. That way they grow up used to humans.” I could have sat there all day. All month. Alert, energetic and ceaseless in their quest for food, the meerkats begin hunting early, before the temperature rises, creating the thermals on which their predators can wheel and swirl. Still, a sentry stands guard, watching the skies, his head twitching, missing nothing. They never stop moving, sniffing, digging, hauling out huge spiders and deadly poisonous scorpions with insouciant aplomb.
Later I’m sitting on the ground, watching a Zu’hoasi Bushman, small, lean and wearing modern khakis, make a quail trap. It involves placing an egg outside the nest, with a beautifully constructed trigger set below it. Bousfield grew up with the Bushmen and pronounces their clicking language with ease. “Everyone’s obsessed with the hunter side of their lives, the idea of the noble savage,” he says. “Their traditional beliefs get dismissed as pagan mumbo jumbo. But their universe is quite extraordinary. We’re taught to see the world as one place, whereas the Bushmen see two parallel worlds. Their knowledge is profound and ancient.”
As night falls, the trance ceremony begins, a voyage into the world of spirits. Women bang drums and start to sing strange, wordless but melodious tunes. This is song from the days before language was invented. Yet it makes sense. The shaman, in beads and shells, lights the fire before the men start shuffling round the blaze. “They don’t use alcohol to reach this other state, or drugs. Rather, they manage through singing and breathing,” says Bousfield. I sit, transfixed, at times closing my eyes. The men sweat and twist and shriek and smile. The drumming gets faster, and around they go, occasionally falling or crying out in fear or joy. It’s a cathartic experience, at once foreign and totally familiar. It taps into the beat of my heart. Or is it the other way around?
Of course, I’m simply a tourist watching a dance that has gone on for millennia. But one doesn’t need to know much to understand how important the ritual is. It has a universal resonance and affects me gently but deeply. I’m still thinking about it the next day, when we clamber on quad bikes and set off into the heart of the salt pans, the remnants of an ancient lake. We drive hour after hour across the same colossal landscape. We stop for lunch and eat beef satay among shards of pottery, hide scrapers and hand axes thousands of years old. “Look, but please don’t touch” are Bousfield’s words. This is one of the greatest prehistoric archaeological sites on earth. No more than a dozen people have been here before. Every inch of the landscape tells its own tale, a triumph of evolution over adversity. And every second spent with Bousfield brings you one step closer to a greater truth, a better understanding of who we are and where we come from.
It is what’s at the core of San Camp. There’s luxury, of course, and comfort and everything else you could possibly want. But the true luxury is the deep silence, the lack of other tourists and the opportunity to fundamentally relax and become one with the surroundings. These were six of the most magical and downright incredible days I’ve ever spent in my life. I went a cynic and returned a convert. Hell, as the plane took off, and Bousfield and everyone else became small waving dots, a tiny tear welled in my eye. And then another, completely unbidden. In a few moments, I was quietly sobbing, as if I’d been ripped from the Botswana soil against my will. The emotion sprang from nowhere, a gushing spring through arid turf.
A few minutes later, my phone buzzed. The signal was back, and with it reality. For now, though, the real world could wait. I switched it off, dried my eyes and sat back. I thought about Bousfield, Sande and all the beasts, from termite upward. But most of all, I thought about coming back. One taste of San Camp will never, ever be enough.
Ralph Bousfield customizes safaris to San Camp, which has six sleeping tents, from April to October. He has other camps open year-round, as well as a mobile option. San Camp packages start at $1,170 a person per night; 27-11/447-1605; unchartedafrica.com.