Text Nicola Jackson Photographs David Crookes
The new San Camp, the latest in Uncharted Africa Safari co’s collection of camps and safaris, is astounding, even from the air. The prehistoric lake that used to lap here has left ripples in the earth and, strewn across the grassland like bleached bones, the nine white tents seem beautifully random in the vast landscape of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. One door of Ralph Bousfield’s tiny safari plane had been removed so we could take photographs as we looped lower and lower, eventually landing on an improvised strip on the crust of the pan.
The lifestyle here is very Out of Africa – small planes, lamplight, flushed cheeks, bleached grass and lion stories. The difference is, this is a reality you can experience. From the road that skims the edge of the salt pan, San Camp’s peaked campaign tents hover through a mirage. Get closer and you see the six guest tents are set on teak platforms, surrounded by wild grasses, under swishing fan palms, and connected by slender animal tracks.
Our tent was generous in every way – two canopied beds raised so high I had to launch myself into mine with the help of a little stool. At night, hot-water bottles in little ticking-striped jackets are tucked into your bed and each morning, tea or coffee arrives in silverware, wearing plum-coloured velvet cosies with Fez-like tassels. Everything is photogenic, every image is relevant and each object has a story behind it. On the antique chest of drawers, a springbok skin, thumbed books and family photos – showing a baby Ralph playing with a leopard cub, or the eccentric smile of his father, legendary adventurer Jack Bousfield – make you feel as though you have joined a family on a luxurious adventure. And, in truth, you have. This is genuine explorer country. Jack Bousfield fell in love with the sheer nothingness and the unscarred beauty of this region, so he moved his family from Tanganyika to Botswana and set up a remote expedition camp. Following Jack’s tragic death, Ralph and his then girlfriend, Catherine Raphaely, formalised the camp in 1993, creating an award-winning, rough-luxe destination with a theatrical opulence and style nobody had experienced before. The new San Camp is that camp’s younger, flirtier sister and has a romance that borrows from the billowing white tents of Lawrence of Arabia and the silver service of colonial expeditions.
Everything here is effortlessly art directed – behind the glass you’ll find San beadwork, tortoiseshell perfume containers, skulls, horns and flints. It is a living museum, added to regularly as pieces are found by the Uncharted Africa team. Ralph is a registered museum curator and actively engages his guests over dinner. Conversations can begin with the beauty of a rare pot and lead to the emancipation of women, before diverting to lion kills, geology and Botswana’s last rhino. Catherine designed the menu and has trained the chefs from scratch – the result is gorgeously unfussy food, no funny foam or bizarre jus. Hurricane lamps reflect the white ticking-striped walls and the effect is a warm glow, surrounded by a sky so black it pushes towards you, punctuated only by myriad stars and the occasional jackal cry.
Mornings reveal pale peach shades that fade to white as the sun rises. In the distance the mess tent’s double-volume curtains create swooping vignettes of zebra and wildebeest stirring up dust in the distance. And each afternoon you can slip off your shoes and sink down into the floor cushions. Underfoot are layers of antique tribal rugs and kilims, along with leather pouffes, metallic trays and hand-woven cushions. Homemade lemonade, iced tea, biscuits and cakes are laid out and you can while away hours just exploring the two cabinets of curiosities, archaeological artefacts and the illustrations that hang in clusters from chains on the tent walls – or you can simply recline on the antique Indian day bed to contemplate nothing. The genius of the camp is in the details, and the longer you spend there the more you can read into the environment, the family who inspired it, and the spirit of the San people after whom it is named. This part of Botswana is ideal if you’re not desperate to tick off the Big Five.
Experiences are more intimate here – you can explore the land on foot with San trackers and learn how to identify tubers the size of melons, dig up scorpions, light a fire by hand and even poison an arrow. There are also game drives, quad-biking and a visit to the 25m-wide, 1 000-year-old Baobab tree known locally as Seven Sisters. Explorers such as Chapman, Livingstone and Selous have camped under this landmark tree and many others have used it to navigate through the desert. On our last night at San Camp, we sat in front of the fire-pit sipping chilled Sauvignon Blanc. The sun hadn’t quite set and in the distance we spotted a brown hyena loping across the pan. A pair of binoculars was passed around and, just as I locked onto the hyena’s sloping brown body and creamy neck markings, he vanished. The brown hyena is one of the most endangered carnivores in the world, and seeing one in your lifetime is considered good going. San Camp has perfected a new form of luxury travelling – there is no electricity or cellphone reception and no room-service phone, but you are left wanting nothing. It is both decadent and minimalist. And even though the camp is new, this place has a deep history and a distinctively romantic style that places it firmly on the 2012 hot lists and ‘must dos’ for any travellers worth their salt.
Uncharted Africa Safari co, 011-447-1605, unchartedafrica.com
NOTES FROM THE FIELD • Uncharted Africa Safari co. offers Southern African Development Community (SADC) residents special rates at all its properties. The special rate at San Camp is BWP3 570 per person per night. (The Botswana Pula is roughly equal to the SA Rand.) • San Camp is open only for the dry season between 16 April and 30 November each year. It disappears when rain floods the pan and rich blues and greens replace the muted safari shades.
This article was originally featured in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of House and Leisure