On a recent visit to the stark-white salt pans of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, Luxury Travel Advisor explored the tented safaris of Natural Selection’s San and Jack’s Camp. Here’s our report.
The salt pans of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi looked like the surface of the moon, and the salt-crusted sand crumbled under our toes like crisp meringue, little puffs of white dust rising each time we took a step. This is a part of Botswana that travelers don’t often visit, but should. It’s a stark contrast to the wet delta in the northern reaches of the country. The dry desert is a bucket list destination for African safari fans, and San Camp, a seasonal safari lodge (April to October) that springs to life from the dry sands after the last March rains, is a top choice to explore the desert.
Tip: Although, you won’t encounter the entire Big Five of safari lore here, morning and late afternoon driving safaris may encounter lions; we spotted wildebeest, giraffe and zebra on our excursions.
San Camp has seven expansive tents, each with a four-poster bed, antique furnishings and soaring ceilings.
San offers quiet desert solitude, with white tents set against bleached sand and views of flat, open space as far as the eye can see. It’s a bit of a visual detox from crowded modern life (and a digital detox, too, as there is no Wi-Fi, phone service or TVs in this area of the desert). The camp has been newly reconfigured for 2018, and we loved the billowing tents that blend into the desert landscape filled with Colonial furnishings and plush interiors. The seven expansive lodging tents are now 775 square feet (236 square feet bigger than previous years), with soaring ceilings, teak decks, four-poster beds and antique reproduction furnishings. Attached bathrooms include double sinks, mahogany toilets and showers with views over the expansive desert setting. Our favorite was Tent 6, the furthest from the main lounge tent, with the most private location and unimpeded views over the pans; plus, it had an oversized king bed (one of only two in camp) so high off the floor that it required a step ladder.
A Colonial-style dining room at San Camp serves multi-course lunch and dinner.
A range of included activities like safaris and quad biking are offered each morning after breakfast and late in the afternoon (when temperatures in the desert are coolest). During down time after lunch, we dipped our toes in the new tented plunge-style pool to cool off. The highlight of the afternoon was the high tea, served while we lounged on the floor in a round tent piled with pillows and cushions, before our late day activities. Dinner and lunch are multi-course meals served in a Colonial-style dining room complete with linens and candlelight. Another top treat: Cocktails were served around a remote campfire in the desert as we watched the sunset.
Camp Manager Alejandra Pablo ([email protected]) says the romantic camp hosts multiple honeymooners every week and she can arrange for private dinners for couples on the pool deck, the Bedouin tea tent, or by a camp fire and can also have personal notes or gifts — such as kikoy cloth, local jewelry, sculptures — delivered to guests.
San Camp has billowing white tents shaded by desert palms and is surrounded by acres of flat, open space.
Jack’s Camp, a year-round tented property, is just a 20-minute ride in an open jeep from San (however, we opted for a 90-minute horseback trek to take in the landscape between the camps — an activity available for an additional cost; see below). Instead of the white-on-white starkness of San, Jack’s is nestled into a green, palm tree-filled island in the desert. Its lush vegetation offers more shade and a bit of cooler air against the desert heat. Jack’s was the original camp in the pans here, created by well-known safari guide Ralph Bousfield and his family (Ralph is available for private guiding by prior arrangement starting at $2,500 per day). The 10 tents (all around 440 square feet) offer a taste of vintage 1940s safari camps, with green exteriors opening to a warm rush of deep pinks and reds that layer together to create a hideaway with an exotic feel. The tents include Persian carpets, patterned walls and ceilings, antique furnishings, and paisley tasseled canopy beds (Think: “Lawrence of Arabia” meets “Out of Africa”).
Jack’s Camp’s 10 tents come with 1940s-style interiors, including Persian carpets, patterned walls and ceilings.
For extra luxury, be sure to request Tents 8 and 10; they have the most private locations and king-sized beds.
There’s more to do at Jack’s during the down times between activities than at San Camp, with a large resort-like, tent-covered pool with views over the pans; a lounge that’s actually a registered museum filled with unusual discoveries, such as animals bones and a playable 100-year-old snooker table, collected by the Bousfield family; and a separate massage tent (additional cost; Brigitte is the masseuse to request).
The pool, greenery and the larger camp size coupled with no age restrictions make Jack’s an easy fit for multigenerational groups. For special requests, contact Jack’s Camp Manager Charles Meares ([email protected]).
Like San, Jack’s serves a decadent daily tea in a tent with plush pillows for seating centered around an elaborately set table filled with sweet and savory treats.
Dinner and lunch are luxurious multi-course set menus, while breakfast is a mix of ordered entrées and self serve items. Because everything is made on premises and to order, special dietary requests can be honored with advance notice (this is true for San as well; our visit coincided with that of vegan couples at both camps, and the chefs turned out special entrées, baked goods and sweets at every meal and for tea).
Jack’s Camp has a large resort-like, tent-covered pool with sweeping views of the pans.
Both Jack’s and San offer a roster of desert-specific activities included in the price of a stay and accompanied by highly trained, on-staff rangers who stay with guests throughout their visit to the camps.
We were impressed with Natural Selection’s dedicated staff that familiarizes meerkats (you may be familiar with the comical animals from “Meerkat Manor,” which was filmed nearby) with humans, allowing us to interact directly with them on our morning, ranger-led visit. Our personal highlight: When a meerkat, looking for the highest spot in the flat desert, lightly scrambled up our back and perched atop our head, blissfully unaware that there was a person underneath instead a pile of sand.
Quad Biking is a popular activity in the salt pans of Makgadikgadi, allowing guests to explore the vast desert on four-wheeled, open-air motorized bikes.
Another highlight was our early evening cultural encounter with the Zu’hoasi Bushmen, the Kalahari’s original inhabitants. Our ranger accompanied us on a desert walk with the bushmen as they showed how they have survived in the harsh environment by digging for Kalahari turnip lily bulbs, stunning a scorpion by licking it, and starting a fire with nothing more than sticks and grass.
When the pans are completely dry from June to October, both camps include quad biking excursions across the desert as a desert activity. The four-wheeled open-air motorized bikes crunch over the desert sands allowing guests to explore wide areas of the desert.
A Night of Surprises
Spoiler Alert: For guests who spend three nights at one of Natural Selection’s camps during the dry season (June to October), there’s a special evening of sleeping under the stars that guests are surprised with during an evening outing.
The night starts with a drive into the inky black desert that turns into a candlelit dinner under the stars. After the meal, when guests think they’re being driven back to camp, they arrive instead at an outdoor fly camp set not with tents and cots, but with brass beds fully made with plush linens set out under the vast Milky Way (staff even manages to have important medicines and necessities waiting at guests’ open-air beds).
A2A Safaris’ Nicole Hernandez says she takes great pains to keep the reason for booking a third night under wraps. “If I really have to, I might spill the beans to one member of the group, but being able to surprise guests with this exclusive experience is what they call to thank me about when they get back home, and what often compels them to book a return trip to Africa.”
A Walk with Zu’hoasi Bushmen, the Kalahari’s original inhabitants, helps guests learn about the secrets of the pans.
Galloping Across the Pans
While all the above activities are included in the overnight price of a stay at San or Jack’s camps, there is one add for guests: Horseback riding across the desert allowed us a unique view of zebra and wildebeest and a deeper look at the salt pans and palm oases. We found it a bit difficult to maneuver our steed across the sand; however, horses are very easy going and the terrain is flat. The activity is suitable for ages eight and up and can be arranged on site by Natural Selection.
For Melissa Klurman, the encounter with meerkats, was one of the safari’s highlights.
Note that although you can e-mail individual camp managers, they have very limited access to the internet; for VIP service, contact Peter Alison ([email protected]), sales and marketing manager of Natural Selection.
Major Blue operates bush flights in small Cessna planes between safari camps and to and from Maun (about a 90-minute flight) to reach the Jack’s Camp airstrip.
Natural Selection can assist with the bookings, contact [email protected].
A2A Safaris, an African tour operator based in New York, helped us coordinate our Makgadikgadi visit,
including the bush flights on Major Blue. Contact Edwin Gayla ([email protected]) of A2A for help with planning.