In 1869, American journalist Henry Morton Stanley set out for Africa in search of the British explorer and missionary David Livingstone who had lost contact with the outside world for at least 4 years by that time. They finally met on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on 10 November 1871 where Stanley greeted him famously with “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” I had not found Livingstone on my safari experience in Botswana… but I feel like I found his camp.
If you want to feel like an explorer from Victorian England, Jack’s Camp in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert maybe the place for you.
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Jack’s Camp is an off the grid safari experience. There is no cell signal and no internet. While there is a place to recharge your electronics in the main dining tent, at night your tent is lit with lanterns. Each of the ten tents in the camp is decorated with East African furniture including a 4 poster bed or two, a writing desk, a chest of drawers, a trunk or two.
Not only did it look like it might be Stanley’s camp or Livingstone’s, my tent included a copy of Stanley’s book “How I Found Livingstone; travels, adventures, and discoveries in Central Africa, including an account of four months’ residence with Dr. Livingstone” in a collection of books on the dresser.
There was an electric fan that you could use during the daytime when the generator was running. This being a desert, there was no need for a fan at night even in December at the beginning of Botswana’s summer.
A small box on one of the trunks held insect repellent, sunscreen, and an air horn… the latter being a bit more disconcerting as we heard the sound of a lion roaring from nearby at night.
I was coming off a 7-day mobile safari in the Okavango Delta. The camp did not have a pack of African wild dogs like I had seen there, but it did have indoor plumbing. What looks like a chair and writing desk in the bathroom area opens up into a flush toilet and sink. There is a shower inside as well as a second one outside. This is not camping as you did in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.
The tent not only had plush towels but a traditional shawl-like cloth from Kenya called a Kikoi that you could wet and wear to keep you cool in the heat of the day.
We flew to Jack’s Camp from Maun on a small plane and were greeted at the landing strip by Ossy who would be our safari guide for the rest of our two-night stay.
He drove us 15 minutes to the camp where we were greeted by what seemed like everyone on the camp staff. This is a small intimate experience where you get to know the staff by name and eat at a common table in the dining tent with guides and the other guests who you also get to know.
The dining tent is the central social meeting place in the camp. The tent has a large common dining area. This is where you will take your meals. People come and go from meals as they come and go from various activities rather than eating all at exactly the same time. The food, as you would expect, was excellent. In addition to breakfast, lunch, and dinner the afternoon tea is no small production, basically the 4th meal.
To one side of the dining area is a small pool table as well as a fully-stocked open bar and a fridge with cold drinks.
To the other side of the dining table is a library, seating area, and place to recharge your electronics. You are in the middle of nowhere with a small select group of people so people would just leave there smartphone or laptop sitting here with no fear of theft.
There are seating areas in the front of the tent where people can just hang out, read a book, or chat with their fellow travelers.
Surrounding the dining area in every nook and cranny are museum display cases with artifacts and exhibits about Botswana’s wildlife, African explorers and the native bushmen. Jack’s Camp was founded by Jack Bousfield in the 1960s and the collection is the Bousfield family collection of artifacts.
There is a plunge pool in a nearby tent that is unheated and therefore chilly and/or refreshing. There is another fridge with cold drinks at one end and a massage area at the other. The tent is mostly open with views of zebras grazing on the nearby fields.
Jack’s Camp is near located on a private concession near the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park and not far from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in central Botswana. Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans is a salt pan the size of the country of Switzerland. It is 1,900 square miles of flat and white and lifeless.
The area just around the camp is savanna. The camp has dug some watering holes to make the area attractive to wildlife all year round, but the area also gets 50,000 zebra and wildebeest that migrate through the area from January to April. This is the rainy season for Botswana and the area turns lush, green, and wet with flocks of migrating birds including flamingos as well. We were there in December when the rains had just started and some of the zebra herds were starting to arrive.
Activities at Jack’s Camp
As is common with safari camps, morning and afternoon noon game drives are a typical experience. We saw one of a pair of male lion brothers who are the alpha males in the area as well as herds of zebra and wildebeest, ostriches, and impala.
We also did a game drive after dark with the aid of a spotlight on the vehicle where we spotted some nocturnal animal activity like this shy porcupine.
Sundowner on the Salt Flats
One activity that just made me laugh out loud was when we pulled up to the edge of the salt flats at sundown to see a small camp set up for our daily sundowner drink.
You know you are on a luxury experience when you find a fully stocked bar on the edge of a salt flat the size of Switzerland. While a gin and tonic is the traditional drink, for the record, I had a rum drink. The tradition was to drink quinine in the tonic water to help prevent Malaria and gin helped that drink be more palatable. But… I was taking Malarone as a malaria prophylactic and… there did not seem to be a mosquito for miles.
Camping Out in the Salt Flats
ATV Riding in the Salt Flats
Two typical activities that were not available during our visit because the rains had started were taking ATVs out into the salt flats or camping overnight out in the salt flat, miles from any light, for great stargazing.
Horseback Riding or Biking
Other guests took advantage of the opportunity to go horseback riding or biking while we were at the camp, but with a two-night stay, you don’t have time to try every activity offered.
Kalahari Bushmen Encounter
One of the more unique experiences at Jack’s camp is an opportunity to spend time with a group of Kalahari bushmen (and women). The camp hires a group to stay with them for 3-4 months at a time and present a cultural experience to their guests. They have built a replica of a traditional campsite near the camp which is where we had our visit.
A number of the group spoke fluent English and acted as interpreters because some of the information was presented in the distinctive clicking language of the bushmen.
The group demonstrated some of their traditional games like this one where the player has to keep the rhythm as he passes his hand between two rocks being beaten together. Notice that he is not even looking to see if his hand is going to get smashed.
Another game was a version of jump rope. Even my host Bill Burns of Dewan Adventure Travel took part.
We then took a walk as they explained the traditional uses for nearby plants and trees, including which caterpillar from which tree they used to create the deadly poison that they used to dip their arrows in to hunt for big game.
It was a fascinating experience and also decent employment for the bushmen.
The best experience we had at Jack’s Camp though would still have to be the time we spent with local meerkats.
Jack’s camp hires 7 men to track local meerkat colonies. These colonies are wild but habituated to the presence of humans. In a meerkat colony, only the alpha male and alpha female breed and all the other adult meerkats assist with raising the young. If some eagle snatches away one of the alpha animals then the men who the camp employs will direct tourists away from that group until they can attract a new alpha male or female, so that the presence of tourists does not disrupt that process.
We watched for a while as the various meerkats would roam further into grasslands digging for something yummy like a beetle.
One of the meerkats would always be on the lookout for predators.
The surprise came for us after the meerkats were done with their foraging and returned to the mouth of one of their tunnels. Ossy sat down nearby and one of the meerkats quickly climbed up on him to use him as a better lookout spot. Meerkat researchers discovered this behavior by accident and I can imagine their surprise… since we had that same reaction.
We were encouraged that if we were to stand near to Ossy but be just a little taller, that the lookout would take advantage of this improved perch and before you know it… I had a meerkat on my head. I did expect animal encounters in Botswana… but I did not expect this.
Starting at ~$1250 per person per night, Jack’s Camp is not for everyone, but if you have the means it can make a nice stop after a mobile safari or even as a honeymoon destination.
I was on this safari as a guest of Dewan Adventure Travel which can find the right Botswana safari for you.