The Kalahari Desert

Soft Camp, Hard Landscape

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After the excitement of leopards and hyenas and dead lions, I said goodbye to my friends at Splash Camp and caught a bush plane for the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, in the middle of the Kalahari desert. I was supposed to be headed for a modest place called Camp Kalahari — about the luxury level of Splash Camp — but I was upgraded again. Same reason as at Old Drift: too few guests spread out over too many camps. But this time the upgrade was a really big one. This time, I was offered a stay at Jack’s Camp.

Flying over the Delta on the way to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans

Jack’s Camp is just plain legendary in the Kalahari — an exquisite, six-star resort decorated in antiques and containing its own private, nationally registered museum. It looks like one of the Victorian or Edwardian hunting camps got up long ago by private travelers with more money than they knew what to do with. The style is colonial… meaning it’s a cross between 19th century English and “exotic African” as seen through a 19th century Englishman’s eyes. This normally wouldn’t come across as authentic, but Jack’s Camp gets away with it because it’s actually been here since the English colonial days.

Some of the Jack’s Camp museum cabinets

This design philosophy makes for some fascinating contradictions. In some ways, my “safari tent” looks a lot more like a tent and less like a room than any of the other places I’ve stayed (entrances zip open like those of normal camping tents, for example, instead of having doors). But it’s a tent with four large rooms worth of space, and it’s furnished exquisitely. I have seen SCA kings and queens whose tents were less lavish.

My personal living room in my tent at Jack’s Camp, with view to the entry chamber beyond

At the entrance, I have a small antechamber with an assortment of walking sticks and umbrellas, a portable lantern, and a set of ornate wooden bookcases stocked with my own personal mini-library. Next comes a sitting room with a velvet sofa, a canopied daybed, two armchairs, a long leather coffee table, and a fully stocked bar. (Also, more prosaically, a charging station for electronic devices.) After that, a bedroom with two queen-sized beds — classic English four-posters nicely accommodate the necessary mosquito netting — along with an armchair and ottoman, a dressing bench, a traditional Moroccan leather pouf — very useful for putting on one’s shoes — and an antique writing desk and chair in one corner. Finally, there’s a bathroom/dressing room combination. It has a shower behind a curtain on a brass rod, and a toilet made out of an antique armchair! behind a screen made of full-length mirrors. A pair of sinks lines one wall. The dressing room also contains a gorgeous velvet chaise lounge, and an antique wooden chest of drawers, surrounded by large leather-and-wood clothes racks. Outdoors, there’s an enormous shaded deck, containing a private plunge pool, two swinging day beds, two chaise lounges, and an outdoor shower. Scattered around inside the tent are Victorian antiques in everyday use, and curios from the Jack’s Camp museum in glass cabinets. Persian rugs carpet pretty much everything except the deck.

Believe it or not, this is actually the toilet in my tent! The wooden box above is the water tank, with a brass chain on the side to flush with.

The “mess tent” of Jack’s may be even more spectacular than the private tents. Also done in grand colonial style, it includes a long, formal dining room; a living room with library, deep leather sofas and gaming tables; a separate bar with a billiards table, and a stunning octagonal room decorated in Moroccan style and used for nothing but afternoon tea.

I was excited about getting a chance to see Jack’s Camp — who wouldn’t be? It’s regarded as the best of the best, and it’s not a place I’ll ever be likely to afford on my own budget. So I gladly said yes. But I’m even more glad I did now, because I don’t think I realized until I tried to function in the desert, exactly how much I needed a dose of luxury at the moment. The Delta was incredible but I wore myself out there, trying to do and see everything. So I’m taking full advantage of the Jack’s Camp pampering, and enjoying every bit of it.

Outside the camp itself, things are far less comfortable. The Makgadikgadi is a true desert, with all the harshness that involves. It’s very hot and the only relief from the heat comes from the wild winds. The sun will cause serious burning in a very short time (at least for those with my skin shade; it’s not a problem for the locals). There are an awful lot of bugs.

Despite the luxury of the camp itself, they clearly expect you to know what kind of setting you’re getting into and be prepared to deal with it. Jack’s safari vehicle is far more spartan than the one at Splash Camp, and it has no functioning shock absorbers. They spend long hours out under the desert sun, and according to one staff member, there are no bug screens on the main tents because the owner didn’t want them to interfere with the view. So there’s a fantastic view in the daytime, but a lot of bugs joining you at dinner, when it’s dark out, so you can’t see the view anyhow.

The current guests, including myself, collectively suggested that the staff ask the owner to add screens but keep them open in the daytime. That way, the view can be experienced fully while it’s available, but you don’t have to worry about moths in your soup. I hope they do it. On the other hand, if the dining area was screened, we might not have had the chance to meet Janet. I’ll explain about her later.

I love Jack’s Camp, but I’m not so sure about the Makgadikgadi itself, despite its very real stark, natural beauty. First, I discovered quickly that very few animals in the Makgadikgadi are habituated. I had grown used to being able to get within thirty to fifty feet of most antelopes in the Delta. Here, if you can identify what species it is through binoculars at a distance of half a mile, you are lucky. That was a mild disappointment to me. There are several species of antelope I was really looking forward to seeing here, including the red hartbeest, the magnificent oryx, and the aptly named springbok, who can leap more than six feet straight up to both confuse and escape predators. But it looks unlikely that I’ll see any of them at close enough range to enjoy them much.

The desert, flat and bare.

The second thing I realized is that most of the other guests here are much more comfortable with, and indeed more interested in, the desert itself than I am. I came here for the antelopes and the meerkats. The other guests stopped the van repeatedly for white-bleached bones, or long discussions of dung beetles. (A guest who was passionately interested in them actually brought a dead one into the van.) I tried to listen to the explanations of the desert ecosystem — it was genuinely interesting information; it’s just hard to focus when you’re uncomfortable, and I was getting badly sunburnt and jounced around in the safari vehicle. But I stuck it out, because we were on our way to see the meerkats.

Meerkats are a very small, insectivorous relative of the mongoose. They’re skinny and bouncy, and they stand up very tall on their back legs to keep watch for predators. They’re social little things, living in communal burrows dug deep underground for safety and coolness; and they have a complex community life that includes a lot of helping each other, and a lot of communication through chitters and whirrs. They remind me a bit of what would happen if you crossed a ferret’s shape with a prairie dog’s ecological function. There is usually one dominant female who is the only one who breeds; the others, her older offspring, help to raise and teach the younger ones. Pups don’t emerge from the den for the first three to four weeks, during which they’re raised on milk; after that, they are taken out and the adults begin teaching them how to catch their own food.

Meerkats at close range.

Everyone takes a turn at guard duty, watching for predators while the others feed. Meerkats are inherently skittish creatures — a great many things will eat them if they get the chance, from hawks to snakes — but they can get used to humans with experience, once they see that we won’t harm them. Sometimes, I was told, a habituated meerkat will scramble up onto a passing human visitor in order to get a better vantage point — a logical decision; they’ve already deduced that we’re no threat, but they can’t be sure about the things they might see from a higher perspective than ground level. And there’s very little on the flat desert salt pans to stand on, besides passing humans. As for the meerkats’ own height, even at their tallest, they stretch all of about eight inches.

A young meerkat on guard duty

There are a few colonies of habituated meerkats in the immediate area of Jack’s Camp… meerkats with whom researchers — and later, tourists — have sat for so long that they’ve become used to people. These little fellows have accepted us so completely that they don’t mind in the least if you hang out and watch them at close range. Very close range.

I thought this whole thing sounded absolutely darling. And while I was somewhat skeptical about the notion that they would climb on a random stranger (as distinguished from, say, the researcher they saw every day), I wanted to see if perhaps I could get them to climb on me. There’s something magical about the idea that a wild animal might willingly perch on you of its own free will.

So we went off to a habituated meerkat colony. And they were every bit as great as advertised.

Meerkats are one of the very few species I’ve seen who behave in random daily reality exactly as they behave in nature videos. What’s more, they really DO habituate enough to climb onto passing visitors — one actually did climb me, and I have the photos to prove it! It’s completely enchanting to have a little wild creature trust you enough to scramble up your shirt and sit on your shoulder, even knowing that they don’t care in the least about you — you’re just the highest hill available in a very flat land.

There’s a meerkat on me!

It’s almost as much fun just to watch them scurry around digging insects out of the sand to eat. Meerkats have a fantastic sense of smell, and can sniff out prey that’s more than a foot below the ground. They chitter and cheep to each other in what sounds like their own language; and while they’re not actually that smart, they’re fairly bright little things. Certainly smarter than the prairie dogs I compared them to, anyway. And that whole complex social structure they’ve got leads to some fascinating interactions… with each other, and with you. For example, in the colony we visited first, there were four habituated meerkats, and four others who had only joined recently from outside the group, and who were not yet habituated. The former were happy to come out and interact with us, but they always left one member back near the main entrance to the burrow, chittering frequently with their “all is well” sound so their shyer neighbors wouldn’t be alarmed while they were out playing with the visiting giants.

Chance the crab, alas, was afraid of the meerkats. He pointed out that he is a Very Small Arthropod, and that meerkats eat Very Small Arthropods for breakfast. Literally, though their preference is for scorpions instead of crabs. I promised that I would protect him, and he finally came out of my pack long enough to see the meerkats for a little while. He was a very brave little crab and I appreciated his effort, but I still don’t think he liked them as much as I do.

Having a meerkat sit on my shoulder was l the highlight of the visit. By the time we got back into the van, I was starting to fade pretty badly from sun and pain and fatigue. The lack of shock absorbers on the van didn’t help. I thought the ride would be easier here because the desert is so very flat, but it’s only the land that’s flat. The short scrub grass is tough and grows in clumps… so you go rattling over every single clump.

By the time we were at our second meerkat colony of the morning, I was no longer able to hide my pain from the guide and my fellow guests. This really bothered me. I hate to be forced to admit that I’m physically fragile on active trips. It always makes me feel like a burden on everyone else, even if they’re very kind. In fact, especially if they’re very kind.

This set was, indeed, very kind. Fabio, the guide, offered to drop me directly back at camp since the next item on the agenda was escorting a departing guest to the airstrip. (This was the guy who’d made a souvenir out of a dead dung beetle.) The other guests, who’d been with him for a few days, chose to accompany him, but there was no reason why I had to, he explained. I agreed to get off back at the camp, with some relief. I also decided that, since the afternoon activity was just a drive out into the desert — the equivalent of a game drive but with very little prospect of meeting any game, at least not at close range — I would stay back at the tent for that as well.

Basically, it seemed like a really good day to lie around in a beautiful and comfortable setting, and take it easy. I had already seen the meerkats and even had one sit on my shoulder; I had an absolutely lavish tent available to me, and there was nothing else going on that day which I really wanted to do very much.

So this afternoon, I have remained in my tent, soaked in the plunge pool, and read on the swinging day beds outside for a little while before coming back into the cool indoor shade. There is air conditioning here, aimed through a funnel directly into your bed and contained there by the mosquito netting so it doesn’t air condition the whole outdoors. It’s an effective trick. All power here is solar, so they’re careful with it, but it definitely does what it needs to. Water, too, is used as needed but conserved where possible — guests are asked to run their pre-shower water, while they’re waiting for it to warm up, into a bucket. It can then be used for cleaning the floors of their room later in the day.

I had a lovely, lazy afternoon, and even though I felt uncomfortably as if I were wasting opportunities, I reminded myself that the true opportunity was to do things that I liked, and which I wouldn’t be able to do at home. Luxuriating in a Victorian-era safari camp with modern conveniences certainly falls into that category. But the desert had one more treat for me today, and she came to visit at dinnertime.

In addition to Africa’s big cats — lion, leopard, cheetah — there are also a number of smaller ones. These are often nocturnal and quite shy, as they have to live in the shadows where the big ones don’t pay much attention. A lion will kill even cheetah cubs if it gets a chance, to eliminate future competition. So the caracals and the servals and the genets stay out of their way.

I had long been hoping to see some of the smaller cats on this trip. The African wildcat is the one from which our domestic housecats have been bred, and they’re still genetically so close to housecats that they can interbreed and frequently do. Few populations in the wild are purebred anymore, without any domestic cat in them, and many families in northern Africa have housecats who were fathered by a wildcat. But the African wildcats ranged further north, as did the serval. The caracal and the genet lived in the southern deserts where I was staying tonight.

While we are eating dinner, there was a brief commotion in the staging area of the tent. None of the staff were in it at the time, but I looked down and saw a beautiful, stripy-spotty cat of delicate grace, following her nose to where the food was. The staff told me she came around frequently; that they wished they could feed her, but it wasn’t a good idea to encourage her to become more domesticated than she was already becoming. They called her Janet — it’s apparently a safari camp tradition that all female genets are called Janet. I don’t know what males are called; they’re shyer, and less frequently seen, so it may not matter.

Janet the Genet, sneaking into the dining room

Frankly, Janet the genet seemed pretty determined to domesticate herself by main force, whether the staff liked it or not, but I appreciated their predicament. She did apparently manage to steal something once in a while, because she still considered it a good job to come in at dinnertime and see what she could get. She had kittens waiting back at her den to feed, and a mother’s got to do what it takes.

Janet showed up at dinner two out of the three nights I spent at Jack’s Camp. She was one of the highlights of the trip. I wish I could have gotten better pictures of her; the low light interfered, but then, the low light was part of what made it magical to have a wild animal here with us in this oddly luxurious tent in the middle of the desert, as well.

There are many layers of contradictions to Jack’s Camp… Janet is only one of them.

Up next: Riding with zebras and walking with Bushmen! I get to do both in the next post. Stay tuned.

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