Jacks Camp and the Makgadikgadi Pans
03.18.2008 - 03.20.2008 73 °F
Allison Nolting had recommended that we go to the Kalahari Desert as part of our safari itinerary for a couple of very good reasons: The Kalahari was only an hour away by charter, and we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the desert in the green season. The scenery and wildlife were very different than what we were to experience in the Okavango Delta and being so close, we should seize the opportunity. We did, and Allison was spot-on. As we descended below the rain clouds that had drenched us and the Okavango Delta the days previous, we had obviously transitioned into a completely different landscape. Plains spotted with the very occasional thicket and palm islands dotted the land below our Cessna 260. What appeared to be large beaches could be seen on the horizon. The apparent beds of sand below us, held water from recent rains and were ringed in white. We glided onto the dirt strip surrounded by this landscape, spun the plane around, and then squeezed our way out of the seats and through the door. We were met by Kevin, a young Australian with a dry wit and a studied background, who would act as our guide for the next few days . On the way to our camp, we stopped to admire some unusual bird species, plants and a few small mammals. Kevin was providing excellent commentary and we learned that he will soon pursue his Phd in the Central Kalahari studying predator – prey relationships, already having received his Bachelors Degree in Advanced Zoology, and a Masters Degree in Wildlife Management. He’ll be our educator over the coming days.
This camp is called “Jacks Camp”. The camp was started in the 70s by a man named Jack and is booming today, with a loyal following, a growing business, and a strong conservation agenda. The camp is located on the edge of the Kalahari Desert in an area known as the Makgadikgadi Pans. The individual pans that make up the Makgadikgadi are some of the largest in the world, and are essentially dry salt beds, evidence of a giant super lake that used to cover this area and the much of the delta millions of years ago. Those weren’t beaches I was seeing from the plane. Jacks camp is a permanent tented camp, themed as a 1940s British officer’s compound. There are old books, old furniture, old pictures of old soldiers and more interestingly, there are old skulls, taxidermied animals, and ancient tools providing a museum of sorts in the main eating and lounging areas. This place is very unique and unlike the last two camps that seemed focused on “client meets animal” experiences, Jacks Camp seems to be more of an academic institution, with a set curriculum focused on building an appreciation of this foreign landscape and teaching all things native to the area; history, geography, geology, sociology, botany, ornithology, and zoology.
When we arrived in camp, we were greeted by Renee, one of the managers of the camp, and roughly one billion ants. Yes, one billion ants. It seems that ants rise from their subterranean homes and spill onto the foot paths after a rain to feast on bugs that have been washed up from their homes. Now, these aren’t the common little black ants that we have back in America. Nope. These are carnivorous ants that can sense the vibration from a step and actually run toward your shoe the moment you set it down. I am petrified. We are all petrified. We sprinted to the main tented area for lunch and epileptically kicked and swiped the ants off of our shoes and trousers the moment we hit the first step to the raised wooden floor, which ironically was ant free. We met the other guests who were just finishing their lunch and witnessing our anti-ant seizure. Surely they must have endured the same affliction upon their arrival. It seemed not from their reaction, but we later found that everyone who is visiting the place is a bit freaked by the notion of one billion carnivores and we witnessed each having a seizure filled moment not unlike ours upon stepping onto any raised floor. Yeah, perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic about the whole thing, but man they freaked us out, and we had to walk some 300 yards between the main area and our tents through piles of these things, repeating our seizures upon arrival anywhere.
Our first evening, Kevin, (who the ants don’t seem to phase), took us out on the open plain to watch the sunset and hear about the history of the camp, the geography and geology of the location. We happened to find a fantastic bar set up out in the middle of the plains. This lesson of sorts was quite fascinating, and made perfect sense. It is an area unlike anywhere in the world, with some of the largest salt pans on the planet. The camp sits on the edge of the Makgadikgadi pans and wildlife migrates through the pans, adoring their ability to expose a predator’s intention from a long distance. The area is also rich geologically, providing the source, but not location of the world’s largest diamond mine, and hosting scores of unfelt earthquakes every other day. I will spare you the details, hoping you come here and see for yourself. We enjoyed drinks and snacks under the stars, absorbed the clouds and colors of a gorgeous Kalahari sunset, and drove back to camp in the dark, spotting an occasional spring hare with Kevin’s spotlight.
The next morning we went on a bush walk with the native “San” Bushmen from the area. If you’ve ever seen the film, “The Gods Must Be Crazy” you would recognize the native bushman of the Kalahari. They have a gentle appearance and a soft presence, appearing to conserve energy in an environment that demands conservation of all kinds. They speak a wonderful language that is formed of tones, clicks and pops, leaving you wondering how they make the sounds, after you’ve tried it out. Three bushman walked us around the bush and dug up a plant to show us where water is stored in its roots. They dug up a plant, showing us a root that provides an energy supplement for their food. They dug up a scorpion “just for fun” and they started a fire from zebra dung, grass, and twigs – which was crazy to watch. They smoked a pipe full of dung, lit from the fire and they instructed us how to shoot their arrows with a tiny bow. We weren’t too good at this. It is amazing to think that these people have been able to survive and find sustenance in an area that appears to banish all but the hardiest residents. These kind and gentle people might be the hardiest of them all.
That evening we drove to the salt pans and saw firsthand how flat and disorienting the salt pans are. The pans are the most convenient and speedy way to cross this part of the Kalahari, but they are also the most difficult to navigate. Old explorers would set out by night and use the stars to navigate across the pans, but after 25 miles, the sun would rise and they would still have 15 miles to cross. If you didn’t have a good inner compass, you were in a tough spot. We did an experiment on the pan and it showed how damaging a continuing five degree miscalculation could be in your navigation, perhaps spinning you in circles indefinitely, not unlike the vultures who would likely be circling above your carcass. On the edge of the pan we saw a fresh lion kill (a local cow) and heard the lion bellowing just a kilometer or so in the distance. Kevin also showed us how to take advantage of the Pans for some really silly photos that are equally disorienting which we share with you here. This was like having a recess in a day of extraordinary classes in the great outdoors.
Our next morning, we set out early to find the meerkat group that lives a few kilometers from the camp. If you have seen the TV show “Meerkat Manner”, you know these animals. This is a different group, but they exhibit the same comical behavior. Meerkats move from burrow to burrow throughout the day foraging for food as they go. One Meerkat takes on the role of sentry for the group, climbing to the highest point nearby, and watching for predators, calling to warn others if trouble arises. Not fearing humans as predators, they assume that we are basically just another mound of dirt that will allow them to get a better vantage point for their role as sentry. See what I mean…..
Later that morning, we visited an ancient baobab tree that is one of the largest in the world. It was historically used by explorers to navigate the last 15 miles of the pan when the daylight struck on their trip northward and it’s nicknamed “the beacon of the pans” The tree is a giant succulent with 7 trunks and you can literally hear or feel the water when you slap the side. There is no bark, but rather a hard fibrous covering that can be ripped away in sheets to make a very strong rope. You can see quite clearly where rope has been cut from the tree over the years. The age of giant baobabs can only be determined by size, because baobabs have no rings like a more common tree. This Baobab is believed to be between 3,000 and 6,000 years old, and before a few years of drought, was actually larger than it is today. It was pretty amazing.
That evening we ventured out on a drive to “see what we can see” as Kevin put it. We spotted many birds, a jackal or two, and we ran into 1,000s of zebra who were completing their migration to this part of the Kalahari. We also heard a male lion bellowing, but we never got close to it. After dinner, Parker and I went for a night drive with Kevin to see if we could spot that male lion. Three camp mangers were in the vehicle with us as well. We saw some bat eared foxes; a couple of small spotted genet, quite a few birds, but we never did see that big cat. We couldn’t take pictures of course at night because the flash freaks out the animals. Parker and I ran the ant gauntlet back to our rooms, kicked and slapped the ants off our shoes and pants and then collapsed.
The next morning we ventured to the pans one last time to pick up stone tools that were used by the natives some 40,000 to 200,000 years ago. The pans is the perfect place to find these stone tools because the ground is generally more dense than the stone, so the tools just ride on top. We found blades and scraping instruments of all kinds. Kevin explained how the stones were made. It was fascinating to understand this process, and astonishing that someone built the tool you hold in your hand over 40,000 years ago. That afternoon, as we were heading out to our plane, we met Ralph, who accompanied us to the airport. Ralph is the son of Jack of “Jacks Camp” fame and now owns and runs the camp. He was a great guy to talk with and we got an understanding of what Ralph is accomplishing with Jacks Camp. Ralph is passionate about the Kalahari and believes this is the most beautiful part of the world. He is quite keen on ensuring that the habitat is conserved and taken care of and he seemed like the perfect steward for this land. Jacks camp was quite different from the other safari experiences we had, seeming like more of an educational institution than a Safari. With that said, I would recommend the Jacks Camp experience to anyone who maintains an intense curiosity and has a passion for learning. It is a great experience to accompany a traditional safari itinerary.