At Jack's Camp, the element of surprise is a big part of the show. Ralph and I have spent the afternoon tracking cheetahs across the salt-and-algae crust of Botswana's Makgadikgadi Pans. Now, just in time for sunset, an aide-de-camp has surreptitiously set up a makeshift bar beside a water hole where a flock of migratory flamingos has also stopped for a drink. Ralph—who at 38 looks remarkably like Daniel Day-Lewis cast as a rock god—lights a small campfire, anchors a map of Botswana to the ground with a quartet of liquor bottles, and sketches an outline of Africa in the dust. He's preparing to tell me how we came to be in this strange and peaceful place in the southern part of the continent. He goes back to the very beginning—the formation of the landmass, the arrival of man, the superlake that dried up aeons ago and created the geographic anomaly that is the pan.
Just as I'm thinking this could be a long, long story, Ralph fast-forwards to the 19th century. He traces the progress of his maternal great-grandfather, an ivory hunter and explorer who was the right hand of legendary pioneer Frederick Selous; in the 1870's he and Selous bivouacked not 10 miles from here while searching for a fabled city in the Kalahari. For most of the 20th century, the vast Pans remained a no-man's-land.
Meanwhile, in East Africa, the Bousfield clan established itself in the wilds of Tanganyika (now Tanzania). When the country won independence in 1961, just before Ralph was born, his father began to feel that the region was becoming inhospitable to whites. He consulted maps of Bechuanaland (the former British protectorate, which became Botswana in 1966) that had been drawn up during the previous century's expeditions. He liked the blank spaces and wound up building the desert camp where Ralph has spent much of his life, and where he would found his own safari camp.
After the plane crash, Ralph and Catherine abandoned the idea of building a camp in the Okavango Delta, erecting Jack's Camp on the Pans instead. The Pans were still considered by most to be a marginal area with little to recommend it to tourists. According to Ralph, the 100-mile-long Ntwetwe Pan, one of two that make up the Makgadikgadi Pans, is "one of the longest open areas of nothing on earth." Yet, he adds, "there's so much going on, you don't know where to start." Desert-adapted animals such as cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, oryx, and the rare brown hyena inhabit the pan, but they are not plentiful; an evening game drive might consist of little more than observing the pups at the hyena den.
"Jack always said, 'Whatever you do, just be different,'" says Catherine, "and that's absolutely what we've done. We've tried to maintain that 'out there' thing." And they have. Jack's Camp is less about the Big Five than about the power of a silent, nearly barren landscape. At night Ralph likes to drive guests out to a dead zone—no vegetation, no animals. He'll tell you to walk away from the jeep alone, lie down on your back, and contemplate the heavens for a half-hour or so. The next morning you might be taken to collect stone artifacts and speculate about who made them and what they were used for. That afternoon you'll go walking with a diminutive Bushman guide named Dabe Sebitola, who will give you the recipe for a local heart-attack remedy: Mix the root of a feather asparagus with the nest of a mud wasp; boil; and drink. One night you'll be taken to . . . it's a secret. I'll simply note that I watched as an uptight German septuagenarian was moved to tears by the experience.
Set on islands of bush in a desert sea, Jack's and its sister camp, San Camp, combine Saharan exoticism with Cape Town cool. Jack's is the more traditional, with eight luxurious private guest tents. Its decoration was inspired by Jack's old gear—collapsible furniture made from a teaklike wood called mukwa—brightened with colorful textiles. San Camp consists of six white canvas tents, each of which is sheltered by palm trees. It's airy, soft, fantastical; a deliberate departure from the macho safari ethos.
Catherine, a 37-year-old former model with more than a passing resemblance to Cher, is in charge of the look of the camps and planning the menus. Her style-consciousness is as much a function of her background as Ralph's bush savvy is of his. Her mother, Jane Raphaely, is a leading figure in South Africa's women's magazine industry. The recipes at both camps are all derived from the Cape Malay cuisine of Catherine's grandmother's cook. "Everything we do is an extension of who we are," says Catherine. "It's not a movie set."
WHERE: Jack's Camp and San Camp, Botswana
YEARS IN THE BUSH: 38
FAVORITE ANIMAL: "Brown hyenas—they're desert specialists."
MOTTO: "We don't know what's out there. To me, that's freedom."