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4 enchanting secret desert gems in Southern Africa

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Lucia Van Der Post, the well-known writer for the Financial Times’ How To Spend It magazine, recently travelled to Botswana and Namibia for a life-changing desert experience, meeting the precious cultures of the San people that have lived here for tens of thousands of years.

Her article True Cultural Immersion in the Kalahari describes her enchanting journey and the fascinating experience she gained with the San people in the Kalahari and in the desert near the Khaudum Game reserve in Namibia.

Although to many, the desert seems to be harsh and barren, there is extreme beauty and tucked away in quiet corners of the deserts of Botswana and Namibia there are secret hidden gems which enchant visitors. These experiences touch the soul and will stay with you for years to come. Here are my favourite secret desert gems:

Jacks Camp – Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, Botswana

Jack’s Camp, owned and operated by Ralph Bousfield, sits in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in north central Botswana. Made up of many individual pans, the Makgadikgadi is the last remnant of a ‘super lake’ that disappeared about 20,000 years ago.

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The camp is named after Ralph’s father, a notorious and eccentric chap, who, upon asking what was in the pans and receiving the answer that there was “nothing”, decided he would live in this forbidding and unforgettable landscape. The pans are desolate with little vegetation, yet they are compellingly beautiful in their own way.

Jack’s has ten tents all furnished in a colonial and elegant manner with Persian rugs, copper basins and four-poster beds. Many of the items in the camp came from Jack Bousfield’s own camp that moved throughout northern Botswana as he hunted crocodiles in the ‘40s and ‘50s. There are also many unique finds from the pans, indeed Jack’s main tent has been declared a museum by the Botswana University!

From the camp you can visit a family of habituated meerkats, go on walks with San people and take quad bike excursions into the heart of the pans led by Ralph, to watch the sun set and the stars rise here.

This is one of the only places in the world where the silence is so complete you can hear the blood circulating through your ears. 16,000 square kilometres of baking soda void are inhabited only by you and a few gazillion invisible brine shrimp!

During the rainy and spring season the pans are filled with water and flamingos and pink and white backed pelicans arrive in their thousands. A vision of pink, white and blue fills the landscape. The pans are dramatic, severe, milky-blue endless horizons, awe inspiring and incredibly quiet.

Zu’/Hoasi San people– Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, Botswana

Lucia Van Der Post’s party spent several days and nights on a new and unique experience with the Zu’/Hoasi, eating with them and walking with them, sleeping out on the Makgadikgadi pans and immersing themselves in their campfire songs and trance dancing.

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You too can spend time with the San people and listen to the history of these gentle people whose origins can be traced back 30 000 years. Learn also about the complex, political and social challenges facing them in the 21st century.

The Zu’/Hoasi lead a semi-traditional lifestyle, and share their traditional hunting and food-gathering skills as well as how they make jewellery and hunting equipment. This is a glimpse into their traditional way of life.

Through the initiative with Jack’s Camp, a community is able to work together and share their knowledge with each other and guests, allowing the older generation to pass the knowledge on to the next generation. The hope is that the younger children then will carry the knowledge and traditions of their incredible ancient culture into the modern world with a sense of pride and personal empowerment.

Ralph Bousfield is the most amazing guide for this experience and will reveal this fascinating world to you. You can watch a trance dance – a free spirited, traditional dance which represents the joyful celebrations of a successful harvest.

Learn how the women prepare their meals and sample a variety of their local food. Watch how they make jewellery from ostrich eggs, porcupine quills and seeds. Learn which plants the San use to heal themselves, as well as how they extract and store their water.

Nhoma village visit – Khaudum Game Reserve, Namibia

Nhoma Camp is a tented camp near the Bushman San village of Nhoq’ma. The camp is owned and managed by Arno and Estelle Oosthuysen who have been working with this community since 1999.

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The tents all have shade from lovely Zambezi teak trees and the thatch and poles were bought from the local community who helped build the camp. Members of the community also work in the camp. This is the real reason for staying here – the cultural experience centred on the San people and the village.

The Camp and village is within a conservancy which allows the Zu’/Hoasi people to hunt for food using their traditional methods and with tools created in the traditional way. Guests may join the San as they set off on a hunt, always accompanied by a translator. They will show you how they have lived in the past and how they utilize the bush for food and medicine.

In the afternoon, the entire community participates in traditional games, which is followed by the Giraffe or Elephant healing dances. If you are lucky, you may see one of the participants fall into a trance where he or she believes they are being spoken to by their ancestors.

The village lies just a 5 minute walk from the camp and guests are invited to visit the village any time they like, you can simply sit on the ground and watch the daily goings on but you’ll find this experience the most amazing, and even life-changing, if you put your inhibitions aside.

Try to communicate, try everything that you're offered, ask questions and joke with the villagers. Then you'll find them to be very open, demonstrative and very happy people – who often use jokes to communicate a point, and live very much in the present.

Wolwedans Dunes Lodge – NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia

This really is the most beautiful of settings. The lodge is situated within the magnificent NamibRand Private Nature reserve, which is free of fences and allows the wildlife to roam in their natural habitat. This covers a huge area of 200,000 hectares and has a unique location which offers a diversity of desert landscapes.

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The Lodge provides a unique experience close to nature, yet without compromising any comfort and style. The entire lodge is constructed on wooden platforms and overlooks panoramic vistas in all directions, capturing the desert in an intimate and memorable way.

You can take nature walks with an expert field guide, have a picnic in the wild, take sundowners on the dunes and eat in the desert by candlelight. You can also horse ride in the desert from here – here there is the sheer space and freedom that it allows for miles and miles of cantering

However one of the most special things at NamibRand is hot-air ballooning at sunrise. To take to the skies in complete silence, except for the occasional blow of the burner is an experience one never forgets. Watch the colour of the sand dunes changing as the sun rises and how it changes the contours and shapes of the desert as it comes to life below you.

Below see the tiny footprints left by springbok as they cross the sands, see S-bends left by side winder snakes and the sweeping trails of long grasses as they are blown around in the wind. This is probably the most overwhelming hot air ballooning experience in all of Africa and certainly the most magical!