I was covered head to toe in gray dust, my eyes red and puffy, in sharp contrast to the breezy elegance of Jack’s Camp. The lavishly decked-out safari destination, surrounded by tall, slender palm trees, typically exudes sophistication. I looked like I’d just staggered out of a collapsed building.
But I had an excuse for my disheveled arrival. I’d just quad biked 250 miles across Botswana’s Makgadikgadi salt flats, the largest series of salt pans in the world and the geological remains of a lake that once spanned the size of Maine.
The three-day ride was often epically exciting, but the journey was also, at times, what many adventurers refer to as “type-two fun.” Think hiking in a rainstorm, cold-water swimming, or running an ultramarathon. Though they may not be enjoyable in the moment, these experiences offer a payoff at the end that makes the discomfort along the way worth it.
It’s an increasingly popular way to travel, according to a report from the luxury travel advisory collective Virtuoso. Though the trend pre-dates the pandemic, the past two years have only intensified the urge among many travelers to embrace type-two fun — to prioritize incredible experiences over lounging by plunge pools.
My trip across the flats began at San Camp, a sister property to Jack’s, where I rendezvoused with a group of seven seasoned travelers, all of us looking decidedly fresher than we would just a few days later. “Most guests only see a fraction of these pans,” said our veteran guide Super Sande, warning us that by the end of the journey we’ll be “all panned out.”
We started fast and easy, streaking across gleaming white salt flats, pushing the bikes to their top speed of 40 miles an hour as the midday sun beat down. We spread out; the quads in front became tiny dark specks trailed by plumes of billowing dust.
But then the Makgadikgadi fought back. We were traveling in dry season, but some unexpected rain loosened the pan. Thick mud beneath what looked like a firm surface grabbed the wheels, as chunks of dirt spun up into our faces and all over our clothes. I was momentarily blinded by a wet clump that flew onto the lens of my sunglasses.
As the sun dipped low, we spotted a row of baobabs, the giant stem-succulent trees with colossal swollen trunks and spiky outstretched branches. This was the Island of Lost Baobabs — a cluster of huge trees on a rock “island” in the middle of the pans — our base for the next two nights.
Our dusty, mud-splattered party was met with iced tea, scones with cream and jam, and pastry-encased meatballs, all arranged by Stewart Matikiti, the food and beverage manager at Jack’s Camp, and his advance team. The crew had traveled ahead to set things up, including a bucket shower slung from a low baobab branch. I gratefully washed off the dirt with hot water, changed into fresh clothes, and relocated to the campfire for a gin and tonic as the baobabs turned pink in the dusk. Given the remoteness of our camp, the dinner spread was impressive: tomato and basil soup with fresh-baked bread; beef filet and hand-cut fries; a perfect banoffee tart.
We slept on the pans, in thick canvas bivvy bags, each one lined with a mattress and plush duvet, two hot water bottles tucked between the sheets. The Milky Way shimmered above, stars blinking across the entire canopy of inky dark, barely a whisper of wind disturbing what was, to a Cape Town–based girl like me, an almost alien stillness.
I’m gently woken by a peachy glow silhouetting the baobabs — and the promise of coffee under them. After fueling up with eggs and bacon, we set off to Kubu Island, another granite “island” and a site of great cultural importance.
We whipped across the pans for hours, spraying ourselves with more mud, crying through dust clouds, and bumping along grassy fields trying to avoid aardvark burrows.
Finally, after flying across another ice-white stretch of salt, we arrived at Kubu, a striking granite outcrop studded with red-tinted baobabs. These rocks are thought to be 2.6 billion years old, and the island has long been a sacred site for Indigenous Bushmen tribes. It’s since become a spiritual location for many other Southern African peoples, too, says Sande.
We retraced our tracks and headed back to our wilderness camp. After another night under the stars — and many more miles — we rolled up the sandy tracks outside Jack’s Camp.
Since opening in 1993, Jack’s has forged a reputation for its over-the-top expedition style, rich with Persian rugs, heavy velvet drapes, brass fittings, even artifacts that form part of a registered museum, from Bushman ax heads to a hippo molar. In 2020, the camp underwent a much-needed refresh, though it’s still furnished in the same style and many things remain as staunchly traditional as they were. (There’s still, for example, no Wi-Fi.) But the nine suites are three times larger, upgraded with private plunge pools (continue the type-two fun by braving the brain-freeze water temperature) and decks big enough for a small party.
After three days in the saddle of a quad bike, lazing around camp for the next couple days felt extra indulgent. There was just something about the combination of comfort and discomfort, the latter intensifying the former. It’s why a hot bucket shower under a baobab felt more luxurious than any I’ve had at a big-city hotel. Why no gin and tonic had ever tasted as rewarding as the one by the campfire. And why I’ll laugh at the memory of my sore eyes and dust-caked hair when I sign up for the next escapade without a second thought.
Natural Selections arranges similar five-night expeditions across the Makgadikgadi Pans, including a stay at Jack’s Camp, from $12,010.