Into the Wild: Interview with Legendary Safari Guide Ralph Bousfield

Born into a family of explorers and raised in the Botswana bush, Ralph Bousfield has a unique perspective on the country’s diverse landscapes and the people and wildlife that inhabit them. His strong relationships with local bushmen and passion for conservation and archaeology have shaped his life’s vocation and the safaris he leads, which provide a multidimensional look at Botswana. His father, Jack Bousfield, was a famous Africa specialist and adventurer and instilled in Ralph a deep respect for the expansive wilderness they called home. After Jack’s death, Ralph and his mother Catherine opened Jack’s Camp in his memory and founded a bespoke safari company. Ralph’s conservation efforts, research and expertise have made him one of Africa’s most sought-after guides and a pioneer in protecting Botswana’s incredible geography.

Contact Indagare for assistance in planning a safari in Botswana and beyond.

Related: Africa by Indagare

How is safari in Botswana different than in other African countries? 

We are very fortunate in Botswana, especially from a wildlife perspective, because we have vast expanses of wilderness that are completely untapped in the Kalahari and Okavango. Botswana was never colonized, so Botswanans have a deep sense of self. The country is completely safe and has not been marred by corruption, so the money that goes into projects here, such as putting waterholes in the Kalahari Desert or moving rhinos from overcrowded parks into Botswana, really makes a difference.

Having grown up going on safari, what are the biggest changes you have observed in safaris over the years? Botswana has a really positive perspective on tourism and conservation. One always imagines growth in an industry being negative. But with more value being placed on tourism, this growth has benefited the environment and wildlife by placing more value on it. The wild areas in Botswana are still as they were millions of years ago: animals are no longer hunted, so they are very habituated, allowing for intimate exposure. We also have the means now to explore new regions, maximize current areas and give back to local communities.

In addition, I have observed a change in attitude of those who visit Botswana. People have become much more open- minded and interested in having transformative experiences. It’s wonderful to be the shepherd and show visitors the incredible landscapes and cultures that exist in today’s world. These wild expanses offer people the transcendental and humbling moments they are seeking.

Related: Botswana: Five to Know

What role does tourism play in the future of Botswana?

The future of Botswana is in tourism because it is paramount to conservation. Almost 20% of the country’s land is set aside for wildlife, which is more than any other country in the world. A trip to Botswana isn’t just about having a wonderful time on safari, but it is also about protecting the ecosystems here.

How can travelers to Botswana ensure that their experience is both socially and environmentally conscious? Just by visiting, travelers are supporting the environmental efforts of the many companies that are doing good work. Natural Selection safari camps, for example, gives 1.5% of their proceeds to conservation projects,  aiming to show that the land can be used for wildlife viewing, rather than for agriculture or mining.

Related: Indagare Matchmaker: African Safari

What was your original vision for the camps you created? Has it evolved since?

I built Jack’s Camp to honor my father with the intention of maintaining the authentic safari camp. Jack’s Camp is a true museum with the original letters and papers from the great explorers of our family, dating back to the 1870s. The idea here is not to replicate the accommodations our guests can find at home, but instead to give them a completely different experience. In the same vein, I don’t guide like a tour leader on safari, but rather introduce our guests to my way of life here, treating them as equals and friends.

Do you have any future plans for more camps? What is next for you? For many years I have wanted to build a camp in the watery wonderland of the Okavango Delta, so that will be next. I also plan to work with the local bushmen to create a camp that will emphasize their immense knowledge and perspective of the land.

Related: Safari in Botswana

How did you decide to launch your safari clothing line, Hickman & Bousfield?

Very simply! The safari clothing available today is all super-fabrics, but they aren’t great under harsh conditions or next to a fire. My clothes were all made by a sewing team at our base in Botswana, and people constantly asked where they could buy them. My wife Caroline Hickman is trained as a milliner and worked at the MET costume department, so together we incorporated traditional safari style with functional travel gear.

What has been your most memorable wildlife sighting while on safari? Only one? A standout was a clash between lions and cheetahs seen recently at Mapula Lodge. The lions wanted a kill and the normally timid cheetahs gave far more resistance than expected.

Related: Botswana and the Magic of Safari

At Indagare, we often talk about transformative travel moments. Have you had one particularly life-changing moment on safari?

I find that my most transformative moments are always people-based and involve peeling back layers of history and time. One special memory was meeting a native group at the border of Sudan and Ethiopia that had never encountered anyone outside of their own kin. This experience came with a huge sense of awe and responsibility, and I found it profound that even in today’s world, so much remains undiscovered. Another transformative experience has been tracing the movement of people through Africa with archeological discoveries. I am involved in a project with Oxford University that focuses on the dispersal of people in Africa because of climate change beginning in the Early Stone Age.

Where do you want to travel next? Kalahari's Salt Pans. It never ceases to enthrall yet calm me at the same time.

Related: Botswana 101

Contact Indagare for assistance planning a safari.

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