Duke’s Camps in The Okavango Delta

WORDS Pippa de Bryn PHOTOS Dook

Drawing inspiration from the campaign safari and royal Raj, Duke’s Camps in the Okavango Delta are a repository of history, conjuring up a bygone era.

When talk turns to Ralph Bousfield, “rock star” is the phrase that often crops up. Tall and rangy, with tousled long hair, wrist cuffed in bracelets, and talisman beads in an antelope scrotum hanging from his neck, this is the mien of a man who knows how to annex attention. Born into a long line of explorers and adventurers, Ralph’s father Jack – holder of the dolorous record for the most crocodiles killed in Africa – started guiding photographic safaris in the 1960s. With a lifetime spent in the bush, augmented by a degree in conservation, Ralph’s skills as a wilderness guide are uncontested: the first choice of Oscar-winning actors, film-makers and former US presidents, he was recognised as Tatler Travel Guide’s Best Safari Guide in Africa in 2023. But he has a knack with furniture and fabrics too.

“His is an extraordinary creativity. Spending a life living so close to nature, he has huge respect for all things alive and dead, old and new. And he has an eye for beauty,” says magpie antique dealer Gilles de Moyencourt, who met Ralph and his then-partner Catherine Raphaely in the 1990s, when they were creating what would become one of the most iconic camps in Africa. Jack’s Camp – part family museum, part romantic evocation of camping in a bygone era – was a rebuild of his father’s favourite campsite in the Makgadikgadi. After Jack’s tragic death in a plane crash, Ralph inherited the keys to a storage unit filled with pristine campaign antiques. Together with the family’s extensive collection of ethnographic and natural artefacts, and photographs of earlier Bousfield explorers, this would form the design core of Jack’s Camp. With the help of a handful of favoured dealers such as De Moyencourt, who alert Ralph to pieces imbued with a kind of narrative depth, and aided by an in-house team of carpenters, welders and seamstresses, this nostalgic aesthetic is still very much in evidence at both Duke’s camps.

Located on a verdant channel in the game-rich northern part of the Okavango Delta, Duke’s East is the more intimate sister to Duke’s, named after another Botswana patriarch: “Duke” Sarefo, whose ancestors are buried on this island. The look is Ralph’s trademark “African Raj”– dark green canvas softened by scalloped edges and draped entrances, the interiors lined with printed cotton – but at Duke’s East, the scale is grander, with double-volume tents on enormous teak decks. The block-print pattern on the interiors, a custom- designed copy of Ralph’s great-grandfather’s campaign tent, is a deep red paisley, creating a richly textured backdrop for polished timber, brass and leather.

Dining is usually alfresco, the long communal table covered in a white tablecloth anchored by a decanter filled with red bird’s-eye chillies soaked in gin – the Bousfields’ legendary Pilipili Hoho. The mess tent features floor-to-ceiling glass case shelves packed with artefacts, reminiscent of a mobile natural history museum. Draped curtains with red velvet tiebacks frame a campaign-style drinks chest that is the central point of the adjacent bar lounge, flanked by sofas covered in velvet and a daybed swaying on chains.

“I’m so not a decorator!” Ralph protests when complimented on his aesthetic. “What I am, is interested in objects and their stories. I’d like to think our camps are a repository of these, whether created in Europe for African explorers or by the Khoi San; over centuries or yesterday. It’s all part of offering guests an authentic experience of the African bush. In fact, the camp is just a small part of a much bigger, much more profound experience.” I have my back to the scrunch and rip of a grazing hippo, just metres from where we are seated for dinner. From here, the draped entrance to the mess tent is like a siren’s lure, the red block-print fabric glowing like one of the coals shovelled under my chair to warm my derriere. I pick up a bone-handled knife, spread some Pilipili Hoho on my fillet. A small part, perhaps…

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