With many of the continent’s most exclusive safari destinations, Botswana has become known for catering above all for visitors with ample cash to burn. But there are still many delights for those on much tighter budgets, and Lonely Planet author Matthew D Firestone is here to show you where to look.
The textbook post-colonial African success story, Botswana benefited from a rich natural resource base, efficient government and an extremely low population density. In stark contrast to some of its regional neighbours, Botswana continues to enjoy more than five decades of uninterrupted peace, sustained economic growth and progressive environmental conservation.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and many lucky ladies have Botswana to thank for unearthing their treasured stones. The country is one of the world’s largest diamond producers, with annual revenue streams in the tens of billions of dollars. Mining has facilitated a modern infrastructure, including a paved highway across the vast swathe of the Kalahari.
But wherever you go in Botswana, it’s the limitless space that makes the strongest impression. With a population density of approximately three people per square kilometre, Botswana is thus defined by natural spectacles. Along the legendary riverfront of Chobe National Park, some of Africa’s largest elephant herds roam unhindered alongside rare species of antelopes.
Garnering its fair share of the spotlight is the Moremi Game Reserve, which attracts seasonal migrations of herd mammals, and the crafty felines that prey on them. The Okavango Delta, in which the reserve sits, is an attraction in itself, an oasis of life amidst parched plains and shifting sands. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), one of the world’s largest game reserves, protects endangered African wild dogs.
Botswana has long embraced the low volume, high revenue earning model of tourism. As such, the country is best known for its chic safari camps specialising in hedonistic bush luxury. If your wallet is light, take comfort in the fact that the Southern African backpacker circuit swings through Botswana, resulting in a good network of affordable lodges and budget tour operators.
Spanning more than 16,000 square kilometres, this aquatic wilderness is the world’s largest inland river delta. Fed by the Okavango River, the delta is a watery labyrinth of narrow canals that are best navigated by mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe. Wildlife here does not reach the concentrations found in Chobe, but the real appeal of Okavango is the blissful isolation and serene nature. Plus, when game is spotted, it’s usually an up-close-and-personal encounter. The delta is home to some of the most exclusive luxury camps in Botswana – and all of Africa for that matter – though budget mokoro trips and camping excursions can be easily arranged through tour operators in Maun.
Botswana’s major tourist hub, Maun is a frontier town with a mellow vibe that lies on the doorstep of the Okavango Delta. Truth be told, the town is little more than a few dusty streets fronted by some fairly nondescript buildings. But what makes Maun a destination in its own right is the wonderful assortment of backpacker lodges and budget camps tucked away on the edge of the wilds. Fed by regular infusions of shoestringers and overlanders, Maun at times can feel surprisingly international, especially when the drinks start to flow and the conversation gets going at any of the local watering holes. If you’re looking to keep costs down by travelling in a group, this is the best place to meet a few new friends of a similar persuasion.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve
People often envision the Kalahari as being comprised of sweeping dunes stretching out to the horizon. On the contrary, the Kalahari is a varied landscape of sandy plateaus, rocky outcroppings and bushy trees, not to mention a healthy assortment of wildlife. Indeed, the CKGR is conducive to life, so much so that the San people have survived here for many millennia. The only obstacle to their continued future here is the government’s persistent (and well publicised) opposition to it. Private tours are extremely pricey, but self-drivers can camp at officially designated sites for just a few dollars a day.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
At the start of the new millennium, Botswana’s former Mabuasehube-Gemsbok National Park was combined with South Africa’s former Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park to create this bi-national venture. Home to red sand dunes, bone-dry salt pans and scrub brush forests, Kgalagadi offers the full complement of semi-arid and true desert landscapes. Temperatures are predictably extreme, with summer highs pushing 45 degrees Celsius and winter lows dropping to minus 10, so come prepared with adequate clothing. As in other parts of Botswana, lodgings cluster toward the upmarket end. However, self-drivers with a good understanding of GPS navigation and topographic maps can base themselves at dirt-cheap but perfectly adequate bush campsites.
Affectionately known by local residents as ‘Gabs’, the capital of Botswana is not so much a city but rather a sprawling village where livestock still roam in the shadows of strip malls and office parks. Often overlooked by wildlife-focused travellers, Gabs admittedly lacks noteworthy tourist sights, but instead offers a rare glimpse into the modern heart and soul of Botswana. Add to the mix a sizeable expatriate population and a well-to-do urban elite, and you’ve got yourself a cosmopolitan scene that bustles with activity most nights of the week. Gabs is also peppered with a decent mix of hotels, restaurants and bars to suit all budgets.
Makgadikgadi Pans and Nxai Pan National Parks
These two adjacent national parks are home to the remains of an ancient super-lake that once stretched as far north as the Okavango Delta and Chobe River. According to geologists, major climatic shifts approximately 10,000 years ago caused the super-lake simply to evaporate, leaving behind massive quantities of salt. Together, Makgadikgadi and Nxai are the largest system of saltpans on the planet. In the midst of the dry season, stepping out into the pans, shimmering white plains spreading out from you in all directions, is an incredible (albeit disorientating) experience. When the rains do fall, temporary waterways attract migratory birds from far and wide. The tiny towns of Nata and Gweta are home to affordably priced lodging, and offer a variety of tours for accessing the pans.
Chobe National Park
The lifeblood of this classic safari destination is the Chobe River, which also serves as the international border between Botswana and Namibia. In a welcome departure from traditional open-top vehicles, travellers can cruise along the river in motorised pontoons, taking care to avoid the basking pods of hippos. Along the riverbanks, thousands of elephants scour for fresh greens, pausing intermittently to drink their fill. Impala, kudu and lechwe are all commonly sighted, though the rarities on display here include the Chobe subspecies of the bushbuck, sable and roan antelope. A day’s drive inland from the riverfront, Savute is the other major centre for wildlife activity in the park, offering dry savannahs reminiscent of East Africa. Accommodation here caters to all budgets, ranging from government-run campsites to plush wilderness camps.
Moremi Game Reserve
The only section of the Okavango Delta that has been cordoned off for wildlife, the Moremi Game Reserve is safari country par excellence, rivalling even Chobe. Lying on the central and eastern side of the delta, Moremi is a mix of both aquatic and terrestrial landscapes, the latter of which is comprised of savannahs and riparian woodland. During the late dry season (July to October), the concentration of wildlife here is astounding, and it’s highly possible to see the Big Five in a single outing, not to mention wild dogs and red lechwe. Of course, there is a serious price tag to consider here as all-inclusive, fly-in safaris are the norm in these parts – suffice it to say though, the experience is justifiably unparalleled.
In terms of geology, the Tsodilo Hills are simply slabs of metamorphic quartzite schist that were pushed up through the desert floor eons ago. But to the early humans who inhabited the surrounding desert plains some 30,000 years ago, these hills were a mysterious natural feature that defied explanation. Not surprisingly, the Tsodilo Hills emerged as an early gallery of rock art, and to date archaeologists have described about 2750 paintings at some 200 sites. Even today, the local San continue to base their creation mythology around the Tsodilo Hills. Despite the remote location, reasonably priced tours can be arranged from Maun, assuming of course you’re travelling in numbers and are not opposed to roughing it.
Distances are extremely long, and budget accommodations are quite limited, so plan your trip carefully to ensure a time efficient route and reasonable overhead costs.
Brief Botswana taster (5 days)
Chobe National Park
>> Day 1
All Botswana safaris inevitably kick off in Maun. You will need to hire a guide before embarking for Okavango by mokoro, so it’s advisable that you do some research in town before setting out.
>> Days 2-3
After loading the boat and getting your bearings, sit back and relax as your guide poles his way through the delta. The going may be slow, but the gentle pace ensures plenty of time for blissful contemplation, not to mention ample opportunities for spotting crocs and hippos. In the evening, you’ll sleep under the stars in a tent and rucksack, lulled off to sleep by a chorus of frogs.
>> Day 4
While not the most exciting day on the itinerary, the long journey to Kasane at least gives you an opportunity to soak up all the empty space.
>> Day 5
From Kasane, you’re just a quick Land Rover jaunt away from Chobe National Park, Botswana’s classic safari spot. Guided safaris are particularly productive in the early morning and late evening hours when in-the-know locals can help you track down a kill. This is lion country, though there are still plenty of hyena and leopard about. For a vastly different perspective, cruise along the Chobe River, and pay attention to predator-prey interactions along the wildlife-rich buffer zone between aquatic and terrestrial biomes.
Deep in the wild (8 days)
Moremi Game Reserve
Central Kalahari Game Reserve
>> Days 1-3
Splurge with a chartered fly-in to the Moremi Game Reserve, one of Africa’s most exclusive safari destinations. Difficult access doesn’t come cheap, but it’s a small price to pay for the chance to witness some of the country’s densest concentrations of wildlife. Indulge in a spot of hedonism at a 5-star tented lodge, but take comfort in the fact that the rest of the itinerary is nothing but bare-bones bush camping.
>> Days 4-5
Back in Maun, organise a few fellow travellers to charter a vehicle and a guide for a trip to the enchanted Tsodilo Hills. Although an ancient gallery of rock art awaits you, the journey through one Botswana’s remotest corners is worth the price alone. Stay around long enough to interact with the local San communities, who provide wonderful cultural insight. Camping in the shadows of the ancient formations is a spiritual experience for many.
>> Days 6-8
Your final stop is the CKGR, a dramatic showcase for desert-adapted life. Conditions may be harsh, but wildlife thrives here in the heart of the Kalahari, not to mention several San communities. If the landscape looks eerily familiar, pay tribute to your primal instincts –
you would have needed them to survive here many millennia ago.
Town & country (14 days)
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Makgadikgadi & Nxai Pans National Park
Maun, Chobe National Park & Okavango
>> Days 1-2
If you have a bit of extra time in country, consider spending a couple of days in Gaborone. Here you’ll find plenty of urban charm to balance out the rural excursions below.
>> Days 3-5
Before pressing north from Gabs, take a detour southwest to explore the Kgalagadi Transfronteir Park. This natural palette of diverse desert landscapes features everything from undulating dunes to barren gravel flats. With so much nothingness on display, Kgalagadi is the ultimate escape from the madding crowd. When the sun sets, the desert sky is quickly transformed into a kaleidoscope of shimmering lights.
>> Days 6-7
Break up your journey to Maun with a visit to Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans National Parks. Bring your binoculars in the wet season for prime birdwatching. In dry season, a GPS and the knowledge of how to use it will better serve you.
>> Days 8-14
Basing your self in Maun, spend the remainder of your time exploring its top highlights, namely Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta. While day-trippers make quick work of the Chobe Riverfront and the outer delta, a full-week will allow you to get off the beaten path. Consider venturing into some of Chobe’s lesser-known districts, and/or accessing the inner delta by pole-driven mokoro.
Botswana Fact File
Language English is the official language of government and business, though more than 75 per cent of the population speak Setswana as their primary tongue. There are also numerous minority languages.
Time zone GMT + 2
International dialling code + 267
Visas Citizens of most western European countries, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand do not require a visa for stays of up to 30 days.
Health Although there is no risk of yellow fever in Botswana, the government requires travellers arriving from countries where it is present to show proof of vaccination. Malaria is prevalent, so it’s wise to take the necessary precautions.
Safety Botswana is a very safe place in which to travel.
Money The unit of currency is the Botswana Pula (P). Recent exchange rates were: UK£1=P14.90, US$1=P9.32 and €1=P11.70. Visa, American Express and MasterCard are widely accepted at larger shops, hotels, car rental agencies and banks. ATMs are present in cities and tourist towns.
Costs Travellers on a reasonably tight budget could just about get by on £20 per day by camping, travelling on buses and eating cheap, but they should plan on spending up to an additional £50 per day on the cheapest safaris. If you’re travelling in a group, consider renting a 4WD vehicle for added mobility – prices vary considerably, but start at around £75 per day. A modest mid-range budget, including hotels, restaurant meals and park fees can reach as high as £150 per day. There is no upper limit in Botswana, as signature properties can run to more than £500 per night, though first-class meals, transfers and professionally guided tours are part of the package.
Getting There The national carrier is Air Botswana (www.airbotswana.co.bw), which connects Gaborone to Johannesburg, Harare and Lusaka.
Getting Around Air Botswana serves the following domestic destinations: Maun, Kasane and Francistown. Local buses run along all major highways, though they’re not convenient for accessing national parks. Aside from joining an organised tour, the best way to get around the country is by rental car.
Books Lonely Planet’s Botswana & Namibia (2nd edition, 2010) by Matthew D Firestone and Adam Karlin is the best guidebook covering all of Botswana. Bradt’s Botswana (3rd edition, 2010) by Chris McIntyre is great, but its coverage is limited to the nation’s northern safari destinations. Laurens van der Post’s Lost World of the Kalahari is a classic anthropological ethnography of the San. Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency collection is a best-selling series of detective novels set in modern-day Botswana.
Find out more Recommendable websites covering Botswana are limited, but the tourist office’s site at www.botswanatourism.co.bw is an objective place to start. The Botswana Gazette, the country’s leading independent newspaper, provides current events and editorial content at www.gazette.bw.
Right time, right place
Weather is major factor in determining when to visit Botswana. If it’s wildlife you’re after, then you should plan to visit during the winter and early spring months (May to October). This period is sunny and dry, which forces animals to congregate around the waterholes. It is also when the bush dries and thins out, which makes spotting elusive wildlife like leopards much easier. But the winter weather inevitably brings with it cooler night-time temperatures, so dress appropriately since the mercury can drop below freezing out in the open desert.
The wettest months are December to February, and prolonged rains can wash out 4WD tracks and render the closure of national parks. Many lodges close their gates during this time period, though the ones that stay open offer generous discounts. Wildlife watching is difficult as the bush is thick and green, and animal herds dissipate due to abundant sources of water, but the lushness of the areas like the Okavango Delta attract avian migrants, and even the normally barren saltpans of Makgadikgadi and Nxai turn into reservoirs. March and April see less rain, but it takes a few more months for seasonal watercourses to turn dry and drive wildlife out into the open.
First published in Travel Africa magazine, Issue 52