50 Secrets about Botswana

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To celebrate the country’s 50th anniversary since independence, we asked experts for their insight and advice to help you plan an extraordinary trip. Compiled by Laura Griffith-Jones and Jessica Mayhall

Why Botswana? His Excellency The President of the Republic of Botswana, Lieutenant General Dr Seretse Khama Ian Khama tells us what makes his country so special:

Botswana has been named Lonely Planet’s top country to visit in 2016. While we very much appreciate and agree with this accolade, we think we have been such for many years and will continue to be for many more to come. So what do I think makes Botswana special?

First, our people: they are welcoming, peaceful and love to show off their hospitality. Our slogan is ‘Botswana: our pride, your destination’. Second, our focus on conservation: 20 per cent of the country consists of reserves and national parks. Third, our wildlife: for example, nowhere else in the world will you find as many elephant. Fourth, our diversity: sand dunes and arid savannah desert in the west, huge salt pans in the centre and the largest inland delta in the north-west. Fifth, our weather: 300 days of sunshine a year should meet most people’s needs. And sixth, our success: we are Africa’s oldest and arguably most successful democracy. Visit now or visit later. Just make sure you visit.

The Bechuanaland Protectorate gained its independence from Great Britain on 30 September 1966. At this time, it was one of the 10 poorest countries on the planet. Governed remotely by South Africa, it did not even have a capital city. With more than 84 per cent of its land made up of Kalahari sands, Botswana seemed destined to remain a harsh, inhospitable place with little apparent value and few prospects. Fast-forward to today and it is a thriving nation with a booming economy, bustling towns and cities, and large tracts of untouched and wild land. It is testament to the country that this transformation has occurred while sustaining the balance between the needs of a developing nation and its abundant wildlife. This, and the advancement of tourism, has been achieved through the quality leadership of Sir Seretse Khama, Quett Masire Festus Mogae and Ian Khama. Once reliant on its resources (including diamonds, coal, cattle and copper), Botswana’s tourism industry now provides much needed foreign exchange and rural employment, putting food on the tables of around 60 per cent of the people who live in and around the Okavango Delta. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the independence of Botswana, Travel Africa has compiled 50 secrets to help you plan your next trip.
Colin Bell, Africa’s Finest

1 Witness action in the Savuti Channel
In 1983 the channel dried up for a quarter of a century, giving it the adage ‘the vanished river’. Only in 2008 did the water return. As a result, it offers some of Africa’s most thrilling up-close wildlife interactions, with wild dogs being particular lures. The best ringside seat is Savuti Camp, where visitors can also try fly-camping, night safaris and walking tours.
• Michael Poliza, photographer

2  How to use a sausage tree
Who would have thought it but those strange-looking trees with giant saucisson-shaped seed pods can be very helpful for spotting a leopard kill. In late August and September, this elusive big cat develops a clever way of catching its prey — by sitting and waiting patiently in a sausage tree for impala, duiker and bush pigs to come and feed on the fallen fruits. So all you have to do is wait patiently, too.
• Dereck and Beverly Joubert, filmmakers

3 Sip a sundowner with an elephant shrew
My favourite Botswana secret, in fact my favourite place in the world, is a rocky sandstone outcrop in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. It must be the only spot where it’s possible, if not probable, that you will see elephant shrews and herds of their giant cousins in the same place at the same time.
• Vikki Threlfall, Tuli Safari Lodge

4 Go birding at Lake Ngami
This water body has a remarkable history: it transformed from dry grassland to a spectacular lake in excess of 200sq km. It is never the same from year to year, and (at the time of publication) is shrinking again, so now is the time to go. The area is a certified IBA (Important Bird Area) and visitors are treated to magnificent flocks of thousands of pelican, flamingo and duck.
• Grant Reed, Letaka Safaris

5 Travel to Moremi after the floods
As the Okavango River overflows into the sands of the Kalahari Desert to create the largest inland delta in the world, Moremi Game Reserve provides the perfect setting to take in the abundant wildlife from the confines of Mombo Camp. You’re almost certain of a hippo, leopard, lion or elephant sighting when the flooding reaches its peak around the end of June to August.
• Michael Poliza, photographer

6 See a white rhino at Khama
This sanctuary in central-eastern Botswana was established in 1992, with the aim of protecting and growing numbers of white and black rhino. The patch of Kalahari sandveld is also home to 30 mammal species and more than 230 kinds of bird.
• Steven Stockhall, Earth Ark Safaris

7 Visit the Kuru Art Project in D’kar
The settlement is home to the Red People, hunter-gatherers driven off their home ranges over the past 200 years. The project seeks to provide desperately needed income to these people, while aiding them to regain their soul. The older artists’ paintings and prints provide a collective memory of plants, animals and traditions; their younger associates juxtapose this with contemporary life.
• Ann Gollifer, Botswana-based artist

8 Catch sight of a secret zebra migration
Botswana is home to one of the least-known but longest mammal migrations in the world, first documented in 2011. Every year in the dry season, thousands of zebra congregate on the Chobe floodplains before a mammoth 250km trek south to Nxai Pan.
• Kelly Landen, Elephants Without Borders

9 Find your way to Kubu Island
Rising from the pancake-flat Makgadikgadi Pans like a desert mirage, the granite boulders and crimson baobabs of Kubu Island are full of mystical tales and spiritual significance. Getting there is half the fun, zooming across that dazzling white landscape (a vast area the size of Switzerland) towards a horizon of infinite space.
• James Gifford, photographer

10 Discover ancient rock art
The petroglyphs of Matsieng are intriguing. Created by southern African Bushmen, the images range from spoor and animals to abstract designs. If you spot a human footprint, you are at a ‘creation site’, where man first emerged onto Earth.
• Mike Main, author

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11 Cross a remote saltpan
Arriving on Nxai Pan, formerly Paradise Pan, you are welcomed by the sight of endless space broken by scattered acacia trees. Most of the action takes place around a waterhole. Giraffe, springbok and impala may be the first mammals you see, but the resident lion pride has swelled to 19. Cheetah hunt in the open plains and huge bull elephants, white from mud bathing on the pan’s salty crust, gather here to drink.
• Steven Stockhall, Earth Ark Safaris

12 Get lost in the Aha Hills
Located on the Namibia-Botswana border, this remarkable place is little visited. The hills are frequented by Bushmen and are formed of dolomite, a remnant of the ancient sea. There are two solution caves here that are tens of metres deep; hardly anything is known about them.
• Mike Main, author

13 Be transformed in the Delta
This may not be a secret, but the only way to explore the Okavango Delta is aboard a mokoro. Away from motorboat engines and at peace with the flowing water, you will feel connected to all living things. It is a transformative experience that feels like a pilgrimage — and one we all should take.
• Dr Steve Boyes, explorer

14 Stay on a houseboat
For an alternative style of accommodation, swap a traditional lodge for the floating serenity of a houseboat. It is a fantastic and comfortable experience, and there is a smaller vessel on hand for morning and evening excursions.
• James Gifford, photographer

15 Shelter under baobabs
Because of their enormous size, Africa’s famous ‘upside-down trees’ are landmarks in the flat Kalahari landscape and serve as pools of welcome shade to travellers. Baines’ Baobabs, a cluster of ancient trees in Nxai Pan National Park, have sheltered the famous artist himself, his companion James Chapman, Dr David Livingstone and, more recently, the heir to the British throne. Many bear the names and initials of famous explorers.
• Mike Main, author

16 Be captivated by the Tsodilo Hills
Rising dramatically from the Kalahari and inhabited for about 100,000 years, the Tsodilo Hills (called Male, Female and Child) captivate and mystify. The spiritualism and significance of these hills saw them declared a World Heritage Site in 2001. Take one of the walking trails at sunrise or sunset, accompanied by a San guide, to see some of the 4500 or so rock paintings.
• Dawn Wilson, Botswana Tourism

17 Take your time. 
Give yourself 20 per cent more time than you think you need to explore this country. Take 20 per cent less luggage (basics are best) and take 20 per cent more deep breaths. Stop and look around you.
• Map Ives, guide

18 Sleep on an Elephant Pan SkyBed
In the middle of the 200,000-hectare Khwai Private Game Reserve is an extraordinary new facility that opened earlier this year. There are just six beds on three sleep-out platforms, which are passed by up to a thousand elephant each day at the height of the dry season (mid-June to early November), in addition to all the area’s regular wildlife. Sleeping out here under the stars, surrounded by the roaring of lions and the trumpeting of the elephant, will be one of those life-changing memories that will stay with you forever.
• Colin Bell, Africa’s Finest

19 Travel in the green season
The first rains arrive in Botswana at the beginning of summer, producing a carpet of short green grass and beautiful flowers. Apart from a few weeks either side of Christmas and New Year, it is not high season — and hence not crowded, and at this time of year the varied clouds provide ideal photography conditions. Visiting migratory birds add to the indigenous multitudes and baby animals are everywhere. Shallow pans hold water and in the heat of the day elephant visit to drink and splash mud around.
• Richard du Toit, photographer

20 Eat like a local in Maun
Drink palm wine, munch on dried mopane worms (more protein-rich than beef) and journey into the back roads of the town to find street stalls selling seswaa and papa.
• Simon Dures, ZSL’s Institute of Zoology

21 Immerse yourself in local culture
Learn about Tswana ways of life at Bahurutshe Cultural Village in Mmankgodi, near Gaborone. Here you can watch traditional ceremonies, observe arts and crafts in progress, and try local cuisine. Another enthralling experience is the Kuru Dance Festival in D’kar, where you can celebrate the traditional dancing of Botswana’s first people, the Basarwa. It takes place in August each year.
• Dawn Wilson, Botswana Tourism

22 Watch lions swim
If you are in Botswana when the floodwaters are high, you may be lucky enough to see lions crossing rivers and chasing buffalo into the water to slow them down and tire them out.
• Simon Dures, ZSL’s Institute of Zoology

23 Travelling by mokoro in the Okavango Delta is a fun and informative experience. As your baYei poler propels the narrow dugout canoe along with a long tool called a ngashi, ask him to share his knowledge and learn as much as you can.
• Dr Karen Ross, ZSL’s Institute of Zoology

24 Explore Drotsky’s Caves
The six dolomite Gcwihaba Hills protrude from the ancient dunes of the northern Kalahari. Within them lie a number of spectacular caves furnished with stalactites and stalagmites and connected by a labyrinth of tunnels. The caverns are inhabited by thousands of bats and their emergence at dusk is quite a spectacle.
• Grant Reed, Letaka Safaris

25 Discover secret islands
The best thing about the Delta is its constant transformation: the same place month on month can be completely different. The local baYei polers know the routes through the maze of waterways and can find pristine, magical islets that will take your breath away.
• Ryan Green, photographer

26 Find a ‘wachwe’
Keep your eyes peeled for one of these rare animals, a mix of lechwe and waterbuck only found in Botswana.
• Dereck and Beverly Joubert, filmmakers

27 Take Chobe’s road less travelled  
How could Chobe National Park possibly be associated with ‘secrets’? When driving between Kasane and Ngoma, there is a lesser-known way to the Savuti Marsh that takes you into the Botswana of yesteryear. Nogaatsa is for more seasoned self-drivers: the tracks are difficult and the going slow, but you can find some beautiful saltpans and interesting game. A new road is planned to connect Nogaatsa to Mababe and make it more accessible. It may soon be hot property, so go now!
• Clive Millar, Safari & Guide Services

28  Seek out the Green Desert
This paradoxical name is used for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve during the few months a year when this normally arid region becomes disguised under rolling green hills and apple-leaf trees. Between December and March (or thereabouts), the park, which is brimming with history and wildlife, becomes a stunning spectacle of verdant grass and baby animals beginning their lives on wobbly legs.
• Brett Thomson, Sun Destinations

29  Meet the Bushmen
Travel back in time in the remote village of Xai Xai, one of the last remaining realms of the San Bushmen. These friendly hunter-gatherers have a fascinating ‘click’ language and a way of life that has all but disappeared from the rest of the world. Don’t miss their ‘trance dance’ under the star-studded sky or a morning bush walk.
• Marjan Blom, The Lodge, Feline Fields

30 See Botswana from the sky and water
The best way to see the country properly is by air and boat, so if you can, try both. Only by flying can you see the majesty of it; only by boat can you feel its rhythm.
• Simon Dures, ZSL’s Institute of Zoology

31 Spend time in hidden hides
What better way to relax than in a hide with comfy chairs and incredible wildlife views? There are two notable spots in northern Botswana: one at Kings Pool in the Linyanti Swamp and the other at Chitabe Camp in the Delta. The toing and froing of the animals will entertain you for hours.
• Steven Stockhall, Earth Ark Safaris

32  Embrace your festive spirit
The Overthrust Winter Metal Mania Fest is a great way to experience some modern Botswana culture. Taking place each year on the May Day holiday weekend in the remote Kalahari town of Ghanzi, it was established to raise money for disadvantaged children.
• James Gifford, photographer

33 Explore Gaborone
Go on an official tour of the capital city’s largely unknown sights such as the Three Dikgosi (meaning ‘chiefs’) Monument, which commemorates the visit three Botswana chiefs made to England in 1885 to accept British ‘protection’. Make time for the Mogonye Gorge outside the city, where you can learn about traditional architecture, dress and food.
• Fred Morton, The Botswana Society, and Mike Main, author

34 Follow the Selinda Adventure Trail
Designed with the more energetic guest in mind, this four-night experience exploring the Selinda Spillway offers the opportunity to retrace safaris of old through a combination of flying, walking and canoeing (depending on water levels). With intimate wildlife encounters and a rustic camp that travels with you, this is about as authentic and eco-friendly as it gets.
• James Gifford, photographer

35 Waterhole-hop in Kgalagadi  
Off-the-beaten-track Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is well worth a visit, particularly if you know where to go when you get there. There is always a lot of action at Polentswa and Kij waterholes, as all predators, especially lion and jackal, frequent this location to drink and hunt. Make sure you get there at sunrise though, when the light is at its best.
• Steven Stockhall, Earth Ark Safaris, and Hannes Lochner, photographer

36  Have brunch with elephants
If you have a soft spot for ellies, head to Sanctuary Stanley’s Camp in the Delta to enjoy a morning walk followed by a bush brunch with these gentle giants.
• Oliver Greenfield, Natural World Safaris

37 Fishing the Barbel Run
Sometime between August and November each year, the receding floodwater in the Okavango Panhandle triggers a little-known angling phenomenon known as the Barbel Run. Barbel, tigerfish and bream are joined by a bounty of birds to gorge on huge shoals of baitfish trapped in the shallow waters. The ensuing spectacle will delight any rod or fly-fisherman.
• James Gifford, photographer

38 Cycle in the Limpopo Valley
Mashatu Game Reserve is home to the largest herds of elephant on private land in Africa. Situated on the eastern fringes of the Kalahari Desert, they move daily between food, water and shade, creating gently undulating and hard-packed trails perfectly suited as cycle paths. You should also visit the nearby Mmamagwa Ruins, a scenic area made up of craggy, sandstone ridges and dotted with ancient baobabs.
• David and Tanya Evans, Mashatu Game Reserve

39 Migrate with the carmine bee-eaters
Travel in the month of August to witness these beautiful birds arriving from Equatorial Africa. At this time of year, tens of thousands of these migrants will nest on and around the banks of the western side of Chobe River, at Shinde in the Delta and along the Okavango Panhandle.
• Steven Stockhall, Earth Ark Safaris

40 Don’t miss the floodplains
Everybody has heard of Chobe’s boat cruises and riverfront, but few people are aware of its floodplains. The Chobe River starts to flood in March when water flows into it from the Zambezi at Kazungula. A huge lake forms and hundreds of zebra gather on the floodplains — a staggering sight.
• James Wilson and Walter Smith, Chobe Game Lodge, and Shaun Metcalfe, Muchenje Safari Lodge

41 Visit the ‘other Moremi’
Don’t stick to the classic areas (the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park). There is much more to Botswana than just the north. Visit Moremi Gorge in the Tswapong Hills in the east, with its unique ecosystem, birdlife, endemic butterflies, hiking opportunities and scenic waterfalls.
• Andy Raggett, Drive Botswana

42 Fly in a helicopter
One highly recommended thing to do in the Okavango Delta is to take a scenic helicopter flight at sunrise or sunset. As the landscape is so flat, this offers the absolute best vantage point to take in its magnificence.
• Ryan Green, photographer

43 Trek for charity
Not many people know that Y Care Charitable Trust organises two- to three-day sponsored treks every year in some of the most beautiful and interesting areas of Botswana. One option is the Tsabong Dunes and Camel Walk, which involves hiking 33km across sand dunes on the first day before continuing 20km with camels on the second day. During the journey, you camp out under the stars. It’s challenging but hugely rewarding.
• Ulf Nermark, Botswana Society for the Arts

44 Balloon the Delta
Floating silently over Botswana is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But at Kadizora Lodge it is possible to do just that. During the hour-long balloon flight, you observe the Delta’s waterways, wildlife and hippo channels from the sky, and then celebrate with a glass of Champagne when you land.
• Chris Anagnostellis, An African Anthology

45 Interact with meerkats
Thanks to a habituation programme in the Makgadikgadi, guests can get up close and personal with these captivating creatures. On chilly mornings you might find one snuggling up to you for warmth or, in the absence of a termite mound or tree, using you as a sentry lookout post. By spending quality time with these social animals and seeing the desert through their eyes, you will experience how they interact with each other and their environment.
• Ralph Bousfield, Uncharted Africa

46 Go deep into the Kalahari
With an intriguing name like Deception Valley, this Central Kalahari gem can’t help being a ‘secret’. Joking apart, it is a great place to go for silence and space, home to black-maned lions, cheetah and large herds of oryx and springbok. At dusk, the barking geckos’ calls punctuate the evening before everything falls silent.
• Steven Stockhall, Earth Ark Safaris

47 Spot a leopard in the desert
Be up with the sparrows in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park to increase your chances of seeing one of these shy cats, and be sure to check the sightings boards at every camp. Scan the calcrete ridges in the south of the park for silhouettes in the early morning — they love to use these ridges as a vantage point for hunting or to hide their cubs. Another tip is to sit in the hides at Nossob and Mata-Mata rest camps, as leopard frequently come here to drink during the dry months. The most likely place to encounter this mammal is a small cliff about 50m wide, about 1km south of Leeudril waterhole.
• Hannes Lochner, photographer

48 Sleep in a traditional court
Spend a night or two at Kgotla, an open-air camp inspired by the traditional Botswana courts of old. These places were once used for meetings headed by the village chief, which could last from hours to days. The beds are set out on the original grounds and encircled by leadwood logs in a kraal (circular) formation under big, shady trees.
• Laura Dowington, Limpopo Horse Safaris

49 Do a riding safari
If you want to get lost in time and space, explore the country on horseback. On the Makgadikgadi Pans, you can gallop past some of the largest baobabs in the region, fly-camp and ride with zebra and wildebeest. Alternatively, another very different but picturesque place to get in the saddle is the Okavango Delta — or why not experience both?
• Steven Stockhall, Earth Ark Safaris

50 Go to the private concessions
If your budget allows it, focus on Botswana’s private concessions around the Okavango Delta and Kwando-Linyanti. The game is at least as good, and your guide will have a lot more flexibility to go off-road.
• Chris McIntyre, Expert Africa

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