Like most countries across Africa, Botswana is vast, with too many attractions to feasibly fit into one holiday. So where do you begin? To set you on your way we have compiled a list of Botswana’s key attractions and offered some advice on the practicalities. Our trade partners listed will be able to help with further advice and personal planning.
The jewel in Botswana’s crown, this vast wetland flexes between 6000 and 15,000 square kilometres as annual floods come and go. The delta marks the point where the Okavango River spreads out onto the 1000m-thick Kalahari sands and soaks away to nothing. Consisting of floodplains, lagoons and a maze of islands, it’s largely uninhabited and home to copious wildlife and birdlife. It’s studded with small lodges, offering game drives and walks, and rides in a mokoro (a traditional dugout canoe). The Okavango is good at any time.
Among the 800 million-year-old hills of quartzite schist are more than 5000 individual rock paintings at more than 400 sites. Few visible paintings will be older than 2000 years and most are younger. The site and the paintings, the work of San, have deep mythological and religious value. Many depictions refer to ‘trance’ dances and animals considered to have ‘power’. Visit any time, though May through August is ideal.
First reported by David Livingstone, this amazing lake comes and goes at the whim of the Okavango, at whose feet it lies. The mystery of why the Okavango floods move this way or that has yet to be solved. When the water flows to the west, Lake Ngami suddenly fills and springs again to verdant life, home to countless thousands of water birds. Easily accessed from Maun, it is great all year round.
SAN (Bushman) Art, Ghanzi
35km north of Ghanzi is the farm and San settlement of D’kar. It’s a project of the Dutch Reformed Church, led by the visionary Braam Le Roux, and has been a San refuge for decades. Through Kuru Development Trust, several surrounding cattle ranches have been acquired and one, Dqàe Qare, hosts a guest house and campsites. There’s a small museum and a remarkable art studio. Kuru is a unique and authentic project where the Naro people (a San group) actually have title to, own and conserve their own land.
The red dunes make spectacular viewing and exciting driving. The high fossil dunes, remnants of the previous desert, are bare of grass and shrubs and catch the evening light in a staggering range of colours. Winding through the different hues are numerous sandy snake-like tracks, making it a great self-drive destination. It’s accessible any time of year, though there are no facilities.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
This ‘peace park’, an amalgamation of Botswana’s Mabuasehube and Kalahari reserves, and South Africa’s Gemsbok National Park, was the first of its kind in Africa to straddle an international border and be jointly administered by two countries. The Mabuasehube section gives easy access to splendid examples of pans in beautiful open country. It’s especially good for lion, hartebeest and gemsbok. Game viewing is better in the winter (June to August) when the temperature is milder.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR)
The vast heartland of the Kalahari is waterless and featureless, yet fascinating in its immensity. The renowned Deception Valley and Piper’s Pans lie in the north. The great northern pans are the remains of an ancient delta: an area where western rivers finally sank into the Kalahari sand. Khutse Game Reserve, in the south, is accessible from Gaborone. There are a handful of quality lodges in the park and its environs. Best visited between February and May; however there’s some wildlife year round.
The remains of an ancient sea formed some two million years ago. It’s renowned for its unique vistas. Kubu Island, a lone granite outcrop festooned with giant baobab trees, rises out of Sowa Pan, which is also a major flamingo breeding site. Ntwetwe Pan and the Makgadikgadi grasslands are home to huge herds of wildebeest and zebra, with attendant lions, best seen between February and April.
This deeply eroded sandstone landscape tumbles to the banks of the Limpopo River. It’s home to the likes of elephant, lion and giraffe, and serviced by several lodges and mobile safari operators. Best accessed by road from Francistown or South Africa. Visit any time of year, but it’s hot October through January.
Part of Makgadikgadi, this flat, grass-covered ancient seabed hosts unique vegetation and attracts animals year round. It is one of the few places where impala and springbok occur together. Elephants and lions frequent waterholes; prides of the latter use them for ‘ambush’ hunts. Nxai Pan was the setting for the IMAX film Roar 3D: Lions of the Kalahari.
Chobe National Park
The most accessible of Botswana’s parks, sitting along the Chobe River. Famous for huge herds of elephant. Most species of game are common, including lechwe. Birding is amazing. An evening boat ride on the Chobe is a must. There are numerous hotels and lodges in Kasane. Independent game and boat drives are available, and the Victoria Falls is less than 100km away. A great self-drive opportunity. August through October is the best time to visit.
Kwando River and Linyanti Marshes
An amazing conjunction of river and wetland. Here the Kwando makes an abrupt change of direction where the enigmatic Savute Channel begins its journey away from the river, towards Savute and the Mababe Depression, 100km to the east. It is also here that the Selinda Spillway links the Okavango with Linyanti. Huge buffalo herds sustain lion, while elephant, giraffe, hippo, crocodile and numerous antelope species abound in these riverine woodlands. It can be quite rainy between January and March.
Moremi Game Reserve
On the edge of the Okavango, this reserve possesses a wide range of ecosystems, ranging from grassland and woodland to waterside. Probably Botswana’s most-visited game reserve, it teems with many different species. Wildlife viewing is best between April and October. Options for accommodation, activities and transportation all run the gamut.
“Think about what time of year to travel. Botswana is able to offer year-round game-viewing and you can enjoy a fantastic safari outside of the July to October high season. May, June and November are perfectly good months to travel and tend to be less expensive. December to March is the genuine rainy season, when game-viewing can be compromised, but even at this time fantastic experiences can be enjoyed and the Kalahari regions are actually at their best!”
Rob Slater, Safari Consultants UK
“Self-drive gives you an opportunity to get a real feel for the country. Don’t focus entirely on seeing the ‘Big Five’, but appreciate the smaller sightings, both flora and fauna, and take time to absorb the sounds of the bush, meet local people and take in the scenery. Be aware that you are in the animals’ environment, and respect that.”
Andy Raggett, Drive Botswana
Right time, right place
Across most of northern Botswana, aim for the dry season, May to November, for the best game viewing – the later the better. In the Central Kalahari the reverse is true, with January to May being best. Bird-watchers will find the widest variety of Palaearctic migrants from November to February, as well as many birds in breeding plumage. If you want to visit fly-in camps on a moderate budget, then avoid July to October when prices are highest. Late June and early November are very popular, so to visit at these times you’ll need to book especially early (9-12 months in advance).
Language English (official), Setswana (national), plus other local languages.
Time zone GMT + 2
International dialling code + 267
Visas Visas are not required by most nationalities.
Health Proof of a yellow fever vaccination may be required when entering Botswana from elsewhere in Africa, but not by those coming directly from Europe or North America. Malaria is present in most parts of the country and prophylactic drugs are strongly recommended. Bottled water is widely available.
Money The unit of currency is the Botswana Pula (BWP). Recent exchange rates were: UK£1 = BWP 15, US$1 = BWP 8.1 and €1 = BWP 12. Foreign currency can be changed into Pula at any bank. Travellers cheques add security, but they take an inordinate amount of time to be cashed. ATMs that accept foreign bankcards and credit cards are found in most large towns.
Safety Botswana is very safe, and unless you go looking for trouble, you are unlikely to witness crime in the country.
Costs This will depend on the places you want to go and the standard of guiding and accommodation you choose. Wanting to protect their natural spaces, the government implemented a high-value low-volume policy for tourism, which means costs are higher than elsewhere. But this means standards are high and the experiences are almost exclusive. If you want to get the most out of the country’s wild spaces, and stay in the top camps, you’ll need to budget £250-£1000 per day per person in low/high season. Bare bones backpacking will cost you up to £75 per day for food, accommodation and transport, but this won’t get you into the remote wildlife locations that Botswana is known for. Spend £150 per day and you should be able to experience the Okavango and other protected areas in basic budget camps. A great way to explore on a low-ish budget would be to rent a 4WD and do a self-drive camping safari (£200 per person per day, based on two people sharing a vehicle).
Getting there There are no direct flights from the UK; Johannesburg is the usual gateway and offers good connections to Maun and to Livingstone (Zambia) and Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), both of which offer easy access to Chobe National Park. A growing number of international carriers are now flying directly into the new international airport at Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and some also fly directly into Livingstone (Zambia)
Getting around Self-drive 2WD: Botswana’s main towns and centres of population are linked by an excellent network of good tar roads, making self-drive trips in normal saloon cars a great way to explore. You can cover large distances relatively fast and cheaply. While a 2WD car can get you to the fringes of the Okavango Delta and the Tuli Block, and into parts of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park from Upington in South Africa, you’ll need to arrange alternative 4WD transport to delve into most national parks and wilderness areas. Thankfully this is possible, making self-drive 2WD a good way to link the main sights.
Self-drive 4WD: To get yourself around most of Botswana’s national parks and the more interesting wilderness areas, you’ll need a 4WD equipped with food, fuel and camping equipment. Crucially, you’ll also need the bush experience to know how to use the 4WD properly, as well as the competence to deal with any problems along the way.
Books Bradt Guide to Botswana, by Chris McIntyre (4th ed, 2014); Lonely Planet’s Botswana & Namibia (3rd ed, 2013)
Find out more Botswana Tourist Board (www.botswanatourism.co.bw)
Further reading We have published articles on Botswana in every issue of Travel Africa. Much of this content is available at travelafricamag.com.
Travel Guide Partners
Desert & Delta Safaris www.desertdelta.com
Great Plains Conservation www.greatplainsconservation.com
Kubu Lodge www.kubulodge.net
Wilderness Safaris www.wilderness-safaris.com
Tuli Safari Lodge www.tulilodge.com
Ker & Downey Botswana www.kerdowneybotswana.com
Safari Consultants www.safari-consultants.co.uk
Drive Botswana www.drivebotswana.com
Pulse Africa www.pulseafrica.com
Karibu Safari Botswana. www.karibu.co.za
Sun Destinations www.sundestinations.co.za
Ta Shebube Lodge www.tashebube.co.bw
Muchenje Safari Lodge www.muchenje.com
Africa Wild Lodges www.africawildlodges.com
Africa Explorer www.africa-explorer.co.uk
Chameleon Holidays. www.chameleonholidays.com
ATI Holidays www.infotour-africa.com
Zambezi Safari and Travel www.zambezi.com