Where to begin? That’ll be the hardest question when planning your first trip to Botswana. Do you start in the lush green channels of the Okavango Delta? Or perhaps soak up the endless salt pans to the south? The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is equally remarkable; these sun-baked plains stretch across the 38 000 km2 of wilderness, and are home to hardy lions and wary oryx. If you’re a seasoned off-road traveller, the vast Central Kalahari Game Reserve is for you, with desert pans and dense grassland constantly in flux with the rains. Near the border with Namibia, the Tsodilo Hills are so rich in ancient rock art that they’ve been dubbed the ‘Louvre of the Desert’. Despite Botswana’s modest size, there are rivers, deserts and wilderness aplenty. So, where to start? Well, that depends on the depth of your pockets. If it’s your first visit, Chobe National Park dishes up postcard-perfect Botswana. And if you’re on a budget, you can self-drive all the way and save some cash. Here in the north-eastern corner of the country – where Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana squeeze together – the Chobe River arrives from its source in the highlands of Angola, to join the Zambezi on its journey to the Indian Ocean. In the bone-dry days of winter the game-viewing here is nothing short of remarkable, as animals migrate from far and wide to drink and graze at the river. Herds of buffalo number in the hundreds, there are elephants around every bend, and the waters teem with hippo and crocodile. The birding is equally remarkable, with more than 450 species recorded in the park.
Hit the water
While riverside lodges offer comfortable digs for the night, during the daytime you’ll want to be out on the water. Though 4×4 safaris in the Chobe National Park are easily available, and engaging in their own right, boat excursions offer the best wildlife viewing. To the south-west, Chobe merges into the acclaimed Moremi Game Reserve and a patchwork of private concessions and protected lands safeguarding the remarkable Okavango Delta. The Delta is one of just two World Heritage sites in Botswana – the rock art of Tsodilo is the other – and it’s all thanks, simply, to a river that lost its way.
Over millions of years, shifting tectonic plates tilted the Okavango River away from its journey to the sea, instead causing it to peter out in the Kalahari to form the world’s largest inland delta, stretching out across about 16 000 km2. This is one of Africa’s most extraordinary landscapes, where watery channels and lush islands support incredible concentrations of wildlife. In all, the Delta is home to 160 species of mammals, more than 500 species of birds and around 90 types of fish. Aside from the elephants that amble across the channels or the lions that crouch in the tawny turpentine grass, look out for the semiaquatic red lechwe, whose long splayed hooves are perfectly adapted to life in this watery landscape. The quiet pools and streams are home to innumerable hippo, so keep your eyes open when out on the water. But it’s not only the large toothy residents that are worth your attention. When out on a mokoro, look for the delicate painted reed frogs – they hide near the top of the reeds – and the African jacanas stepping daintily across the lily pads.
There are dozens of lodges across the Okavango Delta, and how far you dial up the luxury simply depends on your bank balance. Remember though, Botswana is generally not a budget destination, with authorities focusing strongly on a low-volume, high-yield approach to sustainable ecotourism.
That’s not to say it’s out of reach. You’ll find both private and government-run campsites within striking distance of Maun, where fully equipped 4×4s are available for hire. And while many national parks require an off-road vehicle and some wilderness chutzpah, there are plenty of options for exploring on your own steam.
Chobe is accessible on decent tar roads from the south, while the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is an excellent option for self-drive visitors. Lodges on the fringes of the major parks – try the colourful Planet Baobab, near the Makgadikgadi – offer affordable accommodation that won’t require a chartered flight.
Worth its salt
The Makgadikgadi should certainly be on your Botswana bucket list. While the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park present the lush green postcard picture of Botswana, the Makgadikgadi shows a different face altogether. Here, in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, the heat shimmers across one of the world’s largest salt pans, an empty expanse where the vast silence is part of the allure.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that this wilderness is devoid of life. You will find springbok, cheeky meerkats and even desert-adapted elephant if you’re lucky. After the rains, the wildebeest are plentiful, and the Makgadikgadi remains home to one of Africa’s great zebra migrations. It comes, like so much of Botswana, as a wonderful surprise; an explosion of life on a desiccated land. It’s just one of the many unexpected pleasures this quiet corner of Africa has in store, and yet another reason to begin planning your visit.
NEED TO KNOW
When to go
Peak season in the Okavango Delta is from June to August, when the water is at its highest. September to December can be very hot, offering good game viewing near watering holes and rivers. The hot, rainy season arrives around November and continues until February.
Visas are not required by citizens of the European Union, most Commonwealth countries, Norway, Switzerland and the US. A 30-day entry stamp is issued on arrival. gov.bw
Air Botswana and Airlink offer flights to Maun, Kasane and Gaborone from Joburg and Cape Town.
The Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park are malarial areas. Consult your travel doctor for prophylactics at least three weeks before travel.
Self-drive is possible between major towns, but in the national parks you’ll need a 4×4. Fly-in safaris are best in the Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi.
The pula is the official currency of Botswana, but rands and dollars are accepted at most lodges.
Soak up the best of Botswana with these three memorable overnight options…
&Beyond Xaranna, Okavango Delta
Set in the midst of a vast private concession, Xaranna combines playful decor with plenty of Delta luxury. Each of the nine tented suites boasts its own private plunge pool, while the spacious lounge and library areas offer wonderful Delta views. Daily activities include game drives, bush walks and mokoro excursions. The birding here is spectacular.
Jack’s Camp, Makgadikgadi National Park
Founded by explorer Jack Bousfield in the 1960s, this is a camp worth visiting. Pitched on the edge of the famed Makgadikgadi salt pans, the camp oozes yesteryear charm, blending opulent furnishings and spectacular views across 10 spacious safari tents. The wildlife is just as memorable, whether you’re meeting the resident family of meerkats or marvelling at the spectacular zebra migration. There are special rates for South African residents.
Mombo Camp, Chief’s Island (in Moremi Game Reserve)
Ready to blow the budget? The flagship in the Wilderness Safaris portfolio reopened in January after a major revamp, with more spacious guest suites, private plunge pools and a gorgeous aesthetic, blending heritage and modernity. It’s with good reason Mombo is dubbed the ‘Rolls-Royce’ of Delta lodges. Game viewing in the Moremi Game Reserve is among the best in Africa.