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Botswana radiates scale and authenticity, its vast, untamed lands offering a dreamt-up version of old world Africa. Road signs warn of crossing elephants, rhinos maraud across isolated airstrips, and cacophonous hippo-honks accompany every night spent sleeping near water. There are more national parks than major roads, and traffic is genuinely halted by herds of 20 elephants crossing the main highway. Botswana’s immense landscapes may seem fictional, yet they indelibly become real before your eyes. This is an animal kingdom: untouched, unadulterated, and unbelievable until you see it firsthand.
Botswana is a relatively unknown destination, one where instant superlatives rarely sit comfortably. As Africa’s most stable democracy and the world’s largest diamond producer, the country has been able to develop an exceptional safari business – successfully combining high-end luxury with real off-the-beaten-track experiences. Boutique lodges stand alone in thousands of square miles of pristine wilderness. Huge swathes of the country may never have seen human eyes. Spotting lion prides is part of the daily routine, and being on safari starts from the moment you enter the country. Botswana is raw, rugged, and relentlessly remote. Reaching its parks and camps often requires a short flight: a scenic journey of astonishing vistas and prehistoric landscapes. There are no roads, no wifi, and no footprints; this is a world where people are just visitors, and quarreling hippos fight before your eyes.
Let’s indulge a little and consider Botswana’s scale. The Okavango Delta encompasses 16,000 square kilometers at its flooded height, making it the largest inland water system on the planet. Chobe National Park is home to the world’s largest concentration of elephants: at least 50,000 of the giant pachyderms roam its great forests and grasslands. At 52,800 square kilometers, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the world’s second largest wildlife reserve, and its original inhabitants, the San Bushmen, are the oldest human population in southern Africa – and arguably in the world.
Explore it all on foot or from a dugout canoe, then watch it all slowly approach from your private balcony. The wild game comes so thick and fast that you end up exclaiming and pointing whenever another person comes into view. Slowing the heart and calming the senses is some of Africa’s finest accommodation: exclusive lodges and lavish tented camps that effortlessly blend wild Africa with unmatched luxury. Botswana is the land of animals and there are few places on the planet where you will feel more alive.
Botswana is renowned for its progressive conservation policies, with national parks and game reserves making up about 38 percent of the country. Their ecosystems merge and interact, forming huge swathes of untouched wilderness that define the Botswanan experience. Here is a quick south-to-north journey through its most iconic destinations.
- According to local folklore, the rivers in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park only flow about once a century. But the desert dwellers here know how to survive. Gemsbok and blue wildebeest dig beneath parched riverbeds, while giant antelopes like hartebeest and eland leave footprints in the sand dunes. Regular water points make these herbivores easy to find – both for you and the resident black-maned lions. You won’t find many other safari trucks surveying the scene, but soaring eagles and hungry leopards always observe life along the riverbed.
- Feast your eyes upon the Kalahari Desert, a majestic wilderness that simmers red and explodes with green after the rains. If the Kalahari was a country, it would be the 30th largest in the world. And almost nobody lives here. The fenceless land is populated by foraying lion prides, wild dogs tracking zebra herds, and giraffes silently feeding from sparse thorn trees. At its heart is the Central Kalahari, an achingly beautiful game reserve where elephants surround isolated lodges and cheetahs accelerate across the horizon.
- Almost all of Botswana is desert, yet trees flourish and grasslands are regularly replenished by rivers that rumble into the country from neighboring highlands. In the northwest, the Okavango Delta is fed by summer rainfall in Angola – producing a spectacle unlike any other on Earth. This magical mosaic of meandering channels, floodplains and islands is Africa’s last remaining wetland wilderness: a phenomenon that’s visible from space, and breathtaking when witnessed from the sky. Fly into a remote island and travel on a traditional mekoro canoe past Nile crocodiles and giant pods of hippos. The dense grasslands make ideal hiding places for predators, with lions and leopards easily picking off the great concentrations of kudu and lechwe antelopes. Land and river safaris help you explore the lost corners of this vast landscape, as does saddling up and going on elephant or horseback.
- Occupying some of the richest wilderness in the eastern Okavango, Moremi Game Reserve literally bursts with wildlife – and is often described as one of Africa’s most beautiful reserves. Lagoons spill onto verdant floodplains, savanna merges into thick acacia forests, and rivers meander through copper-colored grasslands. The hidden lodges here all have their own airstrips, meaning that you’re effortlessly catapulted into a world of prowling cats and giant buffalo herds. Its diverse ecosystems and relatively compact size make Moremi an idyllic destination for safari first-timers – yet a medley of rare mammals provide continual surprise and keep everybody guessing.
- Botswana’s numbers sometimes stagger the imagination. Try and picture a herd of 200 elephants, great beasts that tower above safari trucks and weigh three or four tons. Now try and envisage 50,000 elephants. Mind-boggling, isn’t it? Chobe National Park has the world’s highest concentration of elephants and it’s almost impossible to go a few minutes without seeing lots of them. Massive old bulls proudly display immense tusks, males control their herds with ruthless concentration, and tiny babies are adoringly cherished. Two other huge herbivores, giraffes and hippos, are also in their element in this astonishing landscape.
- Central to the Botswanan experience is the encompassing feeling of being alone with nature. You will be surrounded and immersed, marveling at wildlife, yetmarveled at by mammals that rarely see human beings. This inimitable feeling is integral to all of the country’s parks and game reserves. There is no beaten track, no worn-out trail of tourists that has reshaped the land or tainted the experience. There is just you and the animal kingdom.
Visiting Botswana is a unique experience in itself, an enthralling journey that awakens deep-seated feelings of wonder and belonging. Heighten the senses and explore deeper with some of these incredible experiences:
- Lion prides are abundant, elephants roam in their hundreds, and hippos forage along riverbanks – so this isn’t a country for aimless wandering. That said, it isone of Africa’s best walking safari destinations. Skillful guides expertly track wildlife and respond to their behavior, allowing you to get agonizingly close to some of nature’s largest and wildest creatures. And from ground level, they always seem a lot bigger! A buffalo herd may saunter right onto the trail in front of you. They stop and stare. Wait, stay silent, admire the interaction, then walk on – and don’t be surprised to find an elephant waiting around the next corner.
- A lake the size of Switzerland once covered northeastern Botswana. It’s long since shriveled and disappeared, leaving behind the remarkable Makgadikgadi Salt Pans – a white wonderland that’s punctuated by ancient baobab trees and shimmers beneath the relentless sun. Few places in Africa are as starkly beautiful, especially when 25,000 zebra are migrating across it en route to the Okavango. Watch a surreal sunset burn onto the horizon, marvel at the shooting stars that silently thunder across the desert sky, and then watch the sun dictate life in Makgadikgadi for another day.
- Botswana may be 600 miles across in both directions, but its landlocked position makes it easy to combine with many of Southern Africa’s other natural wonders. Head north from South Africa and zebras surround the border post. Come from Zambia or Namibia and elephants wander past the sign that welcomes you to the country. One of the new seven wonders of the world, the majestic Victoria Falls are less than an hour from Chobe National Park, along the Zambia-Zimbabwe border. Regional airports connect you with small bush airstrips – meaning that within a couple of hours you can enter the country and be deeply immersed in the Botswanan experience.
- The indigenous San Bushmen have ingeniously survived on Botswana’s wild plains for almost 50,000 years. These semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers practice remarkable age-old bush skills that could soon be lost from the world. They track animals barefoot, nimbly scampering through the bush, proficient eyes spotting every clue and precipitating split-second changes of direction. Taking a walking journey with a laconic tribesman will reveal the intricacies of one of the world’s last great ‘lost cultures’ – one that showcases astonishing survival skills, and invariably arouses deep respect and humility.
- Botswana’s immense swamps and wetlands are among the most wild and distinctive ecosystems in the world, as rich in rare animals and birdlife as they are inhospitable to humans. Exploring them is always an adventure, their seasonal nature meaning that trails are annually washed away and boundaries are constantly changing. Thousand-strong grazing herds roam chaotically, big cats lurk along shriveled-up channels, and your lodge will invariably seem like the center of a cacophonous wildlife show. The Savuti Marsh and the Linyati Swamp, bordering Chobe National Park, boast record concentrations of zebras and lions, in some of the most pristine and untouched wilderness areas on Earth.
Unlike some of its neighboring countries, Botswana follows a generally predictable climate. Like all desert places, the land is dictated by the cycle of the rains and the phenomenal impact they have on the landscape. This is a year-round destination, although certain months are generally considered better than others.
The long dry winter months are the most pleasant and the sky is almost always clear between May and August. Maximum daily temperatures dip down into the 70s and the mercury plummets at nighttime. In June and July, it’s going to be just 45 degrees, so you’ll need to pack some warm clothes. As the dry season rumbles on, the land becomes baked and parched, and there is less vegetation for the animals to hide behind. Game viewing is at its easiest as thirsty animals congregate around the few surviving waterholes. Water that fell months ago in the Angolan Highlands will finally have reached northern Botswana. So rather bizarrely, the dry season is when the Okavango Delta is at its flooded best. Another advantage of this peak season is that there are very few mosquitoes and an almost non-existent risk of malaria (except in the Okavango Delta).
From September, the temperatures rise dramatically and start exceeding 90 degrees on a daily basis. While you might see an occasional thunderstorm in September or October, the landscape remains dusty and withered. This is probably the best game-viewing time in Botswana, although the stifling heat will be off-putting to some.
Just when the land can’t take any more torment, the rains begin with wild abandon. They normally start sometime in November and continue until March or April. January and February are particularly torrential and probably the worst time for game viewing. However, there are always animals in Botswana and this is the time of year to see migrating elephants and zebras. It’s also probably the most beautiful. The landscape is blissfully transformed; rivers flow once more, the plains turn lush green, and the wildlife disperses as it enjoys nature’s bounty. Daily temperatures hover between 70 and 90 degrees, and rumbling downpours just keep coming. Wildlife viewing is still excellent during the start of the rainy season, while April and May bring a unique combination; everything is still majestically green, but the game will start migrating back to permanent water.
Botswana has a novel approach to tourism. Instead of pursuing numbers and mass markets, it revels in offering exclusivity and attracting the most discerning travellers. The country wants to welcome a handful of high-end guests, not a coachload of budget hunters. It’s an approach that has meant conservation has always stayed at the forefront. All the national parks and reserves have only a few accommodation options, yet they are invariably luxurious and marvellously secluded. This is a country that offers some of the finest accommodation on the continent – including many places that are only accessible via their own airstrips.
Nature brings you to Botswana and every lodge or camp optimizes the show. You’ll have front-row seats, either from hidden hides or private balconies overlooking riverbeds and waterholes. Opulent en suite facilities are the norm; so too are private dinners beneath the stars, with grazing animals wandering past. Nature’s soundtrack will continue all night, and each spacious bungalow or luxury tent will be well separated from the rest. Expect impeccable service and few other guests. And don’t ever be frightened by the word ‘tent’. These camps are like nothing you have seen before, combining the features of a sumptuous hotel room with an absolute immersion in nature.
Most accommodation works on an all-inclusive basis, incorporating meals, drinks and all safari activities. Most properties offer a daily program of activities, allowing guests to create their own itineraries. These are likely to include game drives, guided walks, boat safaris, canoe trips, and night drives. Spending a few days is recommended as these remote places are best appreciated when you succumb to nature’s natural rhythms.
Visa and Passport Requirements
Citizens of the US, Canada and EU countries do not require a visa to travel to Botswana. Visitors can stay for up to 90 days.
Botswana is an extremely safe country with very low crime rates. Outside the few cities, livestock theft is generally the only violation of the law. As Africa’s oldest multi-party democracy, Botswana holds a rare place on the continent. This is a country that hasn’t been scarred by civil war, that respects human rights, has minimal crime, and doesn’t suffer from corruption. The main safety concerns come from marauding hippos – or fragrantly ignoring what the guide says when you’re in lion country.
The northern half of Botswana is a malarial zone, although the risk is dictated by the rains and how wet it is. Antimalarial medication is essential during the rainy season and for any trip to the Okavango Delta. However, during the dry winter months, the Central Kalahari National Park and all of southern Botswana offer malaria-free safaris – a rarity in Africa. Hepatitis A vaccinations will be recommended by most physicians, with tetanus and hepatitis B also worth considering. Bear in mind that Botswana has the world’s second-highest HIV infection rate, so common sense precautions must be adhered to.
The locals safely drink the water but whether it’s fit for you will depend on the sensitivity of your stomach. In rural areas it’s untreated, although it’s pumped from uncontaminated boreholes and natural springs. If in doubt stick to bottled water, which is usually available everywhere. The Botswanan diet is heavily centered on red meat, in particular beef. Most steaks weigh a couple of pounds and come directly from the country’s vast organic beef industry. All lodges cater well for vegetarians, but it’s always worth making sure you offer them some prior notice.
Botswana is one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries, with a total population of little over 2 million. The locals are generally reserved and peaceful people, well adapted to the quiet rhythms of the rural landscape. It’s unlikely that you’re going to meet many people; even Botswana’s few cities are more like sprawling villages. Settlements might be counted down on signposts for 400 miles, but then they pass without warning or impression. The national parks are where most of the charm lies, and it’s rare that an itinerary will have an overnight in a town – with the exception of the Okavango Delta jumping-off point, Maun. Despite being quiet, the Botswanan people – or Batswana – are welcoming and very friendly, and tend to have an intimate knowledge of the local landscape.
Visa and Mastercard facilities are sporadically available. Many lodges and tourist places will accept plastic, although this isn’t universal. ATMs can be found at airports, in towns, and at roadside gas stations. Just remember that it’s probably going to be hundreds of miles before you see another one – so stock up whenever you can. US dollars are sometimes preferred for high amounts, although this varies between places. Dollars are almost universally accepted or exchangeable, and South African rand are also easy to spend and change.
Botswana is a land of never-ending safaris and it works hard to carefully preserve its ecosystems. Huge areas of the country are dedicated as national parks and game reserves, areas that are synonymous with the “take only photos, leave only footprints” mantra. It’s the antithesis of a zoo, so please erase any thoughts you may have of caressing cheetahs or riding zebras. Lodges and guides always respect the environment and by doing this they can offer unforgettable experiences. All safari activities have a few rules, whether they’re on foot, in a canoe, or in a Land Cruiser. But don’t worry too much about them. They will be explained by your guide, and are essentially about respecting and preserving the land – not to mention staying safe in a wild animal kingdom.