Traveller's Guide: Botswana
In the second instalment of our series on Africa, in association with Lonely Planet, Adam Karlin reveals a country that's big on wild encounters.
Friday 20 April 2012
Even travellers familiar with southern Africa will find something new in this dramatic and diverse nation. Botswana combines vast expanses of empty beauty with some of the best wildlife viewing in the continent.
It is an ideal tourism destination for those who want to see sunsets that burn across salt pans, river deltas, long carpets of veldt (grassland) and some of the richest wildlife concentrations in the world. From the north west, the landscape shifts from the soggy, buzzing wetlands of the Okavango Delta to the dried-out crystalline cakes of the Nxai Pan salt flats; and, if you continue driving, you end up rolling through the Kalahari's yellow grasslands and on to the great wind-carved canyons and castles of rock in the Kgalagadi.
Botswana has a stable, democratic government, and a relatively progressive outlook on infrastructure development and education. As such, the locals can claim to be some of the best-off citizens on the African continent.
Tourism seasons in Botswana are determined by weather and wildlife visibility. High season runs from August to November and low season from December to April; accommodation rates fluctuate accordingly.
Excellent wildlife spotting can be found in all of the above locations, but the best safari tourism infrastructure is found near the Okavango and Chobe riverfront area. And the Botswana safari experience needn't be about roughing it; the country offers some of the most luxurious lodges in the world.
For those who fancy less comfort and more freedom, the country is criss-crossed by independent travellers who pilot their 4x4s over some of Africa's most pristine expanses, pausing to sleep under the stars or maintain the vehicles that keep the adventure rolling. This is a tough, DIY form of travel that many find immensely liberating, as it spares them the package groups of the more well-beaten tourism trail. The reward is the chance to experience a vast nation with very few fences.
Companies such as Safari Drive (01488 71140; www.safaridrive.com) and Self Drive Adventures (00 267 686 3755; selfdriveadventures.com) help arrange self-drive trips. The latter offers a 10-day safari for 18,185 Botswana pula (BWP; £1,513); it includes insurance but not international flights. While Botswana has a decent primary road network, the asphalt often turns to dirt and rock soon after you get off the main highway. You should always exercise caution when driving here, even on main roads, and especially at night when you might not see wildlife that has wandered on to the road.
If you choose a self-drive itinerary, bear in mind that you will have to pay entrance fees to national parks and reserves at the park offices rather than the park gate. Prices average at 120BWP (£10) per day, plus 50BWP (£4) for a car. For information on individual park offices, visit the website of the Department of Wildlife & National Parks (mewt.gov.bw/DWNP).
For those who prefer to be a bit more organised, the operators offering itineraries in the region includes Real Africa (0845 299 0264; realafrica.co.uk), which has a nine-day safari to the Okavango Delta that includes all flights, guide fees, room and board from £2,995 per person, including flights from London. Also, Rainbow Tours (020-7666 1250; rainbowtours.co.uk) has an eight-day safari that takes in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve as well as the Okavango and costs from £3,150 per person including flights.
While most travellers skip the quiet capital of Gaborone, you may have to come through "Gabs" at some point to make a transfer. The National Museum (00 267 367 4616), at 331 Independence Avenue, has some interesting exhibits on the country's ethnic groups and lots of stuffed examples of the wildlife that you'll see in the bush. The Bull & Bush pub (00 267 397 5071; bulland bush.net) off Willie Seboni Road is possibly the nation's busiest bar, packed nightly with the young elite and its expatriate population.
One of the newest hotels in the capital is the Phakalane Golf Estate Hotel (00 267 395 3711; phakalane. com), located close to the airport to the north east of the city centre. Double rooms here start at 750BWP (£63), room only.
Lonely Planet's Botswana and Namibia guide (second edition) is out now, priced £16.99. You can order it from shop.lonelyplanet.com.
The Okavango Delta
In a country full of stunning natural beauty, the Okavango Delta stands out, perhaps because Botswana is such a thirsty, dry country, where much of the rest of the landscape flits between desert and semi-desert.
Although the delta appears to be a jungle, it is best thought of as an oasis within a desert. Indeed, as a natural phenomenon, at times it appears to be a big mistake. Rivers, after all, are supposed to drain into other bodies of water, but the delta simply marks the spot where the Okavango River flows into a flat, depression in the Kalahari Desert. (The altitude in this part of Botswana does not shift by more than two metres.) The entire delta covers an area more than twice the size of Devon.
As the water pools and eddies, it creates a landscape of hundreds of variations on the colour green. Dark water runs beneath the marsh reeds and palm trees, attracting herds of elephants, hippos, wildebeest, zebras, lechwe antelope and baboons – and one of the greatest concentrations of birdlife in Africa. During the Botswana summer (December to March), the waters recede, and many thousands of animals seek water elsewhere. The wildlife viewing experience is still good, if not as dramatic, although the water spaces that remain often experience heavy animal concentrations. Exploring the delta while being poled about in a mokoro, a local dugout canoe that can seemingly glide over the shallowest water, is a highlight of any Botswana trip. Similarly, exploring the landscape on horseback affords an up-close and exhilarating experience. Ride World Wide (01837 82544; rideworldwide.co.uk) offers week-long horseback safaris across the delta starting t £3,400 per person, which covers internal flights from Maun into the delta (but not international airfare), guides and full board.
Gunns Camp (00 267 686 0023; gunns-camp.com) offers visitors to the delta a taste of vintage-style luxury. Perched on Chief's Island, this lodge comprises rustic-looking safari camps and cabins overlooked by an enormous wooden observation deck (which doubles as a dining area). Doubles start at US$740 (£493) for full board and include tours into the surrounding area. Plus there's always the chance a warthog will wander into the camp compound while you're in bed, adding a certain frisson to this upmarket experience.
Vumbura Plains Camp, run by Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com), delivers an excellent high-end wildlife viewing experience. Visitors stay in opulent raised chalets with outdoor showers, small pools and areas from which to observe the grasslands and wildlife of the northern Okavango. Activities such as mokoro trips, walks and drives are also offered. Doubles from US$2,300 (£1,533), all inclusive.
Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve
Moremi comprises the eastern portion of the Okavango Delta. Where the delta proper riffs on variation after variation of the theme of water and wetland, about a third of Moremi is technically dry ground, which allows for spectacular contrasts in both landscape and wildlife. In particular, this is one of the better areas on the continent to spy the African wild dog.
Lions, leopards (pictured), hyenas, elephants, jackals and some 500 bird species can also be spotted here. The town of Maun serves as the main gateway to both Moremi and the entirety of the delta. The Thamalakane River Lodge (00 27 21 782 5337; thamalakane.com; chalets from US$158/ £105, B&B) is not far from Maun, yet feels a world away. From the plush chalets you can enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sunset over hippos in the nearby river.
To the north-east of Moremi, Botswana's oldest national park, Chobe, remains one of her most impressive. Chobe is divided into several distinct ecosystems, including the Chobe Riverfront, where one will see elephants watering in their herds next to sunning crocodiles; Savuti Marsh, which mixes savannah and grassland predators, such as lions and hyenas, with wetland bird life; and Linyanti Marsh, which consists of marsh beds, riverine forests and flood plains, as well as some of the best concentrated wildlife viewing in the country.
Savute Safari Lodge (00 267 686 1559; desertdelta.com) is a collection of luxury wood-and-thatch, Africa-chic safari huts poised over the dried Savute channel, located north-west of Chobe National Park. A raised deck pool is in place in case you want to observe wildlife while sipping a cold beer by the pool. Excellent game drives take guests deep into the wildlife-rich Savute marsh. Three-night packages start at US$1,362 (£908), full board.
Makgadikgadi Pans and the Nxai Pans
Lake Makgadikgadi is larger than Switzerland – or at least it was, until it dried up into a series of salt pans. With notable exceptions – Sua, Nwetwe and Nxai pan – there is no single large expanse of salt here. Instead, patches of salt desert are broken up by the occasional salt marsh, algae flats and baobab trees.
Makgadikgadi and Nxai pans are two separate parks set up to protect this harsh environment where the attraction is the stark, desolate beauty of this lonely frontier, rather than wildlife viewing.
Planet Baobab (00 267 723 38344; unchartedafrica.com) occupies a long, dry expanse of the Makgadikgadi. It's a fun place, with a general sense of being a little off-kilter – but in a very charming fashion.
Guests are accommodated in simple, comfortable traditional double huts that start at US$140 (£93), including breakfast.
Planet Baobab can organise expeditions on to the salt pans, which include traditional photographic safaris or quad biking.
If you want a bit more luxury, you can opt to stay at the incredibly luxurious Jack's Camp, or San Camp, pictured; both are managed by the same operator as Planet Baobab.
Kalahari and Kgalagadi
The largest protected area in Botswana, and the second-largest game reserve in the world, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (and the nearby but much smaller Khutse Game Reserve) consists of a vast stretch of undulating dune desert, semi-desert and grasslands.
While here, you might spot lions, cheetahs, kudus, eland, leopards, giraffes and the rare, beautiful brown hyena.
Khutse has less wildlife, but it is relatively easy to get to from Gaborone. The Brackendene Lodge (00 267 391 2886; brackendenelodge.com) is a good base in Gaborone. The mid-range hotel, with an incredibly friendly owner, offers doubles starting at 430BWP (£35) per night, including breakfast.
Heading south-west, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park creeps over the border into neighbouring South Africa, and is the region's first "peace park", so named because it encompasses the territory of both countries. The environment and landscape are, again, vast expanses of desert and semi-desert with all of the exemplars of the Botswana game-viewing experience present. There are also immigration posts for crossing into South Africa. !Xaus Lodge (the "!" is pronounced as a click, but most visitors pronounce it "Kaus") is located in the South African side of the park (00 27 21 701 7860; xauslodge.co.za). It's owned and staffed by members of the local Bushman community and perches over a beautiful salt pan. Activities include walks into the desert, game drives and visits to a Bushman craft village; doubles from 6,200 South African rand (£494), full board.
Getting there and getting around
There are no direct flights to Botswana from the UK. To get there, you'll need to connect – usually in Johannesburg, served by British Airways, South African Airways and Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow, though Kenya Airways also has flights that connect in Nairobi.
From Johannesburg, flights into Gaborone, Maun (for the Okavango and Moremi) or Kasane (for Chobe National Park) are offered by South African Airways or Air Botswana (00 267 368 0903; airbotswana.co.bw).
Gaborone-based Garcin Safaris (00 267 3938190; garcinsafaris.com) can arrange internal flights, safaris, vehicle hire and more. Bigfoot Tours (00 267 72243567; bigfoottours.co.bw) is another experienced local operator.
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