Botswana: What to do and see

Botswana is a landlocked country located across the Tropic of Capricorn in Southern Africa north of Molopo River. She is bordered by Zimbabwe to the north-east, Namibia to the west and North, South Africa to the south and south-east.

The country is sparsely populated with just 2.4 million people of which 10% live in the Gabarone the capital city situated in the south-eastern part about 20 miles from the border with South Africa. Other major cities in Botswana include Francis town in the east linked to the capital by a night passenger train. Maun and Kasane towns in the north are easy to reach by charter plane through Victoria Falls international airport in Zimbabwe or by overland safaris from Zambia through the Kazungula Bridge over the Zambezi River.

With an area of 581730 (231803 sq. Miles) which is almost the same size as France, Botswana is 70% is dominated by Kalahari Desert. While much of the land is relatively flat and the highest elevation point is Otse hill at 1490 meters in the south-east near Gabarone the capital city, self-driving in Botswana requires the use of 4×4 vehicles and a tour operator to help you get information or itinerary.

Despite the semi-desert climate, the country has set apart almost 45% of its area for protected areas including Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park home to world’s largest concentration of African elephants and the Okavango delta – the largest inland delta in the world covering 15000 in the northern part of Botswana. This area is composed of semi-arid savannah grasslands, swamps and several rivers including Linyati and Chobe Rivers with minimal risk of malaria. As one moves south of Okavango delta, the sandveld region contrasts sharply with ancient lakebeds and salt pans including Nxai National Park famous for huge Baobab Trees.

Though water is relatively scarce, the little rainfall of 250 mm received per annum supports growth of sparse brush and short grass that seasonally (during the rainy season November to March) attract huge gathering of wildlife including elephants, lions and wildebeest among others such as zebra in Deception Valley. The soils in the area don’t support agriculture, therefore inhabited by the San Bushmen in Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Makgadikgadi Salt Pan – a Pleistocene lake that once covered an area almost the size of Lake Victoria 40000 years ago.

Further to the south-west is the hardveld region is the hottest part of Botswana though, not so much of a real desert of sand dunes due to presence of acacia woodlands in Kgalagadi Trans-Frontier and Gemsbok National Parks home to Bushmen and desert dwelling animals such as Oryx, gemsbok, meerkats, ostrich among others such as buffalo, elephant, zebra and eland. With such a variety of habitats, the national parks of Botswana support a rich biodiversity including 615 species of birds and Big Five African mammals which are lion, leopard, African elephant, Cape buffalo and Rhino among others such as African hunting dogs and cheetah. A safari in Botswana offers an opportunity to explore a Kalahari Desert and Okavango delta landscape, spot the Big Five African mammals and meet the indigenous people of southern Africa – the San Bushmen.

Tourism and Safari activities in Botswana

Botswana tourism embraces high-end and low impact on the natural environment. The country offers an exclusive African safari luxury safari lodges and private concessions only accessible by aircraft in Moremi and Savuti game reserves including Jao Camp in and Eagle Island Lodge. The option available for a medium or budget Botswana safari including self-drive and overland tours is mobile and on-site camping facilities. There are both private and public campsites within the Okavango delta and Chobe National Park.

A wide range of accommodations can be found in major cities including Gabarone the capital city, Francis town, Maun and Kasane. Those intending to visit Botswana can enjoy a variety of wildlife viewing activities including open air four-wheel-drive game drive vehicles – great for unobstructed views, mokoro rides for a photo safari in Okavango delta, Chobe River boat trips to see elephants, guided bushwalks among others such as hot air balloon safari, helicopter tours, mobile camping safari, star-gazing, quad biking in the desert, camel and horseback riding. In addition to wildlife, you can do a cultural trip in Botswana for a chance to learn about her ethnic tribes including the San Bushmen communities around Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Tsodilo rocky outcrops where over 4500 different rock paintings dating back to the Stone Age were identified according to UNESCO.

Getting there

When traveling to Botswana for safari there are three major points of entry to consider before arrival. Gabarone the capital city is the main gateway at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport (GBE) with a number if airlines flying there including Ethiopian Airlines. Travelers can reach Botswana by road (431 from Johannesburg-South Africa via the Botswana border checkpoint at Martin’s Drift to Francis town. Francistown is 4331 north-east of the capital city with two passenger trains that operate between the two at night. Alternatively, travelers can fly to Maun (MUB) or Kasane (BBK) airports in northern Botswana especially those intending to visit Chobe National Park, Okavango Delta including Moremi game reserve by fly-in safari. The airports both in Maun and Kasene towns are served by charter planes and Air Botswana operates scheduled flights from Gabarone capital city, Johannesburg and Victoria Falls – making it easy to combine both countries on a single trip.

In particular, Kasane town Known as “Africa’s Four Corners” situated on the banks of Chobe River is close to the borders where Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia nearly meet. The town is 6 km west of Chobe National Park, 60 km from Victoria Falls, 495 (6-hour drive) from Francistown and16 from Kazungula Bridge with both road and ferry crossing to and from Zambia. For those self-driving between these countries, a police clearance is required. On the other hand, the town of Maun known as the gateway to Okavango delta is the administrative center for north and western Botswana. The town has banks, supermarkets and hotels making it a stopover for those exploring the delta including Moremi Game Reserve and Tsodilo hills – a UNESCO world heritage site. In April the city hosts the Maun festival of arts, traditional poetry, music, dance, local food and games.

A Botswana visa is needed on arrival depending on country of origin. Regarding the omicron variant of covid-19, all entry points remain open including Gabarone, Maun and Kasane airports. The heath requirements including negative PCR test issued within 72 hours prior to arrival is required for all visitors except children under 5 years of age. Those who test positive shall quarantine for less than 10 days until cleared with testing. Malaria is present especially in Okavango delta and Moremi Game Reserve. Other precautions to take include vaccination against Hepatitis B for those having longer trip. Yellow fever card is not mandatory except for those coming from a tropical country where the virus disease is common. While in the country, it’s important to observe Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) including regular use of disinfectants and face mask. In regard to safety and security, Botswana is safe due to low rates of crime against visitors. The people who belong to more than 20 ethnic tribes are friendly including the San Bushmen and women. English is the official language and Christianity is the dominant religion.

National Parks and game reserves in Botswana

There are four major protected areas in Botswana including Chobe, Nxai, and Kgalagadi Trans-frontier National Parks. The parks are suitable for overland safari (self-drive) and mobile camping safari. Besides the parks, the country has several public and private wildlife reserves including Central Kalahari and Moremi game reserves. In Okavango delta, there are several private concessions including Linyati in Chobe, Khawai, Mombo famous for black and southern white rhinos, Selinda known for the African wild dogs among others such as Vumbura. These offer unique safari activities that cannot be found in national parks including helicopter tours and walking safaris, mokoro trips, night game drives and off-track game viewing. They also limit the number of vehicles at a given sighting which is good for those looking for exclusive and off-the-beaten path game viewing experience.

Northern Botswana safari destinations

Okavango Delta

Situated in north-west Botswana, Okavango is the largest inland delta in the world with an area of 2023590 hectares. The delta is formed as the Okavango River flows south-east wards from the highlands of Angola into a drainage basin of Kalahari Desert at an altitude of 930 – 1000 meters above sea level. Water is retained within the delta and there’s no outflow into any sea or lake thus spreads unevenly into swamps and grasslands.

Those intending to see a real remote and untouched African wilderness destination, the delta contains permanent swamps, seasonal flooded grasslands, lagoons and several islands which support a rich biodiversity including 89 fish species including bass, bream and tilapia; 64 reptiles, 130 mammal species and 482 species of birds including northern red hornbill, Slaty egret (endemic) and wattled crane which is critically endangered.

Visiting Okavango delta for safari in Botswana offers a chance to spot the Big 5 animals including lion, leopard, African elephants, Cape buffalo, eastern black and southern white rhinos among other endangered species such as African wild dogs and cheetahs listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Furthermore, there are several other animals you can see in Okavango delta including hippos, giant crocodiles (that can reach up 5 meters long), sitatung (a swamp dwelling antelope), lechwe, sable antelope, greater kudu, roan antelope, Aard wolf, African savannah hare, spotted hyena, giraffe, blue wildebeest and plains zebra.

Wildlife of Okavango delta also includes rare and endangered wetland plants including acacia (genus acacia), candle pod acacia, Jackalberry, Leadwood, Philenoptera violacea (apple leaf or rain tree), makalani palm tree, tropical almond (Terminalia), Miscanthus (silver grass) and Typha capensis a medicinal herb known for its multiple health benefits such as food and treating various diseases including human infertility. The delta also supports livelihoods of over 130000 people according to UNESCO including indigenous tribes such as Bugakhwe and Ilanihwe Bushmen who have traditionally survived through hunting, fishing and gathering of wild plants.

Okavango delta was inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list due to the conservation and cultural heritage value it has locally and internationally. In the same manner, the Botswana government recognizes the potential threats including habitat loss due to attempts by farmers, wild fires, human development and climate change which could lead to droughts and scarcity of water for wildlife.

Tourism in Botswana is based on high value low impact on natural environment which is true for conserving Okavango. The delta is separated into several zones including the ‘core zone’ dedicated to photographic tourism and has most of the camps and safari lodges, the ‘medium density tourism zone’ consists of Moremi Game Reserve situated on the western side of Okavango and wilderness areas that are meant for community.

The areas surrounding Moremi reserve have a network of private concessions including Mombo situated on Chief’s island the largest dry land in the delta known for black rhinos, Selinda which hosts African wild dogs, Vumbura with hot air balloon safaris and leopards and Khawai which is managed by community with camps that offer star beds for those intending to sleep under the stars on Africa safari. Some safari camps are found in remote areas and can only be reached by light aircraft given that there’s no other way of getting there.

Those intending to plan a Botswana private safari, the above mentioned concessions offer unique game viewing activities that are not found in national parks including mokoro trips, walking and elephant interaction safaris, night game drives, off-tracking game drives and vehicle limit at a particular wild animal sighting.

Due to the variety of accommodation facilities, Okavango delta has become a family safari destination in southern Africa. Though, there’s age limit for certain activities including mokoro trips (12 years old), walking safaris (16 years old) and hot air balloon for 7 years old children. The time of the year matters when visiting Okavango delta due to seasonal change in water levels. Annual flooding occurs in April to May when rainfall is high and river flow expands. During this time some activities may not be permitted. From June to September the water levels are receding making it the best time of the year to visit Okavango delta especially for walking safaris due to short grass.

Moremi Game Reserve

Situated in the western part Okavango delta, Moremi Game Reserve is 154 (2-hour drive) from Maun town in northern Botswana. The road to the north gate is halfway tarred and a dirt route continues into the Mopane tongue including Xakanxa area and Khwai concession with several lodges and campsites. Those intending for Botswana flying safari the reserve can also be reached by air through Maun airport to one of the airstrips.

Moremi game reserve covers 50000 which is characterized by several lagoons, grasslands, floodplains, acacia trees and a vast area of mopane forests. The reserve is rich in biodiversity including Big 5 animals, cheetahs, African wild dog, giraffe, hippo and over 400 species of birds (both woodland and water birds) such as greater swamp warbler, African pygmy goose, African red-eyed bulbul, slety egret among others.

Moremi Game Reserve offers a chance to view wildlife by 4 x 4 game drive safari and on water by mokoro trips (traditional dug-out canoe). Mokoro activity offer good opportunity for keen photographers and encounter swamp-dwelling animals including red lechwe, sitatunga African clawless and spotted-necked otters among other antelope species that move through the water channels including sable, roan and tsessebe (which resembles topi of the East African savannah). Other activities in Moremi game reserve include walking safaris, elephant interactions, sport fishing, bird watching and helicopter tours.

In the heart of the reserve is a 1000 Chief’s Island the largest dry peninsular in Okavango delta. The island is surrounded by several natural lagoons including Xakanaxa and Godikwe with fig trees that provide nesting grounds for a variety of water birds during the dry season in the months of September – November such as yellow-billed storks, egrets, ibis and herons.

Some of the safari lodges at Xakanaxa can only be accessed by boat ride or charter plane. In the north-eastern tip of the reserve lies a private reserve called Khwai concession an area of evergreen trees that provide habitat for large mammals such as zebras and antelopes which attract predators including lions and leopards. Due to permanent swamps Moremi offers all year game viewing with a chance to spot the big 5 animals, African wild dog and cheetahs.

Chobe National Park

Chobe National Park is 6 west of Kasane town in northern Botswana. Known as “Africa four corners” Kasane town is situated where the borders of Botswana, Namibia (Caprivi Strip), Zambia (Livingstone) and Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls) almost meet. The town can also be reached by road from the above mentioned border points or by air through Victoria Falls International Airport.

Chobe National Park is famous for harboring the largest population of African elephants (with over 120000 individuals which is almost one third of 415000 estimated African elephant population). Due to guaranteed elephant sightings during a boat cruise along the Chobe River and easy accessibility, Chobe is the most visited national park in Botswana.

The Chobe River flows along the northern park boundary creating flood plains, water channels and swamps known as Savute and Linyanti at the western tip of the park which integrate into savannah grasslands, scrub and woodland vegetation.

Due to permanent water and diverse habitats, the park is rich in biodiversity including over 400 species of birds and 75 mammal species including Big 5, African wild dogs, cheetahs, giraffe, spotted hyena, plains zebra, hippos, Nile crocodiles and several antelope species including greater Kudu, roan antelope, sable antelope, impala, Red Lechwe, Puku and bushbucks. There are several activities to wildlife in Chobe National Park including guided game drives, boat safaris along Chobe River, bush walks, community visits, bird watching and photography tours.

Established in 1968, the large protected Chobe region extends for 11,700 including Linyanti game reserve a private concession. The Linyanti and Kwando Rivers flows southwards forming a landscape of water channels such as Savute, swamps, pools, dry pans, rocky outcrops that attract leopards, floodplains and woodland forests.

In addition to the park itself, visitors intending to explore the remote parts of Chobe region can access Linyanti Game Reserve by air in the north-eastern part of the protected area. The Linyanti Wildlife Management Area covers 1250 including the Savuti swamp system, open grasslands, riverine forests, palm tree islands which support wildlife including 4 of the Big 5 among others such as African wild dogs.

Being a private reserve, Linyanti offers unique game viewing activities that are not found in Chobe including walking safari, night game drives and sport fishing on ‘catch and release policy’.  The reserve can only be accessed by air through several airstrips and does not allow camping or self-drive safaris. Instead, a camping safari can be done n Savute area which has spectacular baobab trees and rocky outcrops such as ‘leopard rock’ with Bushmen art paintings. The area offers opportunities for self-driving and Savute camping safari with a chance to spot leopard, lion, bat-eared fox, spotted hyena, African wild dogs, cheetahs and jackals.

Makgadikgadi Salt Pans National Park

Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is situated in the north-eastern part of Botswana and forms part of Kalahari Desert basin. The park is 163 east of Maun town and 550 from Victoria Falls. Visitors can access the park by road or air through one of the airstrips outside the park including Gweta to the east, Tsigaro and Matopi airfields to the west.

Spanning for 16000 the protected area occupies an area that was once a freshwater lake during the Pleistocene era. Archeological records according to NASA indicate that the ancient lake which was almost the size of Lake Victoria evaporated and dried up 40000 years ago due to tectonic shifting that changed the direction of Zambezi and Okavango rivers that likely emptied into the basin.

Sedimentation and At an altitude of 904 – 945 meters above sea level (2966 – 3100 ft), Makgadikagadi National Park consists of several saltpans which are one of the largest in world including Sua pan with white sands and Kubu red rocky island with massive baobab trees surrounded by meadows (open short grass plains).

The area has little permanent water sources due to hot and dry climate. Surprisingly the seasonal rainfall during the months of November and April fill the dry saltpans turning into a shallow lake and the short grasslands flourishes on the edge which attract animal migrations. The salty lake waters attracts large flocks of greater flamingos and the green pastures become favorite grazing grounds for plains zebra, wildebeest, springbok, and gemsbok and a few elephants come from Nxai Pan National Park – which forms the northern part of Makgadikagadi.

Though the migrations likely stay in the park for a short period of time, they attract predators including Kalahari Desert lions which may be spotted during guided game drives. When the dry season (May – October) approaches, most of the animals especially zebras, wildebeest move further away to the neighboring protected areas. The Boteti River provides permanent water for wildlife. Noteworthy, the dry season in Makgadikagadi offers a chance to spot the desert-dwelling animals including springbok, gemsbok, brown hyena, meerkats, ground squirrels, aardwolf, ostrich, kori bustard and secretary birds.

Several safari lodges which are mostly found on the edge of the park offer adventure activities including sleeping under the stars, quad bike and horseback riding safari across the saltpans. In addition to wildlife, the San Bushmen nature walk in Makgadikagadi is available for those intending to experience the culture including rock art paintings and Stone Age tools. Furthermore, some of these activities can also done in Nxai Pan National Park which forms northern part of Makgadikagadi area.

Central Kalahari Game Reserve

Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is the largest protected area of Botswana with an area of 52800 (20400 sq. Miles). The reserve is located in a no-risk malaria zone in the central part of Kalahari Desert. The park is 250 (5-hour drive) south of Maun town – the gateway to Okavango delta.

Matswere entrance gate to the north is 24 from Deception Valley Area in the northern part of the reserve where Kalahari black-manned lions, brown hyenas, cheetahs, Cape fox and desert-adopted wildlife including Oryx and springbok are likely spotted. Those traveling from Kanga town in Kgalagadi district can use Tsau gate to the north-east. Visitors need afully equipped self-drive 4 x 4 vehicle due to long distances and little refueling facilities along the roads. Alternatively, the reserve can be accessed by air through the airstrip at Haina Kalahari Lodge.

Being off-the-beaten track, Central Kalahari Game Reserve offers seclusion and spectacular desert wilderness scenery. Vegetation in the reserve consists of vast open grassland plains, salt and clay pans and ancient riverbed valleys including Deception Valley Area which was made famous by Mark and Delia Owens in their masterpiece “Cry of the Kalahari”.  

Situated in the northern part of the reserve, the name “Deception” originates from the optical effect of blue and white water when there’s none in the valley when seen from a distance at certain times of the day during the dry season (July to October).

Clay pans are spectacular features of Kalahari including Piper and Sunday’s pans scattered with acacia trees, wooded sand dunes that provide habitat for wildlife including 150 to 300 lions (males have black manes) among other predators such as cheetahs, African wild dogs (rare), brown hyenas, bat-eared foxes, yellow mongoose, meerkats (suricate) and 250 species of birds such as martial eagle, Kori bustard, black bustard, secretary bird and ostrich.

There are several desert –adopted antelope species including springbok, Oryx, blue wildebeest, eland, greater kudu, red hartebeest among other animals such as elephant and giraffe. During the rainy season (November to March and April to May), the waterholes and riverbeds fill up which attracts wildlife making the best time for visiting.

Deception valley area offers two tented safari camps and lodge including Kalahari Plains Camp, Tau Pan Camp, Deception Valley and Haina Kalahari Lodges which provide accommodation for overnight trips. The desert environment is also inhabited by the San Bushmen and their community can be visited on the edge of the park. The culture walks provide a chance to learn their ancient survival techniques including fire making activity and Stone Age hunting tools.