Botswana at a Glance
Nestled in the southern part of the African continent, Botswana is a landlocked nation bordered by Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Covering an area of approximately 581,730 square kilometres, it’s roughly the size of France or Texas.
A Journey Through Time
The history of Botswana is as diverse as its landscapes. Archaeological finds like Tsodilo Hills indicate human habitation dating back over 100,000 years. The San Bushmen, one of the continent’s oldest indigenous groups, have called the Kalahari Desert home for millennia.
In the late 19th century, fearing annexation by neighbouring powers, Botswana’s leaders sought British protection. This led to the establishment of the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland in 1885. The nation gained its independence in 1966, adopting the name Botswana. Sir Seretse Khama, a paramount chief who married a British woman in a union that faced much opposition, became the country’s first president. His leadership set Botswana on a path of democracy and development.
Botswana boasts some of Africa’s most pristine wilderness areas. The Kalahari Desert, which covers much of the country, is not a true desert but a vast sand-filled basin. Its landscapes range from salt pans like the Makgadikgadi to grasslands teeming with wildlife.
The Okavango Delta, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, is a unique geographical marvel. Rivers flow into this inland delta, creating a lush wetland amid the desert. This contrast gives rise to a rich biodiversity, making it a haven for wildlife enthusiasts.
A Commitment to Conservation
Since its independence, Botswana has been at the forefront of African conservation. With almost 40% of its land dedicated to national parks, reserves, and wildlife management areas, the country has ensured its natural heritage is preserved for future generations.
Furthermore, Botswana’s anti-poaching measures are among the most robust on the continent, ensuring the safety of its rich fauna, from elephants and lions to the endangered African wild dog.
People and Culture
The Batswana (plural of Motswana) are the main ethnic group in Botswana. Their rich cultural heritage is rooted in traditional songs, dances, and storytelling. Setswana is the national language, but English is widely spoken, especially in urban areas and is the official language of government and business.
The nation’s guiding principle, “Botho,” emphasizes mutual respect, responsibility, and compassion in all human interactions. This ethos is evident in the Batswana’s warmth and hospitality to visitors.
Getting There & Around
- Sir Seretse Khama International Airport (Gaborone): As the largest airport in Botswana, it primarily serves the capital city and offers regular flights to international destinations in Africa and beyond.
- Maun Airport: Often dubbed the “Gateway to the Okavango,” this airport is the primary entry point for travellers heading to the Okavango Delta and other northern safari destinations.
- Kasane Airport: Situated close to Chobe National Park, it’s an ideal arrival point for those planning to explore the park or move to Victoria Falls in neighbouring Zimbabwe or Zambia.
Visa & Entry Requirements
- Visa Upon Arrival: Most visitors, including those from EU countries, the USA, Canada, and Australia, can obtain a 30-day tourist visa upon arrival. It’s advisable to check the latest requirements, as they can change.
- Extensions: If you wish to extend your visa, you can apply at immigration offices within Botswana before your initial visa expires.
- Documentation: Ensure you have a passport, valid for at least six months beyond your travel dates, return flight tickets, and proof of accommodation.
- Self-Drive: Many travellers rent a vehicle, especially those equipped for camping, to explore Botswana at their own pace. While main roads are generally in good condition, some routes, especially in national parks, require 4×4 vehicles. Familiarize yourself with local driving conditions and laws before setting out.
- Domestic Flights: Given the vast distances, flying can be a convenient way to move between major destinations. Airlines such as Air Botswana and Wilderness Safaris offer regular domestic flights.
- Public Transport: Buses and shared minivans (“combis”) operate between significant towns. While they’re an affordable way to travel, they may not always run on a fixed schedule.
- Taxis: Available in larger towns and cities, they’re a reliable way to get around. It’s best to agree on a fare before starting the journey.
- Organized Tours: Numerous tour operators offer packages that include transportation, accommodation, and guided safaris, providing a hassle-free travel experience.
- Botswana drives on the left side of the road.
- Always look for wildlife when driving, especially at dawn and dusk.
- Fuel stations can be sparse in remote areas, so always fill up when you can and carry extra fuel.
- Ensure you have a local SIM card or satellite phone when exploring remote regions, as cellular coverage can be patchy.
- Key Destinations & Attractions
Chobe National Park
- Overview: One of Africa’s largest national parks, Chobe spans over 11,000 square kilometres and is renowned for its impressive elephant population.
- Wildlife: Apart from its famous elephants, the park is home to lions, leopards, buffalo, and numerous antelope species. The Chobe Riverfront is also a birder’s paradise.
- Activities: Game drives, boat cruises along the Chobe River, and fishing trips are popular.
- Accommodation: Options range from luxury lodges to budget-friendly campsites.
- Overview: A vast inland delta, the Okavango is a labyrinth of lagoons, channels, and islands. The Delta is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.
- Wildlife: The delta supports various animals, from predators like lions and leopards to rarer species like the sitatunga antelope.
- Activities: Mokoro (dugout canoe) trips, walking safaris, and scenic flights provide diverse ways to experience the delta.
- Accommodation: The Okavango is famous for its luxury tented camps, but there are options for various budgets.
Moremi Game Reserve
- Overview: Located within the Okavango Delta, Moremi covers about 40% of the delta and offers some of the best game-viewing opportunities.
- Wildlife: The reserve is a sanctuary for many animals, including the Big Five and the African wild dog.
- Activities: Game drives, boat trips, and birdwatching excursions are popular.
- Accommodation: A mix of lodges and campsites cater to different traveller preferences.
- Overview: One of the world’s most extensive salt flats, the Makgadikgadi Pans, transform into grassy plains during the rainy season, attracting many wildlife.
- Wildlife: Seasonal zebra and wildebeest migrations are a highlight, as well as resident meerkat colonies.
- Activities: Quad biking on the salt pans, interacting with local Bushmen, and stargazing are unique experiences.
- Accommodation: Several lodges and camps around the pans offer varying levels of luxury.
- Overview: Known as the “Louvre of the Desert,” Tsodilo Hills is a UNESCO World Heritage site with over 4,500 rock paintings.
- Cultural Significance: The site holds spiritual significance for the San people and offers insights into their ancient traditions.
- Activities: Guided walks showcase the rock art and narrate the stories behind them.
- Accommodation: Basic camping facilities are available on-site.
- Overview: Botswana’s capital and largest city, Gaborone, blends modernity and tradition.
- Attractions: The National Museum and Art Gallery, Kgale Hill for panoramic views, and the Gaborone Game Reserve are must-visits.
- Shopping & Dining: Experience local flavours at the Main Mall and sample traditional cuisine at local eateries.
- Accommodation: A range of hotels, guesthouses, and lodges cater to various budgets.
Traditional Festivals and Events
- Maitisong Festival: Hosted in Gaborone, this is the country’s largest arts festival. It celebrates traditional and contemporary arts, with performances ranging from music and dance to theatre and poetry.
- Dithubaruba Cultural Festival: Held in Molepolole, this event commemorates the settling of the Bakwena people in the area. It’s a vibrant showcase of Setswana traditions, including music, dance, and storytelling.
- President’s Day Celebrations: In July, this national holiday is marked by cultural events, traditional dance performances, and arts and crafts exhibitions throughout the country.
Botswana’s culinary landscape is a reflection of its agricultural and pastoral heritage:
- Seswaa: A traditional meat dish, usually made with beef or goat. The meat is boiled with salt, pounded until tender, and then served with “pap” or maize porridge.
- Bogobe Jwa Lerotse: A dish made from sorghum porridge and the lerotse melon, creating a slightly sour taste.
- Morogo: Wild spinach cooked and served as a side dish. It’s often seasoned with tomatoes and onions.
- Phane: Mopane worm, a delicacy that’s either dried or cooked in a spicy tomato sauce.
Traditional Music and Dance
Music and dance play a vital role in the cultural fabric of Botswana:
- Borankana: A popular traditional dance with a rhythmic pattern. Dancers move in a circular formation, with steps that mimic everyday activities like ploughing or grinding maize.
- Setapa: Originating from the Bangwaketse region, this dance involves high-energy foot stomping and vibrant singing.
- Kwasa Kwasa: A modern dance form influenced by Congolese rumba, popular in nightclubs and social gatherings.
- Instruments: Traditional instruments like the “segaba” (a single-stringed violin) and “moropa” (drums) provide the backbone for many local melodies.
Crafts and Artistry
Botswana’s artisans craft beautiful items, often using age-old techniques:
- Basket Weaving: Batswana are renowned for their intricate hand-woven baskets, with patterns often telling a story or reflecting the weaver’s experiences.
- Pottery: From functional cooking pots to decorative items, local potters use unique designs and motifs, often inspired by nature.
- Wood Carving: Traditional wooden items, such as stools, utensils, and sculptures, are carved from local woods and often adorned with traditional patterns.
- Adventure & Activities
Thanks to its conservation and sustainable tourism commitment, Botswana offers some of the continent’s most pristine safari experiences.
- Game Drives:
- What to Expect: Guided drives in open vehicles through national parks and reserves, offering close encounters with wildlife.
- Best Places: Chobe National Park for elephants, Moremi Game Reserve for diverse wildlife, and Central Kalahari Game Reserve for unique desert-adapted species.
- Night Drives: Some private reserves offer night drives, providing a chance to spot nocturnal creatures like leopards, aardvarks, and bush babies.
- Walking Safaris:
- What to Expect: Guided treks that bring you closer to nature, allowing you to track animals, identify plants, and immerse yourself in the wilderness.
- Best Places: The Okavango Delta and Linyanti regions are famous for these on-foot adventures.
- Safety: Always undertaken with experienced guides trained to handle wild encounters.
Mokoro Trips in the Okavango
- Overview: A mokoro is a traditional dugout canoe, once carved from tree trunks but now often made of eco-friendly materials.
- What to Expect: Glide silently along the delta’s waterways, getting up close with hippos, crocodiles, and water birds.
- Duration: Trips can range from a few hours to multi-day excursions with camping on remote delta islands.
- Overview: A unique way to explore Botswana’s landscapes, horseback safaris offer a silent approach, allowing for intimate wildlife encounters.
- Best Places: The Okavango Delta and the Tuli Block region are renowned for horseback adventures.
- Experience Required: While there are options for beginners, some rides, especially those in big game areas, require prior riding experience.
- Overview: With over 500 bird species, Botswana is a birder’s paradise.
- Best Places: The Okavango Delta, especially during the migratory season, Chobe Riverfront, and the Makgadikgadi Pans.
- Notable Sightings: Look out for the Pel’s fishing owl, African skimmer, and the flamboyant greater flamingo.
Cultural Village Visits
- Overview: Engage with local communities, gaining insights into their way of life.
- San Bushmen Interaction: Spend time with the San people in the Kalahari, learning about their ancient hunting techniques, storytelling traditions, and unique click language.
- Batswana Villages: Participate in traditional song and dance and explore the importance of cattle in local culture.
- Overview: Botswana’s waterways offer exciting fishing opportunities.
- Target Species: Tigerfish, bream, and catfish are some of the popular catches.
- Best Places: The Okavango Delta and the Chobe, Linyanti, and Zambezi rivers.
Quad Biking in the Salt Pans
- Overview: Explore the vast, otherworldly landscapes of the Makgadikgadi Pans on four wheels.
- Best Time: The dry season, when the pans are hard and vast, offers the best conditions.
- Guided Tours: Ensure you’re with a guide who knows the challenging and disorienting terrain.
Hot Air Balloon Rides
- Overview: Soar over the landscapes of Botswana, witnessing the grandeur of its wilderness from above.
- Best Places: The Okavango Delta and the Central Kalahari offer breathtaking aerial views.
- Seasonal: Operates during the cooler months, typically between April and September.
- Accommodation Options
Botswana’s diverse range of accommodations caters to luxury seekers, budget travellers, and everyone. Here’s a breakdown of options, complete with examples and indicative prices where possible:
Luxury Lodges & Camps
Botswana is renowned for its high-end safari lodges, offering unparalleled luxury in the heart of the wilderness.
- Mombo Camp (Okavango Delta):
- Overview: Nestled on its island, it’s one of Botswana’s most exclusive lodges.
- Facilities: Elegant tents, private plunge pools, spa services, and gourmet dining.
- Price Indication: $1,500+ per person per night.
- Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero (Chobe National Park):
- Overview: A luxurious riverside retreat offering panoramic views of the Chobe River.
- Facilities: Spa, split-level swimming pool, gourmet meals.
- Price Indication: $700+ per person per night.
- Jao Camp (Okavango Delta):
- Overview: An opulent camp designed to blend seamlessly with the delta’s watery surroundings.
- Facilities: Private villas, spa, two pools, and a library.
- Price Indication: $1,200+ per person per night.
Mid-range Hotels & Guesthouses
For travellers seeking comfort without the luxury price tag:
- Thamalakane River Lodge (Maun):
- Overview: Located on the banks of the Thamalakane River.
- Facilities: En-suite stone chalets, pool, and a restaurant with river views.
- Price Indication: $100 – $200 per night.
- Cresta Riley’s Hotel (Gaborone):
- Overview: Situated in Botswana’s capital, it offers modern amenities with a touch of tradition.
- Facilities: Swimming pool, conference facilities, restaurant, and bar.
- Price Indication: $80 – $150 per night.
- Planet Baobab (Makgadikgadi Pans):
- Overview: A quirky lodge surrounded by iconic baobab trees.
- Facilities: Traditional huts, a pool shaped like Africa, and a lively bar.
- Price Indication: $70 – $180 per night.
Budget Accommodations & Camping
For the more adventurous or budget-conscious traveller:
- The Old Bridge Backpackers (Maun):
- Overview: A popular choice for budget travellers and those looking for a relaxed atmosphere.
- Facilities: Camping spots, basic huts, communal kitchen, and a riverside bar.
- Price Indication: $10 for camping, $40+ for cabins.
- Chobe Safari Lodge Camping (Chobe National Park):
- Overview: Offers a more affordable way to experience the Chobe region.
- Facilities: Campsites with power points, ablution blocks, and access to the lodge’s pool and restaurant.
- Price Indication: $20 – $30 per person for camping.
- Dqae Qare San Lodge (Near Ghanzi):
- Overview: A community-based project offering insights into San culture.
- Facilities: Campsites, basic rooms, cultural activities, and nature walks.
- Price Indication: $10 for camping, $50+ for rooms.
Best Times to Visit
- Dry Season (May to September):
- Wildlife congregates around water sources, offering excellent game viewing.
- Cooler temperatures, especially from June to August.
- Green Season (December to March):
- Lush landscapes, migratory birds, and birthing wildlife.
- Fewer crowds and potentially lower prices.
Local Customs and Etiquette
- Greetings: Saying “Dumela” (Hello) in Setswana is appreciated.
- Dress Code: Conservative dressing is respectful, especially in rural areas.
- Tipping: Customary for good service; around 10% in restaurants and discretionary amounts for guides and lodge staff.
Health and Safety Precautions
- Malaria: Northern regions are malaria zones; consider prophylaxis and mosquito repellents.
- Water: Drink bottled water in remote areas.
- Wildlife: Maintain safe distances, especially in national parks and reserves.
Currency and Payment Methods
- Official Currency: Botswana Pula (BWP)
- ATMs: These are available in major towns, but cash is recommended in remote areas.
- Credit Cards: Accepted at most hotels, lodges, and larger restaurants, but always check in advance.
- Sustainable Travel
Botswana’s commitment to eco-tourism ensures that its pristine environments remain conserved for future generations.
- Wildlife: Avoid attractions that exploit nature; opt for ethical animal encounters.
- Waste: Limit plastic usage; refill water bottles and decline plastic bags.
- Local Communities: Respect customs and traditions; always ask before taking photos.
- Baines’ Camp: Built using commercially grown wood, it offers “elephant experiences” focused on conservation.
- Tubu Tree Camp: Operates on solar energy and focuses on water conservation.
Supporting Local Communities
- Community-based Tourism: Engage with initiatives like the Khwai Community Area that directly benefit locals.
- Buy Local: Support artisans by purchasing local crafts and products.
With its untouched landscapes, commitment to conservation, and rich cultural tapestry, Botswana offers an unrivalled African adventure. Its blend of iconic wildlife, remote wilderness, and welcoming people ensures that every traveller leaves with memories that last a lifetime. Whether navigating the Okavango channels, witnessing the Kalahari’s vastness, or delving into the ancient traditions of the San people, Botswana promises an immersive experience that resonates deeply with the soul.
Resources & Further Reading
- “Whatever You Do, Don’t Run” by Peter Allison: A humorous and enlightening account of a safari guide’s experiences in Botswana.
- “Cry of the Kalahari” by Mark and Delia Owens: Chronicles the authors’ seven-year stay in the Kalahari Desert, researching its wildlife.
- “Botswana: In the Footsteps of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective”: Explores the landscapes and culture that inspired the famous book series.
- “Africa’s Fishing Leopards”: Documents the unique behaviour of leopards in the Okavango Delta.
- Botswana Tourism Organisation: The official site offering comprehensive travel information and updates.