PLANNING A TOUR OF BOTSWANA – EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
A tour of Botswana offers travellers an unforgettable safari experience. It may be a small country but it can lay claim to a few big attractions such as the largest concentration of elephants in Africa, the richest diamond mine and the largest salt pan in the world. Over and above that, the people of Botswana have big hearts and can’t wait to welcome you to their safe and stable country.
Spanning some 600 379 square kilometres, Botswana is a land-locked country located in southern Africa on the borders of South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It falls within the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve which received international status when it was registered by UNESCO in 2009 for its abundance of wildlife and its unique biological and cultural diversity.
The unique features of this remarkable biosphere include the Soutpansberg and the Limpopo River basin, the northern part of the Kruger National Park, the Makuleke Wetlands Ramsar Site, the Blouberg Mountains, the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site and the Makgabeng Plateau. Its UNESCO status also recognises the rich culture and heritage of the people of the area that are a significant eco- and cultural tourist attraction.
Parts of Botswana are characterised by crystal-clear rivers running through evergreen fields of lush vegetation, while other parts are dry and arid. The Kalahari Desert covers over 80% of Botswana with the magical Okavango River forming an evergreen spine. This unique ecosystem, known as the Okavango Delta, is one of the world’s largest inland deltas.
The landscape is predominantly flat, with only two impressive mountains breaking up the semi-arid region. Otse Mountain and Tsodilo Hills are both taller than Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain. Tsodilo Hills is world-renowned for its bushmen rock art that dates back some hundred thousand years, with over 4 500 paintings found in various caves in the hills.
Botswana boasts a strong, stable economy and is, in fact, one of the richest countries in Africa due to its wealth in diamonds. In addition, citizens of the country have enjoyed many years of political stability, a high standard of living and an economic environment that has thrived off the fact that the Botswana government has maintained one of the world’s highest economic growth rates since 1966.
English is the official language of Botswana and the majority of Batswanas can speak the language. It is taught at schools and you will find it is the language spoken most widely in the urban centres. The national language is Setswana and among local people, the preferred spoken language.
The currency of Botswana is known as the Pula. The word Pula means ‘rain’ in Setswana and refers to money being as precious in Botswana as rain is, considering the fact that the country is a low-rainfall area and natural water sources are a precious resource.
Botswana is not the cheapest tourist destination to travel to and there is a fairly hefty tourist tax levied on visitors. The Botswana supports the premise of “high quality, low impact” which means that a safari tour of Botswana is quite exclusive. You won’t find yourself battling amidst hundreds of safari tourists for a good game viewing spot.
TOP 15 SAFARI DESTINATIONS IN BOTSWANA
THE HISTORY OF BOTSWANA
Botswana gained its independence in 1966, prior to that it was known as the British protectorate of Bechuanaland. The current president of Botswana is President Ian Khama, who is the son of the first president of Botswana. He is the child of an inter-racial marriage that caused quite a stir at the time, when Sir Seretse Khama married a white banking clerk from London, Ruth Williams. The marriage caused an outcry at a time when political relationships between apartheid-governed South Africa and Botswana were strained. The couple were forced to live in exile in London until 1956.
The original inhabitants of Botswana were the Bantu-speaking people who were living in the Katanga area (which today is part of the DRC and Zambia). Two groups, the Nguni and Sotho-Twana, crossed over the Limpopo into what was then the northern region of South Africa. The Nguni settled in the eastern coastal regions while the latter settled in what today is known as the Highveld, the central plateau of South Africa.
In the south-eastern region of Botswana, a new cultural group settled at site known as Moritsane Hill near Gabane. Archaeological finds from this time reflect historical western and Iron Age influences, where raising cattle and hunting took precedence over farming. The Moritsane culture is historically associated with the Khalagari (Kgaladadi) chiefdoms, which is the western-most dialect-group of the Sotho-Tswana speaking tribes.
The tribes that settled around Totuswe Hill between 600-700 AD and 1 200-1 300 AD were a more prosperous grouping, thriving on a growing farming culture. There is evidence of cattle farming, with large corrals found in what would have been the capital town and on small hilltop villages. The Mapungubwe cultural hub grew off the back of the early gold trade, capitalising on the flow of traders from the inland area around the Zimbabwe ruins to the Indian coastal belt (now Mozambique). These traders were supplied with fresh meat hunted by Khoean hunters.
The Mapungubwe settlement had been developed since 1 050 AD but its status as a trading station was short-lived as the power of Great Zimbabwe grew. The Butua state based at Kame near Bulawayo (in western Zimbabwe) controlled trade in salt and hunting dogs from about 1 450 AD onwards, establishing stone-walled command posts from the eastern Makgadikgadi pans to the northern regions.
Hostile battles broke out in the late 19th century between the Shona inhabitants of Botswana and the Ndebele tribes who had migrated into the territory from the Kalahari Desert. The volatile tribal relationships escalated with the arrival of the Boer settlers from the Transvaal. The Batswana leaders appealed for assistance from the British Government in 1885 and Bechuanaland was placed under its protection. The Bechuanaland Protectorate remained under direct administration by the British until it gained its independence and finally became Botswana.
In 1965, the seat of government was moved from Mafikeng in South Africa to the newly-established capital city, Gaborone. The first general elections were held in 1965 which saw Seretse Khama take over leadership of the independent state.
THE PEOPLE OF BOTSWANA
All citizens of Botswana, regardless of tribal affiliation, are known as Batswana (plural) or Motswana (singular). The prefix ‘ba’ means “the people of…”, so the Herero are known as Baherero, the Kgalagadi as Bakgalagadi and so on for the eight major tribes of Botswana. Botswana currently has a population of just over 2 million people.
The second largest ethnic group of Botswana are the Bakalanga, a powerful land-owning group who are thought to descend from a tribe known as Rozwi who originated from Great Zimbabwe and instilled a culture of building and development. The largest group of Bakalanga people are found around Francistown.
The Baherero are thought to originate from eastern and central Africa and migrated across the Okavango River into the north-eastern region of South West Africa (now Namibia). In the 1880s, conflict arose in the German-occupied region where the Herero grazing lands were systematically expropriated. The four-year conflict that ensued only ended with an act of genocide that saw the remaining tribe flee across the border to Botswana. The Herero refugees settled among the Batswana and after an initial period of unease, regained their independence. Today the Herero are among the wealthiest cattle herders in Botswana.
The inhabitants scattered around the Chobe and Linyanti Rivers and across the Okavango panhandle are a mix of Basubiya, Wayeyi and Mbukushu. The Basubiya were a dominant force for a long period of time, pushing the Wayeyi out of the Chobe area and into the Okavango Delta. Today, the three tribal groups have reached an amicable state of existence.
The rule of law in Botswana is based on the Kgotla system which is deeply entrenched in the Setswana culture. Each village in Botswana is governed by a community council or traditional law court, headed by the village chief or headman. The system is characterised by democratic rights and free speech where every person in attendance has the right to speak their mind and community decisions are always arrived at by consensus.
MAIN CITIES OF BOTSWANA
Gaborone is the capital of Botswana and the largest city in the country. About 10% of the total population lives in the capital. It is situated between Kgale and Oodi Hills near the confluence of Notwane and Segoditshane Rivers in the south-eastern corner, and only 15 kilometres from the border of South Africa. Sir Seretse Khama International Airport is located on the outskirts of Gaborone.
Francistown is the second largest city in Botswana and often described as the “Capital of the North”. It is located at the confluence of the Tati and Inche Rivers and near the Shashe River. The town was once the centre of southern Africa’s first gold rush and is surrounded by old and abandoned mines.
The city of Molepolole is located in the south east of Botswana and home of the Bakwena people, one of the major tribes in the country. Molepolole is the gateway to the Kalahari Desert. The largest hospital in Botswana, the Scottish Livingstone Hospital, is located in Molepolole.
The town of Serowe is located in the central district of Botswana and is a major trade and commerce centre. It is rich in cultural history and home to Botswana’s largest villages, home to the Bamangwato people.
Selebi-Phikwe is a prominent mining town located in the central district of Botswana. The town is situated on a tourist route that takes visitors to the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park.
Maun is the fifth largest town in Botswana and probably the most well-known by international tourists as it is the “tourism capital” of Botswana, and the headquarters of the majority of safari and air-charter companies who operate in the popular Botswana tourist destinations. The town has grown rapidly as a major international tourist hub, but still retains much of its quaint rural atmosphere.
The town of Kanye is located south-west of Gaborone and is the traditional capital of the Ngwaketse tribe who first settled in the area in the 1790s. Kanye lies on a series of hills which form a natural protective barrier against the sands of the Kalahari Desert. There is a deep natural gorge, known as Kanye Gorge, situated close to the town which was historically been used by warring tribes as a hiding place in the 19th century.
HABITATS OF BOTSWANA
The vast majority (80%) of Botswana is made up of sand drifts from the Kalahari Desert. Although a predominantly dry and arid region, parts of Botswana are spectacular when the glorious rain works its magic. Two rivers flow into the country from the far north to create the spectacular delta and swamp lands of Botswana.
The Okavango River rises in the highlands of Angola and flows more than 1 500 kilometres to form the Okavango Delta. The delta region was once an ancient inland lake that was fed by the Zambezi River before tectonic activity forced it to change its course.
Today it is a collection of large and small islands, channels and floodplains boasting an array of vegetation that includes thick riverine woodland. The dry, semi-arid floodplains are transformed into a lush, magical oasis that supports a rich variety of wildlife.
The Kwando River also rises in the Angola highlands, turning east and spilling out into the Linyanti swamps before flowing into Lake Liambezi to become the Chobe River. This great river serves as the northern boundary of the Chobe National Park and is renowned for the extensive herds of elephants that descend on the river during the dry season.
The Chobe National Park was proclaimed a wildlife reserve in 1968 and is regarded as a premier safari destination. The Chobe region is characterised by four distinct ecosystems: the dry Savuti Channel and the Linyati, Serondella and Nogatsaa region.
The Savuti Channel flows out of the Linyanti region and makes its way through the arid woodlands north of the delta. From there it empties into the Savuti Marsh nearly 100 kilometres away in the Mababe Depression. The Savuti has a historic reputation of drying up for years before flowing again which has been attributed to tectonic activity. For the moment, the Savuti Marsh is dominated by acacia savannah but this is expected to change as the Savuti Channel has started to flow again.
Linyanti is renowned for its spectacular floodplains, palm islands and lush grasslands. The private game reserve that makes up the vast area is not fenced and the herds of elephants that roam the Chobe River can come and go as they please.
The area south of the delta and swamplands is dry and arid; barren landscapes melting into the Kalahari Desert where water is scarce. It is in this region the famous Makgadikgadi Salt Pans are found; once an ancient inland lake but now a vast landmark of salt-crusted plains. The edges of the salt pans are dominated by short grasses while the Central Kalahari is covered by arid savannah grassland and woodlands.
In terms of human habitation, Botswana is one of the world’s least-crowded countries; with just 3.5 people per square kilometre. The vast dry floodplains and desolate regions are only inhabited by the hardiest; many of them descendants of the San people (Bushmen).
RICHEST DIAMOND MINE IN THE WORLD
Three small alluvial diamonds were found in 1955 along the Motloutse River in the Tuli Block which spurred a rush of prospectors to the area. In 1967, a team of De Beers’ geologists found abundant quantities of elmenite and garnet which are the two chief indictors of diamondiferous kimbilite. The Orapa Discovery Pit was the first site of extensive excavations and led to the formation of the De Beers Botswana Mining Company in 1968.
Botswana is the world’s biggest diamond-producing country in terms of value and the second biggest in terms of production. Revenue from diamond mining in Botswana accounts for almost half of its GDP and provides the government with the means to ensure every child in Botswana receives free education up to the age of 13 years.
Today, the richest diamond mine in the world, Jwaneng Diamond Mine, is located in the south of Botswana (Jwaneng meaning ‘place of small stones’). The Botswana diamond mine operation is run by a company called Debswana which is a 50/50 joint venture between De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd and the Botswana government. In 2017, Debswana celebrated 48 years of existence and mutually-beneficial operations between the mining magnates and the people of Botswana.
Diamonds contribute to more than 70% of Botswana’s foreign exchange and are the lifeblood of the country, providing its citizens with a higher standard of living and a better quality of life. An agreement signed in 2006 extended the mining license for the Jwaneng Mine to 2029, and the licenses for four other key mines will run concurrently.
For foreigners, diamonds represent status and prestige but for the people of Botswana they represent food on the table, a decent home, better healthcare, safe drinking water and roads that connect remote villages. Debswana is the largest private sector employer in Botswana, employing over 5 000 people.
LARGEST CONCENTRATION OF ELEPHANTS
Botswana has a well-earned reputation for being the ‘elephant capital’ of Africa. Botswana facts regularly highlight that the country has the highest elephant population in Africa, concentrated along the Chobe River which supports up to 50 000 elephants in the dry season.
The Chobe River basin was once part of the ancient elephant migration routes but civil war in countries like Angola and the war of liberation in Namibia had a significant impact on numbers with uncontrolled poaching decimating the herds. More than a decade ago, the Botswana government decommissioned portions of the fence surrounding Nxai Pan National Park that is located close to Chobe River which allowed wildlife to move unhindered between the salt pans and the Okavango Delta. The elephant herds have grown year-on-year as they re-adapt to their ancient migration paths.
Recent aerial footage has picked up a significant increase in elephant bulls in Makgadikgadi Pans and Nxai Pan National Park. The reason given for this is the rejuvenated Boteti River system offers a greatly improved habitat for the larger elephants.
Current statistics puts the Botswana elephant population at about 150 000 with five elephants per square kilometre. The number increases between the Linyanti and Savuti Rivers with about eight elephants per square kilometre.
While these numbers are a happy result of the Botswana government’s initiatives, conservationists remain concerned that the sizes of the herds are not growing at the expected rate with elephant poaching being the root cause. The Botswana government has a deep respect for the value of safari tourism and has renewed its pledge to protect its valuable natural resources.
WILDLIFE CONSERVATION IN BOTSWANA
The Botswana economy is dependent on two primary sources of revenue: diamond mining and tourism. With a healthy respect for the value of its natural resources, the Botswana government has spearheaded a progressive approach to wildlife conservation that is not commonly seen in the rest of Africa.
Protecting its natural resources as a means of protecting its economic stability is an attitude that has been deeply instilled in the Botswana people. The government relies heavily on community-based conservation initiatives to drive this and so far has reaped the rewards.
Nata Sanctuary is one such initiative and the first one put into effect in the early 1990s. The conservation project is managed and staffed by residents of four local communities in the Nata, Maphosa, Sepako and Manxotae districts. By strictly managing anti-poaching initiatives and eradicating the consumption of bush meat, the villagers directly benefit from revenue earned from tourism to the region.
To establish the Nata Sanctuary, the four communities agreed to move some 3 000 head of cattle out of the area. By eradicating the problem of overgrazing, the grasslands and woodlands flourished and the wildlife numbers steadily increased. Thousands of safari tourists descend on the region to enjoy spectacular sightings of wildlife migrations, birds and, of course, the sea of flamingos that descend on the pans.
Simple camping facilities were built that are reasonably priced and are managed by villagers trained in tourism and hospitality. This community-managed wildlife sanctuary is an excellent example of how humans can successfully co-exist with wildlife and also generate sufficient revenue to provide local people with a good lifestyle.
Botswana is also well-known for its abundance of predators, where the numbers have increased as a result of conservation efforts to protect and boost wildlife in the country. The Suvuti-Chobe National Park, in particular, is regarded as one of the best places in Africa to see lion, cheetah and leopards. Lions have adapted to the dry, arid habitat and thrive in the northern Okavango Delta.
Studies of lions in the Okavango Delta reveal that these big cats have adapted physically to their environment, with front quarters more developed than lions in other regions. This is because much of their hunting is in deep river channels and floodplains. The lions have to cross rivers or wade through deep water to hunt and as a result have busted the myth that big cats hate water.
THE LARGEST SALT PANS IN THE WORLD
The Makgadikgadi Pans are the largest salt pans in the world and are split between two pans; the Ntwetwe Pan and the Sowa Pan. The pans are the remaining dry beds of the ancient Lake Makgadikgadi that covered most of the northern Botswana. To put it into perspective, this vast landscape that spans some 12 000 sq/kilometres is about the size of Portugal.
The stark, flat and featureless terrain is largely uninhabited by humans and, for most of the year; the desolate area is dry, arid wasteland. When the rains come, the area transforms into a magical oasis; attracting an abundance of birds and wildlife. The most spectacular sight is the hundreds of thousands of flamingos that settle in the Sowa and Nata Sanctuary, creating a magical pink carpet for a period of time.
The rainwater that pours down on the pans is supplemented by seasonal river flows from the Nata, Tutume, Semowane and Mosetse Rivers in the east. In an exceptional rainy season water from the Okavango floods the pans, sweeping in via the Boteti River in the west. The pans become a powder-blue lake with water gently lapping the shorelines and trickling over the pebble beaches that are remnants of a prehistoric lake; a relic of what researchers say was once the biggest inland lake in Africa.
The first European explorer to discover these magnificent pans was Dr David Livingstone. He crossed over this vast expanse of arid wasteland in the 19th century, guided by a massive baobab beacon known as Chapman’s Tree. This incredible specimen is believed to be 3 000 to 4 000 years old and is the only landmark for hundreds of miles.
The Makgadikgadi region is made up of a series of pans, the largest of which are Sowa and Ntwetwe Pans. Both are surrounded by a myriad of smaller pans. North of these two pans are Kudiakam pan, Nxai Pan and Kaucaca Pan. Sand dunes, rocky islands and peninsulas and desert terrain give the regions its unique character.
Vegetation cannot grow on the salty surface of the pans but the fringes are covered with grasslands. Massive baobab trees create striking features and dramatic photo opportunities in the setting sun. Extensive grasslands and acacia woodland characterise the western end of Ntwetwe, which falls into the Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve.
Large herds of zebra and wildebeest begin their westward migration to the Boteti region at the start of the rainy season. Other species that make the great trek include gemsbok, eland, red hartebeest, kudu, bushbuck, duiker, giraffe, springbok and steenbok. Accompanying them on their migration is a selection of predators, including the rare brown hyena. Large numbers of elephants join the wondering herds and predators, making this time of year an outstanding safari experience.
THE MOST STUNNING PLACES TO VISIT IN BOTSWANA
Botswana is a land of extremes and attracts a wide spectrum of tourists; from wildlife enthusiasts to birders, photographers and extreme adventurers. Your options for a Botswana safari tour are endless so Moafrika Tours has narrowed the list down to their favourite Botswana tourist destinations.
The Okavango Delta received World Heritage status in 2014 when it became the 1 000th site inscribed on the World Heritage List. This magical oasis is visible from space and boasts the prestigious title of being one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. The vast natural wonderland is 15 000 square kilometres of spectacular waterways, marshlands and narrow river channels with an abundance of bird and wildlife that have synchronised their biological cycles with the seasonal rains and floods.
The delta is regarded as an exceptional example of the interaction between climatic, hydrological and biological processes, and is home to some of the world’s most endangered species of large mammal such as the cheetah, white and black rhinoceros, African wild dog and lion.
The vast waterway system experiences annual flooding from the Okavango River and during this time, the easiest way to get around the delta is on a traditional canoe known as a mokoro. The vast waterways cannot be explored in a four-wheel vehicle so most safari tour operators in Botswana offer boat cruises. A safari tour of Okavango Delta involves leisurely days spent floating down tranquil, lily-covered lagoons and narrow channels hemmed in by papyrus reeds, floating alongside river banks teeming in bird and wildlife.
Millions of years ago, the Okavango River flowed into a large ancient inland lake called Lake Makgadikgadi (now Makgadikgadi Pans). The flow of the river was disrupted by tectonic activity and faulting which caused it to backup and change course. This created a unique system of waterways that breaks up the vast, dry Kalahari savanna.
The origin of the flooding occurs in October when rainwater from Angola makes its way through from the northern territory to the bottom end of the delta near the town of Maun. The flood water crosses over the border between Botswana and Namibia in December and submerges into the deep Kalahari sand at the end of the delta in July, which is a period of nine months from beginning to end.
The drop in elevation from the source of the flooding to the delta is minimal which means the water slowly meanders towards its end destination. It is the only delta in the world that dead-ends in a desert, as opposed to an ocean. Over 95% of the flood water eventually evaporates and seeps into the sandy floodplains.
The Okavango Delta is divided into three main habitats: the main river, permanent rivers and dry lands. Depending on where you are in the delta, you have the option of luxury lodges built on the dry islands or rustic campsites dotted along the waterways. Papyrus and Phoenix palms flourish in the area and the waterways provide an ideal ecosystem for spectacular birdlife and sought-after game fish such as tiger fish.
This world-famous safari tourist destination has something for everyone; from birdwatching and game viewing to fishing, photography, night drives and walking safaris. Most safari tourists are there to see the Big 5 but the sound of millions of frogs, the nervous giggle of hyena, the call of fish eagles and the grumpy grunting of bossy hippos are usually what travellers remember best.
The Okavango Delta can be visited all-year round but the dry winter months and early spring (May to November) is considered the best time to visit the region. Birders descend in their droves in the summer months (November to March) to catch the seasonal arrival of the migrant species.
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
This incredible wonderland stretches from the banks of the Boteti River which is the main river flowing out of the Okavango Delta. It collects the water that flows through the savanna grasslands in the Maun region and continues 250 kilometres south-eastwards until it reaches Lake Xau in the extreme south-western edge of the extensive salt pans.
In the mid-1980s flood water levels decreased significantly as the region entered into a period of drought. An agonising cycle of low rainfall in the catchment area created an arid landscape punctuated by a few waterholes in the river beds that were fed by underground seeps. The Boteti River only flowed strongly again in 2009 when the highest flood levels in the Okavango Delta that were recorded in the last 25 years.
The Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is a harsh, arid region but animals such as the oryx, kudu and elephants have adapted to living in such extreme conditions. Thousands of zebra and wildebeest migrate to the river flood plains at the end of winter when the dry desert landscape transforms into a magical oasis. Thousands of migratory bird species make their way over extremely long distances to enjoy the spoils of a glorious rainy season.
The Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is home to the second-largest zebra migration in the world, with some 25 000 making the journey to Boteti River in search of better grazing. The Boteti River system is a unique ecosystem that is renowned for its seasonal peaks of being bone dry or in full flood. Over centuries, the wild game and migratory birds have adapted their migratory habits to accommodate seasonal fluctuations.
Kubu Island is located near the south-western shore of Sowa (or Sua) Pan. It is one of the most popular safari destinations in Botswana, known for its forest of ancient baobabs that surround the white-washed salt pans. The name Kubu means ‘large rock’ in Kalanga or ‘hippopotamus’ in Tswana, which perfectly describes the dry granite rock island that is a standout landmark in the Makgadikgadi Pan.
Kubu Island is a national monument and considered by the indigenous people living in the region to be a sacred site. The crescent-shaped island has terraced slopes with fossil beaches that are rich in archaeological history, where stone tools, arrowheads and dry stone walls (cairns) dating back to the era of Homo sapiens have been discovered (from around 1 400-1 600 AD).
Archaeologist Alec Campbell presented a theory that the remote island was used as a ‘circumcision camp’ where boys from the ancient tribes were taken for the circumcision ceremony marking their entry into adulthood. It is still common practice for men over 16 years of age who live in the neighbouring villages visit the island to make contact with God, singing a particular song for rain and leaving sacrificial offerings at the sacred site.
If you are planning to stay overnight at Kubu Island, be warned that the only accommodation available is for seasoned campers. Lekhubu Camp can accommodate a limited number of visitors at 14 campsites, with basic braai facilities and a pit latrine toilet per campsite. Kubu Island is only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles.
Nxai Pan National Park
This premier safari destination is located in northern Botswana and forms part of the Makgadikgadi complex. The salt-crusted basin is spread over two pans that were once ancient salt lakes that have since been covered in grass and support an abundance of bird and wildlife. The 2 580 square kilometre national park is characterised by swathes of natural forest, savanna woodland and expansive grasslands.
The two pans are Nxai Pan and Kgama-Kgam Pan. The pans are believed to have been formed some five million years ago when the Okavango, Chobe and Zambezi Rivers flowed along a different course. Tectonic activity re-directed the rivers and left behind a vast expanse of dry riverbeds. The terrain seems to stretch endlessly until it meets the watery horizon and, for much of the year, is a desolate destination. Only with the magical summer rains does it transform into a spectacular destination for a wildlife safari.
The Nxai Pan National Park was once state land but it was proclaimed a wildlife reserve in 1970. Its boundaries were extended in 1992 to incorporate Baines’ Baobabs and the area was granted national park status. The main attraction for tourists is the staggering number of herbivores that descend on the region during the rainy season. Wildebeest, zebra and gemsbok in their thousands congregate around the water hole at Nxai Pan or roam across the open grasslands and acacia woodlands.
Travellers have a choice of two small public camping sites with ablution facilities, but these can only be reached with a four-wheel drive vehicle. There are no facilities available such as shops and fuel stations and tourists are advised to travel fully equipped to camp in this remote region.
This awe-inspiring destination is located 30 kilometres from Nxai Pan National Park and a highlight of any Botswana safari tour. Seven massive, ancient baobab trees stand sentry on an island overlooking the white, salt-crusted Kudiakam Pan.
The island and baobab outcrop was named by the 19th century explorer, Sir Thomas Baines, who came across them on his travels while complete a two-year journey from Namibia to Victoria Falls (1861-63). Baines was an artist and cartographer and famously captured them in pencil-drawn sketches which also include ox-drawn wagons and people attending to their horses. His diaries, sketches and paintings are a historic record of Africa at that time.
With his travelling companion James Chapman, Baines endured extreme hardships in the arid region and nearly succumbed to illness, thirst and starvation. Despite this, the intrepid explorer wrote that the journey “filled him with a deep appreciation of the beauty of Africa”.
Accommodation at Baines’ Baobabs is a few basic campsites with rustic ablution facilities; a pit latrine and a shower. The campsite is not fenced or developed and travellers are advised to come fully equipped for a real bush camping experience.
Tsodilo Hills World Heritage Site
Tsodilo Hills is often referred to as the ‘Louvre in the desert’ with some 4 500 rock art paintings found in the dry corner of the Kalahari Desert. The region was inhabited by the Stone Age people, the Hambukushu and San communities and evidence of their existence can be found in abundance.
Tsodilo Hills gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001 for its unique religious and spiritual significance. Rock art, rock shelters, depressions and caves record unique evidence of human settlement over many millennia.
The heritage site includes other significant hills such as Child Hill, the Female Hill and the Male Hill. These are considered sacral sites to the San people of the Kalahari.
The majority of Botswana is covered by the Kalahari Desert that extends some 900 000 square kilometres from Namibia to the northern regions of South Africa. It gets its name from the Tswana word Kgala, meaning “the great thirst” or Kgalagadi, meaning “a waterless place” which aptly describes the vast arid landscape that is covered in red sand without any permanent surface water.
The Kalahari Desert came into existence approximately sixty million years ago along with the formation of the African continent. The existence of early humans dating back to the Stone and Iron Age can be found, and many of the tribal groups that live in the area are descendants of the early San people.
The only permanent river in the desert is the Okavango River which flows into the delta. Ancient river beds called omuramba meander through the arid central-northern region and create standing pools of water that fill up in the rainy season.
Seasonal rains create huge tracts of grasslands that are excellent grazing for animals, meaning the Kalahari is not a true desert such as the Namib Desert to the west. Summer temperatures are scorching and in the rainy season, the wettest areas receive no more than about 500 millilitres of water.
The Kalahari Desert is home to many migratory birds and animals, and a haven for elephants, giraffe and predators such as lions and cheetah. These animals have adapted in unique ways to the arid desert habitat and exhibit remarkable survival skills.
The north and east regions of the Kalahari Desert is characterised by dry forests, savannas and ancient salt lakes. The south and west regions are dominated by xeric savanna. Although referred to as a desert, the Kalaharian climate is subtropical with average annual temperatures greater than or equal to 18°C. Night temperatures plummet to -18°C in the coldest months of the year. Summer temperatures are very hot but in comparison to a true desert such as the Sahara Desert, daily temperatures are considered to be relatively mild (reaching up to 45°C).
The Kalahari Desert supports a variety of plants that include an abundance of acacia trees, the horned melon, African cucumber, jelly melon and hedged gourd. These plants are endemic to the Kalahari Desert and a valuable source of sustenance to the San people.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park is spread over 3.6 million hectares that is characterised by massive sand dunes and dry riverbeds. It is located in the southern region of Botswana on the border of South Africa, with one-quarter of the park lying in South Africa. The national park is made up of two adjoining national parks, namely the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana.
The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa was established in July 1931 to protect the migrating game from poaching, with a special emphasis on the dwindling numbers of gemsbok. By 1999, representatives from what is now SANParks (South African National Parks) and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Botswana had set up a joint management committee to manage the expansive conservation region in both countries as one single ecological unit. A historic bilateral agreement signed by both countries in 1992 created a formal entity whereby the two national parks would be managed according to mutually-beneficial conservation principles.
In 2000, President Festus Mogae of Botswana and then-President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, formally launched South Africa’s Peace Park which was named the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. In 2014, the world was shocked to hear that more than half of the Botswana portion of the peace park had been sold for shale gas fracking.
Kgalagadi means “place of thirst” and alternates between being dry and sun scorched to a magical oasis that comes alive in the rainy season. The largest portion of the national park lies within the southern Kalahari Desert and is dominated by sparse vegetation and scrub trees. The dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob Rivers are said to flow only about once in a century, although underground water sustains plant life in the area.
The national park has a reputation of being one of the best places in Botswana to see the Big Cats, including large numbers of cheetah, lion, leopard and hyena.
The Kgalagadi National Park offers the choice of three tourist lodges known as rest camps. They are fully-serviced lodges with standard amenities such as air conditioning, a convenience store and a swimming pool. There are an additional six wilderness camps in the national park that are suited for seasoned bush travellers and those that prefer a more isolated, rustic experience.
In October 2002, an area of some 580 kilometres was set aside within the national park for the native Khomani San and Mier communities. The main lodge is named !Xaus Lodge (meaning ‘heart’ in the local dialect) and revenue generated by tourism to the settlement area benefits the native communities.
Moremi Wildlife Reserve
This premier safari destination in Botswana lies on the eastern side of the Okavango and is regarded in leading tourism circles as one of the ‘best game reserves in Africa’. The Moremi conservation sanctuary is known as a game reserve, as opposed to a national park, which means the local BaSarwa (Bushmen) tribes that have always lived in the area are allowed to stay in the reserve.
Moremi Wildlife Reserve is the first wildlife sanctuary in Africa that was established by the native residents. The people were so concerned about the rapid depletion of wildlife in their ancestral lands brought about by unchecked hunting and the encroachment of cattle in the wild areas that, under the leadership of the late Chief Moremi III’s wife, took action and sought to proclaim Moremi a protected game reserve in 1963.
It is the only protected area within the Okavango Delta that allows the native inhabitants to continue to reside in the reserve. It is situated in the central and eastern region of the delta and includes the prestigious Moremi Tongue and the chief’s island, which is regarded as one of Africa’s richest and most diverse ecosystems.
The Moremi Wildlife Reserve is a ‘Big Five’ safari destination and world-renowned for spectacular game viewing and birdwatching. In addition, it is a sanctuary for the endangered black and white rhino of the country. The reserve covers an area of approximately 3 9000 square kilometres and merges into the Okavango Delta which enjoys seasonal flooding. During the rainy season, an expanse of waterways, lagoons, pools and pans create a visual feast, interspersed by magnificent riverine and mophane forests.
The thickly wooded areas are home to the endangered Cape wild dog and leopard that traverse between the reserve and the Chobe National Park in the northeast. It is not the largest park in Botswana but it is hugely popular as it supports nearly 500 species of birds and large numbers of Cape buffalo, the Angolan giraffe, Southwest African lion, elephant, black rhino, hyena, jackal and the red lechwe.
Chobe National Park
The Chobe River runs along the northern border of Chobe National Park that is located in northern Botswana. This lush green belt creates a spectacular natural landmark that supports an array of birds and wildlife. The most popular time to visit the Chobe National Park is during the dry season (April to October) when game concentrations are high.
The Chobe National Park was the first proclaimed national park in Botswana and the third largest in the country. It is regarded as the most biologically diverse of the top three national reserves in Botswana, made up of three distinct biospheres:
The original inhabitants of the Chobe area were the San Bushmen (also known as the Basarwa people). They were nomadic hunter-gatherers who adapted to the extreme arid conditions of the semi-desert, moving constantly in search of better grazing and food sources. Rocky outcrops and hills in the region showcase the ancient paintings from this historic period.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the region had become Botswana and was divided into different land tenure systems. To protect the dwindling numbers of wild animals and promote the region as a premier safari destination, the region was proclaimed a protected area in the early 1930s. It was proclaimed a national park in 1967 and all hunting in the region was prohibited.
Local inhabitants were moved out of the Chobe district and farming activity that was dominated by the timber industry was closed down. Today, the Chobe National Park is regarded as one of the most spectacular safari destinations for sightings of the Big Five.
Linyanti Wildlife Reserve
This secluded and uncrowded reserve lies to the north of the Okavango Delta in the furthest corner of Chobe National Park. The landscape is dominated by papyrus-lined lagoons, reed beds and large-canopy trees that flank the majestic river frontage.
Spanning an area of some 1 250 square kilometres, the reserve is bordered by the Linyanti River in the north on the Namibian border and the Chobe National Park in the east. It supports large concentrations of migratory birds and wildlife with other unusual sightings of rare species such as the aardvark.
The Linyanti Wildlife Reserve is very different to the Okavango Delta and characterised by open grasslands and waterholes that are fed by the Savuti and Linyanti Rivers. Stunning forests of mopane and leadwood trees create a wild oasis for the massive herds of elephant that descend on the area in the winter months (June to October).
The Linyanti Wildlife Reserve is situated in a remote area that is not easily accessible, therefore it is highly prized as a safari destination for travellers who prefer the tranquillity and solitude of the pristine grasslands. Safari tourists have the choice of a few small private camps that offer an exclusive experience for the lucky few.
Khama Rhino Sanctuary
The Khama Rhino Sanctuary was established by the Botswana government in 1992 as a community-based project to help protect and restore the numbers of both white and black rhino in Botswana. The emphasis of the rhino sanctuary is on sustainable tourism and the community derives the economic benefits from tourism to the region. In addition to rhino, the 8 585 hectare wildlife sanctuary supports a wide array of bird species and wild game.
There is a variety of accommodation available at Khama Rhino Sanctuary, with the most popular being the well-managed campsite. This option is ideal for wildlife enthusiasts who prefer to avoid the crowds for the tranquillity and solitude of the wild region.
THE TOWN OF MAUN
Maun, which means the “Place of Reeds”, is the gateway to the spectacular Okavango Delta. Maun has developed from a very small rural village into a busy city with a growing population and good infrastructure.
The town of Maun was avoided for a long period of time when a tsetse fly invasion drove villages out of the settlement and kept people away. The tsetse fly plague was eradicated in the 1930 and 1940s and the town began to thrive.
Maun first attracted traders and hunters but today it is regarded as the “safari tourist” hub of the country. The town has grown as an administrative capital and is home to the North West District Council (NWDC) that administers the vast region.
Gaborone is the capital and largest city of Botswana, and the administrative and legislative seat of government. It boasts a population of some 230 000 people which represents about 10% of the total population. It is also the headquarters of the Botswana Stock Exchange and the South African Development Community (SADC), which is a regional economic community established in 1992.
Since its independence, Botswana has gained international fame for having one of the fastest growth rates in per capita income in the world. The government is responsible for transforming the country from being one of the poorest in Africa to being a middle-income, economically-stable country. Botswana is rich in natural resources and has established good economic frameworks to capitalise on mining and tourism in the region.
Batswana business people enjoy a high level of economic freedom compared to other African countries and the government is regarded to be relatively free of corruption. The government abolished exchange controls which resulted in the creation of new investment options that proved highly attractive to multi-national mining groups and other international trading enterprises. Botswana received the highest sovereign credit rating in Africa and has stockpiled foreign exchange reserves amounting to almost two and a half years of current imports.
After mining, tourism is the cornerstone of Botswana’s economy. Safari-based tourism is tightly controlled and wildlife conservation is strongly supported as a means of securing revenue for the people of Botswana who otherwise would have no other means of supporting their families.
WEATHER IN BOTSWANA AND BEST TIME TO VISIT
The climate of Botswana is divided simply into the dry, hot months and the rainy, wet months. Rainfall can be erratic, unpredictable and differs vastly from one region to another.
The summer season begins in November and ends in March. The day temperatures are scorching hot and there is little cloud cover to ease one’s pain. Light rain showers occur but only for short periods of time.
The winter season begins in May and ends in August. This is regarded as the dry season when virtually no rain falls in the area. Winter days are sunny and warm, but not as unbearably hot as the summer days. Temperatures drop at night, often to below freezing in the cooler regions in the southeast which is gets the cold, night winds from the Atlantic Ocean on the Namibian coastline.
The best time to visit Botswana for spectacular game viewing is during the in-between months, namely April/May and September/October. The climate is more temperate, with cooler days and warmer nights.
The best time to visit Botswana if you are an enthusiastic birder is during the wet summer months, between November and March. This is when the Okavango Delta is teeming with migratory birds.
The rainy season is in summer, with the highest rainfall usually experienced in January and February. Rainfall is affected by how far west and south you go. Humidity levels in summer range from 60 to 80% at the hottest time in the day to between 30 to 40% in the afternoons and early evenings.
For tourists, the best time to visit Botswana is from April through to October. This is an ideal time both for weather and game viewing. In the dry spells, an abundance of migratory bird species and animals descend on the floodplains, natural waterholes and river channels.
TRAVEL INFORMATION FOR BOTSWANA
Botswana is a malaria area and safari tourists are advised to take prophylactics for the prevention of malaria. Travellers are also advised to use insect repellent and to wear long-sleeved clothing, long trousers and socks when outside at night.
Any person visiting from or having travelled through a country that is a yellow fever infected region must be in possession of a valid International Certificate of Vaccination against yellow fever.
Tap water in Botswana is purified and is safe to drink at hotels, lodges and other public places.
All major credit cards are accepted at hotels, shops and restaurants in the major city centres. However, banking facilities are limited in the more remote regions. Take an adequate amount of cash to pay for fuel as some remote petrol stations do not take credit cards.
Botswana is regarded as one of the safest countries to travel around in Africa. The government and its citizens are acutely aware of how much they depend of tourism and generally a zero-tolerance to crime and corruption is exhibited. Regardless of its safety record, tourists are advised to follow the usual precautions to stay safe and to keep their valuables safe.
Maun is the fifth largest town in Botswana and regarded as the “tourist capital” of the country. It is the headquarters of the majority of safari and air-chartered operations who take international tourists to the popular tourist destinations. The town has shopping centres, hotels and banking facilities but it has a reputation for being somewhat of a “wild west outpost”.