Without question Botswana’s two big drawcards are its wildlife and its space. It has a wealth of attractions, each of which pack a hefty punch, which makes it difficult to know which to include if you are tight on time. Here’s our guide to the country’s main attractions to help you on your way. By James Gifford
n 13 years of living in Botswana, I still find myself amazed at the diversity of wildlife and landscapes the country offers, without having lost the sense of wilderness that enticed early explorers centuries ago. It is impossible to see it all in one trip, so be selective. Budgeting for at least three nights at each camp will ensure you are not rushing from one place to the next. Don’t be fooled into thinking the most famous destinations are necessarily the best – often it is the unexpected moments that will lie long in your memory. Imagine watching thousands of striped legs thunder across the Makgadikgadi’s emerald plains, for example, as the sun dips below an idyllic palm tree-lined horizon without a single vehicle in sight…
Chobe National Park
Unusually, the country’s most-visited national park is best appreciated from the water. The broad Chobe River is famous for its swimming elephants, which regularly cross to feed on the lush islands, sometimes amassing in herds of a hundred or more. However, the remarkably relaxed hippos, colossal crocodiles and omnipresent fish eagles can be almost as entertaining. As you watch troops of baboons frolic, or a herd of kudu approach to drink, keep an eye out for the resident lion pride or a furtive leopard coming down to the water’s edge. For predator fans game drives are a better bet, but the limited road network in what is Botswana’s busiest park can get congested.
Most lodges do game drives in the morning and boat cruises in the afternoon, so one option to avoid the crowds is to do the opposite. Alternatively, if I am going on the river in the afternoon my preference is to leave early or, if on land, do a full-day game drive with packed lunch, both of which ensure we get to marvel at Chobe’s fascinating fauna in relative peace. Peak game-viewing is at the height of the dry season in September and October when, as the only water source around, the river attracts animals from far and wide. After the rains, the landscape is a lot more attractive, but the wildlife disperses and, incredibly, you may not see a single elephant.
Famous for its predators, immortalised in National Geographic’s Savage Kingdom series, there is more to Savute than the big cats and dogs for which it is justly renowned. I spent two years photographing here while the ephemeral channel gradually dried up in 2015. It has not flowed since, once again concentrating the wildlife around a handful of pumped waterholes in the dry season. Here you can watch warthogs and jackals scampering around, trying to sneak through a forest of elephant legs to snatch a drink, while tawny eagles patiently wait for flocks of quelea and doves to succumb to their thirst.
The unusual landscape features a chain of volcanic hills, whose caves and crevices are worth scrutinising for leopards. After the rains, the treeless expanse known as the marsh comes alive with flocks of carmine bee-eaters and raptors, swooping down to snatch grasshoppers among the lush grasses. At the same time of year, Savute plays host to hundreds of migrating zebra whose distinctive brays echo across the marsh. Savute’s only downside is that its location inside Chobe National Park rules out night drives.
Botswana’s iconic World Heritage Site is a mecca for wildlife year-round, courtesy of the fortuitous timing of an annual flood which replenishes channels and swells rivers just when natural rain-filled pans are drying out. Consequently, somewhat counter-intuitively, because the Okavango is fed by rivers originating in Angola, the Delta is at its wettest in the middle of the dry season – around June – several months after the rains have finished. At this time, you can expect your game drives to involve daring, bonnet-high water-crossings. Or for a more sedate experience, drift noiselessly in a mokoro (dugout canoe) while you watch red lechwe run through lagoons spraying a cascade of shimmering water in their wake.
Ebb & Flow
How is the Okavango Delta created and how does that affect the wildlife?
As early as October rain clouds deposit their load over the Angolan highlands, more than 1000km away. Over the next few months the resulting water slowly flows into Namibia and on to Botswana.
Forests and source lakes
In Angola, miombo forests spread across the headwaters of four rivers. The forests play a crucial role in filtering the rainwater into peat-based source lakes. These can hold ten times more water than a normal wetland, ensuring a constant flow into the rivers.
The Cubango River delivers the first pulses of the annual flood between January and March. A second peak occurs between April and May when water, predominately from the Cuito River, is slowly released into the Delta.
The Delta receives an average of 9.4 cubic kilometres of water each year.
Panhandle and swamps
The Panhandle marks the beginning of the Delta. Here, the volume, speed and height of the flow are at their greatest, with water levels fluctuating by up to two metres. Permanent swamps, covering around 6000 sq km, extend from the base of the Panhandle. From here the floodwaters create seasonal swamps (May-September), the expanse of which vary greatly from year to year (from 4000 to 8000 sq km), depending on the amount of rainfall.
The water here is generally less than half-a-metre deep, leading to the formation of temporary islands – some no more than a molehill, others large and heavily vegetated.
To the desert
In July/August, the flood reaches the seasonal Thamalakane River, the Delta’s main outlet. The water then pushes into the Boteti River and the Kalahari, ending at Lake Xau in the Makgadikgadi Pans – though this only happens in years of heavy rainfall and even then it is short-lived, quickly draining and evaporating.
The bulk of the Okavango is divided into vast private concessions, each of which normally entertains no more than three lodges. These offer the ultimate in exclusivity and isolation, not to mention some of the continent’s best game viewing. Most have a maximum of 10 rooms, access is only possible by light aircraft and you are unlikely to see a vehicle from another camp. This comes at a price and the cost of some of the uber-luxurious lodges might deter all but the exceptionally well-heeled.
As the animals are free to wander throughout (there are no fences between concessions), there is infinite variety. Stick to traditional game drives or opt for a safari by foot, boat, mokoro, hot-air balloon or even horseback – all are possible depending upon the camp and the surrounding habitat. Since these concessions are not in a national park, night drives are possible and you can also drive off-road, which gives you extra flexibility.
Given the overwhelming choice, I recommend you book with an agent who has specific knowledge of the individual camps.
Khwai Community Area
With an impressive density of predators, healthy elephant population and a permanent river inhabited by hippos, crocodiles and numerous waterfowl, this community-run concession rarely disappoints. I have had some of my best sightings here, from swimming lions to hunting leopards and a particularly ferocious battle between a tenacious pack of wild dogs and an unfortunate lone spotted hyena.
With campsites for independent travellers and mobile safari operators, and a clutch of lodges catering for the full spectrum of budgets, the only negative is that accessibility is almost too easy, so it can sometimes feel quite busy during peak season. I prefer the shoulder seasons (April-May or November-early December). Although you may encounter the occasional shower, you will not only avoid the crowds, but also benefit from lower prices.
Moremi Game Reserve
As southern Africa’s first wildlife reserve to be set aside and run by the local community, Moremi has a heritage that matches its wildlife credentials. This is the only Big Five national park in Botswana, although rhino are seldom seen. Sightings tend to be best in the dry season, but Moremi’s real attraction is its diversity – from thousand-strong buffalo herds to flocks of fishing storks, you never know what is around the next corner.
I particularly enjoy the scenery: verdant floodplains and saturated marshland interspersed with mopane woodland. Dead tree island is hauntingly beautiful.
Covering one third of the Delta, there is no shortage of space and an extensive road network ensures it is easy to escape other vehicles. Mobile operators and independent travellers can choose from a selection of campsites, while a handful of fly-in lodges cater for less budget-conscious tourists. Although night drives are not permitted, a boat station offers respite for vehicle-weary travellers.
The northern Delta, known as the panhandle, may not be renowned for big game but it is a paradise for birders and anglers, as well as anyone seeking a break from the pre-dawn wake up calls on the safari circuit. This is a chance to appreciate the finer details of the Delta, and perhaps catch a rare sighting of a sitatunga or Pel’s fishing owl. Lodge activities revolve around boats or guided walks, or alternatively, drift downstream on a houseboat for a few days.
Fisherfolk should time their visit with the barbel run – occurring around September to October – when receding floodwaters force baitfish into the main river channels, attracting a host of barbel (catfish), tigerfish, bream and a plethora of birds.
A year in the Delta
The height of the rainy season sees scores of migrant bird species and vibrant backdrops.
Heavy rains stimulate lush vegetation; birds are in abundance.
Rains still heavy; most summer avian visitors leave.
Rains abate; the flood peaks in the Panhandle; nights become cooler.
First wave of the flood reaches the central Delta, coinciding with impala rutting season; breeding elephant herds move north.
Wild dogs start to den; vegetation takes on a neutral winter colouring.
Flood peaks in central Delta causing some wildlife to become stranded on islands – a great time for game viewing.
Thinning vegetation aids game viewing.
Wild dogs leave dens with their pups, nesting carmine bee-eaters arrive in north Delta; leopards lurk in trees waiting for impala to feed on fallen sausage tree flowers.
The hottest month, up to 40C; rapidly evaporating water concentrates wildlife around remaining water sources.
Periodic thunderstorms; first summer migrant birds arrive; birthing season for plains game.
First rains start to fill natural pans, bush is transformed into lush green canvas; foals, calves and lambs abound.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve
With its comparative lack of vehicles and timeless sense of raw wilderness, the Central Kalahari probably ranks as my favourite park in Botswana. Everything here is super-sized: from the reserve itself (the second largest in Africa), to the impressive Kalahari black-maned lions, and the never-ending, cavernous skies. Watch in amazement as springbok pronk several metres above the silky grasses like Mariinsky ballet dancers in an effort to deter the canniest of hunters. In the evening, the lilting chorus of barking geckos – one of Africa’s most quintessential soundtracks – will forever remind you of nights in the Kalahari.
The best time to visit is around April, after the rains, when the lush valleys attract large herds of springbok and gemsbok, enticing lion, leopard and cheetah. This is the best place in the country to see the latter, but I am equally enamoured by the indefatigable honey badgers, perpetually digging for edible treasure, and the undeniably cute bat-eared foxes that litter the pans.
Linyanti, Kwando and Selinda
These sprawling, neighbouring concessions are best visited during the dry season, when wildlife congregates around the permanent Kwando and Linyanti rivers – the precursors to the Chobe. In Selinda, the primary water source is the expansive Zibadianja lagoon, together with the Selinda Spillway, which flows only in times of high flood. Game-viewing throughout can be on a par with some of the best in the Okavango, with good populations of lion, leopard, wild dog and, to a lesser extent, cheetah, as well as all the usual herbivores. Although a small section of Linyanti is accessible to self-drivers, the concessions are predominantly the domain of luxury fly-in lodges.
Often bypassed, this little gem of a park has the potential to punch above its weight. In the dry season, when the action revolves around a single pumped waterhole, wildlife viewing can be a little unpredictable. But on a good day you might find springbok, oryx or giraffe running the gauntlet past a resident lion pride, only to then have to negotiate a group of belligerent elephant bulls before they can finally quench their thirst.
In the green season, springbok and gemsbok numbers swell and the pans are awash with herds of migrating zebras and wildebeest. This is the optimum time to visit, when in addition to the desert stalwarts you have a reasonable chance of seeing cheetah or even leopard. To this day, my leopard sighting here from over a decade ago still ranks as one of my most memorable. With just one lodge and a handful of campsites, there is no danger of overcrowding.
Located around 45 minutes from the primary game-viewing area, Baines’ baobabs is a cluster of seven colossal, magnificently gnarled trees, perched on the edge of a dazzling white salt pan. If you are staying at one of the nearby campsites, come here in the late afternoon to marvel as the majestic giants turn crimson in the setting sun.
Makgadikgadi National Park
My first year in Botswana was spent on the edge of the Makgadikgadi salt pans, whose surreal, stark beauty still takes my breath away. Devoid of vegetation, the pristine pans can be explored by single or multi-day quad bike expeditions, which venture as far as Kubu Island – a granite outcrop rising like a mythical castle. Despite the apparent lack of life, the pans are an important breeding site for thousands of greater flamingos.
The neighbouring national park is famous for vast herds of zebras, which clamber down steep, dusty cliffs to drink from the Boteti river in the west of the park in the dry season. After the rains, they migrate east, filling the picturesque grasslands, attracting lions and cheetah in tow. Here you might also spot a shy brown hyena or a clan of meerkats, several of which have been habituated. The limited number of lodges and campsites ensures the park never feels busy, especially in the east, where it can sometimes feel like you have the whole place to yourself.
Northern Tuli Game Reserve
Located far from the country’s other national parks, this amalgamation of private reserves is well worth the effort of getting here and is increasingly popular with self-drivers crossing over from South Africa.
Scenically stunning, the landscape is unlike anywhere else in the country. Ancient riverbeds and rolling valleys meld into riverine woodland dominated by gigantic nyala trees, while towering kopjes and basalt cliffs create a dramatic backdrop.
Wildlife sightings are similarly impressive, particularly of lion, leopard and cheetah. In addition to its healthy elephant population, Tuli is a great place to spot eland and klipspringer, two of the least common antelope species.
Although there are no public campsites, several lodges cater for a variety of budgets, offering horseback, walking and cycle safaris as well as game drives, while the ground-level hides will excite even the reluctant photographer.
Khama Rhino Sanctuary
A conveniently located stopover in the east of the country with a range of accommodation, this sanctuary was created to protect and help breed Botswana’s rhino population. Although the animals are free to roam, it is the closest you will get to a guaranteed sighting.
Kgalakgadi Transfrontier Park
With its sandy roads and limited facilities, Botswana’s side of the Kgalakgadi Transfrontier Park is a draw for the adventurous traveller, with one tourist lodge and facilities for self-sufficient campers. Resident wildlife includes all the desert specialists, including black-maned lions. But the real attraction lies in its rugged terrain and the sense of wilderness and isolation.
Oteng Othusitse (OT), guide at TaShebube, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a magical place of red sand dunes, a landscape going on forever, star-crammed night skies, black-maned lions, cheetah, leopards, brown hyena and bat-eared fox as well as small mammals like the Cape fox, aardwolf, African wild cat, ground squirrel and mischievous meerkats. Of the 80 raptor species recorded in southern Africa, 52 have been seen here. And let’s not forget the desert orchestra – rodents and lizards such as whistling rats and barking geckos, which keep the desert awake at night with their chirping and whistling sounds. It is a memory you will always carry with you; your heart will forever be in the desert.
In a country devoid of contours, the four Tsodilo hills loom as large as a range of mountains. Ranging from a short, leisurely hike to a full-day expedition, all are climbable with a local guide, depending on your fitness level. Not only do the peaks offer stupendous views over the surrounding landscape, they are a cultural treasure trove, containing over 4000 individual bushman rock paintings, dating back as far as 800 AD. Other evidence of human habitation extends back 100,000 years and the spiritual significance of Tsodilo is still appreciated by the ancestors of those early settlers, who act as guides today.
A favourite destination of the former president, these remote, seldom-visited caves will reward determined travellers with some impressive stalagmite and stalactite formations. Bring a torch and be sure to hire a guide to ensure you don’t get lost.
Willem Barnard , Penduka Safaris
Botswana has been blessed with a stable government since Independence, which has led to a positive environment for tourism. Although there are challenges, Botswana retains massive undeveloped areas where wildlife roams freely. Some parts of northern Botswana have become very popular, however many areas still exist where you can find solitude and the real spirit of years gone by. Thanks to my father, I have always loved the Kalahari the most, but it is still hard for me, having grown up on safari and after 33 years of guiding, to advise a first-time visitor. Some people simply want to see their first giraffe, elephant or lion, whereas I have seen them hundreds of times over. But certainly Moremi will always impress; also Savuti with all its harshness and abundance of game.
Our insider tips if you’re passing through Maun
Make a basket
At Quality Baskets you can learn how to make one of the country’s most famous exports in a half-day basket weaving workshop, or simply choose one of the vast range of designs to take home with you.
Soak up a sundowner
Okavango River Lodge and The Bridge are favourite sundowner spots, combining a relaxed ambience and attractive setting with hearty food and a good choice of drinks.
Take a mokoro trip
If you are not travelling into the Delta, then a single or multi-day mokoro excursion will give you a taste of the Okavango, and you may even see an elephant. Access to the mokoro station is either by boat or vehicle, depending on water levels.
This compact, centrally-located museum is best visited when showing a special exhibition, during which it displays local works of art, sculpture and photography.
Okavango Music Festival
Held near a remote village around 20km from Maun in August each year, this three-day festival boasts a host of international bands and an array of other entertainment. Tickets must be purchased in advance.
Movie night at Motsana Centre
Most Thursdays, Maun’s innovative ‘cinema’ shows an ever-changing selection of recent DVD releases on a big screen, which you can enjoy from the comfort of cushion-filled armchairs and snug sofas.
Picture credit Gaston Piccinetti, Shutterstock