You’ve undoubtedly heard about the virtues of the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park before, but do you know how to get the most out of these destinations? Has the brilliance of these two blinded you to the other equally rewarding places in this nation’s unique landscape. Are you aware of the diversity of safari options available to you? James Gifford is here to help.
My eyes snapped open. It was just a subtle noise but it had transformed my surreal slumbering into an acute state of consciousness as abruptly as someone flicking on a light switch. I cocked my head, listening for the call again, which, after many nights in the bush, had become almost reassuring in its familiarity. The deep resonating tones began to echo once again across the valley, this time about a 3/10 on the volume scale, so I estimated its source to be possibly 5km away. I peered through the fine mesh of my tent door into the inky blackness of the night, remembering with a smug smile that the nearest campsite was over 20km away. I felt spoilt in my solitude, luxuriating in the knowledge that I was the only person in the world to hear the reverberating call of this lion and, with a bit of luck, in a couple of hours I would be the only one to see him too.
It is Botswana’s innovative low-density tourism policy that brings these and many other dreams alive, differentiating it from other safari destinations. Thirty-six per cent of its 581,730 square kilometres have been set aside for conservation, with the result that, despite its popularity, it still holds plenty of hidden delights for everyone from the virgin safari-goer to the seasoned veteran.
Botswana's 'big two'
The Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park are justifiably Botswana’s highest-profile destinations. After all, the Okavango is the most enthralling inland delta in the world (and one of its largest), with a great diversity and concentration of wildlife, unique watery landscapes and remarkable low-impact camps and safari activities. And Chobe has the densest elephant population on the planet, estimated to top 120,000. However, guaranteeing the dream experience you are after (and one that you can afford) requires a little planning. If you keep the parameters mentioned below in mind, things should all fall into place.
1. Okavango Delta
Where to stay
Camps in the delta tend to fall into one of two categories: those that are land-based and those that are water-based. Land-based options are typically renowned for their wildlife viewing opportunities, most of which take place in open-topped 4WD vehicles. Various lodges also specialise in walking, horseback and elephant-back safaris. Water-based camps tend to have a more relaxed vibe, and focus more on the surreal environment surrounding them. Big game tends to take a back seat at these camps, but you won’t care – you’ll be too busy reclining in a mokoro (traditional dugout canoe) spotting the teeming bird life above, or the tiny painted reed frogs the size of your fingernail. As both land- and water-based options are rewarding in their own right, each showing off impressively different aspects of the delta, it’s a good idea for your itinerary to include at least one of each. Moremi, the national reserve within the delta, has just three lodges but it also caters for self-drive visitors and mobile safaris.
With dozens of camps spread across the various areas of the delta, choosing which ones to visit can seem like reaching blindly into a large jar of pick-and-mix sweets. However, you’ll rarely find one that doesn’t please your palate. As some lodges scale stratospheric price heights the key will be finding one that suits your budget. It is important to understand that rates reflect the luxury of the camp rather than the quality of the wildlife experience. You just need to ask yourself if you want a private plunge pool, a suite with air-con and a personal butler or whether you would simply prefer to sleep under canvas and listen to the nocturnal symphony of the African bush.
When to visit
The dry winter months (June to September) are the peak season for wildlife viewing, but they are also the most expensive. African wild dogs tend to have their pups during this time, so coming towards the end of this period can increase your chances of a sighting – ask prospective camps if they have a resident pack and if they have located a den. The rainy season (December to April) is ideal for birders and it provides lush green backdrops – it’s also easier on the wallet. In September and October, elephant families tend to congregate into vast herds before dispersing once the first rains arrive. If you don’t mind the risk of the odd storm, travelling to Moremi in April to early May will give you more of the park to yourself – the game during this period is still some of the best in the world. The same can be said for October and November, but you’ll have to be prepared to stomach the potential 35-40°C heat.
The Khwai River separates Moremi Game Reserve from its northern neighbour, the Khwai Community Trust. Run entirely by the local village, the trust’s land is no less prolific in terms of wildlife, and being outside the reserve allows you the opportunity to enjoy night drives. These are incredibly atmospheric and give you the chance of spotting servals stalking their prey, spring hares bouncing like miniature kangaroos and impossibly cute bushbabies making gravity-defying leaps from one branch to another.
2. Chobe National park
Where to stay
There are three main areas for accommodation when visiting the park: Savuti, Linyanti and the Chobe riverfront. Each area has a palpably different feel, with differences both in vegetation and the dynamics of the wildlife populations.
The Savuti region, located in the southwest of the park, has inadvertently reinvented itself in the last two years due a period of heightened rains that have caused the Savuti Channel to flow for the first time in thirty years. Comprising a lush, expansive marsh, riverine habitat and mopane woodland, in my opinion, this now offers the best publicly accessible wildlife-viewing in the country. The marsh entertains huge herds of buffalo and elephant and some stunning bird life. Savuti has also become a fantastic place to see leopard thanks to several relaxed residents while its characteristic granite hills are home to the unusual klipspringer (antelope). It is worth climbing the Bushman Painting Hills as much for the view as for the paintings themselves. There are two luxury camps and a campsite at Savuti.
The Linyanti region lies north of Savuti, and surrounds the northwest corner of the national park. Although dominated by mopane woodlands, the most interesting areas are the gorgeous riparian forests, lagoons and marshes along the Linyanti River, which marks the region’s northern boundary. Within this area of the park there is a basic campsite. There are four upmarket tented camps in the nearby private Linyanti Concession.
The Chobe riverfront between the border post at Ngoma and the town of Kasane is a haven for wildlife and the most visited section of the park. Most people stay at one of the lodges around Kasane. If you are travelling independently, then camping further west at the Ihaha Public Campsite along the river will enable you to avoid most of the lodge traffic.
When to visit
As the dry season (June to September) drags on and water sources dry up elsewhere, the permanent sources, namely the Chobe and Linyanti Rivers, become havens for vast numbers of wildlife. With the channel now flowing Savuti has quite good game all year round. And during March and April, at the tail end of the rainy season, Savuti also attracts several thousand zebra from the north.
For something a little wilder, Nogatsaa is just the ticket. There are no public campsites here, so you can stay only as part of a mobile safari or, alternatively on a day trip from Kasane. Access is difficult in the rains, but in the dry season when the waterholes are being pumped (check with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in advance), this is a mini oasis, rich in game, where you are practically guaranteed not to see another vehicle.
Botswana's super seven
Diamonds are certainly not the only gems to be found outside the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park. There are phenomenal natural and cultural attractions spread across the breadth of the country, although if you review the tourism statistics you’d be hard pressed to believe it. So don’t make the mistakes that others do by focusing solely on Botswana’s ‘Big Two’. Branch out and explore the nation’s true diversity. Here are seven superb destinations that should be on your radar.
1. Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR)
The second largest reserve in Africa may lack the wildlife diversity of Moremi and Chobe, but its large open plains and never-ending skies are like a scene from Out of Africa. April is the best time to visit, when large herds of gemsbok and springbok are attracted here by the nutritious grasses that sprout on the pans after the rains. Timing isn’t an issue with regard to the Kalahari’s legendary black-maned lions as they are here all year round. The CKGR is a haven for raptors, and is also a major stronghold for the world’s heaviest flying bird, the kori bustard. Honey badgers and bat-eared foxes are often seen foraging, particularly in the cooler winter months.
There are just two lodges, which are found at opposite ends of the CKGR’s northern section, and part of the reserve’s allure is the small number of vehicles encountered. Deception Valley has the majority of the campsites, but Passarge Valley in the north has similar wildlife and feels even more isolated. If you have time, head south to the remote Piper Pans for a couple of nights, where you will feel like you have the whole reserve to yourself.
2 Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP)
Africa’s first transfrontier park has similar vegetation and wildlife to CKGR. The game tends to concentrate around the eastern network of pans in Mabuasehube, but for those on self-drive trips, KTP’s pièce de résistance is its 4WD trails. These must be booked in advance and are restricted to one group at a time (at least two vehicles) ensuring complete exclusivity. Heading through the Twin Rivers border on the more developed South African side will allow you to admire the Kgalagadi’s famous red dunes.
3 Makgadikgadi Pans
It is impossible to visit Makgadikgadi Pans’ Kubu Island, with its granite boulders and gigantic, gnarled baobabs, without feeling the spiritual aura of its ancestral traditions, while spending a night on the pan’s lunar landscape is a supernatural experience. Despite its postcard-beautiful bleakness, the Makgadikgadi does support some impressive wildlife. Between December and April up to 170,000 greater and lesser flamingos gather to breed in the shallow seasonal lakes on the east of the pans close to Nata. Africa’s second largest zebra migration also occurs during this period, with some 20,000 animals trekking east from the Boteti river to the edge of the pans. When the natural pans dry up the zebra retrace their route westwards. Observing them at either end of their journey is a spectacular sight. Other notable species to look out for on the horizon include the timid brown hyena and the termite-munching aardwolf.
4 Nxai Pan National Park
The epitome of the ‘size isn’t everything’ expression, Nxai Pan is a little-known jewel of a national park. In the dry season (June to September), its single waterhole can precipitate some dramatic lion and springbok interaction, as illustrated by the critically acclaimed IMAX documentary Roar - Lions of the Kalahari. In the last year or so several resident cheetahs have also made it one of the best places in Botswana to spot the most charismatic of the big cats. During the summer rains large herds of zebra and wildebeest are also present. If you are visiting in the dry season, then spend a night at one of the campsites in the east of the park close to Baines Baobabs, a cluster of seven majestic giants which border the pans.
5 Tuli Block
With huge nyala and fever trees forming a thick riverine forest along the banks of the Limpopo, and uplifted ancient basalt flows creating the dramatic 30m-high cliffs of Solomon’s Wall, the topography and flora of the Tuli Block are as spectacular as they are unique. Its Lepokole Hills, created from piles of massive granite blocks, are also home to San rock art and Stone Age tools. With more affordable accommodation than its contemporaries in the delta and an impressive array of wildlife including elephant, black-maned lion, cheetah, leopard, kudu, eland and some 350 bird species, this is a great option for those on any budget.
6 Khama Rhino Sanctuary
Until the rhino re-introduction into Botswana’s various national parks and reserves is complete, this sanctuary remains your best opportunity to see both species. It makes an ideal stopover if you are travelling north either from Gaborone or from the South African border post at Martin’s Drift.
7 Tsodilo Hills
This UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is the largest rock art site in southern Africa, and contains over 4500 paintings as well as other evidence of human occupation stretching back 100,000 years. Incorporating several hiking trails of varying difficulty, including one to Botswana’s highest summit (1395m), Tsodilo can provide some welcome exercise after days spent cooped up in a wildlife-drive vehicle. Hiring a guide is recommended to appreciate the cultural significance of the hills, which are believed by the San and Hambukushu peoples to be the site of creation. A guide will also have a better chance of spotting a Tsodilo rock gecko, a species endemic to this area. If you camp at one of the sites close to the ‘female hill’, you will hear the eerie sound of the wind whistling between the rock formations like swirling ghosts from the ancient past.
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How big is your wallet?
Botswana is a relatively expensive destination – an unavoidable consequence of the exclusivity resulting from its low-density tourism policy and the quality of its guides. However there are ways to savour its delights without breaking the bank. Besides enjoying the delights of the budget-friendly Tuli Block, which were discussed earlier, one good option is to join an overland truck that passes through Botswana en route from Cape Town to Victoria Falls – they are probably the best option for those on a shoestring budget. Choosing when to travel can also drastically reduce your costs, as mobile safari and lodge rates tend to be lower outside peak season. And, if you don’t mind taking the risk, some Okavango Delta lodge operators offer a discounted ‘walk-in’ rate in the off-season, which you can book in Maun with 24-hour notice.
A new Conservation Safari initiative in the Makgadikgadi Pans provides another alternative. Its two-week itinerary involves both community projects and wildlife conservation inside the national park, promising an exciting and rewarding safari experience. Finally, many research projects need volunteers and, although the work can be tough, it can also lead to some incredible wildlife encounters.
Have you thought of?
Spend each day travelling across a variety of wonderful natural habitats on safari, with the added bonus each late afternoon of finding the very camp you left behind that morning miraculously laid out before you in a new location. This momentum of moving forward, of constant discovery, while at the same time having the welcome familiarity of your personal camp each night, is perhaps the closest modern equivalent to early African explorations. The duration of mobile safaris ranges from as little as a few days to several weeks, and you can choose one where you help with the cooking and putting up of tents or one where your only camp duty is to sit back and relax. Camps themselves can range from traditional safari tents with minimal furnishings to opulent set-ups with Persian rugs and antique furniture; there is a gamut of options to satisfy every taste. Maintaining the same guide throughout your journey also guarantees you a detailed understanding and appreciation of the complex relationships between the ecosystems you encounter while travelling through Botswana.
Many private camps (walking is not allowed in the national parks) offer short walks which give you a fascinating insight into the smaller details of the bush, such as the ingenious hunting tactic of ant-lions and the skilled art of interpreting spoor. For the more energetic, a couple of operations specialise in longer trips where the camp moves with you, providing you with the rare and unforgettable opportunity to ‘live’ in the wilderness for a few days.
Trans-Okavango trips start in the northern Okavango Panhandle and progress south through the myriad channels by boat (or for the ridiculously fit, by kayak). Lasting from a week upwards, with each night spent camped up at a different spot on the banks of the river, these trips offer you an opportunity that only a few hundred people have experienced before.
Riding through forests and across floodplains among herds of herbivores is one of the most exhilarating experiences imaginable. Your steed acts as an invisible cloak, allowing you to integrate and observe natural animal behaviour, making this a natural choice of safari for competent riders.
Fishing in the Okavango Panhandle
Between early August and late November, as the flood waters recede, a fishy phenomenon begins – the barbel run. Barbel, bream and tigerfish all pounce on the fleeing baitfish in a feeding frenzy which is a dream for both fly and rod specialists. Both lodges and houseboats provide ideal accommodation for avid anglers.
Canoeing the Selinda Spillway
The recent resurgence of waters within the Selinda Spillway, which runs between the Linyanti area west of Chobe National Park and the northern fringe of the Okavango Delta, has led to the introduction of canoeing safaris. Lasting around three nights, these unique safaris are mobile operations with your canoes carrying your camp (and food) with you each day. As with the longer walking trips, much of the appeal lies in the journey itself and in your intimate connection with the wilderness. That said, you can still be rewarded with some special wildlife sightings.
Besides providing a sedate pace of secluded wildlife viewing, houseboats enable you to experience it all from the comfort of your safari home. The Chobe River, with its swimming elephants, mammoth crocodiles and stunning floodplains dotted with herds of buffalo, is the most popular location for houseboats. The Okavango Panhandle is another great choice, particularly as the houseboats’ tenders enable you to explore smaller channels within the delta.
Botswana’s main San populations are based close to Ghanzi and further north in Xai Xai. Here you can learn the ancient hunter-gatherer traditions of this intriguing community with their mischievous sense of humour, fascinating ‘click’ language and trance-dances.
Plan your trip
British Airways (www.ba.com), South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) and Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com) all fly non-stop from London Heathrow to Johannesburg, from where Air Botswana links you to Botswana (www.airbotswana.co.bw).
When to visit
The most popular time to visit is during dry season (June to September). As discussed throughout this feature, there are many rewards (some of them financial) for travelling outside of this period. Twitchers will find the birding best between December and April.
Most visitors do not require a visa to visit Botswana and will receive a free 30-day travel permit upon arrival.
Bradt’s Botswana (3rd ed, 2010) by Chris McIntyre is by far the most authoritative guidebook on safari destinations. Photographers will love Wildlife Photography in Botswana by James Gifford and Stephen Stockhall.
Find out more
Botswana Tourism (www.botswanatoursim.co.bw)