With the densest population of elephants in the world, critically endangered painted wolves, radiant birdlife and the longest mammal migration in Africa, the national parks in Botswana promise to impress.

Almost half of Botswana’s land has been declared safeguarded wilderness, so animal life abounds in the country’s finest natural expanses and unique ecosystems. Botswana has four national parks that make for an extraordinary wildlife vacation. 

Whether you choose Chobe's spectacular big game concentrations, captivating Kalahari scenery and adventurous terrain, the diverse habitats of the Makgadikgadi, or combine them into one mega expedition, Botswana is a sure-fire safari hit. 

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A large African elephant and its baby cross the Chobe River in Chobe National Park with tourists watching on from nearby boats
Chobe National Park has a wealth of wildlife © Tiago_Fernandez / Getty Images

Chobe National Park

Best national park for boating safaris and up-close wildlife watching

Chobe National Park, Botswana's first, is still the mainstay of epic animal encounters. The best time of year to visit is during the dry season (June to the end of October) because water-dependent animals, particularly elephants, assemble along the edges of the namesake river. 

Northern Botswana is home to the world's largest concentration of elephants, and boat cruises provide riveting panoramas of the proliferation of pachyderms. The park has a remarkable wealth of beasts and birds besides, from colossal crocodiles to hippos grazing outside the water to towering giraffes, water-loving Lechwe antelope and lions hunting old buffalo bulls along the shores.

Most accommodations sit outside the park in the town of Kasane, so day-trippers are limited to the uppermost Riverfront region (it's best to book a lodge closest to the park gates). This makes Botswana's most accessible national park the busiest. But you’ll find peaceful places – and seasons – to escape the crowds.

The green season is so named because lush bush returns with a vengeance after rains that fall between November and March. Typically, this season is a quieter and cheaper time to explore the Chobe Riverfront. Travelers won't find enormous herd congregations but will be rewarded with dazzling birdlife (450 species) and adorable baby animals.

Chobe National Park includes two significant wildlife areas: the Chobe Riverfront and Savuti. The Savuti Marshes is on the secluded western flank and is a prominent predator hotspot. Venturing to this more remote region presents the chance to find rare African wild dogs (as few as 1400 mature individuals remain in their natural habitat), cheetahs and the renowned mega lion prides made famous by nature documentaries.

Makgadikgadi National Park

Best national park for peace and quiet 

It’s easy to confuse them, but the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans and the Makgadikgadi National Park offer distinctly different experiences. The national park has few of the iconic wide-open salt-crusted flats you see in photos because those are taken from outside the park: activities such as quad biking and visiting meerkat lie beyond the boundaries in privately owned concessions. Since it doesn’t boast that quintessential salt pan shot or boast bucketloads of Big Five sightings, this quieter park is perfect for some peace and appreciating the scenery.

The Makgadikgadi National Park protects majestic rolling grasslands, statuesque palm-tree woodlands and dense riverine vegetation fringing its true highlight: the Boteti River. This seasonal stream is a lifeline in the Kalahari desert, and vast herds of elephants, zebras, wildebeest and other herbivores are commonly sighted – and bring predators in their wake – during the dry season (May to October).

At certain times of the year, if the Okavango Delta floodwaters are truly flush, the waters push past Maun, making the river deep enough to photograph animals from a boat-based safari.

Two rugged campsites sit within the park boundaries, and a handful of lodges lie on the periphery, such as Boteti River Camp or Leroo La Tau, and offer guided activities.

Baobab trees, with huge thick trucks, rise up from the plains in Nxai Pan National Park, Botswana
The centuries-old Baines’ Baobabs stand on the edge of the pans at Nxai Pans National Park © Radek Borovka / Shutterstock

Nxai Pans National Park

Best national park for photographers and seeing baobab trees

The little-visited Nxai Pans National Park is Botswana’s secret superstar of desert safaris. Technically an extension of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan network, Nxai Pan sits in the northernmost sprawl of the pans but has been drier for longer so that more vegetation has taken root. 

December to April brings epic thunderstorms, verdant landscapes, baby animals, booming birdlife and beautiful wildflowers to the otherwise khaki scenery. It's a glorious juncture for photography and pursuing the epic zebra migration, the longest mammal migration in southern Africa. The grass is so rich and nutritious that it attracts blue wildebeest and plains zebras from more than 480km (300 miles) away, and they move in the thousands between Chobe National Park and Nxai Pan.

These pans and grasses dry out during the dry season (June to October), so migratory animals depart, leaving the desert specialists to survive the winter. Black-maned lions and cheetahs roam the park alongside giraffes, kudu, impala, springbok, jackals and numerous smaller creatures, including the smallest hyena, the charming aardwolf. Many animals depend on the two artificial waterholes, so predators lurk in the bushes, waiting for their prey to take an unsuspecting sip.

A highlight at any time of year is a visit to Baines’ Baobabs. Follow in the footsteps of Victorian explorers, such as David Livingstone and painter Thomas Baines and visit the trees that have stood sentry on the edge of the salt-crusted pans for centuries. You can visit the baobabs on a day trip from Gweta or even Maun, but it's best to spend the night in the park to maximize your chances of seeing the game too.

Locally owned Kwando Safaris operates the only permanent lodge within the park, and simple camping grounds can be found at both South Gate (near the waterhole) and Baines Baobabs. One significant benefit to travel during the zebra migrations is that they are most dramatic during the low tourism season in Botswana, meaning lower lodge rates and fewer safari vehicles.

A herd of gemsbok in the dry Auob river bed in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park,
Kgalagadi is Africa's first formally declared transfrontier park © David Steele / Shutterstock

Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park 

Best national park for intrepid adventurers  

Unlike the parks of the far north, you won't find water-dependent elephants, hippos, buffalo or many other humans in Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park. Instead, intrepid travelers will see interesting desert creatures, such as the sprightly springbok, the shy brown hyena and busy weavers constructing huge communal nests.

An amalgamation of South Africa's Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana's Gemsbok National Park, this desert playground was officially opened in 2000 as the first formally declared transfrontier park in Africa. 

The Botswana section of the park doesn’t have any luxury lodges, only rudimentary campsites and the challenge of a sandy playground. You need to be fully self-sufficient to navigate this absolute wilderness, which is open to 4WD vehicles only. Bring water, firewood, fuel and food for the journey. Campsites are situated at Mabuasehube, Mpayathutlwa, Khiding and Lesholoago Pans. Some grounds have wooden A-frame shelters to alleviate the midday heat, but keep a wary eye out because hot predators often put them to use too. It's not uncommon to unzip your tent and find a black-maned lion nearby.    

Just as in the other national parks of Botswana, game viewing is outstanding during the dry months when animals are obliged to drink from reliable water sources.

Botswana's game reserves and the Okavango Delta 

Botswana's designated nature areas comprise four national parks, private concession areas and other game reserves, such as the celebrated Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta.

So, what is the difference between Botswana's national parks and state-run game reserves? Not much today, because both national parks and game reserves are government-owned grounds run by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. The protective titles stem from historical roots in the 1930s. Generally speaking, national parks typically didn’t have people living there already, and vast swathes of land, such as the Chobe region, could be restricted as non-hunting zones. 

On the other hand, game reserves stem from land designated as tribal reserves. Protected nature zones, such as the Moremi Game Reserve, were once the property of an individual tribe and created by the dikgosi (or chief), who “reserved” a location for exclusive hunting. The renowned Chief's Island in the central Okavango Delta acquired its name from this practice and was saved for hunting by Tawana chiefs because the wildlife was so rich.

Most high-end lodges lie in the private game reserves. These privately run concession areas surround the game reserves and national parks, and enjoy the same free-roaming wildlife. Choosing a private reserve as your destination certainly has its perks, but you'll pay big bucks. The privileges of a guided safari include offroading for closer encounters and incredible photography, big cat tracking, walking safaris and pursuing nocturnal animals on a night drive. These activities are banned within the confines of a national park or game reserve.

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