Botswana walking safaris let you slow down and savor the Kalahari

Botswana might seem like an eccentric choice for a safari – after all, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya have have long hogged the spotlight. But venture beyond these well-trodden wildlife-watching circuits and you might find that the slower, more intimate pace of a walking safari is a whole new way to experience the Big Five – not to mention the many other flora and fauna of the Kalahari. 

Botswana's terrain provides reason enough, being mostly flat, but walking embraces a more sustainable wildlife experience – the slow safari. After all, that's what holidays are for, right? You've got to stop and smell the wild sage.  

A man in grey twill slacks and a cream button down shirt with a full backpack steps through grasses on teh edge of the water where canoes are beached in the Okavango Delta. Across the water on the opposite shore are buildings with grass roofs and a cluster of trees.
Walking safaris, along with boat safaris called mokoro, are both sustainable ways to view wildlife that let you get drawn into the landsape © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Planet

Why you should consider a walking safari in Botswana

4WD vehicles, whether guided or self-driven, are the most common way to see wildlife in Botswana. Without the racket of a diesel engine though, it's much easier to admire the small stuff, and you'll quickly attune to the snorts or growls of the myriad creatures that call Botswana's colossal wilderness home.

Walking safaris also tend to be a more relaxed activity. One cannot rush between Big Five sightings on foot. Instead of relying on guides to call in a find across the radio channel (as is customary on driving safaris), step-by-sandy-step, you've got to find everything first-hand. 

Was that a baboon bark? A kudu cough? The twitter of painted wolves on the hunt?

On a walking safari, your guides are especially attuned to the conversations of the bush, and you'll pick up on them, too. From the northern Okavango Delta to Gaborone to the southeast, these are some of the best places in Botswana to experience a walking safari.

A giraffe splashes shallow water as it trots across the Okavango Delta in Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa
Giraffe, hippos, and elephants are just a few of the mega fauna you'll see in Moremi Game Reserve @ Jami Tarris / Getty Images

Tread on Chiefs Island in the Okavango Delta 

Traditionally, walking safaris are not permitted inside Botswana's national parks and reserves. However, camps and lodges that occupy concessions on the boundary of Moremi Game Reserve, home to the epic wilds of Chief's Island, do offer the activity. The catch? Guides cannot carry a rifle. However, they are highly trained to read animal behavior and avoid confrontation, so you're in safe hands.

Walk with these guides across one of Africa's finest natural habitats. Tread upon hippo highways carved out by the hefty herbivores. Feel the concrete constructions painstakingly assembled by tiny termite mouths. Sniff out pungent elephant aromas and track a journey of giraffe  by seeing how the dung pellets spread, having been dropped by such heights.

For the ultimate Okavango Delta encounter, combine your walking safari with a magical mokoro ride or (in certain seasons) top both of these activities off with an overnight camping adventure at stays such as Moremi Crossing. Short walks also tend to be incorporated with community-led mokoro trips organized from Maun.

A man in a beige knit cap, green button-down twill shirt, and kakis sits in the low bush grass and flashes a peace sign as a meerkat perches on his shin
Meerkats might scramble up on you to get a better vantage point of the savannah all around © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Palnet

Mingle with meerkats in the Makgadikgadi 

Join a manor of meerkats as they scurry about the fringes of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans on their quest for scorpion snacks. Several habituated colonies occupy these golden grasslands, each with a dedicated caretaker. These animals live wild but are used to the presence of people. 

Such proximity allows for a fascinating insight into the highly-involved community that meerkat families create in the salt pan. While here, you might as well be useful – the meerkats are always on the lookout for predators – especially from the sun-drenched sky – and your human figure offers valuable height. Don't be alarmed if these charming creatures of the Kalahari clamber onto your lap.

You can book this activity through the Natural Selection lodges in the Makgadikgadi (the most iconic is Jack’s Camp) or through operators in Gweta

Two rhinoceros peak out of the bush on a walking safari in Botswana
In addition to rhinoceros and giraffes at Mokolodi Nature Reserve, Gaborone Game Reserve is also a haven for wildebeest, impala, and migratory birds. © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Planet

Track rhino in Gaborone

A capital city is not your usual endangered animal habitat, particularly for rhinoceros. Established in 1994, Mokolodi Nature Reserve sits on the outskirts of Gaborone, yet the tranquil bush feels miles away from the crawling traffic and clambering skyscrapers of the city. The modest reserve (roughly 5000 hectares) is a rehabilitated cattle farm and now cedes sanctuary to a diversity of endemic fauna and flora, including the widely poached white rhinoceros. 

Under the expertise of two qualified guides, you can track one on foot. The adventure first begins by vehicle to seek out fresh footprints, dung or other signs and after successful identification of such, you'll set off in pursuit on foot. It can take anywhere from 20 minutes to five hours to lock eyes with this enchanting member of the Big Five.  

A rare Pels Fishing Owl peers out from a tree in Botswana
Something of a unicorn for birders, the rare Pels Fishing Owl has just a few hundred mating pairs left in the wild © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Planet

Keep your eyes peeled for the Pel's 

Even the most ignorant twitcher will enjoy a stroll for the rare Pel's Fishing Owl. Taking place along the river's edge and meandering between indigenous forest clusters, this walk is one of Botswana's most beguiling. The rare owl species is spotted regularly along the Okavango River preferring the fishing the pools of the northern delta in particular. Most stays in the Okavango Panhandle, such as Xaro Lodge, offer specialist bird tours to seek out this elusive owl. 

An African elephant with small tusks drinks water scooped from the river with its trunk in the Mashatu Game Reserve in the Tuli Block region of Botswana
Wedged between Zimbabwe and South Africa, the spit of land known as the Tuli Block is popular with animals of all sizes for easy access to the river © Villiers Steyn / Getty Images

Go boulder hopping in the Tuli Block

North of the wide Limpopo River, the striking mountainous landscapes of the Tuli Block are arguably home to Botswana's least-known pachyderm paradise. Widely described as a land of giants, here you'll hike through dramatic rocky outcrops, rest below towering upside-down-trees (better known as baobabs) and likely encounter elephants.

Walking also provides the best bet at seeking out smaller specials, such as the enigmatic elephant shrew. Join a walking-only trip on a dedicated three-day trail in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve or ask about daily guided walks that depart from lodges in the area. 

Red painted rock art shows a giraffe, a wildebeest, and other animals scattered on a pale buff rock in Botswana
Humans have been viewing wildlife in Botswana for thousands upon thousands of years, as evidenced by rock art like the Laurens van der Post panel © GO! / Jon Minster / Getty Images

Climb Botswana's highest peak at Tsodilo Hills 

Arising from a straight, spirit-level landscape, you'll spot this smattering of hills from a great distance. Tsodilo is home to the highest point in Botswana, but the country's first UNESCO World Heritage Site is rightly famed for other reasons. These hills protect more than 4000 prehistoric rock paintings delicately depicted by Botswana's first inhabitants, the San, and archaeological excavations gate stone tools back to AD 500.

Tsodilo is the Louvre of the desert, revered and a site of worship for many. Guided by regional historians, there are a few ways to embark on this culturally-inclined walking safari. The easiest is the Rhino route, which rings the medium-sized Female Hill (home to several ancient rock paintings on themes of fertility).

This trail takes you past the legendary Van der Post Panel, ochre-colored rhino renderings and even imagery of whales and a penguin – over a thousand kilometres from any ocean.

If you want a challenging hike in Botswana, the Male Hill summit is a favorite. Start with the Lion Route, pass its eponymous rock painting and then tackle the steep ascent to 1489 meters above sea level. 

A small white waterfall trickles out of a thick wall of vegetation and vines to spill over dark rocks into a small dark pool in the Goo-Moremi Gorge in Botswana
Though much of Botswana is taken up by the Kalahari Desert, it's hardly the endless sea of sand associated with other African deserts like the Sahara © Melanie van Zyl / Lonely Planet

Find sacred waterfalls at Goo-Moremi Gorge 

In the eastern region lies a polar opposite picture to the arid image of Botswana you may have in mind. At Goo-Moremi Gorge, a forested ravine slices through the bushveld and a series of sacred waterfalls roll down its ancient rocks. Like Tsodilo in the far north, the Tswapong Hills are considered holy and a realm of the badimo, or ancestors. 

Managed by the Moremi-Manonnye Conservation Trust with assistance from the Botswana Tourism Organisation, swimming at the picture-perfect pools here is prohibited (still today, these ancestors are consulted before entering). Nevertheless, you can follow the way of the waterfalls with a community escort. There is an easy path, platforms around trickier rocks and the best view requires a bit of scrambling, but there's strategic steel roping to help. 

Here and now: Botswana: Moremi Game Reserve

Learn the skills that surpassed centuries in the Kalahari 

The ancestral home of the San is the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. This iconic group of hunter-gatherers have survived its parched sands for millennia. There are many 'tribal tours' on offer in Botswana, be sure to seek out a responsible option. Genuine nature walks with skilled trackers, such as 'Scuppa' Tshuruu from Tau Pan Camp, offer culturally-sensitive insight to the traditional San ways of life. 

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