Having driven alone around Botswana and across most of southern Africa, I've learned a few things from traveling as a female. The most important lesson? It's not as scary as you think.
From Botswana’s arid south to the Okavango Delta at its heart and the bountiful Chobe region beyond, this peaceful country is a joy to explore. Here are the top things to know before you visit Botswana.
Getting around is a challenge, and you'll probably need a 4WD vehicle
It’s possible to plan a sedan-friendly road trip on paved roads, but Botswana is known for its allure of remote wilderness rather than big city appeal. If you’re traveling independently and national parks are on your bucket list, you need a 4WD vehicle and must understand seasonal road conditions.
A fully equipped 4WD car is typically rigged with rooftop tents. This means you can sleep higher up away from dangerous animals, and it comes with all the necessary camping gear for a self-sufficient adventure. These rugged vehicles can be picked up in Maun, Kasane or Johannesburg (South Africa) and rented from companies such as Bushtrackers Africa. They generally cost US$140 per day.
Ask the rental company about the best times to visit specific areas (the answer will often be in the dry season) and to explain their emergency protocols and recovery support. For example, do they have an office and spare parts in Maun?
Driving through Botswana's national parks and game reserves is not to be underestimated. As a rule, it's safest to travel with a satellite phone in case of a breakdown or with at least one other vehicle.
The backroads aren't in a good condition…
…and neither are some of the main highways. Whether paved or not, don't be fooled by short distances. Plan extra time into your itinerary to account for slow-going road conditions – potholes, rutted roads and deep sand – and breathing room to stop and snap more photographs. Refer to Tracks4Africa, download the Maps.Me app or buy a paper map. This is the most accurate way to judge time over a given distance for Botswana's best off-road routes.
Book campsites in advance during the peak season
July and August are the busiest months in Botswana, and campsites fill up with intrepid travelers from overseas, plus safari-loving South Africans enjoying a winter bush break. Campgrounds inside the national parks are limited and run by different private operators. Call directly to book and start planning well in advance. Typically, response times over email are prolonged.
Print out proof of booking before your journey and draw cash in the local currency (pula) to pay the park fees. Expect to be turned away at the park's gate if there is no space, and it's invariably a distant trip back to the nearest town.
Solo supplements are often waived outside peak season
The cheapest time to visit Botswana is between November and February, and you can still spot wildlife at these times. The landscape is lush, green, dramatic with epic cloud formations, and brimming with marvelously colorful birds, blooms and butterflies. However, this “green season” can also be the trickiest period to self-drive because the national parks and campsites have more mud and water, making some tracks impassable.
Instead, this season is a superb time to fly into a high-end lodge. Many companies waive the single supplement fee for solo travelers. Despite being a solo traveler, you’ll find plenty of company. Dinner is frequently enjoyed around a communal table to compare sightings with other guests and learn more about life in Botswana from local camp managers or your guide. Another plus? More daylight hours to enjoy it all.
Plan how long you should spend in Botswana
With a week or less, maximize your time by flying into a lodge or camp to explore. Spending three nights in one place will best compensate for the travel times (and airport waits) between locations.
Discover Botswana on a road trip if you have 10 days or more. The journey will feel rushed if you try to cram in all the wildlife hot spots, especially with the added toils of camping every day. Two weeks is a more reasonable duration to soak up the gorgeous diversity of the Delta and the desert, plus an overnight sightseeing stop at Victoria Falls.
You can't hop into a mokoro at any time of the year
Water levels are generally at their highest in the Okavango Delta during July and August. Ask about the seasonality of gliding in a mokoro (traditional canoe) and time your trip to guarantee an outing on the water. For a fun weekend and more traditional insight into the importance of the mokoro, tie your trip with a visit to the annual Nkashi Classic festival.
You don't have to wear khaki on safari
Any neutral-toned clothing will do as long as it's comfortable and lightweight and your shirt isn't too brightly colored. It's essential to layer up because Botswana experiences chilly mornings and evenings. In winter, temperatures can drop below freezing in desert areas. The only time beige and blending in is genuinely preferred is during a walking safari.
Pack a pair of binoculars
Unless on safari in a private reserve where guides can off-road into the bush for a sighting, you'll probably witness wildlife from a distance. Bring a good pair of general-purpose binoculars (specifications 8x40 or 10x42) and a decent zoom camera lens.
Greet people in Setswana
The Batswana emphasize extensive greetings. Before asking for help, salutations go a long way and it’s respectful to greet everyone present, starting with the elders. If you are addressing a woman, say “Dumela, Mma” and “Dumela, Rra” to a man. For a group of people, a simple “Dumelang” will do. Asking how a person is doing and whether they slept well will score even more points.
Dress respectfully in rural areas
While most tourist haunts adhere to Western dressing norms, this isn't the case everywhere, particularly in more rural locations. Women in Botswana typically dress modestly and wear skirts that cover the knees. It's best to follow this custom when visiting an office, police station or government building and when meeting distinguished members of society, such as the chief.
Don't drive at night
Obstinate donkeys, roaming elephants, goats, wayward cattle and ostriches are just some of the wildlife that walk the roads of Botswana. Drive with extreme caution and avoid driving at night.
Your shoes might carry disease
Beef is a valuable export and cows a treasured signifier of cultural wealth in Botswana. Veterinary fences have been erected to separate domestic beasts from wild animals (admittedly, not always effectively) to prevent the spread of disease, specifically foot-and-mouth. Farmers, families and industry face financial catastrophe if cattle succumb to this infectious sickness.
It’s illegal to transport raw animal products or select fruits and vegetables from wilderness areas (mainly in the north) to rural areas (mostly in the south). Always stop at the official fence boundaries and road gates, even if they appear abandoned. Sometimes, an official sitting in the shade nearby will wave you through, but every vehicle is subject to inspection.
Ready the cooler boxes and make fridges accessible for checks. You'll also need to disinfect your shoes and stamp them in a sanitizing station to stop the potential spread. Keep all shoes aside or in crates to prevent the disinfectant from covering other gear.
You can drink the tap water in Botswana, but...
Tap water in towns is usually fine but probably not what you're used to, which can cause stomach upsets. The tap water is filtered at all tourist lodges. Meanwhile, many campsites do not have water at all, but grocery stores stock big bottles for overlanders.
Bring insect repellent and use it for a peaceful sleep
Malaria is present in Botswana and widespread in the north. Consult your doctor about the latest anti-malaria precautions and use insect repellent liberally. Most lodgings supply an insect repellent called Peaceful Sleep, which locals use to keep unwanted buzzing and biting at bay.
Watch out for petty theft
Although crime is rare in Botswana, petty theft and sometimes pickpocketing occur in the cities. Like most places in the world, be vigilant with your valuables and avoid walking alone at night or in poorly lit areas.
There has also been a spate of midnight thefts at campsites near safari pit stops, such as Maun and Gweta. Thieves typically smash the windows of a car to snatch valuables. Do not leave your passport, camera, wallet or phone within reach.
Botswana is a conservative country
Women traveling alone can expect to be asked if you have a husband or boyfriend. It's still not common to see independent travelers, and a band on your wedding finger can deter unwanted advances. It's even less common to see same-sex relationships. Homosexuality was decriminalized only in 2019, but it is still stigmatized, and public displays of affection could attract negative attention.
Leave a tip
It's customary to tip lodge staff and safari guides, providing the service was good. Travel agents advise roughly US$15 per guest per day directly to the guide and $10 for the rest of the staff, which usually goes into a collective kitty. The US dollar is widely accepted at lodges and hotels throughout the country.