Botswana is famous for remarkable wilderness areas such as the epic Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park – and the chance to experience them by staying in some seriously fancy luxury lodges – making this one of the best destinations in Africa for wildlife lovers. The country is a unique playground for amateur anglers and birdwatching enthusiasts too, and it also offers fun experiences for culture-seekers and outdoorsy adventurers.

The stark Kalahari Desert covers much of Botswana, providing an unorthodox stage for an African safari. At first, the desert might seem lifeless and uninhabited, but the dry plains play host to unusual delights that make for a magical travel experience: endless salt pans, ephemeral lakes, islands of baobab trees, friendly meerkat colonies, Neolithic sites that speak to a fascinating past and an oasis of epic proportions in the form of the world’s largest inland delta.

Despite being covered by large areas of desert, what truly sets this country apart is the miracle of water. Fueled by rains from the mountainous watersheds of Angola, the life-fueling annual floods create exquisite river systems and replenish the Okavango Delta for the extraordinarily diverse wildlife that lives here.

Whether your tastes run to wildlife encounters or elemental desert scenery, plan your trip to include these top 16 unmissable things to do in Botswana. 

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Elephants crossing the road in Chobe National Park, Botswana
A wildlife safari will be the highlight of any trip to Botswana © Janelle Lugge / Shutterstock

Book a classic Botswana safari

Although the word originated in East Africa, Botswana has perfected the art of the safari. Almost half of the country has been set aside for wilderness tourism, and national parks, wildlife conservancies and game reserves account for more than 40% of Botswana's land allocation. 

Chobe National Park is the most accessible wilderness, in part because it sits at the end of a tarmac highway within easy reach of Kasane Chobe Airport. It also presents an effortlessly rewarding rendezvous with wildlife. This part of Botswana has the world's largest concentration of elephants (roughly 126,000), and the best way to see Africa's elephant capital is to board a boat and cruise the Chobe River's game-rich shores.

Nearby, Moremi Game Reserve covers one-third of the Okavango Delta. The Batawana people of Ngamiland created this reserve in 1963, making it one of the first reserves in Africa to be declared by local residents as opposed to colonial powers. Most luxury lodges and camps lie in concession areas rented out by the government to enforce a more responsible high-value, low-volume tourism strategy. The best reserves sit in the swamps of the Okavango Delta and visitors fly in on small bush planes from Maun.

The logistics of reaching these isolated locations inevitably hikes up the price of a game-viewing experience – stays cost a minimum of US$650 per person per night and can reach up to US$4000 a night – but lower visitor numbers minimize adverse environmental effects on these pristine wildlife areas. It also means travelers are highly likely to have viewings of lions, painted wolves and other creatures all to themselves.

For an even more far-flung adventure, seek out the desert-adapted animals of the Kalahari, an enormous wildlife park that opened to the public in the late 1990s. Black-maned lions, stately oryx antelope and comical ground squirrels all roam the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), which covers a staggering five million hectares (12.4 million acres).

The CKGR is also the ancestral home of the San people. Often referred to in Botswana as bushmen, the San traditionally followed a nomadic lifestyle, hunting and gathering only what was needed from the desert, and you can still see glimpses of this life when visiting local communities.

A campsite with a campfire under a starry sky in Central Kalahari Game Reserve
Wild camping in Botswana is an experience that will stay with you for a lifetime © Westend61 / Getty Images

Go wild camping

If you’re feeling intrepid but don’t want to shell out for a luxury camp, you can rent a vehicle and drive to simple demarcated campsites dotted throughout the country. You'll need a fully equipped 4X4 camper, but these are easy to rent from companies in Botswana or South Africa (many flights to Botswana are routed via Johannesburg) and typically cost US$140 a day. These rugged vehicles come with all-terrain tires, recovery gear and basic camping equipment, such as rooftop tents, chairs, cutlery, crockery and even battery-powered fridges.

Most of Botswana's wildlife parks and camps are not fenced in, and there's no better way to feel the rugged intensity of the wilderness than camping alongside the creatures of the Kalahari. You may well have to dodge spotted hyenas on the way to the bathroom (if there is a bathroom!) or wait for hippos to scamper back into the river after a night grazing along the riverbanks. Many campsites in the CKGR require total self-sufficiency, but some in Savuti and Moremi Game Reserve have flushing toilets and hot showers.

The most popular self-drive camping route hits all of the country's iconic wildlife hotspots on one two-week circuit, connecting Baines' Baobabs in Nxai Pan National Park with Third Bridge in Moremi Game Reserve, before proceeding north to Savuti and the Chobe River in the Chobe National Park.

Botswana: the joys of a mobile safari

Honor San culture with a nature walk

The San have called the Kalahari home for more than 50,000 years, and any trip to this desert area should factor in some time to appreciate their ancient wisdom. Tragically expelled from their ancestral land in the central Kalahari, the San have long been regarded as the original inhabitants of southern Africa, and nature walks with skilled trackers offer culturally sensitive insights into the traditional bushmen way of life.

When you enter their world to learn about their traditions, it helps to guarantee the conservation of this fast-vanishing culture.  You can find responsible tours arranged by lodges such as Tau Pan Camp, Nxai Pan Camp and Jack’s Camp. Alternatively, visit Dqãe Qare San Lodge, which is run by the local San community.

Visit a contemporary San art gallery in D'kar

A bold community project in the village of D'kar near Ghanzi offers an alternative way of experiencing Botswana's oldest culture. Punchy prints and vivid paintings preserve accounts of the lives of the Naro San people at the Kuru Art Project. Visitors can see backcountry art studios and find artworks that celebrate botany, wildlife and traditional beliefs. Don't miss the little museum next door to the art project.

Visitors in mokoro canoes on the Okavango Delta in Botswana
Exploring the Okavango Delta by mokoro canoe is a magical, immersive experience © Martin Harvey / Getty Images

Take a canoe across the Okavango Delta

In most parts of Africa, a safari takes place aboard a rattling 4WD vehicle, but Botswana’s most iconic safari vehicle offers a more serene means of communing with nature. The Okavango Delta is Botswana's crown jewel, and the best way to explore this wondrous, watery Unesco World Heritage site is on board a traditional mokoro canoe.

The area's first human inhabitants traveled the wild waterways of the delta using these flat-bottomed boats, steered by standing at the back of the vessel and pushing forward with a long pole. Modern visitors do the same – certified professional polers follow paths cleared by herbivore hippos and hungry elephants. You'll sit at water level, inches above the surface, and enjoy the river in silence, sharing the channels with gorgeous water lilies, cute Angolan painted reed frogs and aquatic lechwe antelopes. It's how the Okavango Delta has been savored for centuries.

Most luxury lodges in Okavango offer canoe experiences, most requiring an expensive flight. You can also do day trips or overnight camping adventures from the town of Maun with the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust – a good option for travelers on a budget. Enquire directly at their office or make arrangements via a hostel, such as the Old Bridge Backpackers or Delta Rain.

From delta to desert, with a river in between: a tale of three safaris in Botswana

Hop onto a scenic flight to view the Delta from above

To appreciate the scale of the swollen swamps that make up the Okavango Delta, you must take to the sky. From inside a small Cessna plane or a bush helicopter with the doors removed, the serpentine channels reveal themselves in all their glory. Lagoons decorate the delta in watercolor swatches of emerald, olive, pea, lime and every other imaginable hue of green, while elephants and buffalo herds pick their way across the landscape.

Okavango Delta Maun Airport is the hub for several scenic flight operators, and you can book directly at the offices of companies such as Mack Air and Helicopter Horizons.

Don't miss a Maun walking (and tasting) tour

A turnstile to the safari world, Maun is the base town used by many travelers to explore the untamed northern regions of Botswana. Be sure to make time for an immersive guided walking tour to see the modern face of Maun with Your Botswana Experience. Walks start with a trip to the town market, where household essentials such as cattle bells, water tap locks, palm-leaf baskets and fat cast-iron cooking pots are busily traded. 

Guides will explain the traditional uses of everything in the market before you try your hand at basket-weaving – you'll soon understand why it can take two weeks to craft one of these intricate vessels! Afterward, you’ll get to dig into regional delicacies, such as tswi, a water lily stew made from potato-like roots harvested from Okavango waters, served with magwinya, a deep-fried donut-like bread roll, at the charming Akacia Cafe

Ancient rock art of African wildlife in the Tsodilo Hills, Botswana
See ancient rock art of African wildlife in the Tsodilo Hills © Radek Borovka / Shutterstock

Explore sacred legends in the rock art of the Tsodilo hills

Unesco-listed but off the beaten track, the Tsodilo Hills protect more than 4000 prehistoric rock paintings created by Botswana's first inhabitants, the San. Archaeological excavations and stone tools found here date the site back to 500 CE and the well-preserved paintings delicately depict ancient customs from a time when human and animal lives intertwined. You're only allowed to walk this sacred site with a trained guide, who will unlock the secrets of the stones.

Guides are available at the information center and don’t need to be booked in advance; simply arrive and take your pick from the four walking trails. The shortest and most popular track is the Rhino Route, leading to exquisite rock art of rhinos, penguins and whales. If you're up for a challenge, you can climb to the highest point in Botswana at 1489m (4885ft) via the Male Hill Route.

Catch an African tiger on a fishing trip 

Okay, real tigers don’t live in Africa, but a menacing toothy fish named after this big cat can be found in the upper reaches of the Okavango Delta. Reached by a short drive along a tarred but pothole-riddled road from Maun, this area is known as the “Panhandle” – the upper segment of the Okavango Delta where the main Okavango River glides south as a single channel before splintering off into separate streams creating the Delta proper. While this region is not as brimming with big game as the swampy floodplains of the lower Delta, it is no less beguiling.

Even amateurs will love fishing up here. When hooked, feisty tiger fish vault into the air with incredible acrobatics, after which they are safely released back into the water. The so-called 'barbel run' is the best time for catching tiger fish; a feeding frenzy occurs when the water levels drop after the winter floods, flushing small baitfish from the papyrus beds where they've been safely feeding into the mouths of waiting barbels (catfish) and tiger fish. The timing varies depending on flood water levels, but the run typically occurs between September and October. 

Mokoro and more: a safari like no other in the Okavango Delta

Sleep on the salt pans after a quad biking adventure

A sprawling network of massive salt flats, the Makgadikgadi Pans are so immense they can be seen from space. Quad biking across this incredible white landscape with a guide is the most exhilarating way to savor the scale of the landscape, as you drive for miles towards the horizon without ever reaching it. Many finish a trip by sleeping below the stars in the middle of nowhere – if you thought the Makgadikgadi was enormous by day, wait until the Milky Way unfolds in the dome above your pillow at night.

If you can't afford a visit to the iconic Jack's Camp, the first lodge to be built in this rather unforgiving landscape, the charming village of Gweta is a good base for booking less expensive excursions with Planet Baobab or Gweta Lodge.

Visitors watch meerkats at Makgadikgadi in Botswana
The meerkats of Makgadikgadi are famously habituated to humans © Martin Harvey / Getty Images

Meet the Makgadikgadi meerkats

Colonies of meerkats that are well habituated to humans occupy the fringes of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, burrowing tunnels into the golden grasslands. These animals are wild but are very used to human presence, and each colony has a dedicated caretaker. Wake early, and these curious critters might clamber up onto your head for a better lookout position, all the better to keep a beady eye out for predators! Trips to meet these cute little creatures can be arranged through Planet Baobab or Gweta Lodge, or the operators of San Camp, Jack’s Camp or Camp Kalahari. 

Take a fun 4X4 trip to Kubu Island

Rising like the humps of kubu (hippos) wallowing in water, Kubu Island is a fitting name for the mounds of rock that poke through the otherwise flat plain of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. Operated by the Gaing O Community Trust, a campsite set amidst the baobabs presents breathtaking views of the endless creamy white salt pan landscape.

The waters of the Okavango Delta once filled up this vast area, and attracted by the bounty of this water, humans periodically settled here. Scattered stone walls and pottery shards dating to 1200 CE are still visible dotted around the landscape.

You'll need to be self-sufficient on this adventure and pack everything you need, including water, firewood, fuel and toilet paper. The route is best approached via the village of Letlhakane, a route where there's less chance of getting stuck in the Makgadikgadi mud.

The ultimate playground: plan a Botswana safari for kids

Explore Gaborone with a local

At first glance, Botswana’s capital city of Gaborone doesn’t seem to have much to divert attention, besides looking at a handful of statues or wandering through shopping malls, so it’s not typically on the list for first-time visitors. However, an immersive tour with female-run Happy Soul Adventures reveals the layered life lived by ordinary citizens.

Explore the surrounding sprawl of villages on a bicycle ride, following scenic dirt roads through a pastoral landscape, and engage with rural communities by crafting pottery, learning how to cook local dishes or singing karaoke in the bars of Gaborone.

Zebras on migration in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana
The annual zebra migration is one of Botswana's most striking spectacles © Radek Borovka / Shutterstock

Witness the extraordinary zebra migration at Nxai Pan

The national animal of Botswana is the zebra, and you can see them in their thousands after nourishing rains spill over Nxai Pan National Park between December and March each year. These herds make an arduous journey from the Chobe region, searching for sweet grasses, and a safari to this less-visited park is a monochrome spectacle.

Track rhinos on a walking safari

Rhino tracking is a memorable way to check off one of the top animals from the Big Five list. The government reintroduced 138 white rhinos into northern Botswana between 1967 and 1986, but an aerial count in the early 1990s found the population had declined by 80%, largely because of poaching. In response, the government moved the remaining rhinos to refuges where they could be closely monitored, including the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Serowe and Mokolodi Game Reserve in Gaborone.

Walking safaris can be booked directly at Mokolodi or the Khama sanctuary, but set aside a full morning. It can take anywhere from 20 minutes to five hours to locate a rhino safely on foot, aided by two expertly trained field guides. These modestly-sized reserves are also home to giraffes, zebras, warthogs and kudus, so you'll see plenty besides endangered rhinos when setting out on a walking safari.

Float under the world’s only quadripoint

There is only one place on the planet where the corners of four nations come together, but it’s more a theoretical point on the map than a physical travel destination. A tour to the newly completed Kazungula Bridge, which connects Botswana with Zambia and Zimbabwe and overlooks Namibia, is the best way for geography nerds, architecture appreciators and travel nuts to tick off the quadripoint as visited.

Boat trips to the confluence of the Chobe River and Zambezi River can be booked from most riverfront accommodations, including Chobe Safari Lodge. Bring binoculars to keep track of the lively kingfishers and colorful bee-eaters you’ll spot on the way here.

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