Blessed with some of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth, Botswana is one of the great safari destinations in Africa.
The Okavango Delta – there's nowhere quite like it on earth. This is a place where wild creatures roam and rule, where big cats and much bigger elephants walk free in one of the world's last great wildernesses. The delta is a byword for abundance – for animal numbers, for the variety of species, for the birdlife, for floods of Biblical proportions. And it is also a place of singular and unparalleled beauty where safari possibilities can seem as endless as the waters themselves.
Stark Desert Beauty
The Kalahari Desert, the largest unbroken stretch of sand on the planet, is not your ordinary desert. From the salt pans of Makgadikgadi, the baobabs of Nxai Pans, and the spare magnificence of Kubu Island in the north, to the wonderful wildlife of Kgalagadi in the south, this is a desert of exceptional variety. Throw in the fossil river valleys, swaying golden grasses, black-maned lions and the echoes of the indigenous San people in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and there are few more beautiful deserts on Earth.
Botswana didn't just turn its back on mass tourism. It ushered in an era of utterly exclusive safari experiences, the likes of which are seen no where else. These are sumptuous lodges and remote tented camps, especially in the Okavango Delta and surrounds that are sometimes contemporary in style, and at other times problematically awash in colonial nostalgia. And they will provide you a front-row seat for wildlife spectacles that you may just have all to yourself.
Africa's Best Camping
You can experience Botswana by renting your very own 4WD vehicle that doubles as an ingenious camping home away from home. This is about experiencing wild Africa at your own pace, travelling from one campsite to the next, where you may lie awake at night listening to lions roar their bone-trembling roar, or hippos, elephants, or the chilling saw-like grunt of a leopard. Build a campfire, gaze at the stars and feel at one with this gloriously beautiful country.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Botswana.
Moremi Game Reserve, which covers one-third of the Okavango Delta, is home to some of the densest concentrations of wildlife in Africa. Best of all, it’s one of the most accessible corners of the Okavango, with well-maintained trails and accommodation that ranges from luxury lodges to public campsites for self-drivers. Moremi is also unusual because it’s the only part of the Okavango Delta that is officially cordoned off for the preservation of wildlife. It was set aside as a reserve in 1963 when it became apparent that poaching was decimating wildlife populations. Named after the Batawana chief Moremi III, the reserve has been extended over the years and now encompasses almost 5000 sq km. Moremi has a distinctly dual personality, with large areas of dry land rising between vast wetlands. The most prominent ‘islands’ are Chief's Island, accessible by mokoro from the Inner Delta lodges, and Moremi Tongue at the eastern end of the reserve, which is mostly accessible by 4WD. Habitats in the reserve range from mopane woodland and thorn scrub to dry savannah, riparian woodland, grassland, floodplain, marsh, and permanent waterways, lagoons and islands. With the recent reintroduction of rhinos, Moremi is now home to the Big Five (lions, leopards, buffaloes, elephants and rhinos), and notably the largest population of red lechwe in Africa. The reserve also protects one of the largest remaining populations of endangered African wild dogs. Birding in Moremi is also incredibly varied and rich, and it’s arguably the best place in Africa to view the rare and secretive Pel’s fishing owl. Entry fees to the reserve should be paid for in advance at the DWNP office in Maun, though they can be paid at the gate if you have no other choice. Self-drivers will, however, only be allowed entry to the reserve if they have a confirmed reservation at one of the four public campsites. The village of Khwai has a couple of shops that sell basic supplies. Otherwise, petrol and supplies are only available in Kasane and Maun.
The largest island in the Okavango Delta, Chief’s Island (70km long and 15km wide) is so named because it was once the sole hunting preserve of the local chief. Raised above the water level by tectonic activity, it’s here that so much of the delta’s wildlife retreats as water levels rise. As such, the island is home to what could be the richest concentration of wildlife in Botswana. It's the Okavango Delta as you always imagined it. The combination of reed-fringed waters, grasslands and light woodlands makes for game viewing that can feel like a BBC wildlife documentary brought to life. Not surprisingly, the island is home to some of the most exclusive lodges and tented camps in Africa.
The rocky monoliths that rise up from the Savuti sand provide more than welcome aesthetic relief amid the flat-as-flat plains. The outcrops’ caves, rocky clefts and sometime-dense undergrowth also represent ideal habitat for leopards. The southernmost of these monoliths (the first you come to if you’re driving from Maun or Moremi Game Reserve) is known as Leopard Rock and sightings of the most elusive of Africa’s big cats are reasonably common here. A 1.6km-long sandy track encircles the rock.
In the south of the park are the famous Baines’ Baobabs, which were immortalised in paintings by the artist and adventurer Thomas Baines in 1862. Baines, a self-taught naturalist, artist and cartographer, had originally been a member of David Livingstone’s expedition up the Zambezi, but was mistakenly accused of theft by Livingstone’s brother and forced to leave the party. Today, a comparison with Baines’ paintings reveals that in almost 150 years, only one branch has broken off.
The grassy savannah of this 100-sq-km island, a long extension of the Moremi Tongue, contrasts sharply with the surrounding landscapes and provides some excellent dry-season wildlife watching – cheetah, lion and buffalo sightings are reasonably common. The 32km sandy Mboma Loop starts about 2km west of Third Bridge and is a pleasant side trip. Boat trips from the Mboma boat station on the island’s northwestern tip are highly recommended.
With one of Africa’s largest heronries, Xakanaxa Lediba is renowned as a birdwatchers’ paradise. In addition to herons, potential sightings here include storks, egrets and ibises. The area also supports an array of wildlife and large numbers of fish. There are myriad trails around the Xakanaxa backwaters – the Shell Map of the Moremi Game Reserve is the most detailed resource.
One of the prettiest corners of Moremi, the area known as Paradise Pools is as lovely as the name suggests. In the dry season, trails lead past forests of dead trees and among the perimeter of reed-filled swamps, while impala and other antelope species drink nervously at the receding shoreline of water holes. When we were last here, there were lion and leopard sightings in the area.
For decades since the early 1980s, this vast open area in southern Savuti consisted less of marshes than sweeping open plains, save for occasional inundations during the rainy season. But the area’s name again makes sense with the return of water to the Savuti Channel. Once-dry tracks now disappear into standing water that draws predators and prey from all across the region. The marshes lie between the Savuti Channel and the main Savuti–Maun track. If the waters allow, we recommend the picnic spot at S 18º36.889’ E 24º04.397’ as the perfect riverside place for lunch.
In the heart of Savuti, Gobabis Hill is home to several sets of 4000-year-old rock art of San origin. The best are the depictions of livestock halfway to the summit on the south side of the rock; park at S 18º35.632’, E 24º04.770’, from where it’s an easy 150m climb up to the paintings. Be careful, however; the area is a known haunt of leopards, and we spent one blissful morning watching a pride of lions between the paintings and the Savuti Channel just 200m away. The paintings are signposted as ‘Rock Paintings’ off the main track and again at the parking place. The western edge of Gobabis Hill is guarded by a fine baobab, which is visible from the main track.