Botswana’s public-transport network is limited.
Car Hiring a vehicle is the best and most practical option.
Air Although domestic air services are fairly frequent and usually reliable, Air Botswana (and charter flights) is not cheap and only a handful of towns are regularly served.
Bus & Combi Public buses and combis (minibuses) are also cheap and reasonably frequent, but are confined to sealed roads between towns.
Air Botswana operates a limited number of domestic routes. It’s usually much cheaper to purchase tickets online through the Air Botswana website than in person at one of its offices. Sample one-way fares at the time of writing:
Children aged under two, sitting on the lap of an adult, are charged 10% of the fare and children aged between two and 12 are charged 50% of the fare. Passengers are allowed 20kg of luggage (unofficially, a little more is often permitted if the flight is not full).
Charter flights are often the best – and sometimes the only – way to reach remote lodges, but they are an expensive extra cost; fares are not usually included in the quoted rates for most lodges.
On average, a one-way fare between Maun and a remote lodge in the Okavango Delta will set you back around US$150 to US$250. These services are now highly regulated and flights must be booked as part of a safari package with a mandatory reservation at one of the lodges. This is essential: you can’t simply turn up in these remote locations and expect to find a bed for the night, as many lodges are very small. Likewise, you are not permitted to book accommodation at a remote lodge in the delta without also booking a return airfare at the same time. Packages can be booked through agencies in Maun. Wilderness Air and Mack Air are the main companies.
It is very important to note that passengers on charter flights are only allowed 10kg to 15kg (and rarely 20kg) of luggage each; check the exact amount when booking. However, if you have an extra 2kg to 3kg, the pilot will usually only mind if the plane is full of passengers.
If you can’t stretch the budget to staying in a remote lodge, you can still book a flight over the delta with one of the scenic flight or helicopter companies in Maun.
Botswana is largely flat – and that’s about the only concession it makes to cyclists. Unless you’re an experienced cyclist and equipped for the extreme conditions, abandon any ideas you may have about a Botswanan bicycle adventure. Distances are great; the climate and landscapes are hot and dry; and, even along major routes, water is scarce and villages are widely spaced. Also bear in mind that bicycles are not permitted in Botswana’s national parks and reserves, and cyclists may encounter potentially dangerous wildlife while pedalling along any highway or road.
The only boat travel that is possible within Botswana is by mokoro, a wooden dugout canoe often used in the waterways of the Okavango Delta. These are, however, for sightseeing only and are never a way for getting from A to B.
Bus & Combi
Buses and combis regularly travel to all major towns and villages throughout Botswana, but are less frequent in sparsely populated areas such as western Botswana and the Kalahari. Public transport to smaller villages is often nonexistent, unless the village is along a major route.
The extent and frequency of buses and combis also depends on the quantity and quality of roads. For example, there is no public transport along the direct route between Maun and Kasane (ie through Chobe National Park), and services elsewhere can be suspended if roads are flooded. Also bear in mind that there are very few long-distance services, so most people travelling between Gaborone and Kasane or Maun, for example, will need a connection in Francistown.
Buses are usually comfortable and normally leave at a set time, regardless of whether they’re full. Finding out the departure times for buses is a matter of asking around the bus station, because schedules are not posted anywhere. Combis leave when full, usually from the same station as buses. Tickets for all public buses and combis cannot be bought in advance; they can only be purchased on board.
Car & Motorcycle
The best way to travel around Botswana is to hire a vehicle. With your own car you can avoid public transport and organised tours. Remember, however, that distances are long.
You cannot hire motorbikes in Botswana and motorbikes are not permitted in national parks and reserves for safety reasons.
Your home driving licence is valid for six months in Botswana, but if it isn’t written in English you must provide a certified translation. In any case, it is advisable to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP). Your national automobile association can issue this and it is valid for 12 months.
Fuel & Spare Parts
The cost of fuel is relatively expensive in Botswana – at the time of writing it was P7.62 for petrol and P7.35 for diesel – but prices vary according to the remoteness of the petrol station. Petrol stations are open 24 hours in Gaborone, Francistown, Maun, Mahalapye and Palapye; elsewhere, they open from about 7am to 7pm daily.
To rent a car you must be aged at least 21 (some companies require drivers to be over 25) and have been a licenced driver in your home country for at least two years (sometimes five).
Types of Vehicles
There are numerous variations on the theme, but the most common vehicle models are two- or four-berth Toyotas (Hilux, Land Cruiser or Fortuner), Land Rovers (Defender or Discovery, although the former is slowly disappearing), and Ford Rangers, all adapted for camping. This may mean a pop-up roof which has space to sleep two people, rooftop tents and/or ground tents, as well as all camping gear (ie bedding, although some, including Avis, don't offer sleeping bags), cooking and eating equipment, fridge/freezer, and all mechanical tools necessary to get you out of a tight spot. To be sure of what you're getting, make sure you ask for a full equipment list at the time of your booking.
Prices range from £70 to £150 per day.
If you’re looking to rent a car to explore Botswana, we recommend booking through companies that offer specialist rental of fully equipped 4WDs with all camping equipment. Most can also arrange for pickups/drop offs in Maun, Kasane, Gaborone, Windhoek, Victoria Falls, Harare or Livingstone, but remember that you'll usually pay a fee if you decide to pick up your vehicle in a place away from the company's main office, or if you drop off your vehicle in a place that's different from where you picked it up – fees range between £200 and £500 for either service.
Among the better 4WD rental agencies are the following:
If you hire directly through the rental company, you'll get just the vehicle and you'll need to make all of the other travel arrangements on your own. For most travellers, it works out more convenient to book through an operator who can also make campsite and other accommodation bookings, arrange a satellite phone and make any other necessary arrangements. For this, try the following:
- Drive Botswana This excellent operator arranges 4WDs and also organises a complete package itinerary, including maps, trip notes and bookings for campsites. Although Botswana is where it all began, Drive Botswana arranges trips and can also make bookings for Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We found the owner, Andy Raggett, to be outstanding and unfailingly professional.
- Safari Drive Expensive but professional and upmarket company with its own fleet of recent-model vehicles. Prices include all equipment, emergency back-up, detailed route preparation and bookings, sat phone and free tank of fuel.
- Self Drive Adventures 4WD rentals and all bookings made on your behalf. Although you do the driving, you'll be accompanied by a support vehicle and a local guide.
Most 4WD vehicles from reputable companies come fully equipped with all the necessary tools and camping equipment. This should include, as a bare minimum, all kitchen and cooking equipment, gas stove, shower, bedding, GPS with Tracks4Africa loaded and a fridge/freezer. These should be included in the rental price, but always ask.
Other things worth asking for (at an additional cost) include a satellite phone and an inverter (to allow you to charge your batteries – always ask which plug is required). Some companies may also expect you to request the GPS as an extra, although this is considered standard with most rentals.
Insurance is strongly recommended. No matter who you hire your car from, make sure you understand what is included in the price (such as unlimited kilometres, tax and so on) and what your liabilities are. Most local insurance policies do not include cover for damage to windscreens and tyres.
Third-party motor insurance is a minimum requirement in Botswana. However, it is also advisable to take damage (collision) waiver, which costs around P150 extra per day for a 2WD and about P300 per day for a 4WD. Loss (Theft) Waiver is also an extra worth having. For both types of insurance, the excess liability is about P5000 for a 2WD and P10,000 for a 4WD. If you’re only going for a short period of time, it may be worth taking out the Super Collision Waiver, which covers absolutely everything, albeit at a price.
Good sealed roads link most major population centres. The most notable exception is the direct route between Kasane and Maun – a horribly corrugated gravel track – meaning that you'll need to take the long way around via Gweta and Nata. The road from Maun to Shakawe past the Okavango Panhandle is generally reasonable, but beware of potholes.
Tracks with sand, mud, gravel and rocks (and sometimes all four) – normally accessible by 2WD except during exceptional rains – connect most villages and cross a few national parks.
Most other ‘roads’ are poorly defined – and badly mapped – and should only be attempted by 4WD. In the worst of the wet season (December to February), 4WDs should carry a winch on some tracks (eg through Chobe or Moremi National Parks). A compass or, better, GPS unit with the Tracks4Africa maps loaded is essential for driving by 4WD around the salt pans of the Kalahari or northern Botswana at any time.
To drive a car in Botswana, you must be at least 18 years old. Like most other Southern African countries, traffic keeps to the left side of the road. The national speed limit is 60km/h up to 120km/h on sealed roads; when passing through towns and villages, assume a speed limit of 60km/h, even in the absence of any signs. Mobile police units routinely set up speed cameras along major roads, particularly between Gaborone and Francistown and between Maun and Gweta – on-the-spot fines operate on a sliding scale, but can go as high as P500 if you’re 30km/h over the limit and you may be asked to pay on the spot. On gravel roads, limits are set at 60km/h to 80km/h; it’s 40km/h in all national parks and reserves.
Other road rules to be aware of:
- Sitting on the roof of a moving vehicle is illegal.
- Wearing seatbelts (where installed) is compulsory in the front (but not back) seats.
- Drink-driving is against the law, and your insurance policy will be invalid if you have an accident while drunk.
- Driving without a licence is a serious offence.
- If you have an accident causing injury, it must be reported to the authorities within 48 hours. If vehicles have sustained only minor damage and there are no injuries – and all parties agree – you can exchange names and addresses and sort it out later through your insurance companies.
- In theory, owners are responsible for keeping their livestock off the road, but in practice animals wander wherever they want. If you hit a domestic animal, your distress (and possible vehicle damage) will be compounded by trying to find the owner and the red tape involved when filing a claim.
- Wild animals, including elephants and the estimated three million wild donkeys in Botswana, are a hazard, even along the highways. The Maun–Nata and Nata–Kasane roads are frequently traversed by elephants. The chances of hitting a wild or domestic animal is far, far greater after dark, so driving at night is definitely not recommended.
- One common, but minor, annoyance are the so-called buffalo fences (officially called Veterinary Cordon Fences). These are set up to stop the spread of disease from wild animals to livestock. In most cases your vehicle may be searched (they’re looking for fresh meat or dairy products) and you may have to walk (and put additional pairs of shoes) through a soda solution and drive your car through soda-treated water.
Wild Driving in Botswana
These road-tested tips will help you plan a safe and successful 4WD expedition.
- Invest in a good Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. You should, however, always be able to identify your location on a map, even if you’re navigating with a GPS. We found the Tracks4Africa program to be the best.
- Stock up on emergency provisions, even on main highways. Fill up whenever you pass a station. For long expeditions, carry extra fuel in metal jerrycans or reserve tanks (off-road driving burns nearly twice as much fuel as highway driving). Carry 5L of water per person per day, as well as a plenty of high-calorie, nonperishable emergency food items.
- You should have a tow rope, a shovel, an extra fan belt, vehicle fluids, spark plugs, bailing wire, jump leads, fuses, hoses, a good jack and a wooden plank (to use as a base in sand and salt), several spare tyres and a pump. A good Swiss Army knife or Leatherman and a roll of gaffer tape can save your vehicle’s life in a pinch.
- Essential camping equipment includes a waterproof tent, a three-season sleeping bag (or a warmer bag in the winter), a ground mat, fire-starting supplies, firewood, a basic first-aid kit and a torch (flashlight) with extra batteries.
- Sand tracks are least likely to bog vehicles in the cool mornings and evenings, when air spaces between sand grains are smaller. Move as quickly as possible and keep the revs up, but avoid sudden acceleration. Shift down gears before deep sandy patches or the vehicle may stall and bog.
- When negotiating a straight course through rutted sand, allow the vehicle to wander along the path of least resistance. Anticipate corners and turn the wheel slightly earlier than you would on a solid surface – this allows the vehicle to skid round smoothly – then accelerate gently out of the turn.
- Driving in the Kalahari is often through high grass, and the seeds it disperses can quickly foul radiators and cause overheating; this is a problem especially near the end of the dry season. If the temperature gauge begins to climb, remove as much plant material as you can from the grille.
- Keep your tyre pressure slightly lower than on sealed roads, but don’t forget to reinflate upon returning to the tarmac.
- Avoid travelling at night as dust and distance may create confusing mirages, animals may wander onto the road and some vehicles don't have proper headlights.
- Keep your speed to a maximum of 100km/h on sealed roads, and 40km/h off-road.
- Follow ruts made by other vehicles.
- If the road is corrugated, gradually increase your speed until you find the correct speed – it’ll be obvious when the rattling stops.
- If you have a tyre blowout, do not hit the brakes or you’ll lose control and the car will roll. Instead, steer straight ahead as best you can, and let the car slow itself down before you bring it to a complete stop.
- In rainy weather, gravel roads can turn to quagmires and desert washes may fill with water. If you’re uncertain, get out and check the depth, and only cross when it’s safe for the type of vehicle you’re driving.
- Always be on the lookout for animals.
- Avoid swerving sharply or braking suddenly on a gravel road or you risk losing control of the vehicle. If the rear wheels begin to skid, steer gently in the direction of the skid until you regain control. If the front wheels skid, take a firm hand on the wheel and steer in the opposite direction of the skid.
- In dusty conditions, switch on your headlights so you can be seen more easily.
- Overtaking can be extremely dangerous because your view may be obscured by dust churned up by the car ahead. Flash your high beams at the driver in front to indicate that you want to overtake. If someone behind you flashes their lights, move as far to the left as possible.
A Jerrycan Trick
If you're carrying extra fuel in a jerrycan – which we strongly advise you to do in more remote areas, including the Central Kalahari Game Reserve – there is a simple solution for getting the fuel into your tank without a funnel. Take a plastic bottle of soft drink, cut off the base with a knife and wash and dry it thoroughly. When you're ready to fill your tank, insert the drinking end of the plastic bottle into the tank and pour away. And one final thing: a 20L jerrycan filled with fuel can be very heavy, so ideally have two people holding the jerrycan while you pour.
We're huge fans of the Tracks4Africa (T4A) paper and GPS maps. We simply couldn't travel around Botswana without them, or at least can't imagine doing so without getting lost. But, of course, nothing is perfect, and we noticed a number of errors on our most recent trip – they may or may not have been corrected by the time you read this.
Another issue can sometimes be routes that appear more direct but actually take longer. For example, T4A prefers to send you via the Khumaga Ferry or across the pans if you're travelling from somewhere like Jack's Camp or Tree Island Campsite to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), when, in fact, the quickest route involves returning to the Gweta–Maun road and taking the sealed-road options from there. If this happens, or if you suspect that T4A may not be suggesting the best route, set a waystation (eg Gweta in the above example) and then recalibrate as you go.
In each of the following cases, we have provided detailed driving instructions to compensate for T4A errors:
- Motopi Campsites, CKGR The T4A locations for the three campsites remain incorrect.
- Tree Island Campsite, Makgadikgadi Pans National Park Makes no appearance on the T4A GPS system.
- Kalahari Plains Camp, CKGR The quickest trail from Deception Valley does not appear on the T4A GPS – it'll have you taking an impossibly indirect route.
Hitching in Botswana is an accepted way to get around, given that public transport is sometimes erratic, or nonexistent, in remote areas. Travellers who decide to hitch, however, should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
The equivalent of a bus fare will frequently be requested in exchange for a lift, but to prevent uncomfortable situations at the end of the ride, determine a price before climbing in.
It is totally inadvisable to hitch along backroads, for example through the Tuli Block or from Maun to Kasane through Chobe National Park. This is because traffic along these roads is virtually nonexistent; in fact, vehicles may only come past a few times a day, leaving the hopeful hitchhiker at risk of exposure or, even worse, running out of water. One way to circumvent this problem is to arrange a lift in advance at a nearby lodge.
Public transport in Botswana is geared towards the needs of the local populace and is confined to main roads between major population centres. Although cheap and reliable, it is of little use to the traveller as most of Botswana’s tourist attractions lie off the beaten track.
Combis, recognisable by their blue number plates, circulate according to set routes around major towns; ie Gaborone, Kasane, Maun, Ghanzi, Molepolole, Mahalapye, Palapye, Francistown, Selebi-Phikwe, Lobatse and Kanye. They are very frequent, inexpensive and generally reliable. However, they aren’t terribly safe (most drive too fast), especially on long journeys, and they only serve the major towns. They can also be crowded.
Licensed taxis are recognisable by their blue number plates. They rarely bother hanging around the airports at Gaborone, Francistown, Kasane and Maun, so the only reliable transport from the airports is usually a courtesy bus operated by a top-end hotel or lodge. These are free for guests, but anyone else can normally negotiate a fare with the bus driver. Taxis are always available to the airports, however.
It is not normal for taxis to cruise the streets for fares, even in Gaborone. If you need one, telephone a taxi company to arrange a pick up or go to a taxi stand (usually near the bus or train stations). Taxi companies in Gaborone include Speedy Cabs and Final Bravo Cabs. Fares for taxis are negotiable, but fares for occasional shared taxis are fixed. Taxis can be chartered – about P400 to P600 per day, although this is negotiable depending on how far you want to go.
The Botswana Railways system no longer takes passengers. In case passenger services do resume, services are likely to be limited to one line running along eastern Botswana from Ramokgwebana on the Zimbabwean border to Ramatlabama on the South African border.