The EA guide to Botswana safaris
Many safari aficionados consider Botswana to be Africa’s ultimate luxury safari experience. Safaris here are different. A high-cost, low-impact tourism policy was introduced in order to limit the impact on the environment while still generating a sustainable income for Botswana’s people. It means you pay more, but the rewards are great. Fewer tourists paying more money helps to protect Botswana’s extraordinary wilderness and wildlife residents, and gives you the ultimate luxury – space and privacy. Not only will you have a front-row seat for wildlife spectacles, you might be the only people in the entire audience.
Every wilderness area in Botswana is unique. While it’s probably most famous for its magical waterways in the Chobe and the Okavango Delta – one of the world’s last great wildernesses where you can view wildlife from a dugout canoe (mokoro), on foot, from a helicopter or the more traditional 4×4 safari vehicle – its arid landscapes in other parts of the country boast fantastic contrasting experiences.
There’s the Kalahari Desert, encompassing the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and a network of surreal and extraordinary salt pans. Covering an amazing two thirds of the country, this region is the ultimate environment for fly-in safaris because roads are few and far between. You can access some parts by road, but it’s a long drive! The focus here is on the Kalahari’s epic landscapes and unique experiences, such as exploring the region on foot, game drives, quad bikes and horseback; camping out under the stars on the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans; enjoying incredible predator action, including the famous Kalahari black-maned lions, and the largest population of critically endangered African wild dogs left in the wild; and interacting with the indigenous local tribe, the San Bushmen. These cultural interactions are hugely rewarding as you get to learn from nomadic hunter-gatherers, said to be the earliest inhabitants of southern Africa.
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The best time to safari in Botswana
Botswana safari holidays can take place in any month of the year. The dry season, with moderate temperatures and great wildlife sightings, runs from June to September. Generally speaking, the Okavango Delta floods from June to October, so mokoro and boating safaris are possible during this time. The high season runs from July to October, but with a high-cost, low-impact tourism policy, it won’t feel busy. During the wet season, from November to March, some camps close while others remain open but reduce their rates. April and October are shoulder months with great weather, fewer tourists and wonderful sightings. If you’re weather-sensitive, October and November are very hot, while January and February are peak wet months and therefore more likely to rain.
Wildlife in Botswana
Name the African animal you’d like to see on holiday and chances are you’ll be able to see it in Botswana. This is one of the best countries to see animals in their natural environment. It’s home to the world’s biggest population of elephants, the second-largest migration of zebra on the planet and a wealth of other fantastic beasts and birds. It’s also got great options if you want to see the Big Five – the Savuti region (lion), Mashatu Game Reserve (leopard), Chobe National Park (elephant), Moremi Game Reserve (black rhino) and Northern Okavango Delta (Cape buffalo). And let’s not forget the flamingos of the Makgadikgadi Pans or the famous black-maned Kalahari lions.
The Okavango Delta, the green heart of Botswana
Botswana’s most famous tourism attraction, the Okavango Delta, is a vast inland water system that’s fed by the Okavango River. It’s unique because instead of flowing into the sea, like most deltas, it flows into the <middle> of Botswana, cutting through the centre of the Kalahari Desert. The result is an enormous network of waterways and seasonally flooded plains that span some 15,000 square kilometres. This is one of the world’s greatest wildlife habitats, home to a huge array of animals, including cheetahs, lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and African wild dogs, as well as more than 400 bird species. An Okavango Delta safari is ideal for everyone, whether you’re a first-timer or a safari connoisseur. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a unique safari destination because you can view much of its wildlife from a traditional dugout canoe called a <mokoro>, exploring its magical expanses of water and maze of islands. A network of private concessions offers exclusive, high-end accommodation and wildlife safaris, with light aircraft the predominant form of travel to get you between each concession and national park. Nothing beats seeing the Delta waterways and its resident wildlife from the air – especially a thrilling, doors-off scenic helicopter flight over the lagoons and meandering waterways, stopping for Champagne on a remote island within the Delta.
It’s always a good time to visit the Okavango Delta. The best time to view wildlife is during peak flood season (which, ironically, is during the dry season, generally between about June and September). During this time, the flooded plains teem with wildlife and, because it’s more concentrated on the delta islands, is easier to spot. The game-viewing opportunities are incredible, but this is the high season, so expect higher prices and more tourists. During the rainy season, from November to March, expect hot and humid weather, with thundershowers and short downpours common throughout the day. Mornings are ideal for getting out and about to view game by boat or in a safari vehicle before the rain sets in and cools the day down. During this time, landscapes turn lush and green, wildlife have their babies and predators abound. It’s slightly harder to track animals as the bush thickens, but it makes for a greater sense of adventure. The green season is also low season, with the rain heralding cheaper prices, fewer tourists and quieter camps.
Chobe National Park
Located in the far north of Botswana, Chobe National Park lies in the Okavango Delta and takes its name from the Chobe River, which flows along the park’s northern boundary. It’s the country’s oldest and most-visited national park, not just because it’s the easiest to reach wilderness area in Botswana, but also because of the astonishing array of wildlife you’ll find there.
Botswana is estimated to be home to more than 130,000 elephants – about a third of Africa’s remaining population – and Chobe is renowned for its huge herds, which are best seen from the water on a boating safari or sunset river cruise. As well as elephants, Chobe is a great place to see lions, leopards, cheetahs, buffalo and the endangered African wild dog, while the Chobe River itself is the ideal habitat for animals such as hippos, Nile crocodiles and the red lechwe antelope. The park is also a birder’s paradise, with more than 450 recorded species.
The park covers a vast area and can be divided into several distinct sections. The most accessible and most-visited region of the park is the Chobe Riverfront, which features the region’s iconic fertile floodplains and huge expanses of mopane woodlands. It also features the highest concentration of wildlife in Chobe. Other sections include the Linyanti Marshes in the northwest corner, which is a great place to see big cats, and the remote Savuti region which boasts one of the greatest concentrations of animals in all of southern Africa.
Depending on where you are in this magnificent national park, there’s great reward when you venture out on a 4×4 or boating safari, and because Chobe National Park is accessible by car, it means it’s a little less expensive than some of Botswana’s other parks.
Most travellers pick the dry season (between May and September) for a safari in Chobe National Park. The days are warm and dry (the nights can get chilly), the mozzies are at a minimum, there are no problems with the roads so you can get around easily. Best of all, as a lack of water elsewhere means the animals become more and more dependent on the Chobe River, it means they stay around the river so it’s easy to spot an incredible variety of wildlife. If you can stand the heat, travelling during the hot, humid wet season (August, September and October) also has its benefits, namely spectacular birdwatching, fewer visitors, cheaper accommodation rates and, in some cases, more flexible child policies.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve
The Kalahari desert of Botswana is absolutely enormous and encompasses a number of areas, including the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. At 52,800 square kilometres, this is the second-largest wildlife reserve in the world – to give you an idea of its size, it’s larger than the Netherlands. This is the largest and most remote reserve in all of southern Africa and the best way to access it is in a light aircraft – it’s only from the skies that you can begin to comprehend how immense it really is. If you’re lucky enough to visit the Central Kalahari Game Reserve you’ll enjoy endless space, horizons that stretch on forever and the rare feeling of having the entire place to yourself. Only a handful of people visit this wild and beautiful reserve each year, which is precisely the appeal.
This ancestral home of the indigenous San people features a landscape characterised by vast plains, sand dunes, shallow river valleys, pans, grasslands and bushland dotted with Kalahari apple-leaf, acacia, silver terminalia sandveldt and mopane. Wildlife residing here includes giraffe, desert-adapted elephant, rhino, buffalo, meerkat, jackal, dozens of antelope species and an impressive migration of wildebeest and zebra. Jackals, honey badgers, bat-eared foxes and the African wild cat can also be spotted. Predators include the famous black-maned lions, spotted and brown hyena, cheetah, wild dog and even leopard. Due to the sheer scale of this formidable reserve and how much ground you can cover in a 4×4 it’s definitely more of a challenge to see wildlife in abundance here. You have to work harder to track down the animals, but it just means the reward is even sweeter.
The best time to visit this part of Botswana is the rainy green season, from January through to April. Everything becomes lush and green, and massive herds of plains game – including springbok and gemsbok (oryx), as well as wildebeest, hartebeest, eland and giraffe – are attracted to the grasslands to graze. Lions, cheetahs and brown hyenas follow closely, so you’ll see some thrilling moments between these predators and their prey. And as this is also the calving season, expect to see plenty of newborns, too.
Botswana’s amazing salt pans
Another intriguing part of the Kalahari is a vast complex of huge, shimmering salt pans – the largest salt pans on the planet. The pans are the remains of a once-ancient lake, Lake Makgadikgadi. This enormous lake was formed around two million years ago, but over the millennia its waters drained, leaving behind the mesmerising Makgadikgadi salt pans. These vast white expanses, which encompass Nxai Pan, the Sua Pan and Ntwetwe Pan, cover 30,000 square kilometres and are a sight to behold at any time of the year. You will stand in awe as you gaze upon the pans’ surreal vastness in deafening silence – and go home with amazing photos.
Most of the time they appear as endless white plains that stretch as far as the eye can see, mingling with the horizon until it seems to disappear altogether. But during the rainy season they are come alive, and are transformed into one of the most important wetland areas in Botswana.
You can explore this harsh landscape on a quad bike or on foot with the indigenous San Bushmen, go bird-watching (you could spot up to 40 species in a single day), or even camp on these salty desert flats, sleeping under the stars – this is also one of the best places on Earth to go star-gazing. You can visit Kubu Island, home to huge baobabs and one of the most mysterious places of the Makgadikgadi Pans. These mounds of rock rise more than nine metres high and are rich in archaeological and historical remains. They lie in the middle of the salt pans like wallowing hippos – “Kubu” is the local Setswana word for hippopotamus. Other famous baobabs in the pans are Baines’ Baobabs, a cluster of seven huge, iconic “upside-down” trees, named after the 19th century explorer Thomas Baines.
You can visit the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park at any time of year – it all depends on what kind of experience you’re after. During the dry season you’ll experience the pans at their most hauntingly dramatic and surreal – you’ll feel like you’ve landed on the moon. The white salty desert flats glare in the sun. They’re so remote, so huge and so flat that you can actually see the curve of the Earth. If the rains have been good, another good time to visit is the wet season, from December to April. The pans flood, and short grasses replace the salt pans, attracting huge herds of animals. Common species to be sighted include herbivores like zebra, wildebeest, springbok, impala, gemsbok, hartebeest, giraffe and sometimes elephant and buffalo, as well as the carnivores that follow them, like lion, cheetah, wild dog, and both brown and spotted hyena.
Everyone knows about the Great Migration in Kenya and Tanzania, but not many people are aware that the second-largest zebra migration in the world takes place in Botswana from about January to March every year, between Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi Pans.
Tremendous birding opportunities are also on offer, as when it rains the pans come to life with water birds such as pelicans, ducks and geese. But it’s the flamingoes that are the truly stunning spectacle, at Sua Pans in particular. They come in their hundreds of thousands, transforming the pan into a rhapsody in pink. During the wet season roads can become impassable, but the best way to view the pans at this time is to fly over them – this is also the best way to witness these incredible flamingo flocks.