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 bird watching 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.
POINT OF INTEREST
Welcome to one of Africa’s most extraordinary places. There is something elemental about the Unesco World Heritage–listed Okavango Delta: the rising and falling of its waters; the daily drama of its wildlife encounters; its soundtrack of lion roars, saw-throated leopard barks and the crazy whoop of a running hyena; and the mysteries concealed by its papyrus reeds swaying gently in the evening breeze. Viewed from above on a flight from Maun, the Okavango is a watery paradise of islands and oxbow waterways. At ground level, the silhouettes of dead trees in the dry season give the delta a hint of the apocalypse.
The stirring counterpoint to Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, the Okavango is one of the world’s largest inland deltas. The up-to-18,000-sq-km expansion and expiration of the Okavango River means that this mother of waters sustains vast quantities of wildlife that shift with the seasons.
CHOBE NATIONAL PARK
Famed for some of the world’s largest herds of massive elephants, Chobe National Park in Botswana’s far northeastern corner is one of the great wildlife destinations of Africa. In addition to the mighty pachyderms, a full suite of predators and more than 440 recorded bird species are present; watch for roan antelope and the rare Oribi antelope.
Chobe was first set aside as a wildlife reserve in the 1930s and became Botswana’s first national park in 1968. It encompasses three iconic wildlife areas that all carry a whiff of safari legend: Chobe Riverfront, which supports the park’s largest wildlife concentration; the newly accessible and Okavango-like Linyanti Marshes; and the remote and soulful Savuti, with wildlife to rival anywhere.
Whether you’re self-driving and camping under the stars, or flying into your luxury lodge, Chobe can be enjoyed by everyone.
A voyage to the Kalahari is akin to catapulting into a parallel universe. It’s a surreal Alice-through-the-looking-glass experience where you feel really small and everything around you looms larger than life. Timeless and magical, solitary stretches of space spin on into infinity; and shapes distort under a blanket of scorching desert heat.
A mystifying collage of fiery sunsets and shifting crimson sands, of lush green fields and gushing waterfalls, magnificent wildlife reserves and tidy vineyards, this region will enchant long after you depart. Make sure you check out these highlights.
The Northern Cape’s rugged northwest is a land of immense sky and stark countryside, and it’s a long, hot jostle down dusty crimson roads to reach magical Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, located largely within the southern Kalahari desert, and one of the world’s last great, unspoiled ecosystems. But once you step foot inside Africa’s first multinational park, tucked away between Botswana and Namibia in the country’s extreme north, you’ll understand why journeying to the end of the earth is well worth the effort. The Kgalagadi is a wild land of harsh extremes and frequent droughts, where shifting red-and-white sands meet thorn trees and dry riverbeds.
Yet despite the desolate landscape, it’s teeming with wildlife. From prides of black-maned lions to packs of howling spotted hyenas, there are more than 1100 predators here, including around 200 cheetahs, 450 lions and 150 leopards. Add in those giant orange-ball sunsets the continent is famous for, and black-velvet skies studded with millions of twinkling stars, and you’ll feel like you’ve entered the Africa of storybooks.
MAKGADIKGADI PANS NATIONAL PARK
This 3900-sq-km park, the southern section of the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans National Park, extends from the Boteti River in the west to the Ntwetwe Pan in the east. The return of water to the Boteti River in recent years has drawn plenty of wildlife, particularly in the dry season from May to October, when the river, even at low levels, is the only source of permanent water in the reserve. There are three main campsites, and three entry gates.
The most popular campsite is Khumaga, which overlooks the Boteti River. Out in the remote grasslands in the park’s far east, you’ll find Tree Island and Njuca Hills A handful of luxury lodges sit atop the western bank of the Boteti River, just outside the park’s boundaries.
The main entrance to the park is Phuduhudu Gate (GPS: S 20°12.439’, E 24°33.346’), 141km west of Nata and 164km east of Maun, 100m south off the Gweta–Maun road. There’s another entrance, Khumaga Gate (GPS: S 20°28.333’, E 24°31.056’), close to Khumaga Campsite, but you’ll need to cross the river on a pontoon Ferry. Otherwise, there’s the little-used XireXawa Gate (GPS: S 20°25.384’, E 24°7.093’) in the far east of the park.
MOREMI GAME RESERVE
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.
WHEN TO VISIT BOTSWANA
High season (June to October) is the best for wildlife safari
Spectacular wildlife spotting, bone-dry weather and Northern Hemisphere school vacations combine to make July and August the busiest months in Botswana. In June and July, meanwhile, campsites fill up with safari-loving South Africans.
The dry winter season runs roughly from April to October, with endless blue skies, warm days and cold nights. June through August are the coolest months (around 25°C/77°F), and temperatures can drop below freezing at night, with stellar stargazing in the Makgadikgadi Pan. From September on, the heat gradually builds, reaching its peak in October when the mercury can hit 40°C (104°F).
At the height of the dry season, wildlife congregates around the seasonally high waters of the Okavango Delta and permanent water sources such as the Chobe River; roads and tracks throughout the country are easier to navigate. There are no mosquitos, so it’s a good time for family adventures.
Visit in June to see rare African wild dogs
By mid-June, visitor numbers start to climb – and so do prices. Days are generally warm and sunny, followed by cold nights. If you’re desperate to see African wild dogs, the denning season runs from June to September, when these endangered predators stay close to home to watch over the pups.
July is the peak of peak season
Wildlife is concentrated around water holes, although you’ll be sharing sightings with more vehicles. In private reserves, it’s also a great time to enjoy guided walking safaris to spot smaller flora and fauna. Between July and September is the best time to hang out with gangs of meerkats in Makgadikgadi.
The Kalahari comes to life in February
February is normally the rainiest month, with longer, more persistent downpours. Temperatures rise, but the Kalahari bursts into life, with the arid salt pans transformed into nutritious grasslands that entice herbivores. Don’t miss the sight of thousands of Burchell’s zebras migrating from the Boteti River to Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans.