© Wildebeest. Sunset over Chobe.
Quite simply, there's nowhere quite like it. Wildlife, wilderness and sense of wonder - Botswana has it all. This is more than just another safari destination. It's the promise of a unique experience. Imagine being poled along serene waters in a dugout canoe, through a wildlife reserve the size of Greater London that you have practically to yourself.
By Chris McIntyre
Experience the thrill and privilege of a close encounter with Africa's largest elephant herds. Sense the mesmerising emptiness
of one of the world's largest salt pans or marvel at the ancient rock art of the Kalahari Bushmen. As Chris McIntyre explains, Botswana is a very special proposition.
Once upon a time a safari meant clambering aboard a striped minibus with your wildlife tick-list before slumping on a beach for a week. Now it has grown up, safari has become more serious. Bush experts drive open-topped 4WDs that leave minibuses standing, whilst camp comforts, even in remote locations, have reached penthouse proportions.
Quietly leading this revolution has been Botswana - a democratic corner of Africa, with a strong, diamond-based economy
, that rarely reaches the newspapers. Northern Botswana's pristine wilderness is protected by a patchwork of reserves.
Each is about as big as Greater London and limited to just thirty-or-so visitors at a time. That's serious space! Expect camps with home comforts, and some with style to make your jaw drop. Each promises an exclusive chunk of pristine Africa
and there's a wide range to choose from.
Everyone's heard of the Okavango Delta - but whatever you imagine, don't picture a 'swamp'. Instead think endless crystal-clear streams
and lagoons meandering through lush floodplains between picturesque palm-fringed islands.
Add a myriad fish, boisterous hippos, flashes of iridescent birds and more wildlife than almost any other reserve in the region, and you'll understand why the Delta has become renowned as an ultimate safari destination. The postcards don't lie; it's just like that.
Dotted around the Delta are small, but perfectly formed, safari camps
(20 guests count as 'big' here). Most are very high-quality, but try to visit two or three to get a real feel for the Delta's contrasts:forests, open floodplains, tiny islands dense papyrus beds and dry, open island plains. When David Livingstone visited the region in 1849, he saw the Delta as 'a country full of rivers - so many no one can know their number.'
Little has changed since, but exploring it has become easier. Now your most difficult decision at camp is how to get around. Glide silently in a mokoro (dugout canoe) with lilies at eye-level; float further on a motor boat; feel the adrenaline of walking with beasts; or track wild dog from an open 4WD. Then there's always the dilemma of what to order from the bar to toast the sunset...
Don't confine yourself to the Delta when visiting Botswana. The surrounding Kalahari is equally captivating. Despite what you might think, it isn't really a desert. It's an enormous rolling wilderness of bush
, studded with a few magical corners worth signing away your trust fund to visit.
The waterways of the Kwando, Linyanti and Chobe
are magnets for huge game concentrations; one reserve here has more elephants than the whole of South Africa! Venture away from the water, into the heart of Kalahari, where you'll find vast salt pans. Pluck Stone Age axes from the crusty surface as dust-devils gyrate across the endless horizon.
Visit during the rains for a different story: vast herds of zebra on a watery green meadow, perhaps topped by a pink froth of breeding flamingos
. On the edges of the Kalahari seek the mysterious Tsodilo Hills, graced with some of Africa's richest Bushman art and infused with a deep sense of spirituality.
Then there's the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (the ultimate in remoteness); the rocky, well-watered Tuli Block; and the picturesque Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park - well known to fans of the Meerkat Valley TV documentary.
When to Go
It depends on where you're going and what you want to see. Birds are best during the rains, December-March, but you'll spot more animals during the dry season, from April-November. Around May, floodwaters from Angola
inundate the Okavango, a remarkable spectacle that creates exciting opportunities for mokoro rides in areas that are usually dry.
Wild dogs den from June-September and they'll stay around one area for several months, making them easier to find. Herds of elephant and buffalo get bigger as it gets drier, so September-October
promises the best big game spectacles.Best Time to Travel to Botswana
Not Just for Media Moguls
Botswana has options for all budgets — although the majority of camps tend to cater for the high-end market where you can expect to pay quite a hefty rate per person per night. This typically includes light aircraft transfers to and from your camp, luxurious accommodation, delicious food, all activities and professional guides. Maintaining such standards in remote locations (often in private concessions) is an expensive business, so these rates represent good value. A percentage of takings is also ploughed back into local community projects. If you're on a tighter budget, try a Guided Mobile Camping Safari.
Bring the Whole Family?
Yes — but not everywhere. A few camps welcome kids with special family rooms (Chitabe Trails, Duma Tau, Jao Camp, Kings Pool, Pom Pom and Vumbura). Others (the Kwando camps) have a specialist children's guide. Some have no age restriction and offer imaginative children's programmes
which include activities such as making paper from elephant dung!Family Travel in Botswana
Some mobile safaris are another alternative for budget travellers. If you have experience of driving a 4WD vehicle in Africa, you may also be able to save money by organising a self-drive trip
. However, this is a serious undertaking and not for the feint-hearted (roads have few signposts and there's no AA service, while campsites are remote and basic).
Do different places provide different daily activities?
Yes. In some parts of the Okavango, only motor-boat trips are possible. Other areas are limited to mokoro excursions, while many camps only offer 4WD safaris. Experienced horse riders can join specialist week-long riding safaris, whilst lottery winners might splurge over £5,000 for a 5-night elephant-back safari at Abu Camp.
How long should I spend in each camp?
About three nights per camp is normal; four at particularly good camps with a wide choice of activities and two for those which focus on water activities.Copyright © Travel Africa Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited.