From the moment we started to plan this trip to Africa, I started to read blogs of other travelers in Africa and it seemed that they all really liked one country more than the others. It was Botswana. I remember thinking at the time that we must plan something special for Botswana as it has so many good reviews but with the whirlwind that West Africa was, it was one of the things that was swept to the back of my mind but all of a sudden, we were here and I had to remember all the things I had read again. I have to say, that wasn’t going to happen but we had been given a real gold mine of information on the place by a German couple we had met at Urban Camp so armed with place names and notes in the all-important black book, we headed to the border.
Now, as with the info I had read on Botswana before, we often have more important things to remember no matter how important the previous thing to remember was… this was the case with the vet clearance letter we were supposed to get signed off by some guy in a big government building in Windhoek that was all together too hard to do at the time and was ‘put off’ until we had rested, or something and all we had to do was remember to do it later. Well, we both remembered to do it, but we were 200 meters from the border when we did…
All the way down West Africa we had seen and sometimes followed vehicles loaded with livestock, usually goats through borders, and the guard would sometimes glance in the back to make sure no one was hiding amongst the animals, but usually not. Like with us, sometimes they would ask us to wind down the back windows to make sure it was only us but having a cat was never a problem and they would often say ‘you have a cat?’ and laugh us off as crazy, but no one ever cared or asked if she had papers. But here was the one and only border in Africa we were supposed to actually do something to cross with the cat and we ‘forgot’ to get it signed. We thought about signing it ourselves but without the all-important stamp that seems to make everything official in Africa, we thought we would be caught out and be in more trouble, so we just hid her. By hiding her I don’t mean we stuffed her under a seat or put her in the fridge, we simply laid a towel over her and she just kept sleeping. We need not have bothered as they just stamped our passports and gave us a gate pass that we handed to the border official on the way through the gate into Botswana without so much as even a glance into the back seat. OK, so I suppose it’s not the right thing to do but she had the vet clearance done so we knew we weren’t doing any harm other than avoiding some bureaucracy.
Botswana is different to any other African country we had been in on this trip. It has quite a small population of around 2 million, is the least densely populated country in Africa and since independence in 1966 it has had democratic elections and a thriving economy. It helped that a year after independence they found the largest reserve of diamonds in the world and this accounts for over half of their GDP now. The other thing they did was form large parks and they protect their wild animals better than any other African country. As a result, they now have the largest population of elephants and rhinos in Africa and are helping other countries restock their parks hit by ivory and horn poaching. The country has only a small white community of 3% and they largely self-manage the resources and parks alone. Chances are if you have watched National Geographic, Learning Channel or Discovery Channel and seen a documentary featuring wild African animals, part or all of it will have been filmed in Botswana and usually it would be in the Okavango Delta area which was our first destination in Botswana.
The delta area is big, really big, and it’s only accessible by car to the edge of the delta and only in a few places. If you want to get further in, to the lodges in the delta, you have to take a small plane. In this area are some of the most exclusive and best places for wildlife viewing in Africa but with prices at around $1,000USD per person per day, it’s not for everyone. It used to be that Botswanan parks were some of the best for travelers on a budget but the government who manage the parks saw what overcrowding and overuse was doing to the environment and the parks, so privatised most of the camping areas, then quite simply kept increasing the prices until the supply/demand levelled out and now they have very few visitors that pay quite a lot. The lodges that developed since then are the fly in type and the delta is covered in them now. Its good as they all want to provide an amazing experience and they are all working together preserving the area and encouraging diversity and it’s all of this that has made Botswana one of the safari hotspots in Africa. We looked at a lot of options for parks and camping in the area and we worked out that the cheapest place places were Moremi Game Reserve or the community run Khwai River Conservancy. They were around $75NZD including camping each so we chose the community run place as we normally do and went in. As soon as you get through the gate, the roads disappear and are replaced by 4x4 tracks that are fine 80% of the time and are great fun in places. But there are patches of the all too common very fine dust that rises in giant clouds as you pass through. If you travel too slowly it will engulf the car and fill the inside in seconds if the windows are down. That day was an amazing day for us and it felt sort of surreal to be driving around in our car amongst these amazing and wild animals that were everywhere. But it’s times like now, in the car with maybe 20 or more elephants around you in all directions, hippos, water buffalo, zebra and a variety of antelope further away as far as we can see, that we really knew why we did the hard miles and borders to get this far. That day we had an amazing encounter with the endangered African painted dog. By chance we met Phil, a British overlander driving around the place as well. We chatted with him for a while and he pointed us in the direction of a den of these dogs. After following a small dirt road for a few kms we came around a corner to find a painted dog right in the middle of the road. Wow! The den. We had wanted to see these animals for some time and there right in front of us was an entire den of dogs complete with a litter of very young pups still with their eyes closed. For us it was a jackpot wildlife sighting. We sat and watched for quite a while but they eventually got nervous about us and we left them in peace. Luxy was very happy we went as she had been nervously keeping a keen eye on the dog closest to the car from the moment we arrived… We got to the campground in the conservancy and were buzzing after the day and we agreed that it was the best day of the trip so far, which was a big call. We heard that lions frequent the camping area so were excited to be able to complete the big 5 without actually going to a private game park, only in the wild and community land (ok, a lot like a game park but many of the private parks are more like a zoo that a park). That night we looked out for wild dogs and lions. Instead we had hippos grunting and snorting with crocodiles roaming the river banks right in front of our camp. The 2 evenings previous lions were strolling through the campgrounds to the river and back but they moved on. Could have been the threat of having to deal with Luxy who usually claims the camping area around the car as her own territory, but probably not. The lions would have to wait. We headed back and drove the park again the next day and had yet another amazing day like the first. The Khwai River Conservancy is an amazing place for self-drive visitors and we really recommend it for overlanders.
We headed east and towards the Nxal Pan National Park. Botswana has a bunch of what they call pans which are depressions that in the rainy season fill with water forming giant inland seas that completely fill up with migrating birds and animals. Some are grassed pans, some are rimmed with shrubs and some with trees. Some are salt pans that have very little vegetation and stretch to the horizon. It was cool to drive across these, especially the salt pans. On one big one, even though it was only 40 or 50kms across, I felt some trepidation before starting off. The road was wherever you wanted it to be, in other words, anywhere between point A over there to point B here. It’s a bit dangerous to stray from the tracks and could involve driving around in circles for a while as every horizon looks the same and then hitting one of the many soft spots that will suck your 4x4 up to the axles in seconds. So, we stuck to the hard track and cruised across the salt. It didn’t take long for the next hill appear just like seeing land from out at sea. The hill, called Kubu Island, was a granite rock outcrop that is largely unchanged from when this part of Africa was really a sea, and the island shows signs of habitation from as far back as the stone age. At one end is the fossilized remains of an actual beach, we couldn’t find it but…it’s there somewhere. I really wanted to see what a fossilized beach looked like too… That night we tempted fate and drove off the road and into the middle of the salt lake we were crossing, so we could camp. We have camped all over the place in forests and deserts but never a salt lake, until now. It was, as you could imagine, extremely boring mostly and Luxy thought it was the worst campsite we have ever taken her to. It was a nice place to take some photos, was very quiet, and the night sky was incredible (and we didn’t get stuck).
Our next stop was another community run park. This one specialises in Rhino and is called Khama Rhino sanctuary. We were spoilt for rhino viewing at that park and while we were driving around one of the waterholes we had to stop suddenly for a White (wide-lipped) Rhino and her baby to cross the road right in front of us. Very cool. We didn’t camp in the park as just the day drive around cost $55NZD so we moved on to another excellent wild camp off the side of one of the many deserted roads in Botswana. Over the next few days we went to Francistown and spent many hours looking at maps and the iOverlander app to see where to go next but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to pay the high price for any more of the parks. The country’s tourism is set up for short stay, high quality tourism and we had pretty much done all we could afford to do. We would love to go back to Botswana and experience one of the lodges in the delta and along with Namibia, it was a place we were really sad to leave but we had a date with a hotel in Zambia that we needed to keep.
it's Our Epic Trip...
David & Christine are from New Zealand and are embarking on a trip around the world the slow way, on foot and by personal vehicle. This could get interesting!