Botswana Tourism for the off-road traveller
Although this article, Botswana Tourism for the Off-road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in Botswana, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
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Occupying an area of 581 730 sq/km, Botswana is landlocked between Namibia, South Africa, Zim-babwe, and Zambia, with the greater part of the population of roughly 2 155 784 people concentrated in the eastern reaches of the country.
While the country is predominantly flat with no high mountains, some hilly country does occur where mining, mainly for diamonds is carried out. In the Central and southwestern parts, the Kalahari Desert predominates, while one of the largest inland river deltas, the Okavango Swamps, takes up much of the north-western reaches. In the north-central region, the Makgadikgadi Pans, a large saltpan dominates the landscape.
The highest elevation in Botswana is the peak of Monalanong Hill, at 1,494 metres, while the lowest elevation occurs at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers, at only 513 metres. Botswana’s drainage occurs via four, sometimes-indistinct regions due to the generally arid nature of the climate.
Due to the very short wet season, the country is generally arid, but due to the relatively high altitude of the country, and its location on the continent relative to moisture-laden atmospheric flows, the climate is mostly sub-tropical.
The dry season runs from April to October in the southern parts, but in the north, the dry conditions can run into November. However, annual rainfall in the northern parts of the country is significantly higher than in the south. Average winter temperatures, from May to late in August, range around 140C with cold winds over almost the entire southern reaches. In the summer, which runs from September to late May, the temperature averages around 260C with highs of up to 400C and even higher in all parts of the country.
The best time to visit Botswana is between the months of May and July, which period avoids the coldest part of winter, and ends before summer sets in.
The scenery of Botswana defies description, and the only way to experience it is to see it for your-self. Much depends on the time of year, but for the most part, the scenery ranges to red, gold, yellow, and even white sand in certain parts of the Kalahari Desert, to waving grassland, to savannah interspersed with impressive granite outcroppings, known as “koppies”.
In the far south, the drab, arid bushveld is transformed into a lush green, but impenetrable forest of dozens of species of trees after the first rain, while further north, the seemingly lifeless desert is transformed into a carpet of colour by isolated pockets of blooming wild flowers for about three weeks.
However, arguably the best part of the scenery in Botswana is the wide-open spaces, which seem to end by falling of the end of the earth. With no major mountains to speak of, the land is flat, endless, and so silent that the first-time visitor could be forgiven for thinking that he is the last person left alive on earth-until the roar of a lion from several kilometres away reminds him that he is in one of the last true wilderness areas of the planet.
With more than 17% of Botswana’s land surface given over to National Parks and Reserves, and apart from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which is among the biggest conservation areas on the planet, Botswana offers parks in all of the major geographical areas of the country, which means that there is something for everyone- from elephant fans to avid bird watchers. Below is a random sampling of what Botswana has to offer the visitor in the way of National Parks. An added attraction of the Parks in Botswana is the fact that they are not fenced, which allows animals to roam freely from area to area.
As its name suggests, this Park that takes up an impressive 51,800 km², and which is the second biggest conservation area in the world is located roughly in the centre of the Kalahari Desert. The Park offers excellent game viewing on an extensive road network, which is generally kept in good condition by the Park Authorities. Road surfaces in the north are firm to rocky, while in the south, the roads tend to be sandy and muddy in the wet season.
This park is 4×4 territory at its very best, which means that visitors have to be fully self-sufficient with regard to fuel, food, water, and camping gear, since there is no accommodation and facilities available apart from a few primitive and derelict campsites.
The plentiful game includes gemsbok, eland, wildebeest, springbok, tsessebe, and steenbok. Predators include lion, brown hyena, cheetah, leopard, and the African Wild Cat. The reserve is also home to an impressive number of bird and particularly, raptor species.
Consisting of 1.3 million hectares of unfenced wilderness in which around 800 indigenous people live in several small and widely scattered villages, this Park is home to vast herds of game that include eland, gemsbok, springbok, red hartebeest, a good many predator species including lion, leopard, hyena, jackal, and cheetah, and more than 50 raptor species.
The main attraction here are the many pans that retain the rain after the wet season, which means that almost all the pans have their own “resident” herds of game during much of the dry season. The area is also of major ecological importance because it encompasses the route along which herds of game migrate between the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and Central Kalahari Reserve.
Located at Sowa Pan, this sanctuary, which forms part of the Makgadikgadi complex of Pans, offers the best bird watching opportunities in all of Botswana. More than 160 bird species have been rec-orded here, and many hundreds of thousands internationally threatened Lesser Flamingos, Greater Flamingos, Chestnut-banded Plovers, Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans congregate here after good rains, to feast in the nutrient-rich waters of the pan.
The sanctuary also accommodates the largest flock of Lesser Flamingos in Southern Africa when water levels begin to drop after the wet season. This is a must-see destination on any tour of the birding sites in Southern Africa.
Moremi Game Reserve to Savute (in Chobe National Park):
Depending on the location of your campsite in Moremi, this all-dirt road drive takes around 5 hours through some of the most profound landscape changes in Botswana. Although the route passes by some small villages, it generally follows established game viewing trails.
Nata to Kasane:
Although some of the route is continually in a state of disrepair, which requires 4WD vehicles over the worst part, about 330 kilometres of it is on good paved roads through some of the most scenic parts of the country, especially the part that surrounds Kasane. However, much of the majesty of the landscape is lost because of the inordinate number of domestic animals that share the road surface with game. This route requires constant care not to collide with animals, so keep a sharp lookout.
All of Botswana is one big attraction; but despite that, from time to time it is good to focus on the smaller things that complete a visit to this exquisite country. Many tour operators and lodges offer excursions and activities of various kinds in the areas they serve, and below is a random selection of what you can expect on a typical visit to a lodge or luxury campsite.
Note however that not all lodges and campsites offer all services, so if you want to experience a particular activity, you should make advance enquiries and bookings.
- Go on a hot-air balloon flight across the Kalahari at dawn for a birds’ eye view of the vast ex-panses below. Some balloon operators offer five-star breakfasts in a bush setting upon landing, followed by an early morning game drive, so enquire from the various operators for details and prices.
- Experience game viewing from atop an elephant. The perspective from three or four metres up in the air is unforgettable, since the elephants can get closer to concentrations of game than would have been possible with a vehicle. On such a trip, you may end up with a newfound re-spect for elephants and their gentle way of going about life.
- Go on a mountain bike safari in the Mashatu Game Reserve in the Tuli Block, where you can watch the famous Tuli elephants going about their affairs.
- Race across the Makgadikgadi Pans on a quad bike.
- Botswana offers some of the best sport fishing in the entire Southern Africa region, with trophy-sized fish routinely being caught in the Okavango Delta and Chobe River. Other, equally excellent opportunities for fishing exist around Gaborone, Shashe, and Bokaa.
The wide spectrum of ecosystems and habitats that makes up the Okavango Delta accommodates an incredible variety of animals, reptiles, birds, and fish, and there is little doubt that the best way to experience the rich biodiversity of the Delta is from the back of a horse.
However, horseback safaris are not recommended for inexperienced riders or children, and although safaris are led by experienced and knowledgeable guides, riders should be able to control a horse in difficult or dangerous situations, and be able to swim a horse across deep and wide waterways with safety.
This large dam close to Mmadinare Village offers excellent opportunities for entire families to spend a day fishing sailing, and enjoying various water sports. This is also an almost must-do activity during any off-road tour of Botswana that passes by the area, since the relief from the dust and heat of the country is immediate, and a more than welcome distraction. Moreover, Letsibogo Dam is located in a particularly scenic part of the country, which is reason enough to visit.
For a pure adrenalin rush, the Gcwihaba Caverns in one of the remotest parts of the country is hard to beat. Set among dramatic Kalahari dunes about 50 kilometres from the Aha Hills, and only accessible with proper 4WD vehicles, the complex of caves consists of interlinked galleries; narrow passages, and stretches across two distinct levels. The stalagmites and stalactites that decorate the interior formed by water seeping through, and dissolving large cavities in the dolomite rock.
Some of the attractions of the cave system include waterfalls “frozen” in time, rock formations in bizarre shapes and colours, and huge galleries flowstones, which appear to be “streams” of flowing stone. Regardless of its remote location, the visitor to the Gcwihaba cave system is more than amply rewarded for the effort in getting there. This is a definite must-do excursion.
Many game parks and private tour operators offer walking safaris of various lengths, degrees of difficulty, and levels of comfort. However, a walking safari of any duration through any part of Botswana is not for the timid or faint of heart, and although all safaris are always guided by armed guides and game rangers, dangerous situations can arise at a moment’s notice, and sometimes with no notice at all.
Nonetheless, a walking safari is one of the most rewarding and exhilarating ways to view game, but we recommend to get the most out of the experience that only fit, healthy, and observant persons undertake this type of exercise.
Botswana does not have much, if anything to offer the off-road tourist in the way of picturesque small towns. Even the largest towns and cities are small in comparison to other African cities, which is evidenced by the fact that the capital, Gaborone, has a population of less than 300 000 people. Nonetheless, Botswana does have a few towns and cities worth mentioning, if only because they are so far apart.
Despite its small size and low population, Gaborone has everything from modern shopping malls, banks, hospitals, and several car dealerships. The city was even once described as the fastest growing city in the world, which was perhaps a little ambitious, but from a practical point of view, the city has everything, and more, in the way of what is required to prepare for an expedition to the interior.
Shops include branches of almost all the major retail chains found in South Africa, as well as excel-lent hotels and restaurants. Gaborone also has excellent links to South Africa by air, rail, and road, with the closest border post at Tlokweng being only 15 kilometres away by road.
Although Kasane is located right on the Chobe River, it is not visible from the town due to the inter-vening game lodges and reserves between it and the town itself. However, despite this, the town is a major tourist hub, being only 5 kilometres away from the point where borders of Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia come together.
Kasane is also the only town from which day trips to a major game reserve (Chobe National Park) or the Victoria Falls can be arranged, which is attest to by the fact that Kasane has more game-viewing vehicles than any other city or town in all of Africa. Another attraction of Kasane is the boat cruises that can be arranged from the various lodges around the town, which are something worth doing, and should therefore not be missed.
Maun is main access point to the Okavango Delta, and is often referred to as the tourism capital of Botswana. Located on the Thamalakane River, which is a major river flowing from the Delta, the town is the base of operations of many tour operators who offer tours to the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park, both of which are only a few hour’s drive away. Maun also has the busiest airport in Botswana, with dozens of daily flights to upmarket lodges and reserves in the area.
Several retail chains are represented in the town, and supplies of fresh and perishable are generally regarded as the best in all of Botswana, no doubt due to the high demand from the tourist industry.