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Leopard in a tree, Okavango Delta

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Self-driving in Botswana: a wild safari adventure

By Audley Botswana specialist Alex

Before my Botswana self-drive trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Most visitors fly into their safari camps rather than taking to the wheel, deterred by the country’s lack of infrastructure. But, once I’d arrived and become accustomed to my 4x4 and the challenging terrain, it soon became clear that I was embarking on an exhilarating, eye-opening adventure.

Faced with a map and the open countryside, I was able to see far more of the country than I would in a light aircraft, experiencing the landscape from a local’s perspective. If you have an adventurous spirit and aren’t fazed by the occasional mishap, self-driving is one of the most rewarding ways to explore Botswana.

A note on our Botswana self-drive trips

A mokoro (dugout canoe)

A mokoro (dugout canoe)

Self-driving is for getting from point A to B rather than experiencing a self-drive safari. Once you arrive at your safari camps you’ll have the opportunity to take part in the guided safari activities on offer, including game drives, guided walks and traditional mokoro (dugout canoe) trips.

What to expect when self-driving in Botswana

Sand road in Botswana

Sand road in Botswana

I’ve driven in several African countries before, but the roads in Botswana are particularly challenging. You’re likely to get stuck in deep sand in places, but once you learn how to free yourself it all becomes part of the fun. To prepare you for the driving conditions, and the possibility of having to free your vehicle from sand, you complete a three-hour training course before you set off. Your vehicle is delivered to your hotel, and the course takes place nearby.

Depending on the time of year, you may encounter flooding. The Okavango Delta is particularly prone to this during the wet season (December to March) and as water filters down from the north in June and July. If the road ahead is blocked, a diversion will always be signed — you shouldn’t attempt to drive through the water as your insurance won’t cover any damage.

Roads are so empty that you’re more likely to see wildlife than people — I saw elephant, antelope and ostrich, among other species. You might pass through a few small villages, but most of the drives traverse open grassland in the north, where large elephant herds roam, or past the lagoons and mopane woodland of the Okavango Delta, where ample water sources attract both predators and prey.

Self-drive routes in Botswana

Elephant, Chobe National Park

Elephant, Chobe National Park

There are a choice of routes, but I’m focusing on the southern and northern circuits as I’ve driven them. The former takes in the Okavango Delta and is at its best between September and November, the latter covers Chobe National Park and the Linyanti Wetlands and you have the wider window of April and November to experience the route at its best.

Southern circuit

Red lechwe in mopane woodland, Moremi Wildlife Reserve

Red lechwe in mopane woodland, Moremi Wildlife Reserve

Following this route, you experience one of Botswana’s key safari destinations: the Okavango Delta, including Moremi Wildlife Reserve. I recommend spending three nights in each area. The roads here are prone to flooding — arrows will point you in the right direction, should the road become impassable.

The town of Maun in northern Botswana is the start and end point of your trip. You spend the first night here to take your driver training course, and as it’s a four-hour drive to the camps in the delta.

Okavango Delta

Lioness with cubs, Okavango Delta

Lioness with cubs, Okavango Delta

The first hour of the journey from Maun to your camp in the Okavango Delta is along smooth tarmac, giving you time to get used to your vehicle without worrying about the terrain. You’ll then be driving on compact gravel. While this can be slightly bumpy, it’s far easier than driving on sand.

As you head into the delta, the landscape becomes greener, with open floodplains mixing with pockets of mopane, fig and mangosteen trees. Water channels wind their way through the land, attracting animals big and small: from elephant, giraffe and buffalo to reed frogs, carmine bee-eaters and pygmy kingfishers.

Morning, afternoon and evening game drives give you a chance to see most of the Big Five. Depending on water levels, you can take mokoro or motorboat rides out on the lagoons and channels, where crocodiles and hippo dwell. Guided walks are also offered by most camps on private concessions, although they become unsafe if the grass is long.

Where to stay in the Okavango Delta

Sango Safari Camp from the air

Sango Safari Camp, Khwai Concession

Sango Safari Camp , Khwai Concession

Interior, Sango Safari Camp

Situated in the drier northeast of the delta in the Khwai Concession, Sango Safari Camp is an authentic bush camp with six traditionally styled tents overlooking the Khwai River. Part-owned by local inhabitants, it has strong links with the nearby Khwai village, which you can visit with a guide.

Moremi Wildlife Reserve

Leopard with a kill, Moremi Wildlife Reserve

Leopard with a kill, Moremi Wildlife Reserve

Driving to your camp in Moremi Wildlife Reserve should take about three hours along sandy, bumpy roads. Throughout the journey you’ll have lots of opportunities to see wildlife as you pass a variety of habitats, from mopane woodland to open plains and glittering lagoons.

Moremi is a private wildlife reserve in the heart of the Okavango Delta, renowned as one of the best areas for big-game viewing in Africa. A chunk of the reserve comprises Chief’s Island — the delta’s largest island — which has one of the highest concentrations of game in Botswana.

Lion, leopard, wild dog and spotted hyena all compete for prey, which is plentiful across the reserve’s fertile plains. Over 400 bird species flit between the reeds surrounding the lagoons, while large elephant and buffalo herds rejoice in the glut of water.

I had some excellent leopard sightings here. My guide and I spotted a leopardess up a tree calling for her cub, and we watched as it came rustling through the undergrowth to reach her. But the closest encounter happened at my camp, where a leopard had decided to gorge on a fresh impala kill right underneath my room (which was safely raised up from the ground on stilts).

Where to stay in the Moremi Wildlife Reserve

Camp Okuti, Moremi Wildlife Reserve

Camp Okuti, Moremi Wildlife Reserve

Lounge, Okuti

Lounge at Camp Okuti

Camp Okuti’s seven domed mosasas (reed houses) are spacious and stylish, raised up on teak platforms. Each features a private deck facing the river, giving you close-up views of passing wildlife at any time of year, including a huge variety of birdlife.

Adding on more stops from the southern circuit

Springbok at a waterhole, Nxai Pan National Park

Springbok at a waterhole, Nxai Pan National Park

The drive back to Maun takes six to seven hours, heading back along the same roads you arrived on. From Maun, you could extend your trip by flying directly to Cape Town — just two hours away.

If you’d like to see more, consider adding time farther east in the contrasting scenery of the desert. It takes between three and four hours to drive to the remote Nxai Pan National Park or just over two hours to see the salt pans of the Makgadikgadi (depending on your choice of lodge). You can then head back to Maun before flying onward.

Makgadikgadi Pans

Makgadikgadi Pans

Makgadikgadi Pans

Most visitors to Botswana overlook these great sweeping salt flats, but they add a different dimension to experiencing the delta. Stretching across the horizon, the pans are a completely flat moonscape, punctuated by the occasional island of vegetation or baobab tree.

The best way to explore is by quad bike: zipping across the cracked earth looking out for ostriches, secretary birds and mongooses. You can also visit a habituated meerkat colony, whose residents have become so used to humans they’ll climb all over you if you sit still enough.

Where to stay in the Makgadikgadi Pans

Family Bakalanga Hut, Planet Baobab, Makgadikgadi Pans

Planet Baobab, Makgadikgadi Pans

Planet Baobab, Makgadikgadi Pans

Pool at Planet Baobab

Planet Baobab offers a three-night package that includes a night camping on the pans. Riding into the pans by quad bike, you can enjoy a barbecue before camping under an unpolluted night sky, streaked across by the Milky Way.

The lodge was built using traditional techniques, and you can choose to stay in a Bakalanga hut (made with mud) or a bushman-style grass hut.

Nxai Pan National Park

Ostrich, Nxai Pan National Park

Ostrich, Nxai Pan National Park

Situated on the northern fringes of the Makgadikgadi Pans, Nxai Pan National Park is a vast area of open grasslands dotted with imposing baobabs. A year-round destination, during the rainy season (November to March) Nxai Pan is covered in lush green grass. This attracts huge numbers of grazers, including wildebeest, springbok and thousands of zebra, all regularly stalked by predators.

During the dry season the landscape changes completely as the waters subside and the grazers move on to other pastures, leaving a smattering of elephant and hardy antelope. At this time of year you might spot honey badgers, bat-eared foxes and porcupines. You could also visit the Baines’ Baobabs — a cluster of trees that have stood for millennia.

Where to stay in Nxai Pan National Park

Nxai Pan Camp, Nxai Pan National Park

Nxai Pan Camp, Nxai Pan National Park

Nxai Pan Camp, Nxai Pan National Park

Pool at Nxai Pan Camp

Nxai Pan Camp is set in a tranquil spot overlooking a year-round waterhole, meaning you can see wildlife without leaving your chalet. As well as game drives, you can join a nature walk with a San bushman, tracking animals while learning about the nomadic lifestyle these bushmen once followed.

Northern circuit

Hippo, Chobe National Park

Hippo, Chobe National Park

This route begins and ends in the town of Kasane in northeast Botswana. It takes in Chobe National Park, home to some of the largest elephant herds in the country, and the Linyanti Wetlands, a peaceful wilderness area where papyrus swamps and open grassland attract a variety of game, hippo and birdlife. I recommend spending at least three nights in each area.

While you’re unlikely to encounter floodwater on this route, you will drive on deep sand for some sections.

Chobe National Park

Elephant, Chobe National Park

Elephant, Chobe National Park

The first leg of the drive between Kasane and Chobe is easy, following a tarmac road for about an hour. Leaving the town behind, the landscape becomes increasingly rural as you enter the green floodplains of the Chobe River, and you might have your first wildlife sightings.

The river draws a huge variety of wildlife to the park. Guided game drives give you a chance to see predators such as lion, leopard, cheetah and wild dog, while the open floodplains are scattered with grazing kudu, wildebeest, giraffe and impala.

Elephant are the main attraction: during the dry season (April to November) you can see large herds cooling off in the river. Mokoro boat rides give you close-up views of them, as well as buffalo, hippo, crocodiles and birds such as sacred ibises, fish eagles and Egyptian geese.

Where to stay in Chobe National Park

Standard Room, Chobe Elephant Camp, Chobe National Park

Chobe Elephant Camp, Chobe National Park

Pool, Chobe Elephant Camp, Chobe National Park

Pool at Chobe Elephant Camp

I stayed at Chobe Elephant Camp, which occupies a secluded spot on a rocky ridge overlooking the river. Its ten eco-friendly chalets are simply furnished but comfortable, and feature private verandas facing the water. At the main lodge is a pool, and you can enjoy evening drinks around an atmospheric fire pit.

Linyanti Wetlands

Wild dog, Savuti

Wild dog, Linyanti Wetlands

Most of the 30 km (18.6 mile) drive from Chobe to the Linyanti Wetlands is on sand, so it may take about four hours in total. I got stuck several times along the way but, using the techniques I’d been taught, was able to free myself fairly easily and actually started to enjoy it.

Making your way between the two areas, the arid landscape gradually gets greener until you’re in the lush floodplain of the Linyanti River. Spending three nights in this remote wilderness was well worth the journey. Far fewer visitors venture to this region, so it feels like you’re alone in the natural world.

You see similar wildlife here to Chobe, including large elephant and buffalo herds, wild dog and big cats. There are also pockets of forests where baboon troops can be spotted.

As you’re staying on a private reserve or concession, your camp will offer guided walks as well as the usual game drives and boat trips. These give you a more detailed insight into the local ecosystem, focusing on plant life and wildlife you might not spot from a vehicle.

I had one of my most memorable wildlife encounters here. My guide and I had stopped for sundowners at a spot overlooking the river. A herd of elephant was silhouetted against the sky in the distance. As we watched, the elephant wandered closer until we were surrounded by a group of about 20 trumpeting adults and their calves. I was told to keep as still as possible, but my thudding heart was anything but. They eventually left us, venturing off into the bush.

Where to stay in the Linyanti Wetlands

Linyanti Bush Camp, Linyanti Wetlands

Linyanti Bush Camp, Linyanti Wetlands

Linyanti Bush Camp, Linyanti Wetlands

Linyanti Bush Camp, Linyanti Wetlands

Linyanti Bush Camp’s six tented rooms make a nice contrast to Chobe Elephant Camp’s chalets and give the feel of a true wilderness safari. What set the camp apart for me was the high level of service and convivial atmosphere — everyone dines together around a big table in the evening, including the staff, who’ll show you some of their traditional dances (and invite you to join them).

At the end of your self-drive trip

From Linyanti, you drive the five hours back to Kasane along the same route. By this time you’ll probably find yourself unfazed by the sand — I felt like I could take on anything.

Flying from Kasane, you could tag on a visit to Victoria Falls, just an hour and a half’s drive away by private transfer.

Best time to self-drive in Botswana

Tarmac road in northern Botswana

Tarmac road in northern Botswana

If you’re planning to drive the southern circuit, I’d recommend a trip between September and November. Flooding is likely during the wet season and in June and July, though conditions can vary each year depending on the amount of rainfall. The northern circuit is best driven any time between April and November.

Practicalities of self-driving in Botswana

  • Your well-equipped vehicle includes two jacks, two spare tyres and a variety of other car maintenance tools, as well as a satellite phone to call our ground agents should you require assistance.
  • Fuel stations are only available in Maun and Kasane. However, your vehicle has a long-range fuel tank so you won’t need to fill up additionally.
  • It’s good practice to inflate and deflate your tyres depending on the road surface: deflate if driving on gravel or sand, inflate if on tarmac. How to do this is covered in your driver training course.
  • A pre-loaded GPS will be provided with your itinerary mapped out and driving directions provided. You will also be given a paper map with any water diversions marked as well.
  • Experience of driving a 4x4 is beneficial, but you’re given a full briefing when you collect your vehicle, including how to use the ‘low 4x4’ and ‘high 4x4’ gears.

Start planning your self-driving trip to Botswana

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They’re just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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