By Audley Botswana specialist Déanna
As you explore Botswana’s mix of wet and dry landscapes, you might come across big cats lying at the feet of trees. Lines of elephant march past, speeding up excitedly as they approach water.
Skittish impala jump and run like athletes warming up for a race. And, at every glance your eye catches another bird, be it a brown snake eagle perched on the tip of a dead tree, or a lilac-breasted roller flashing its rainbow of feathers.
For me, it’s safari at its best. And that’s without mentioning the exceptional level of comfort you’ll find at each camp, the quality of the guiding, and the three-course meals that round off each day.
Safaris in Botswana: what to expect
Botswana is one of the most exclusive safari destinations thanks to its government’s focus on quality experiences and conservation rather than mass tourism. Most camps and lodges are kept to around 16 guests or fewer, so you’re unlikely to see many, if any, other vehicles when out in the bush.
I never tire of game drives, but they aren’t your only option. Sunset boat cruises, bush walks and peaceful mokoro (traditional canoe) trips are all on the cards, depending on where you are and the time of year. I recommend mixing and matching wet and dry areas for a more varied trip.
Even if you don’t encounter big cats on a game drive, you’ll return to camp with a new-found knowledge of the many species your guide points out. Almost all guides and staff are native to Botswana, and the guiding qualifications here are some of the most rigorous in Africa. Part of the safari experience is witnessing the tracking skills of your guides and trackers. They’ll show you the differences between the paw prints of a lion and a hyena, for example, so you can also look out for signs of life.
Green season vs dry season
Botswana’s year splits roughly between a summer green season (November to April) and winter dry season (May to October). Which season you travel in can impact what you see and do on your safari.
Confusingly, the dry season sees water levels at their highest, thanks in part to the water that flows down from Angola. This makes boat and mokoro trips possible in many areas, giving you a wider choice of activities. Animals are easier to see in the shorter grasses, and bush walks are more widely offered.
The green season has drier ground conditions, but you’re more likely to experience short thundery downpours (though these are welcome relief from the high temperatures). Grasses are long and trees thick with leaves. You can see animals with their young, and it’s the best time for birdwatching, with summer migrants swelling numbers.
The easiest way to move between areas is by light aircraft. Most camps are within a short game drive of an airstrip. Flights usually last no longer than 40 minutes, though you may stop to pick up other passengers en route. The views often make these transfers an experience in themselves, and you might spot elephant cooling off in waterholes below.
Safari destinations in Botswana
It’s possible to combine several or all of the areas below in one trip. Flying into Maun, you might want to explore several concessions in the Okavango Delta before flying north to Chobe National Park or the Linyanti Wetlands.You can then catch an onward flight from Kasane (or head on to Victoria Falls, which is less than two hours away by road).
Alternatively, you could focus solely on the country’s salt pan areas or combine the arid Central Kalahari with the delta’s luscious waterways.
The Okavango soaks through the otherwise arid land, fanning out like a splayed hand. It’s the world’s largest inland delta, and the abundance of water here has a magnetic effect on wildlife, big and small. Even when water levels are lower, you can see grazing herds with their young, watched by lion and leopard lying in the shade of acacia trees. The delta is grouped into different reserves and concessions, which vary in water levels and the activities on offer.
Moremi Wildlife Reserve
Covering much of the eastern side of the delta, Moremi Wildlife Reserve combines permanent water areas with drier land. Morning and afternoon game drives give you a chance to see antelope, wildebeest, zebra and buffalo grazing on the open savannah. Motorboat trips are possible, depending on water levels. Pockets of woodland shelter leopard and wild dog, though they can be difficult to spot as this isn’t a private reserve where vehicles can go off-road.
Where to stay in Moremi Wildlife Reserve
Camp Okuti is a stylish property with seven rooms based on traditional mosasa reed houses. They have both indoor and outdoor showers and private teak decks facing the Maunachira River. Two-bedroom family mosasas accommodate families with children aged seven and over.
Khwai Private Reserve
Bordering Moremi to the northeast, Khwai Private Reserve is a predominantly dry area, veined with water channels flowing from the Khwai River. In open vehicles, you can search mopane woodland and open grassland for big game. Waterholes are scattered here and there, forming mud pits that are popular with elephant during the green season.
Vehicles can go off-road in this private reserve, allowing you to follow any wildlife you encounter and cover more area. You’re also able to stay out after dark — your tracker will shine a flashlight across the landscape as you look out for animals’ reflective eyes. I saw a South African spring hare bouncing through the grass as if on a pogo stick, and a couple of Verreaux's eagle owls feeding on the ground. As soon as they noticed us, one flew off while the other landed on a branch of the nearest tree. Every so often it would let out a piercing screech as it called for its partner.
Where to stay in Khwai Private Reserve
Hyena Pan is set on a seasonal waterhole that’s rarely without elephant. It offers eight canvas tents, each with a private deck and furnished with African artwork, cushions and rugs. Staying here, you can also arrange to spend a night at the nearby Sky Beds — wooden platforms set up in the middle of the bush, each with a bathroom and a double bed open to the stars.
In the far northwest of Botswana, the Okavango River flows from the north for quite a distance before splitting into the delta. Known as the Panhandle, it’s an area where you’re unlikely to see big game, but reed beds and papyrus-fringed lagoons attract a wealth of birdlife. You might spot African fish eagles, wattled cranes, Pel’s fishing owls and western banded snake eagles, to name a few.
Activities here are exclusively water-based. Fishing trips give you a chance to catch tigerfish, bream and catfish, but the mokoro trips are the highlight. Sitting in one of these traditional dugout canoes (usually made from the trunk of sausage trees), you drift along the water channels at a leisurely pace, your guide skilfully using a wooden pole to propel you forward.
Dragonflies buzz past at eye level, pied kingfishers hover overhead before shooting down to the water to spear their prey, and African jacanas pick their way over lily pads. Over on the banks, you might see Nile crocodiles basking or red lechwe coming to drink. With no engine noise, you find yourself completely immersed in the sounds of the river, from tinkling reed frogs to the haunting scream of a fish eagle.
Where to stay in the Okavango Panhandle
Nxamaseri Island Lodge's nine chalets are set on a secluded island. From here, in addition to fishing and mokoro trips, you can embark on night-time boat trips to see nocturnal birds, and visit the Tsodilo Hills to see ancient rock art.
Chobe National Park
In the north of Botswana, Chobe National Park covers a huge expanse of open grassland and the verdant floodplains of the Chobe River. Large numbers of buffalo, impala and kudu graze on the plains, which unsurprisingly attract predators such as lion, cheetah, wild dog and leopard. Game drives are your best chance of seeing the drama unfold.
As soon as you arrive here, you notice there’s one particular animal that seems to be a part of the landscape: elephant. There are thousands of them. Tens of thousands in the dry season, when other water sources have run dry. You can watch from a boat as they line the riverbanks, roll in the thick mud and submerge themselves gleefully in the water.
The boat cruises are arguably the main draw of this region. Not only can you get almost within splashing distance of elephant, you’ll also see clusters of partially submerged hippo, just their eyes visible as they watch you from the water’s surface.
Waterbuck stand majestically among the reeds. And birds are everywhere. I saw pied, malachite, pygmy and giant kingfishers flit, hover and dive, African darters drying their wings in the sun, and African fish eagles carefully watching the water from their lofty perches.
Where to stay in Chobe National Park
Lodges on the park’s western border have a separate jetty, so you can enjoy boat trips away from the busier stretches of water near the city of Kasane. This includes Chobe Elephant Camp, which sits on a ridge overlooking the Chobe River.
Rooms are built from sandbags to keep them cool in the summer, and the airy main area has a pool, lounge, small library and communal dining table. There’s also a two-bedroom family chalet for up to five people.
Northeast of the Okavango Delta, sandwiched between Chobe National Park and the Namibian border, the Linyanti Wetlands encompasses swamps, forests and open grasslands stretching along the Linyanti River.
You can take part in a variety of activities here, particularly during the dry season when there’s more water around for mokoros, boating and fishing. Vehicles can go off-road, and bush walks are an option for much of the year.
This area immediately felt different to elsewhere in Botswana, as we drove through leafy forests of jackalberry and knobthorn trees. Baboon troops scrambled in the branches and groomed each other in the shade. Families of warthog scuttled past, stopping to watch us and decipher if we were friend or foe. Every few minutes, I’d hear the laughter-like call of a woodland kingfisher echoing through the trees.
Along the river, you have a good chance of seeing waterbuck, red lechwe, zebra and hippo, as well as elephant. And, wherever you are, running into predators is a possibility. Lion, hyena and leopard compete for prey, along with the occasional pack of wild dog.
One evening, we encountered a male lion sitting beneath a tree with his latest prize: the carcass of a young buffalo. He was completely engrossed in his meal, and we could hear the crunching of bones as he devoured every edible morsel. Every so often he’d glance up at us and snarl as a warning: I didn’t need telling twice.
Where to stay in the Linyanti Wetlands
Linyanti Bush Camp and Linyanti Ebony Camp are sister properties in the private Chobe Enclave of Linyanti. Both offer a small number of similarly styled tents, set in front of marshes that flood seasonally.
Botswana’s drier areas
Central Kalahari Game Reserve
Away from the green north, Botswana’s landscape is far more arid. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is a vast sweep of sandy wilderness punctuated by salt pans. White-backed vultures and bateleur eagles perch on wizened trees, and towers of giraffe kick up dirt as they cross the barren landscape.
It’s best to visit during the green season, when the plains sprout grass under the rains. This sudden food source attracts migratory herds of zebra, springbok and wildebeest. Hot on their tail are lion, leopard, cheetah and jackal hungry for a meal, plus scrounging hyena and the odd pack of wild dog.
Where to stay in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve
Dinaka lies in its own reserve on the northern edge of the Kalahari. It has seven en suite safari tents, including a two-bedroom family tent. Each tent is connected by a wheelchair-accessible walkway and set on a raised deck overlooking a permanent waterhole.
Activities include morning, afternoon and night drives, as well as guided bush walks where you can look out for kori bustards — the world’s heaviest flying bird.
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
Northeast of the Kalahari, the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is home to huge, perfectly flat salt pans that shimmer in the heat. These are relics of a vast super lake that covered much of Botswana’s surface millions of years ago. Around the edges of the pans are large tracts of grassland speckled with centuries-old baobabs.
The landscape and wildlife here changes dramatically with the seasons. As you explore the park on game drives during the dry season, playful groups of meerkats frolic across the cracked, sun-baked land. Many are habituated and might come right up to you for a closer inspection. You also have a chance of encountering bat-eared foxes patrolling the pans’ perimeters, and brown hyena scavenging for carcasses.
In the green season, everything changes. The rains typically fall from November onward, turning the landscape green and filling the pans with water. You can see large flocks of flamingoes gathering in the shallows. Zebra and wildebeest migrate in their thousands from the Boteti River in the west of the park. And the air fills with the calls of birds and frogs.
Where to stay in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
Camp Kalahari offers easy access to the park’s eastern pans. The simple tents are furnished with four-poster beds and Moroccan-style rugs. For families, there are two tents connected by a shared bathroom. Beyond the game drives, you can join a guided walk with a bushman who’ll show you bush techniques, from making fire to crafting weapons.
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