Lay of the Land
“Do not act meanly, do not be unkind, because the time for setting things right may pass before your heart changes course.”~Alexander McCall Smith
With an economy kick-started by the discovery of diamonds in 1967, Botswana has a remarkably stable government, the highest GDP on the continent and its tourism focuses on top-quality, low-volume to offer one of the most authentic and mind-blowing wildlife experiences on the planet. It is virtually the same size as France yet has a population of only 1.8 million, nearly half of whom have jobs connected with hospitality and conservation.
The best wildlife encounters—and we’re talking up close and personal—are to be found in the vast private reserves (or concessions) into which the land has been divided. These are leased out to top-notch safari companies, which are required to train and employ local people and to “give back” to native communities, in exchange for the privilege of being there. The government believes that if high-end camps attract a small number of luxury safari goers, they will have a smaller impact on the environment than many budget travelers. So yes, Botswana safaris are expensive and will definitely cost more than ones in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania or Uganda, but those who spring for a trip here will be rewarded with incredibly diverse eco-systems (desert, delta and plains) and the privilege of a wilderness experience that feels almost reserved for them alone. The Chitabe concession, for instance, has a land area one and half times the size of Singapore and only twenty-four guest beds; while Singapore has a population of 5 million. Now that is the luxury of true isolation.
Botswana’s 231,000 square miles boasts an enormously varied terrain. The country can be divided into three main regions that are very different but each with equally impressive habitats: the Okavango Delta; the Linyanti and Chobe area and the Makgadikgadi Pans. Most of the interior of the country is made up of the Kalahari Desert. The Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta, lies in the northwest and the Makgadikgadi Pan, one of the largest salt pans in the world, covers an area the size of Portugal in the north central area. We believe that the best Botswana itineraries include a well mapped out mix of the areas below, which all have different ecosystems and activities, based on the time of year traveling as well as consideration for a varied program. Contact one of our Africa specialists to discuss the best plan for you.
The Okavango Delta is a gigantic wetland paradise, green and bursting with life. It is located between the shallow fault lines of the Great African Rift Valley and is fed by the river of the same name, which originates in the Angolan highlands hundreds of miles away. Shaped like a fan, which seen from space looks like a hand reaching into Africa, the Okavango Delta is the largest inland delta in the world and harbors such a rare and unique series of ecosystems that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. Its fame as a wildlife habitat and place of stunning natural beauty ranks up there with iconic locations like the Serengeti and the Amazon. Because there is no agriculture or industry along the river as it flows to the delta, the water is exceptionally pure and so supports and sustains a huge diversity of wildlife. With palm-fringed islands in a watery labyrinth, the Okavango is a magical landscape that teems with incredible biodiversity, including the largest concentration of elephants in the world, more than 530 species of birds, 160 mammal species and thousands of plants. Its 16,000 square miles contain not a telephone pole, electrical line or tar road, but are home to some of the most fabulous safari camps on the continent. In the Okavango, notable camps include: Abu Camp, Jao Camp, Vumbura Plains, Little Vumbura and Mombo and Little Mombo. Which of its many camps to visit depends on the time of year and whether one wants water-based or land-based activities or a mix. Water-based safaris don’t get any better than the Okavango, and all Botswana safaris should include time here. There are various concessions within the delta, and in many, you can go out all day and not see another human.
In the extreme north of the country, along the border with Namibia, is an area known as the Caprivi Strip or Okavango Panhandle. This is where David Attenborough’s Planet Earth, with all those glorious elephant shots, was made. Bordered by the Linyanti River on the north and the Chobe National Park on the east, it’s one of the most remote, inaccessible and least visited areas of northern Botswana. Since water has flowed back into its Savuti channel in 2009, the area boasts some of the best game in Africa and encompasses Chobe National Park as well as numerous game-rich concessions such as the Linyanti and Selinda. With its abundant rivers, swamps, marshes and forests, whatever the season, rainy or dry, the area positively throbs with a huge concentration of game, including one of the densest concentrations of elephants as well as zebra, giraffe, lion, ostrich, spotted hyena, cheetah and wild dog, moving up and down the Linyanti river. The notable camps here are Savuti, Duma Tau and Kings Pool.
The Makgadikgadi Pans
With its lunar expanse of salt pans, left behind when one of the world’s largest superlakes dried up thousands of years ago, the Makgadikgadi Pans stand in total contrast to the verdant, game-rich Okavango and Linyanti/Chobe regions. You can go for miles seeing neither grass nor trees and hearing no sound but the crunch of your boots on the salt crust. Botswana’s Kalahari Desert is its own world. But it is by no means an empty one. Inhabitants include brown hyenas, meerkats, gemsbok, springbok and the great black-maned Kalahari lion. When the rains come, the pans fill with water and become a breeding ground for huge flocks of flamingos (sometimes hurndreds of thousands of them) and other migratory birds. In short, you won’t find the big five—lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo—of the safari tick list, but you will have one of the most subtle and memorable safari experiences of your life, especially when staying at acclaimed Jack’s Camp. As one long-time guide told me, “Every season is the best season everywhere for someone in Botswana. It just depends who you ask.”
There are no direct flights into Botswana from the United States or Europe; rather, safari-goers must first fly into Cape Town or Johannesburg and then up to Maun. Air Botswana then flies from these cities to Maun Airport (MUB), which is centrally located in the middle of northern Botswana (all regions listed here are in the North). From Maun, most operators will arrange either charter flights or ground transfers to their various camps. Many visitors add a stay in Victoria Falls, either on the Zimbabwe or Zambia side before or after a Botswana safari, in which case they may fly into or out of Kasane in the north.
Travel around Botswana is done by small bush planes and jeeps as there are no tar roads in the Okavango nor between the main nature reserves. Once you arrive in either Maun or Kasane and clear customs, you will transfer to a light aircraft (usually either a 12-seater plane or a 6-seater) for a scheduled or private charter to your safari camp’s nearest airstrip. There are strict luggage limitations on weight and size so it is important to pack in appropriate bags (waterproof, soft-sided duffels are best) and within weight limits. When flying between camps, you will be notified the night before about your departure time as schedules are set only a day ahead. Indagare will arrange internal flights between camps. Please note that scheduled charter (i.e. a flight shared with other passengers) may make multiple stops between camps, so if you want to avoid that possibility, you need to book a private charter in advance.
When to Go
Winter is ideal but it is possible to create fabulous itineraries for wildlife viewing at all times of the year by carefully selecting camps in the right regions at the right times for rich wildlife. However, the months of September and October in the Okavango Delta can be so hot that they are called the “suicide months” by some.
The typical day on safari includes a wake up time of around 5 or 6am for a morning game drive, which lasts a few hours. Guests then return to the hotel for a late breakfast, lounge time and lunch and then an evening game drive at around 4pm. This schedule is determined by when animals are the most active (dawn and dusk).