With amazing wildlife, friendly people and stellar accommodation, Botswana is an underrated African gem, says Kieran Meeke
Tell me about it…
A vast country with a tiny population and a peaceful history, Botswana was one of Africa’s best-kept secrets until the Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith helped put it on the radar. While his books are set mainly in the capital, Gaborone, most of the country is rural, with several major game parks to rival anything on the rest of the continent. The Okavango Delta, however, is unique. This inland delta ebbs and flows with the rains but at its largest covers almost 6,000sq miles of the Kalahari Desert, with countless animals following its many waterways.
The country’s major parks include Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Chobe is famed for its elephant population and is rated as one of the best parks in Africa, with the Big Five being easy to spot. Moremi is a protected part of the Okavango and notable for exclusive game-viewing spots such as Chief’s Island, with its private upmarket lodges.
The Makgadikgadi Pans — the remnants of an ancient lake — flood from time to time, providing a spectacle for bird-watchers who haven’t seen their fill in the Delta. The Pans are also one of the best places in the world to lie out under the stars and be at one with nature.
With approximately 38% of its land protected for wildlife and nature conservation, Botswana is a model of environmental commitment. Its dependence on tourism and the natural hospitality of its people mean you’re always assured of a warm welcome.
Gimme 5: Must sees
1. Okavango Delta: As the Okavango River empties into the Kalahari, it creates one of the world’s few inland deltas — also its largest and most scenic. Most visitors fly in by light aircraft, skimming low over the vast herds of elephant, antelope, buffalo and zebra that flock to the precious waters.
2. Makgadikgadi Pans National Park: The rains from mid-November to April turn these 2,000sq mile salt pans into a wildlife wonderland of water birds and migrating herds of wildebeest and zebra. The rest of the year, they’re a flat, dry wilderness — the perfect place to admire the African night sky amid the vast beauty of nature.
3. Chobe National Park: One of the oldest game areas in Southern Africa, famous for its impressive herds of elephant and buffalo. Up to 60,000 elephant live here and the big bulls are the largest on the continent. With the Chobe River cutting across its northeast border, the park has a wide range of landscapes, from swampy marshlands to the iconic, dry African bush.
4. Central Kalahari Game Reserve: One of the remotest destinations in Africa, this vast area was once only accessible to groups of San Bushmen hunter-gatherers. Now a few exclusive safari camps dot the second-largest wildlife reserve in the world. After the summer rains, expect to see large herds of herbivores such as springbok, wildebeest, eland and giraffe.
5. Gaborone: Fans of Alexander McCall Smith will want to see Botswana’s capital, the setting for his series of novels The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Several tours now follow in the footsteps of the books’ fictional characters, but be aware that the capital has a high rate of petty theft. Purses and wallets will be needed after visitors have admired the National Museum’s collection of traditional baskets, a national art form that makes for popular souvenirs.
Accommodation options cover a wide range, from campgrounds for self-drive budget travelers to exclusive luxury safari lodges that cater to every need. For example, Mombo Camp (including Little Mombo Camp) in the Okavango Delta was named top hotel in Travel + Leisure magazine’s 2013 World’s Best Awards readers’ survey (an impressive feat for a place 65 miles from the nearest town). The major tourist areas offer a choice of top hotels, private lodges, safari camps, and public campsites. A variety of cuisines are served in hotels and restaurants, from local favorites and game, to European and Asian dishes. There are also fast food outlets, as well as smaller restaurants and street food stalls offering local dishes.
Sitting on its own island, Mombo Camp and Little Mombo Camp represent Botswana’s most luxurious (and expensive) accommodation option — and the one with perhaps the best wildlife-viewing in the Okavango. The nine spacious en-suite tents are elevated 6ft off the ground to enable game-spotting from the comfort of guests’ own private verandas. mombo.co.uk
Chobe Game Lodge
The five-star Chobe Game Lodge is the only permanent lodge in Chobe National Park. The striking building is Moorish-inspired and furnished in chic African style. Its four suites have private swimming pools and all rooms have views over the Chobe River, which can also be enjoyed from a wide veranda and boardwalk. chobegamelodge.co.bw
Avani Gaborone Hotel
The Avani Gaborone Hotel & Casino offers a convenient central base for exploring Botswana’s capital. It has 196 rooms, while several restaurants provide dining options for all, including families. Guests can also enjoy the swimming pool, tennis courts and a complimentary round at the nearby Gaborone Golf Course. avanihotels.com