Talking of any one ‘native cuisine’ in Botswana is misleading, as what a person eats is dependent on where they live and the ethnic group they belong to. In the Kalahari and Okavango there was relatively little agriculture until recently; there, gathering and fishing, supplemented by hunting, provided subsistence for the various groups.
In the kinder climes east of the Kalahari, where there is enough rain for crops, sorghum is probably the main crop. This is first pounded into meal before being mixed with boiling water or sour milk. It’s then made into a paste bogobe – which is thin, perhaps with sugar like porridge, for breakfast, then eaten thicker, the consistency of mashed potatoes, for lunch and dinner. For these main meals it will normally be accompanied by some tasty relish, perhaps made of meat (seswa) and tomatoes (moro), or dried fish.
When coming to Botswana on safari your biggest problem with food is likely to be the very real danger of putting on weight.
Maize meal, or papa (often imported as it doesn’t tolerate Botswana’s dry climate that well), is now often used in place of this. (In Zimbabwe this same staple is known as sadza, in Zambia it’s nshima and in South Africa mealie-pap.) You should taste this at some stage when visiting. Safari camps will often prepare it if requested, and it is always available in small restaurants in the towns.
Camps, hotels and lodges that cater for overseas visitors serve a very international fare, and the quality of food prepared in the most remote camps is usually amazingly high. When coming to Botswana on safari your biggest problem with food is likely to be the very real danger of putting on weight.
If you are driving yourself around and plan to cook, then get most of your supplies in Maun or Kasane. Both have several large, well-stocked supermarkets and a number of more specialist shops. However, it is important to be aware that northern Botswana is effectively ringed by a veterinary fence – widely known as the buffalo fence – with regular checkpoints along the roads to help prevent infection of the country’s valuable cattle herds with foot-and-mouth disease. For this reason, taking red meat across the fence from a buffalo area into an area that is used for cattle farming is prohibited. Campers, take note!
It’s usually best to stock up with food at these main centres, as away from them the range will become sparser. Expect villages to have just a bottle stall, selling the most popular cool drinks (often this excludes ‘diet’ drinks), and a small shop selling staples like rice and (occasionally) bread, and perhaps a few tinned and packet foods. Don’t expect anything refrigerated.
Like most countries in the region, Botswana has two distinct beer types: clear and opaque. Most visitors and more affluent people in Botswana drink the clear beers, which are similar to European lagers and always served chilled. St Louis and Castle are the lagers brewed here by a subsidiary of South African Breweries. They are widely available and usually good. You’ll also sometimes find Windhoek lager, from Namibia – which is similar and equally good.
The less affluent residents will usually opt for some form of the opaque beer (sometimes called Chibuku, after the market-leading brand). This is a commercial version of traditional beer, usually brewed from maize and/or sorghum. It’s a sour, porridge-like brew: an acquired taste, and it changes flavour as it ferments; you can often ask for ‘fresh beer’ or ‘strong beer’.
As a visitor you’ll have to make a real effort to seek out opaque beer; most bars that tourists visit don’t sell it. Locals will sometimes buy a bucket of it, and then pass it around a circle of drinkers. It would be unusual for a visitor to drink this, so try some and amuse your companions. If you aren’t sure about the bar’s hygiene standards, stick to the pre-packaged brands of opaque beer like Chibuku.
Water in the main towns is usually purified, provided there are no shortages of chlorine, breakdowns or other mishaps. It’s generally fine to drink.
Out in the bush, most of the camps and lodges use water from boreholes. These underground sources vary in quality, but are normally free from bugs and so perfectly safe to drink. Sometimes it is sweet, at other times the water is a little alkaline or salty. Ask the locals if it is suitable for an unacclimatised visitor to drink, then take their advice.
The water in the Okavango Delta is generally fine to drink. You’ll be expected to do so during most budget mokoro trips, which is fine for most backpackers who are in Africa for long trips. There are relatively few people living in the communities in the Delta; contamination levels are very low. However, if you’ve a sensitive stomach, or are visiting for a short trip, then you’d be best to avoid it and stick to borehole water, or travel with a filter bottle. (I’d recommend that you do not insist on bottled water as the costs/waste involved in transporting it to you are high, and borehole water is generally fine.)
When the words ‘tented camp’ are mentioned, forget your memories of cramped scout tents and think instead of canvas designer chic.
Although northern Botswana’s accommodation is dominated by hotels, lodges and campsites aimed at visiting tourists, there is still a considerable variety in terms of both style and prices. Most establishments are graded nowadays, with between one and five stars awarded on the basis of ‘furnishings, service and guest care’, but inevitably this gives only part of the picture.
Hotels and guesthouses
Hotels in Botswana’s towns tend to be aimed at visiting businesspeople, in which case they’re functional but boring, regardless of price level. That said, they’re also generally clean and rarely unpleasant. Expect costs in Maun to start from around US$65/£48 for a double room per night, but in Kasane – which is more geared to international tourists – you’ll find very little under US$100/£75 a night.
In recent years a few guesthouses have sprung up in Botswana’s larger towns, including Maun and Kasane, but these are still very limited, and often in such suburban locations that they’re only practical if you’ve got your own vehicle. Some also tend to be on the pricy side, and don’t seem to be good value for money.
Lodges and camps
Botswana’s lodges and camps vary from palatial residences crafted by top designers to simple spots with a few small tents, and a table in the shade. Given that range, the vast majority have rooms which are at least as comfortable as a good hotel room.
When the words ‘tented camp’ are mentioned, forget your memories of cramped scout tents and think instead of canvas designer chic. En-suite flushing toilets, running hot and cold water and battery-powered lights are standard, while many have electric fans, and an increasing number have air conditioning.
Note that expensive does not always mean luxurious. Some of the top camps are very simply constructed. Equally, looking for basic, simple camps won’t make your trip any cheaper. You’re usually paying for virtually exclusive use of pristine wilderness areas, and will find little cost difference between a tiny bushcamp and the largest lodge. In fact, if anything there’s increasingly a premium on space in the smaller camps. These need booking earlier as many find these friendlier than the larger ones.