With Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Africa, click here.
Botswana is one of the healthiest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. It has a generally low population density, who are affluent by the region’s standards, and a very dry climate, which means there are comparatively few problems likely to affect visitors. The risks are further minimised if you are staying in good hotels, lodges, camps and guest farms, where standards of hygiene are generally at least as good as you will find at home.
The major dangers in Botswana are car accidents (caused by driving too fast, or at night, on gravel roads) and sunburn. Both can be very serious, yet both are within the power of the visitor to avoid.
Visitors to Botswana should always take out a comprehensive medical insurance policy to cover them for emergencies, including the cost of evacuation to another country within the region. Such policies come with an emergency number (often on a reverse-charge/call-collect basis). You would be wise to memorise this, or indelibly tattoo it in as many places as possible on your baggage.
Personal-effects insurance is also a sensible precaution, but check the policy’s fine print before you leave home. Often, in even the best policies, you will find a limit per item, or per claim – which can be well below the cost of replacement. If you need to list your valuables separately, then do so comprehensively. Check that receipts are not required for claims if you do not have them, and that the excess which you have to pay on a claim is reasonable.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on ISTM. For other journey preparation information, consult NaTHNac (UK) or CDC (US). Information about various medications may be found on NetDoctor. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Botswana is not a dangerous country. If you are travelling on an all-inclusive trip and staying at lodges and hotels, then problems of personal safety are exceedingly rare. There will always be someone on hand to help you. Even if you are travelling on local transport, perhaps on a low budget, you will generally be perfectly safe if you are careful.
Outside of rougher parts of the main cities, crime against visitors, however minor, is rare. Even if you are travelling on local transport on a low budget, you are likely to experience numerous acts of random kindness, but not crime. It is certainly safer for visitors than the UK, USA or most of Europe.
To get into a difficult situation, you’ll usually have to try hard. You need to make yourself an obvious target for thieves, perhaps by walking around at night, with showy valuables, in a less affluent area of a town or city. Provided you are sensible, you are most unlikely to ever see any crime here.
Even if you are travelling on local transport on a low budget, you are likely to experience numerous acts of random kindness, but not crime.
For women travellers, especially those travelling alone, it is doubly important to learn the local attitudes, and how to behave acceptably. This takes some practice, and a certain confidence. You will often be the centre of attention but, by developing conversational techniques to avert over-enthusiastic male attention, you should be perfectly safe. Making friends of the local women is one way to help avoid such problems.
When attention becomes intrusive, it can help if you are wearing a wedding ring and have photos of ‘your’ husband and children, even if they are someone else’s. A good reason to give for not being with them is that you have to travel in connection with your job – biology, zoology, geography, or whatever. (But not journalism – that’s risky.)
Pay attention to local etiquette, and to speaking, dressing and moving reasonably decorously. Look at how the local women dress, and try not to expose parts of yourself that they keep covered. Think about body language. In much of southern Africa direct eye-contact with a man will be seen as a ‘come-on’; sunglasses are helpful here.
Don’t be afraid to explain clearly – but pleasantly rather than as a put-down – that you aren’t in the market for whatever distractions are on offer. Remember that you are probably as much of a novelty to the local people as they are to you, and the fact that you are travelling abroad alone gives them the message that you are free and adventurous. But don’t imagine that a Lothario lurks under every bush: many approaches stem from genuine friendliness or curiosity, and a brush-off in such cases doesn’t do much for the image of travellers in general.
Take sensible precautions against theft and attack – try to cover all the risks before you encounter them – and then relax and enjoy your trip. You’ll meet far more kindness than villainy.
Travelling with a disability
For wheelchair users and people who have difficulties walking, Botswana is a relatively accessible safari destination. It is possible to book through a specialised operator and be sure that your needs are met, or to do enough preparation in advance and travel independently. Either way, with some endeavour, everybody can experience the unique highlights this country has to offer.
Most international travellers arrive via Johannesburg, where the services and facilities for disabled people rival and sometimes better those in Europe. Air Botswana & Airlink connect Johannesburg with Maun, but limited cargo space on this route means that they do not always allow heavy chairs; it’s important to notify them in advance of the dimensions and weight of your wheelchair to ensure that it will be loaded. In Maun, the current airport terminal has an aisle chair, the staff are extremely efficient and there is a spacious (albeit not officially wheelchair-accessible) toilet. Once the airport is rebuilt, it’s hoped that facilities will improve.
The shorter flights from Maun into the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve etc are also quite possible; when I went, the pilot helped lift me first onto the plane floor and then onto my seat, and there was room to stow my wheelchair with the luggage. However, these planes are small so a folding wheelchair and soft baggage are essential. Also, do note that airfields in the Delta are usually just a landing strip with few other facilities, and if an aisle chair is needed in Kasane, this should be ordered from Gaborone in advance.
Safari vehicles in Botswana are often 4×4, and therefore higher than normal cars. This means that – unless you use a specialised operator with and a hydraulic lift or manual ramps – wheelchair transfers may be more difficult. My advice is to thoroughly explain your needs and always stay in control of the situation.
It is possible to hire self-drive vehicles, but I know of no company providing cars that are adapted for disabled drivers.
Distances are large and roads are often bumpy, so if you are prone to skin damage you may need to take extra care. Place your own pressure-relieving cushion on top of (or instead of) the original car seat and, if necessary, pad around knees and elbows.
There is no effective legislation in Botswana to help facilitate disabled travellers’ journeys by bus.
With some endeavour, patience and planning, everybody can experience the unique highlights this country has to offer.
In Maun, Island Safari Lodge and Thamalakane River Lodge have two chalets with roll-in showers; Maun Lodge has two rooms with roll-in shower but both have a 15cm step to enter the rooms; Cresta Riley’s Hotel has one step-free room with a bath, and the new Cresta Maun has one room with a roll-in shower.
In Kasane, Mowana Safari Lodge and Chobe Marina Lodge have adapted rooms; Chobe Safari Lodge has two rooms with roll-in showers; and Chobe Game Lodge has two rooms with roll-in showers. Chobe Bakwena also has two rooms with roll-in outside showers, but you’ll need a plank to access the shower and the toilet space is very limited.
There are several lodges and camps in the Okavango Delta that have a degree of accessibility, depending on your needs. Motswiri has a spacious tent designed for wheelchair users, with handles and a roll-in shower, but is accessible only by air in small Cessna planes.
Other camps are accessible by road: Savute Safari Lodge, which has one tent with a ramp, roll-in shower and plenty of manoeuvring space; Okuti, which is in general very accessible for wheelchair users, with very spacious rooms and level-entry showers, but the doors accessing the bathroom and shower room are quite tight; and Xakanaxa Camp, which has ramps to access the main area and roll-in showers in the rooms, but no space next to the toilet for a wheelchair. Outside the Delta, Leroo La Tau Lodge, has one tent with a ramp, roll-in shower and plenty of manoeuvring space. In Zambia’s Livingstone, the Royal Livingstone and Zambezi Sun hotels each have two highly adapted rooms.
Health and safety
In general, doctors will know about ‘everyday’ illnesses, but you must understand and be able to explain your own particular medical requirements. Rural clinics are often basic so, if possible, take all necessary medication and equipment with you. It is advisable to pack this in your hand luggage during flights in case your main luggage is delayed. It’s well worth taking out membership of Okavango Air Rescue, which has a medically staffed and equipped helicopter with an emergency doctor for the Okavango Delta and the Kalahari.
Botswana can be extremely hot. If this is a problem for you, be careful to book accommodation with fans or air conditioning. A useful cooling aid is a plant-spray bottle.
For anyone following the usual security precautions the chances of robbery are greatly reduced. In fact, as a disabled person I often feel more ‘noticed’, and therefore a less attractive target for thieves. But the opposite may also apply, so do stay aware of where your bags are and who is around you, especially during car transfers and similar activities.
Homosexuality is illegal in Botswana, although no-one – as far as is known – has ever been prosecuted, and same-sex relationships have never been a problem for guests in safari camps. While it’s not at all unusual in traditional societies to see two men – or two women – casually holding hands, public displays of affection between two people (gay or straight) may create tension and are best avoided.