It’s tempting here, by way of introduction, to list Botswana’s main highlights as areas, one by one, describing each to entice the reader. I’d probably start by waxing lyrical about the Okavango Delta being a world-class attraction for exclusive wildlife-viewing; I’d then marvel at the scale of the reserves around the Chobe, Kwando and Linyanti rivers, and perhaps eulogise about the almost spiritual experience of visiting the vast salt pans. But to do this would be misleading. For me, Botswana has just three overriding attractions – which transcend its geography.
First comes the wildlife. Whether this is your first safari or your 50th, Botswana won’t disappoint. The sheer variation of the country, from the arid Kalahari to lush, well-watered forest glades, ensures tremendous variety. Botswana is serious about its big game.
It has spectacular herds of elephants and buffalo, and prolific populations of predators. Experienced safari enthusiasts can bounce across the bush following a pack of wild dogs: Botswana has probably the continent’s best population of these highly endangered predators. Yet often it’s the country’s smaller residents that will keep you entertained, from tiny painted reed frogs and barking geckos to troops of entertaining meerkats.
Second – and the underlying reason why many come here – is the feeling in Botswana that you’re within an endless pristine wilderness, almost devoid of human imprint. For city-dwellers, such space is the ultimate luxury. In Botswana, animals wander freely across vast reserves which are measured in thousands of square kilometres, not merely hectares. Exploring these wilder corners is invariably deeply liberating.
The Okavango’s lush greenery contrasted with the harsh dryness of the rest of the subcontinent. Iridescent birds flashed past, whilst terrapins sunbathed and otters played. All added to the feeling of paradise; we left entranced.
Third, and missed by some, is Botswana’s rich history. It’s often barely hinted at but, veiled and mysterious, it’s all the more enticing. It reveals itself in the paintings at Tsodilo, and the magic that seems to surround those hills. You’ll catch a glimpse of it as you search for Stone Age arrowheads on the Makgadikgadi Pans. And standing on an ancient river-bed, or the wave-washed hills around Savuti, it’s hard not to look into the geology and wonder what forces shaped this country, long before you, or indeed any people, first set eyes on it.
Back in the present, the world is changing fast. On a very positive note, 2009 and the following two years saw record water levels in the Okavango Delta and Kwando–Linyanti river systems, filling many channels that had been dry for decades. Initially the Boteti flowed for much of its course, the long-dry Magwegqana Spillway filled with water and the Savuti Channel reached the Savuti Marsh. Although the waters have receded somewhat, there is still water for about 2–4km of the spillway, and the Boteti continues to flow.
Despite this good news, most of the earth’s great wilderness areas are under threat – and not just from climate change. The 21st century is an age when even the earth’s wildest corners must earn their keep, adapt or change irrevocably. Botswana’s government has, to date, been a beacon of prosperity and stability within a troubled continent. Financed largely by income from some of the world’s largest diamond mines, it has set many examples of how to run a country.
However, Botswana’s diamonds aren’t forever. Current deposits are running out, and whilst new ones are discovered, many expect the industry’s output is likely to plateau and decline within a few decades at most. When this happens, it will leave a gaping hole in the economy. Tourism is the obvious way to fill this, but exactly how is not obvious.
Botswana’s wild areas need great care to preserve them. Enjoy – but be a thoughtful visitor, for the country’s sake.
As it stands, Botswana’s thriving tourist industry is the envy of the continent: minimising impact by admitting only small numbers who pay handsomely to rejuvenate themselves in its pristine environments. Some of the revenue has been channelled back into the poorer communities in the areas concerned. This first-rate approach has been a very responsible one; it hasn’t been a quick way for the country to get rich through tourism, but it has been sustainable.
In the last decade we’ve seen the government flirt with the idea of higher-volume tourism in one or two areas. Although the original policy of high-cost, low-density tourism across most of northern Botswana seems to have won the day, there is a move towards increasing the number of camps in each of the private concessions. While many of these areas are large enough to sustain the move, some of these new camps will be occupying more marginal areas in terms of wildlife, and in others, there is at least the possibility of activities being slightly less exclusive. Elsewhere, there’s a move to encourage new lower-cost properties along the Panhandle area, enabled in part by the construction of a bridge over the Okavango at Mohembo, and thus giving easier and cheaper access to an experience of the Okavango Delta from its western fringe.
While both steps to increase tourism revenue are moderate, and far from some of the more drastic, damaging proposals that have been mooted. However, as both progress, it remains to be seen if this pace of change will be enough to satisfy the economic imperative for tourism to generate a larger slice of the national income.
So my plea to the reader is twofold. First, go now and support Botswana’s small-scale camps and responsible tourism; the country needs you. Second, having committed many of Botswana’s secret corners to paper, I ask you to use the Bradt guide with respect. Botswana’s wild areas need great care to preserve them. Local people are easily offended, and their cultures eroded, by a visitor’s lack of sensitivity. Enjoy – but be a thoughtful visitor, for the country’s sake.
Botswana meant little to me at first; it was never in the news. Then, finding myself in Zimbabwe, I remembered an old friend’s enthusiasm for the Okavango Delta. So, in April 1988, three of us set off from Victoria Falls and hitched a lift in an open pick-up into Chobe. We were badly prepared, but even our lack of food and close encounters with hyenas added to the magic. No fences here; everything was so wild.
Exploring the wilder corners of the country is invariably deeply liberating, and I encourage you to head off the beaten path.
From Maun we splashed out on a few days’ camping trip on a mokoro. Whilst the boatman spoke little English, the Delta was magical, almost surreal – like floating on a tropical fish-tank with animals everywhere around. The Okavango’s lush greenery contrasted with the harsh dryness of the rest of the subcontinent. Iridescent birds flashed past, whilst terrapins sunbathed and otters played. All added to the feeling of paradise; we left entranced.
Thus started my love affair with the country. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to return many times. I’ve been guided by some of the best, learning more about the bush and its animals and plants. I’ve flown over the dry Kalahari and the verdant Delta, mesmerised by the ancient patterns of watercourses, islands and game trails. And I’ve walked and driven around, exploring for myself on the ground, exhilarated by the sense of freedom. Yet still I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of Botswana, and I always leave wanting to return.