Getting there and away
If you need a visa for Botswana, you must get one before you arrive. Currently, passport holders from numerous countries, including the following, do not need a visa and will be granted a 30-day entry permit on arrival (subject to payment of the tourism levy when it comes into operation):
• Most EU (European Union) countries (except Cyprus, Hungary, Lithuania, and Malta – whose citizens do need visas)
• USA, South Africa, Scandinavian countries
• UK and most Commonwealth countries (except Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – whose citizens do need visas).
For more details, contact your local Botswana embassy or high commission, which is also the best place to verify that the information here is still current. Alternatively, and to download a visa application form, check on the Botswana government website.
The prevailing attitude amongst both Botswana’s government and its people is that visitors are generally very good for the country as they spend valuable foreign currency – so if you look respectable then you should not find any difficulties in entering Botswana.
Given this logic, and the conservative nature of Botswana’s local customs, the converse is also true. If you dress very untidily, looking as if you’ve no money when entering via an overland border, then you may be questioned as to how you will be funding your trip. Very rarely, you may even be asked for a return ticket as proof that you do intend to leave. Dressing respectably in Botswana is not only courteous, but will also make your life easier.
If you want to stay longer than 30 days, then you must renew your permit at the nearest immigration office; a fee of P100 is payable. For a visa lasting longer than 90 days, you should apply to the appropriate Regional Immigration Officer, preferably before entering Botswana. Note that it’s a serious offence to stay longer than 90 days in a 12-month period without permission.
Botswana is quite strict about work permits. These are now granted only for jobs for which a suitably qualified Botswana citizen is not available; for information, visit the Botswana government website. Work permits can be obtained from the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs.
Getting there and away
The vast majority of visitors to northern Botswana fly via the gateways of Maun, which has an international airport, and Kasane, which is more effectively serviced by the nearby airports at Victoria Falls (in Zimbabwe) and Livingstone (in Zambia).
The national carrier, Air Botswana, does not fly outside southern Africa, and of the other airline links to Botswana, the most notable is Airlink, a subsidiary of South African Airways. A popular routing for visitors to the region is to fly to Livingstone (airline code LVI) or Kasane (BBK) via Johannesburg (JNB), then leave from Maun (MUB), again routing via Jo’burg . There are also regular flights between Maun and Cape Town.
Don’t be talked into getting an apparently cheap return to Jo’burg on the basis that you’ll be able to then get a separate ticket to Maun; it’ll cost you a lot more in the end.
However you arrange your flights, remember some basic tips. First, make sure your purchase is protected. Always book through a company that is bonded for your protection – which in the UK means holding an ATOL licence (Air Travel Organiser’s Licence) – or use a credit card.
Second, note that airlines don’t always give the best deals direct. Often you’ll do better through a discounted flight centre or a tour operator.
Third, book the main internal flights at the same time – with the same company – that you book your flights to/from Johannesburg. Often the airline taking you to Africa will have cheap deals for add-on regional flights within Africa. You should be able to get Jo’burg–Livingstone flights, or Maun–Jo’burg flights, at discounted rates provided that you book them at the same time as your return flights to Jo’burg. Further, if you book all your flights together with the same company, then you’ll be sure to get connecting flights, and so have the best schedule possible. Don’t be talked into getting an apparently cheap return to Jo’burg on the basis that you’ll be able to then get a separate ticket to Maun; it’ll cost you a lot more in the end.
Typically overland border posts open for about 8–12 hours a day, from between 06.00 and 08.00 in the morning. That said, some of the busier ones on main routes stay open considerably longer than this.
Despite meeting Zambian territory only at a point, Botswana does have one border crossing with Zambia: a reliable ferry across the Zambezi linking Kazungula with its namesake village in Zambia.
Botswana has several border posts with Zimbabwe, of which the two most important are the one on the road between Kasane and Victoria Falls, at Kazungula, and the one on the main road from Francistown to Plumtree (and hence Bulawayo), at Ramokgwebane. A third much smaller post is at Pandamatenga. This is 100km south of Kasane, and sometimes used by visitors as a neat shortcut into the back of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.
Despite the long length of its border with Namibia, Botswana has very few border posts here. The most important of these by far is the post on the Trans-Kalahari Highway, the route between the towns of Ghanzi and Gobabis.
The other two major crossings are at Mohembo (north of Shakawe and at the south end of Namibia’s Mahango National Park; and across the Chobe River at Ngoma.
Rather less well-known are three other possible crossings into Namibia. The first is at the Dobe border post, on the road between Tsumkwe, in Namibia, and Nokaneng, on the west of the Delta. The other two, geared to those spending time in lodges right on the Namibian border, are between Kasane and both Impalila Island and Kasika.
To/from South Africa
South Africa has always been Botswana’s most important neighbour politically and economically, and for many years (even before South Africa was welcome in the international fold) it was in a ‘customs union’ with South Africa and Namibia. Thus it’s no surprise to find a range of border posts between Botswana and South Africa.
There are two ways to fly within Botswana: on scheduled airlines or using small charter flights.
The national carrier, Air Botswana, operates the scheduled network. This is limited in scope, but generally very efficient and reliable. Air Botswana links Maun directly with Kasane, Gaborone and Johannesburg, while Kasane is linked to both Gaborone and Johannesburg.
Small charter flights operate out of the hub of Maun, with Kasane as a secondary focus, and ferry travellers around the camps of northern Botswana like a fleet of taxis. They use predominantly six- to 12-seater planes which criss-cross the region between a plethora of small bush runways. There’s no other way to reach most camps, but flights are usually organised by the operator who arranges your camps as an integral part of your trip, and you’ll never need to worry about arranging them for yourself.
Several people usually end up sharing these small flights, with timings scheduled by the companies a few days beforehand. Expect them to take under about an hour, during which you may stop at one or two other airstrips before reaching your destination.
There is a railway that links South Africa with Lobatse, Gaborone, Palapye, Francistown and Bulawayo (in Zimbabwe), but that’s the only railway in the country – so is rarely used by travellers to northern Botswana.
Botswana has a variety of local buses which link the main towns together along the tarred roads. They’re cheap, frequent and a good way to meet local people, although they can also be crowded, uncomfortable and noisy. In short, they are similar to any other local buses in Africa, and travel on them has both its joys and its frustrations.
There are two different kinds: the smaller minibuses, often VW combis, and the longer, larger, ‘normal’ buses. Both will serve the same destinations, but the larger ones tend to run to a timetable, go faster and stop less. Their smaller relatives usually wait to fill up before they leave the bus station, then go slower and stop at more places.
Driving in Botswana is on the left, as in the UK, and seatbelts must be worn. If you’re planning to drive, you should have either an international driving licence (available in the UK from the post office for £5.50) or a photo licence, though generally we’ve found that an old-style British paper licence is acceptable. The standard of driving is relatively good, but traffic – and accidents – are increasing, so remain alert, and avoid driving at night in any circumstances.
Speed limits are generally 120km/h on major roads, decreasing to 80km/h outside towns and 60km/h in urban areas, with variations generally signposted. That said, travelling at 120km/h on even the best of Botswana’s tarmac roads is foolhardy, given the potential for animals such as goats and even elephants wandering across the road; stick to 80km/h. In national parks, there is a blanket limit of 40km/h – though you’ll rarely be in a position to come close to this.
The police have radar equipment, and actively set up radar traps, especially just outside towns. Speeding tickets, may sometimes be paid on the spot, against a signed receipt from the officer, but often you’ll have to report to the nearest police station within 48 hours. Botswana’s police are efficient; it’d be foolhardy not to obey such a summons.
Most roads in the towns, and the major arteries connecting these, are tarred and are usually in good condition, although traffic is increasing year on year. Away from these main arteries, though, and throughout virtually all of the wild areas covered by this guide, the roads are simply tracks through the bush made by whatever vehicles have passed that way. They are almost never maintained, and usually require at least a high-clearance vehicle – although often a high-clearance 4×4 is essential. During the wet season some of these tracks can be less forgiving, and become virtually impassable. Travelling on these bush tracks at any time of year is slow and time-consuming – but very much one of the joys of an adventurous trip to Botswana.