Some only know it as the place where Meghan Markle and Harry of Windsor had their first holiday, but Botswana had long been a popular safari destination. If it’s your first self-driving trip, prepare for this wild and wonderful country by reading this guide, right here.
If a hippo ever chases you for, let’s say 200 metres, you’d have a great story to tell the folks back home. But only if you survive. Such a chase is an unlikely scenario, unless you’re a trouble seeker by (and in) nature. But as in any wilderness, whether it be Alaska or the Amazon, you can get into big trouble if you’re not armed with knowledge.
The call of the wild
“Botswana is one of very few places in the world where wild animals roam free,” says tour guide and photojournalist Willem van der Berg. “In theory, some of the parks are fenced, but not securely, so the animals pay no attention to park borders,” he explains. “It’s an authentic and thrilling way of experiencing nature, far from so-called civilisation.”
What do you drive?
Your mode of transport will be a determining factor in your route planning. If it’s the average SUV with road-biased tyres, Willem suggests keeping to tarred roads – especially on your first visit. “You can reach almost any destination in Botswana using its network of tar roads. At some of the parks, like the Tuli Block in the east, concession holders allow no private vehicles, no matter what you drive. In these cases you will transfer to a game-viewing vehicle driven by a guide.
Luckily you can reach most of Botswana’s attractions without a low-range off-roader. “You can drive on tarred roads all the way to Kasane in the far north,” Willem says. Kasane is a good place to base yourself for visits to the Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park. “You can drive to the Vic Falls or take the convenient option of a short excursion with one of the many operators,” he suggests. “The same goes for Chobe. Choose from a number of tour operators who can take you on a Chobe river cruise or into the park.”
“The pans’ surfaces look dry, but under the thin crust lies the slipperiest mud imaginable and your vehicle can bog down in it within seconds”
When will you go?
Visitors can enjoy Botswana at any time of the year, but Willem suggests that self-driving visitors avoid all pans, like the Makgadikgadi salt pans, between November and March each year. “The pans’ surfaces look dry, but under the thin crust lies the slipperiest mud imaginable and your vehicle can bog down in it within seconds.”.
It’s true that the pans and the Kalahari are more accessible in winter, but water can still present challenges in other parts of Botswana. “In winter water from Angola floods the delta, including some of the roads. This means self-driving travellers will face deep river crossings, something not to be attempted alone or by the inexperienced,” Willem cautions. “Moremi can also be treacherous when the summer rains fall.”
Some tips for when you plan
- Two or three vehicles are usually better than one. Invite another family along, preferably one you get on with.
- Get a reliable set of maps: old-school or digital (Tracks4Africa’s app with digital maps does a great job).
- Buy water when you visit towns and cities like Maun, Kasane, Ghanzi and Francistown. It’s vital to have enough water! You’ll also need a portable fridge or good quality coolboxes if camping in remote areas.
- Botswana is not a high-risk area for malaria, but do take precaution.
- Pack a basic vehicle recovery kit and check that spare wheel.
- Get a copy of Weg and Go magazines’ annual Botswana guide. It usually goes on sale in October.
Do’s and don’ts
- Never drive at night and don’t exceed the speed limit. At worst you’ll hit a large animal or pothole; at best you’ll end up with a heavy fine.
- Be realistic about distances. Driving 600km or more in a day isn’t feasible or advisable.
- Don’t transport meat from the north to the south, because of foot and mouth disease. The meat can be confiscated. “I had a bag of oranges and a bag of potatoes confiscated once,” Willem laments.
- Do pay road tax of about R193 at the border, by credit card or in pula. You’ll also need money for park fees. Cash is king.
- Remember to bring your passports, your car’s paperwork and a ZA bumper sticker. Birth certificates are required for those under 18.
- Try to verify information you receive – even the info here!
- You can join Willem on a tour to Botswana, Namibia or Lesotho. He leads motorcycle and photographic tours too. Visit willemvanderberg.co.za or find him on Facebook and Instagram.
Moremi and Chobe National Parks in the Okovango delta are completely open, so animals can move unhindered, even crossing into Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Yes, animals also go on safari.