If Botswana isn’t on your travel bucket list, then it should be. Often overlooked or lumped in with its Southern African neighbors, Botswana is one of the premier safari destinations providing some, if not, the best wildlife viewing on the continent. In 2016, Botswana came out on top of Lonely Planet’s list of best places to visit. In 2017, the New York Times also voted Botswana as one of the best countries to visit. This tiny little Southern African country I call home is located just above South Africa, is also bordered by Namibia in the west, Zambia in the north and Zimbabwe in the east. Botswana also shares the distinction of being part of a quadripoint; a point that touches the border of four distinct territories. Known as the “four corners of Africa,” Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe meet at the eastern end of the Caprivi Strip.
Despite being home to the vast wetlands of the Okavango Delta, the Linyati Swamp, and the Chobe River, about 80% of the country is defined by the Kalahari Desert. If you plan to visit Kasane, get our destination guide here.
1. Botswana visa requirements
Most citizens of western countries don’t need a tourist visa, however, I was surprised by the number of African countries on the list needing one. I am a strong proponent of open/semi-open borders between all African countries, so hopefully with the new measures currently on the AU table, that will change. The usual tourist visa requirements still apply; confirmation of tour/hotel bookings, valid passport up to 6 months, bank statements etc.. If you are unsure of whether you need a tourist visa or more information, check out the Botswana embassy page.
2. Is Botswana safe?
It is known as one of the safest countries to visit in Africa and the world. Although crime rates have been steadily increasing in recent years, especially in cities, the country is still relatively safe, especially for tourists. In 2017, the World Internal Security and Police Index ranked Botswana police as the best on the continent. The threat for female travelers is not greater than in Europe, so traveling around Botswana shouldn’t be too difficult or unsafe for solo females. However, like in most places, unaccompanied women should take better precautions in clubs/bars or anywhere at night.
Travel to and within national parks is generally safe. The only danger most of the time is the danger tourists pose to animals. In areas such as Kasane, you should never walk alone or unescorted after dark because of the threat from nocturnal predators; lions, hyenas. Due to their increased numbers, elephants cause the greatest threat to human life.
3. Immunizations required for travel
There are a few immunizations/vaccines recommended by WHO and the CDC. The risk of contracting most diseases in Botswana is relatively low, especially if you are taking the proper precautions. Your biggest risk would be diarrhea, so if you have a weak system, I would recommend bringing a diarrhea kit, but they are also available in-country. The recommended vaccinations include Hep A/B, Typhoid, Rabies (there are many areas with lots of stray animals), and yellow fever. Yellow Fever is required if traveling from a country with high yellow fever transmission.
Botswana currency is the Pula (BP), which also translates to ‘rain.’ Because the climate is so dry, rain is a commodity. The BP one of the strongest African currencies, but has recently been weakened due to events happening in neighboring countries. There was a time 4BP was equal to $1. The current exchange rate in 2019 is $1 = 10.96 BP. Food is relatively cheap, but most things related to tourism are quite expensive, especially in the northern part of the country. In areas such as the Okavango, hotel rates can run up to $2000/night. This is because the country is trying to limit the number of tourists in an area.
5. Transportation to/in Botswana
If you are traveling between cities, there is plenty of public transportation available. But if you are in big cities like Gaborone, the amount of public transportation is abysmal. There are taxis and minibuses available, but most taxi drivers stop driving after around 6pm, so it’s best to take down a taxi driver’s number for use outside of regular work hours. Taxis are relatively safe and always make sure you determine the fare before you leave. In Gaborone, the taxi fare from the airport to town should be around P100 or about $10.
tip: If not flying directly into Botswana, a cheaper option is to fly into Johannesburg OR Tambo airport, then catch another flight to Kasane or Maun. South African airways has direct flights from Johannesburg to both towns, though not everyday.
6. If you plan on renting a car…
…especially to remote areas for camping and such, make sure you rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle that is well-equipped with provisions, fuel and water. Outside of urban areas, roads are not generally good, petrol can be scarce, and during the dry season, droughts are not uncommon. There are even areas where anything other than a 4-wheel drive is not allowed. In places such as the Chobe district, Okavango Delta, Pandamatenda, and the Savuti, pedestrians, livestock, and wildlife can often be found walking the highways, so try to avoid driving at night as the roads are not lit.
7. Skip Gaborone
From a tourist standpoint, I will say pass. It might be the capital of the country, but there is really not much to entertain, unless you are interested in nightlife. Unfortunately, even places that can be seen as tourists hotspots are not fully utilized. Trust me on this one, I know. I currently live in Gaborone. The best things to do are all outside Gaborone. The city is good for a night or 2 before or after your holiday to recuperate.
8. Check the weather
Botswana has a semi-arid climate, which I would describe as dry most of the time. The country received less rainfall than other Southern African countries, but the rains do come between December – March. After the rainy season, between April and May, the skies are clear and the vegetation is green. June – August is the winter season, but temperatures climb during the day and the skies are clear and blue. It is usually the best time to come for wildlife viewing, as the land is dry and animals will therefore congregate around a few watering holes. September – October is peak wildlife viewing season, but October can get very very hot.
9. If elephant-viewing is what you want…
…then head north! Botswana has the highest elephant population in Africa, and possibly the world. Recently there has been a spike in the elephant population. For a country roughly the size of Texas, Botswana is now home to over 130,000 elephants, a third of all the elephant population in Africa. Due to conflicts and instability in neighboring countries, and because Botswana has tight regulations and better protection of animals, the elephants simply migrated to a place they felt secure. And unlike humans, animals are not bounded by national borders.
10. All your safari dreams come true
Although Botswana is a relatively small country (the size of Texas), approximately 40% of its total land surface has been set aside for conservation. Interestingly, there are only 4 national parks:Chobe National Park: famous for its large animal concentrations. Drive anywhere near the park and you are assured of excellent wildlife viewing. Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park, Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Nxai Pans National Park, with the last 2 being large salt pans, round out the national parks. The rest of the animals reside in game reserves and wildlife management areas.
11. But why are Botswana safaris so expensive?
Four words: High Quality, Low Impact. I’ll be honest, Botswana is not exactly a backpacker’s dream destination. Self-driving safaris are very common and can be a way to cut costs, but it’s not an option available or even desirable to everyone. There are hostels and bed & breakfasts, but are few and far between up north. Anyone who has been to the Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania or even Kruger National Park in South Africa can attest to the high volume of tourists that can make your holiday a bit unpleasant. High quality means you will get the best out of your safari and will most likely be one of very few, but it will also come with a high price tag. Low impact means we minimize human impact on nature. Less is sometimes better. In Botswana there are strict restrictions on allowed beds/concession areas; camps/lodges can only host a specific number of guests, leading to lower number of tourists in the country. So if you are trying to decide between Botswana vs. Tanzania or any other country with great wildlife viewing, you must decide if you want to be among the few or one of many.
The official languages of Botswana are English (unfortunately inherited from colonial rule) and Setswana. English is also the official business language in the country and is widely spoken throughout the country. And because it is taught in schools, many villagers are also able to converse in English. Setswana is the main spoken language, but you will also hear many other smaller Bantu languages. Common phrases:
Dumela = good morning/afternoon/evening
O tsogile jang? = how are you?
Ke tsogile sente = i’m well
Tsamaya sente = goodbye/travel well
13. Power Cuts
Although Botswana is considered a ‘middle income’ country, electricity is still a major challenge. There is a heavy reliance on South Africa, which is ironic because South Africa also grapples with its own power shortages. Although the rainy season is greatly appreciated, the rains pose a huge threat to power cuts. Any thunder, lightning, or the slightest gusts of wind can plunge the country into darkness. Most hotels will usually have a backup generator but power outages are not uncommon.
…are not only a girl’s best friend, but Botswana’s main export. The Jwaneng Diamond Mine in the southern part of the country is the richest diamond mine in the world, by value. The word Jwaneng means “a place of small stones.” About 17.7% of the world’s total production of diamonds takes place in the country. Unlike most resource-rich countries on the continent, Botswana has managed to avoid the worst effects of the ‘resource curse’ by managing its resources with long-term development goals, such as investment in human capital and infrastructure. Unlike other less fortunate countries, Botswana diamonds ARE NOT blood diamonds. A great place to propose, just ask Harry!
15. Bargain, but don’t overdo it
Botswana is considered a middle income country, and although it’s richer than most countries, poverty, especially in rural areas, is still a challenge. It’s great to bargain with local sellers as it’s a way to socialize with the local population; 9 times out of 10 you will end up having a 30 minute conversation about you, where you are from, and Botswana in general. But always remember, tourism barely benefits those it really should. So take that into consideration when buying from local craftsmen.