By Staff Writer
Most countries of Africa have varied landscapes, but few have such contrasts in natural scenery as Botswana. And the variety also extends into the social structure of the country.
From the vast water-soaked Okavango Delta with its water channels and islands teeming with birds, hippos and elephants, to lions patrolling the red sand dunes of the vast and waterless Kalahari Desert. From clans of San hunters living like they have for thousands of years, to modern cities with bustling shopping malls. And don’t forget its world-famous Chobe National Park with its large elephant herds.
All of this is captured within this captivating, landlocked country.
Situated in Southern Africa, Botswana is a country of stunning contrasts and beauty with an abundance of unspoilt wilderness and free-roaming wildlife, including Africa’s Big Five.
Despite being sparsely populated, it has one of Africa’s most thriving economies, based mainly on diamond mining, cattle ranching and tourism. It is also one of Africa’s most exemplary and stable democracies. Its gross national income is estimated by some experts to be the fourth largest in Africa, while the country has the highest Human Development Index of continental Sub-Saharan Africa.
It is also just a figurative stone’s throw away from Southern Africa’s economic and transport hub, Johannesburg.
But it is this country’s service efficiency, natural scenery and its stunning wildlife that makes it stand out as one of the most favoured tourist destinations in Africa. Equal to France or Madagascar in land size, but with a population of only 2.25-million, there is ample space for everyone…human and the wild kind.
Most of Botswana is flat country with wide open spaces, dominated by essentially two very different regions, the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta. But by far the bigger region, the Kalahari covers up to 84% of its land surface. In parts you will find gently rolling tableland while small hills dot the eastern areas. In the north the vegetation is lush, fed by a tangle of delta waterways and rivers.
Crossing the Kalahari
Take the A2 Trans-Kalahari Highway from Lobatse in the south to the Namibian border some 800km away in the northwest, and you will lose yourself in endless desert plains and utter silence but for the sound of your car. But if isolation, no water, silence and desert mirages are not your thing, rather take a plane, of which there are plenty flying all over the country to every possible location.
If you have 4WD transport, are not fainthearted and are the adventurous type, you can swing away towards the south from the Trans-Kalahari Highway at the tiny village of Kang.
The route will take you down to the amazing Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, an endless vista of red and yellow sand dunes, fossilised river valleys dotted with dwarfed trees, bushes and scrub, grasslands and camel thorn trees. Like its delta neighbour, the Kalahari region also once had rivers and water…a very long time ago. This landscape is inhabited by herds of gemsbok, springbok, eland, blue wildebeest, huge black-mane lions, leopard and many raptors. But look closely and you will find many more amazing forms of life in the sand, under stones, in rocky crevices, under small bushes and in the trees.
Be warned however, travelling to the park you will need to take all life- and vehicle-supporting items with you, while on the Botswana side of the park routes have to be travelled by a minimum of two 4WD vehicles at a time.
The park was created in 2002 as a joint venture between South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park. This immense wilderness (37,000 sq. km) is now shared by both countries as a protected area and is jointly managed. The entire park is completely unfenced, allowing for wildlife to move freely along the ancient migration routes so necessary for their survival in the desert.
Immigration and customs facilities allow travellers to enter the park in one country and depart in the other. The main entry and departure point between the two countries is at the Two Rivers/ Twee Rivieren gate, which also has camping facilities, chalets, shops and a restaurant. There are other camping sites and 4X4 routes throughout the park.
To really experience the immense contrasts in natural scenery of Botswana, after Kang continue north along the Trans-Kalahari Highway, or A2, until it forks, then turn northeast along the A3.
This route, a good tarred road, will take you through cattle ranching country, more endless flat plains covered in scrub and camel thorn trees, through the tiny towns of Ghanzi and Dekar, until you reach the first sign of the water wonderland that awaits you: the Okavango Delta. Some 130km north of Dekar, you will arrive at Lake Ngami and the settlement of Sehithwa, little more than a few scattered dwellings across a wide area of scattered trees.
Soon after Sehithwa you will pass the first southern tentacles of the delta water complex, fanning out like an entanglement of tree roots and veins through the countryside, until you reach the town of Maun, capital of the Delta. Most tourists prefer to fly into Maun and its many surrounding reserves and lodges.
If the southern Kalahari region has no water, this region may at times seem to have far too much water. The world-famous Okavango Delta is one of the most sought-after wilderness destinations in the world and has the most amazing waterways teeming with fish, birds and water-bound animals.
The surrounding lushly vegetated areas are home to a great variety of wild animals, from elephants and lions to giraffes and many different types of antelope. It is here that you will experience the heart of the real Africa so many dream of: the heart-stopping excitement of big game viewing, the supreme tranquillity and serenity of an untouched delta, and evocative scenes of extraordinary natural beauty.
That this delta, the largest intact inland delta in the world, exists at all in the heart of this thirstland, is one of nature’s wonders. It is situated deep in the Kalahari Basin and is fed by the Okavango River, the third largest river in Southern Africa. Visitors to the region can traverse it by light aircraft, helicopter, hot air balloon, or, famously as in the tourist brochures, by dugout canoe with local guides steering you through the maze of waterways teeming with fish, reptiles like the Nile crocodile, wild animals and birdlife. Along the way you will pass papyrus reed and palm-fringed little islands and thick woodlands.
Just as Botswana’s summer rains come to an end, floodwaters begin their 2,000km journey from the north in Angola’s Highlands, literally a wall of water rushing across the land through Namibia’s Caprivi, before spilling into the Delta in Botswana. Passing through more than 1,000km of Kalahari sands, the water annually revitalises a vast and very diverse ecosystem of plant and animal life.
The flow of this water continues on past the Okavango Delta and Maun, going east to the Boteti River, and fills up Lake Xau or the Makgadikgadi Pans, also running west to Lake River to fill Lake Ngami.
Chobe National Park
Continuing northeast from Maun, you will reach another major Botswana attraction, the Chobe National Park, famous for its large herds of elephants and cape Buffalo grazing along the banks of the beautiful Chobe River. The river cuts like a bright blue ribbon through the wilderness. The best way to experience Chobe’s wildlife and scenery, including 460 bird species, is by river cruise.
Surrounding the Chobe National Park are numerous other smaller parks, reserves, forest reserves and lodges, while Victoria Falls is some 150km to the northeast – as the crow flies – on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border.
Botswana is the last stronghold for a number of endangered bird and mammal species, including wild dog, cheetah, brown hyena, Cape vulture, wattled crane, Kori bustard, and Pel’s fishing owl. This will make your safari experience even more memorable, and at times you will feel simply awed by the abundance of wild animals.
There are many other breathtaking attractions across Botswana, such as the vast Makgadikgadi salt pans, the Tswapong Hills, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Matsieng Footprints, the Gcwihaba Caves and Aha Hills, Bahurutshe Cultural Village, the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, and much more.
And if it’s shopping, good hotels and restaurants and some nightlife you are after, Gaborone is the place. A bustling little capital, it is never overcrowded though due to the country’s small population, a large part of whom nonetheless reside in this city. Gaborone, nonetheless, is a rapidly developing and expanding city, with shiny new shopping malls and office blocks constantly changing its skyline. Other centres like Francistown and Lobatse also offer a variety of amenities and attractions.
But essentially, Botswana is safari country, from the deep red sands of the south with its black-mane lions all the way across the central salt pans to the waterways and birdlife of the north and the Chobe River and elephant herds of the east. So much world within one single country…