On Safari in Botswana
Standing in stark contrast to the waterlogged Okavango, the Kalahari is a desert without oases. There are no lakes, streams, or springs. When we arrive at Deception Valley we find only an illusion—a dark-gray clay pan that seems to be filled with water. The mirage can still deceive: a gray heron circles, then lands in the mud, expecting a shallow, frog-filled pond rather than this morass.
We return to camp in time to witness a classic Kalahari tableau of grazing antelope, roosting vultures, and jackals gathered at a manmade waterhole and backed by a red, molten sunset. To the east, a dark-violet dusk pulses with heat lightning. As we tuck into an al fresco dinner of seswaa, a savory Botswana beef stew spiced with curry powder, ginger, and chutney, the jackals yield to a pride of 10 lions. The dominant male, an enormous cat with a luxurious black mane, strolls between the tents, announcing his presence with a deep, rumbling roar—an arresting call he will sustain throughout our meal.
As a precaution, the lodge escorts all guests to their rooms after sundown. I return to my tented bungalow without incident. After midnight I’m awakened by a cool wind pushing against the window panels; it sounds like a ruthless honey badger scratching to gain entrance. Birds alarm-call in the distance, and a low growl reverberates from the direction of the dining area. The lion does not sleep tonight.
This story originally ran in the July-August 2012 issue as, “70,000 Elephants, 600 Birds, 50-pound Porcupines, and a Thunder of Hippos–All in a Nation the Size of Texas.”
Botswana: Making the Trip
Getting there: There are no direct flights to Botswana from the United States. Visitors usually fly to Johannesburg or Cape Town, South Africa, then connect on regional flights to Botswana’s capital, Gaborone. Visas are available on arrival in both Botswana and South Africa; the latter requires at least two clean, facing pages in your passport. A passport with at least six months of validity remaining is required upon entry to Botswana.
Getting around: Most travel within Botswana is done by air. National carrier Air Botswana connects from Gaborone to Kasane and Maun. Wilderness lodges are usually serviced by bush planes; your camp or tour operator will be able to arrange these charters. With limited cargo space, bush planes will accept only soft-sided luggage. Botswana offers a range of accommodations to suit any budget, from five-star Okavango ecolodges, such as Orient-Express’s fly-in, $1,000/night Eagle Island Camp (a favorite of Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mystery series, who even set part of Double Comfort Safari Club here) to mobile camping safaris, homestays, and guest houses. Companies such as Wilderness Safaris, Orient-Express, and Desert & Delta Safaris operate highly regarded lodges at Botswana’s premier game-viewing destinations. They can arrange multi-park itineraries, including air transport. It’s also possible to rent a vehicle for a self-drive safari, but make sure you pack a GPS, satellite phone, extra fuel, at least a five-day water supply, and spare tires before tackling the backcountry. Denver-based Africa Adventure Consultants (303-778-1089) specializes in small-group and custom African safaris, including to Botswana.
More info: For general country information (immigration and customs, attractions, tourist activities), visit the Botswana Tourism Board website. Information about specific parks is available on the Botswana Department of Wildlife & National Parks website. Contact the Embassy of the Republic of Botswana at 202-244-4990 for up-to-date information on entry requirements.
For birders: The best birdwatching is in January to March, during the rainy summertime, when migrants boost the species headcount. It coincides with the low tourist season, so hotel rates are at their most affordable and parks at their least crowded. For fact sheets on Botswana’s 12 Important Bird Areas, visit BirdLife International. Maun-based Letaka Safaris specializes in multi-day birding safaris in Botswana’s avian hotspots.