Destination of the week: Botswana
Save your money for a truly natural safari experience in one of the most welcoming, safe and user-friendly nations on the African continent.
Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 10:19 AM
READY TO HUNT: Lions wait for dark to fall before attempting to hunt elephants in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. (Photo: Associated Press)
Botswana has quietly become one of Africa’s success stories over the past few decades. Its small population has enjoyed peace and relative prosperity. This has been due mostly to the diamond trade. However, unlike its peers in western and southwest Africa, Botswana’s diamonds have always flowed through legitimate channels.
With great tracts of uninhabited land, from the Kalahari Desert to the Okavango Delta, Botswana has some of the last truly untouched land in the world. As the market for precious stones fluctuates, Botswana has found another source of income with nature-themed tours.
The country received a modest amount of press from the series of mystery books by Alexander McCall Smith and the subsequent HBO drama, “The Number One Ladies Detective Agency.” The show highlighted a quaint, welcoming vibe and also gave glimpses of the country’s wildlife and natural landscapes.
Botswana is not the cheapest destination to reach or to explore. There are few direct flights and almost all safari tours are of the luxury variety. But for those seeking a truly natural safari experience, this is probably one of the most welcoming, safe and user-friendly nations on the African continent.
Botswana’s roads are extremely good by African standards, though aggressive drivers (and large animals) can make a trip on the roadways a bit harrowing. Safaris provide transit for their clients in different types of vehicles from 4x4s to buses to chartered aircraft. A network of buses connects major towns. These constitute the best option for non-drivers. A railway connected the major cities of Francistown and Gaborone, but domestic service has been discontinued.
Mini-buses, known as combis, are the main form of public transit in the capital city of Gaborone. These usually white vans do not operate on fixed routes, but are always on the roadways and, since this is an English-speaking nation, you can ask the driver if the van can take you to your destination.
The Somarelang Tikologo Eco-Park is located in Gaborone and highlights the environmental ambitions of the nation. The organization is involved in waste management, sustainable agriculture and nature conservation. Aside from its educational features (including a playground aimed at young visitors), the park has a Green Shop featuring goods made from recycled products, a model organic garden and the Eco-Café, which features local organic dishes.
Small-scale businesses and artisans have found success exporting their wares to Europe, South Africa and the U.S. It is possible to purchase these items at their source and to see where they are made. Weavings and tapestries, pottery and traditional San (bushman) crafts are available at workshops around the country.
Traditionally, safaris have not been the best way to engage in low-impact tourism. Even those that feature cameras instead of guns can be destructive to plant and animal life and local culture. Botswana’s fragile Okavango Delta, one of the few places left in the world that could be considered untouched by modern development, is also a popular destination for safari tours.
However, most operators have conservation in mind as they grow their businesses. The country’s authorities have been involved in creating sustainable models for this type of tourism. Recently, their efforts gained recognition from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) because of sustainability practices in and around the Okavango region. While the growth of the tourism industry has not been without controversy, Botswana is, in mainstream tourism circles, considered a leader when it comes to walking the fine line between tourism growth and conservation.
Aside from the delta, popular safari spots include Chobe National Park and the Kalahari Desert, where several villages of the famous Bushmen of the Kalahari now accept guided tours. Most tour companies and safari operators feature semi-permanent tented camps instead of large, permanent lodges.
For budget travelers, the best nature-viewing site is right outside Gaborone. The Gaborone Game Reserve is not as vast as its upcountry peers, but it has plenty of game and is easily accessible because of a network a roads throughout the park. Maps are available at the park entrance, making self-guided tours possible.
There are other reserves and natural areas that are almost too numerous to mention. Not all are easily accessible, but adventurous visitors will be sure to find the landscapes and wildlife that they are seeking somewhere in the country.
The problem with Botswana, at least for frugal travelers, is that it is not the easiest place to travel on a budget. Part of the conservation effort revolves around a strategy of keeping the number of tourists at a minimum by keeping costs high. This keeps the industry healthy while stemming the number of tourists. Even “budget” safaris top the $100 per day mark, and the sheer wildness of Chobe National Park and Botswana’s other wilderness areas makes unguided travel unwise, if not impossible. But even with these negatives, the country stands as a positive example both of African economic success and nature conservation.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.