Why Choose Botswana for a Wildlife Safari?
Botswana is synonymous with the Okavango Delta, a wetland of incredible beauty created by annual flooding from seasonal rains which flow down from the Angola highlands.
The delta changes with the rising and dropping water levels. A rich diversity of wildlife inhabits the Delta, making it worthy of its reputation as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, African safari destinations.
The central and eastern sector of the Okavango Delta is the Moremi Game Reserve, and the only officially protected part of the Okavango. A mix of wetland, forest, and grassland, Moremi is also one of the most accessible parts of the delta. It is possible to drive there from Maun, Botswana's safari hub. Moremi provides good opportunities for cheetah, wild dog, and rhino sightings. (Rhinos have been recently re-introduced. I was very excited to spot a rhino from the air over Moremi.)
Surrounding Moremi's pristine heart are wildlife management areas, more often referred to as private reserves or concessions. They are part of the Okavango Delta too. These reserves are accessed primarily by air. There is a wide range of accommodations in these concessions, each of them unique to their location. Some offer moroko rides as their main activity - the local canoe propelled through magical water-filled passages by a single poler and game viewing transport for which the delta is famous. Some offer land-based activities - game drives in open vehicles and guided walking. Some offer both water-based and land-based activities. It's important to understand that season and location impact the choice of Okavango's accommodations. The Okavango is a destination best tailor-made. Informed advice is invaluable during the planning process.
Camps in the Khwai River community-run private concession, northeast of Moremi, are often suggested for an Okavango itinerary, and with good reason. Leopard and wild dog populations are excellent here, and unlike in Moremi's protected core, night drives are permitted.
Lodges or Glamping Safari
The Okavango Delta has a reputation for top-end lodges reached by small aircraft. But a private mobile safari for discreet groups of family and friends (most require a minimum of four to six people) is an excellent alternative and it's not as expensive as you might think. A mobile safari allows you to go anywhere and see everything. Your camp is set-up exclusively for your party. En-suite tents contain everything you need and nothing you don't. You enjoy your own private vehicle, guide, and camp staff. An eight-day itinerary divided between Savuti, Khwai River, and Moremi is perfect. There are a finite number of campsites in the Okavango area which your mobile operator must book far in advance, so plan a mobile safari early.
Other Special Places
Botswana has many other special places. Chobe National Park is known for its mother lode of elephants. (Botswana has the greatest number of elephants in Africa.) Savuti, on Chobe's southwest border, is known for the geological mystery of its Savuti Channel, which can remain dry for years and years before inexplicably flowing again. Savuti has good lion, leopard, and spotted hyena populations. It is less accessible than Chobe National Park's waterfront area from Livingstone, Zambia and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and is therefore a quieter area for visitors.
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Makgadikgadi Salt Pans are among my Botswana favourites. The CKGR is Africa's largest protected wilderness area. Its legendary black-maned male lions are so magnificent that other African lions pale by comparison. Zebras migrate to the Makgadikgadi in large numbers during the rainy season, re-locating to the Boteti River when the rains dissipate. You can visit families of habituated meerkats in the Makgadikgadi all year-round or sleep under the stars in a fly-camp during the dry season.
Consider the Off Season
Typically, the first floods reach the Okavango Delta in April. The Botswana safari industry's high season corresponds with high water levels in the delta, which is June through September. But if you want to catch the zebra migration on the Makgadikgadi Pans or at the Boteti River then you must travel between December and April. You can still visit the Okavango in the early months of the year - lodges offer special rates at this time - but you must accept that you will encounter rain delays. Photographer friends tell me that May is their favourite month for visiting Botswana, and I agree. I love the month of May in many sub-Saharan African countries. The long rains are finished; the bush is green; the numbers of wildlife babies are strong; and there are less visitors. Yes, the grass can be high for wildlife observation, but the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of autumn in the southern hemisphere.
Botswana by Road
Botswana is an easy destination to combine with its neighbours, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. It's a half-day's drive from Livingstone, Zambia or Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to Kasane, Botswana, gateway to Chobe National Park. Both Livingstone and Victoria Falls operators can arrange day or overnight trips to Chobe for those with limited time. Better yet, consider a more leisurely road trip through Botswana beginning in either Zambia or Zimbabwe on a circular itinerary which follows the main roads and minimizes the risks of traversing Botswana's sand traps. (Between Chobe National Park and Savuti is one such sandy route.) This itinerary includes Chobe National Park; Nata Bird Sanctuary; Makgadikgadi Salt Pans (for the zebras in April/May and the meerkats all year-round); the Boteti River (April/May for the zebra migration); the Central Kalahari Game Reserve; Maun (Okavango Delta), where you leave the car for a fly in and out stay at a lodge or for a mobile glamping safari in Moremi Game Reserve); and the Okavango Panhandle (a less visited area of the Delta on its western fringes and fantastic for birding). Exit the panhandle at Namibia's Caprivi Strip and turn west for Namibia's Etosha National Park (an overnight journey from this point) or east for Bwabwata National Park and Zambia or Zimbabwe. Consider a minimum of 16 days for this itinerary.