Are you planning a 4×4 adventure through Botswana? Keen to organise an overland trip through some of Southern Africa’s most beautiful and wild parks?
There are quite a few things to take in mind for a trip like this. Having recently gone through the process, I’d like to share some of my lessons and experiences! My husband and I recently returned from a 17-day journey from Johannesburg to Botswana, up to Namibia and back. It was certainly one of the most rugged, exciting, beautiful and wild trips I’ve ever been on. That said, I wish we knew of a few of the following insights before we left. Some of them were on our mind from the beginning; many of them we learned on our feet; some only came up in retrospect. Hopefully this information is helpful to you as you plan your next African adventure!
- Determine your priorities for the trip
- Make an itinerary – but be flexible
- Print out phone numbers for campsite and parks
- Download a map app or purchase a [recently printed] paper map
- Understand the role of a ‘vet fence’
- Know which consumables are and aren’t allowed
- Take two vehicles if possible
- Rent your 4×4 from a reputable agency
- Know what to do at a water crossing
- Be respectful and informed around wild animals
- Be Botswana road-smart
- Talk to locals and lodge owners
Determine your priorities for the trip
Are you planning to spend your time birding or game viewing? Do you want to get out and hike or try some outdoor activities? Hoping to take a boat ride into the Okavango? Trying to get away for peace and quiet? Are you interested in cultural expeditions and learning about local communities? These are all aspects you can easily build into your itinerary. Researching some of the towns you’ll drive through can help with the cultural/community aspects. Some of the parks are naturally better for birding or wildlife viewing; of course access to wildlife will also depend on the time of year and season.
We ended up traveling at the end of the wet season, also the end of the best birding. The grass was really high so game viewing became more of a challenge – but the parks were also very quiet and sightings were almost always just us (maybe one other vehicle). We did have a plethora of birdlife near rivers (Ihaha at the Chobe riverfront being the best), but had to work harder to find big game. Deciding your priorities can help guide you on the best time of year to visit, and which parks and communities to see.
Make an itinerary – but be flexible
Once you know what time of year you’ll be heading to Botswana, and where your ideal destinations are, you can build the ideal itinerary. There’s a lot of research on campsites available online, but some may still find it difficult to get in touch with the major parks’ campsites (think Chobe, Moremi or Central Kalahari). This is because a lot of the campsites are managed by community trusts or other companies, not necessarily the parks themselves. You are unlikely to get a rapid response to a campsite request (although it does happen!).
That said, do your best to confirm campsites and make a deposit when possible. You may want to shell out a bit of cash for international calls and confirm campsites over the phone. You might get radio-silence from one of your most desired campsites (happened to us with Ihaha and Moremi sites). Just wait – it may turn out that these sites took deposits from other people but they don’t show up, and you can take advantage of a last minute booking. Apparently some sites don’t even take deposits, so when people change their mind, they simply don’t show. We were told at Ihaha that they’re almost always fully-booked – but then always have one or two spots unfilled any given night.
We booked as many sites as we could online, but were a bit concerned about lack of response from campsites within some of the bigger parks. Luckily we visited some of these sites and got spots the same day. Of course we were there during a quieter time of year, but flexibility is key if you want to see the nicer areas of the country! We said goodbye to a couple of deposits, but it was oh so worth it.
Print out phone numbers for campsite and parks
If you have reasonable roaming charges in Botswana, you’ll want to keep in touch with parks and campsites. Weather is generally predictable according to season, but things can happen! If rain hits a park, roads can quickly become impassable – even with the best 4×4 – and you’ll want to call ahead to check on this.
We had big plans to drive from Maun into Central Kalahari, just to learn that the muddy roads had sucked in five Land Rovers ahead of us. We only knew this because we called the campsite a day before our departure to check on conditions. In another case, we were hoping to drive to Kubu Island (famously known from its appearance on Top Gear) for a night of remote, desolate beauty, but once again were turned away due to muddy conditions. Since we aren’t expert 4x4ers, we weren’t willing to risk it – but we also met many locals who said you simply don’t mess around with mud in the pans!
Download a map app or purchase a [recently printed] paper map
Roads, campsites and directions can all seem very straight-forward and accessible during the preparation period. You might have everything organised to the T – but then you get to a turn and find the road has disappeared, or it’s so potholed you can’t drive it, or your campsite is miserable, run-down and overgrown (yes, it happens). When you’re confronted with a less-than-ideal reality, you’ll want to have a back-up.
We used our Tracks4Africa app to find another campsite, more than once. In one case we drove up to what sounded like an amazing river-side spot, but turned out to be more of a refuelling station with open space for vehicles and tents, next to the road. Not ideal. We also had a printed map with details on vet fence crossings, road conditions, fuel access, grocery stores, restaurants and campsites. It even indicated average drive times between locations – a huge plus with such varied road conditions! For the most part, google maps just doesn’t sufficiently cover the more rural parts of Botswana (not yet anyway).
Understand the role of a ‘vet fence’
Veterinary fences existed originally in Botswana and Namibia to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. Since the 1960s their uses have expanded and they are an important barrier for the spread of other diseases. Officers will stop you at a designated post (these are marked on high quality map apps and printed maps) and inquire about your cargo. Many vet fences have been in place for years, some are temporary, so just be aware and keep alert for official posts. They’re often interested in seeing inside your cooler and foodstuff. They will confiscate certain items that aren’t allowed past. You may be asked to drive through disinfectant liquid on the road, or to get out of your vehicle and disinfect your shoes.
We passed a number of unmanned vet fences on our drive, but most of them were run by polite and welcoming officers. These interactions were certainly more pleasant than at the borders! Don’t immediately ask questions about what they’re doing – this is considered rude (and it is). Greeting is important in Botswana. Be sure to take off your sunglasses when speaking with officials, greet them and be polite.
Know which consumables are and aren’t allowed
Northern areas of Botswana are classified as infected zones. Movement of raw meat and animal products (i.e. unpasteurised milk) is allowed into but not out of an area designated as an infected zone. At a vet fence an official will ask if you have any specified products and may ask to see inside your vehicle. Don’t fight back against an officer doing their job, if they say they are confiscating some of your products.
In Botswana you can move meat and dairy from south to north and east to west. For the most part, you are not allowed to take meat from Maun to Nxai Pan, Makgadigadi, Nata or Ghanzi. You can, however, take meat from Maun to Tsodillo Hills, Moremi, Chobe and Savuti.
My husband and I were under the impression that we needed to buy good quality meat in South Africa for our entire trip. This is simply not true. There are plenty of good quality butchers in Botswana – in Maun or Kasane for example – so you can pack for your trip north, then buy from Botswana as you head back south.
Take two vehicles if possible
All of the parks in Botswana experience rainfall in different ways; in some of the parks areas can become virtually inaccessible with heavy rain. You may find yourself looking down an off-road track, thinking it looks clear, then dipping into a deep pothole or sinking into thick mud. It’s common for even experienced drivers to get stuck in salty mud or deep sand. If you can afford to, head out with another competent driver in a second (or third) vehicle. Pulling each other out is much faster than waiting around for the next person to drive by. Especially if you end up somewhere remote, like certain areas of Moremi, where there is little (if any) cell service.
One morning we returned from a game drive in Savuti to find a new family at the neighbouring campsite. A husband and wife and their six-year-old daughter had arrived at 2am, after the army had found their vehicle stopped on the side of the road mid-way between Linyanti and Savuti camps. Apparently their car had simply stopped – and it was already getting dark. They pitched camp and stayed up in their tent – it was lion country, after all! Luckily the military came across them around midnight, woke them up and towed them to camp. Not a situation anyone wants to be in.
That said, if you can’t take a second vehicle (we didn’t), at least tell the campsites where you are headed and what time you expect to arrive. If you’re worried about the roads you can ask them to call the next site to make sure you arrived, if they don’t hear from you by a certain time. Or keep in touch with friends and family and do the same. Give them a number for your next campsite and ask them to call if you don’t check in.
Rent your 4×4 from a reputable agency
There are a number of rental agencies for car hire in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. The best ones can set you up with all the paperwork you’ll need for border crossings, help you with insurance, even provide itinerary advice. The vehicle should be clean and organised, have all the essential items for cooking, cleaning and sleeping. See if you can get a vehicle with a water tank or two (this was so useful for dish washing and teeth brushing when we didn’t want to walk to a communal block at night or early). Having a hard top over your tent is also awesome – see pictures from our vehicle – it’s just so easy to put up and pack away. Much easier than a soft tent!
We rented from Avis Southern Africa and were very happy with our experience. You’ll want to make sure that your rental company has offices throughout the areas where you’ll be traveling. If something happens – and it almost always does – it’s comforting to know they’re just a call or short drive away. We had issues with our electronics and Avis was helpful in both Kasane and Maun.
Know what to do at a water crossing
Sometimes maps lead to where you least expect. You’ve been driving on dry roads for hours, no problems, then suddenly you come to a river! This wasn’t even on the map – so how could that have happened? But you can see the road clear as day continuing across the other side, so this is certainly the right way. What should you do?
If you can look at the water and determine it is too high for your vehicle, do not attempt to cross. Don’t attempt to wade in either – deep murky water is ideal croc territory. If you believe it’s low enough for crossing, the best way to check is to wade in (but not in a park – don’t get out of your vehicle in a park except in designated areas). If the water goes above your thighs, it’s too deep. This was according to the height of our vehicle, and it might differ based on yours. Make sure you speak with the rental agency about this situation ahead of time.
If there was traffic on the road, it is worth it to wait until another vehicle comes by. You might be passed by a local or regular to this particular crossing, who can guide you safely across. We once followed a game vehicle 500m downstream to find a low crossing.
When driving across deep water, put the car in 4-wheel drive and drive at a steady, firm pace. Don’t floor it and don’t brake in the middle of the water, either of these can have negative outcomes. If you’re following another vehicle, try to match its pace. It’s nerve racking but once you get used to your 4×4, you’ll realise those things can do a lot more than you expect!
Be respectful and informed around wild animals
Hopefully these things are self-evident. Botswana is brimming with wildlife, but many of them are still at risk or even endangered from human interference. We want to keep wildlife as wild as possible – which means as little human interaction as possible. Enjoy viewing animals from your vehicle but do not, under any circumstance, attempt to approach an animal or get out of your vehicle.
Look for warning signs from animals like the big five – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino – who are considered the most dangerous in Africa. Be respectful of their space and they will leave you alone. Of course it is possible that you will turn a corner and come face-to-face with an elephant or rhino. Keep to the low speed limit in parks, give the animal its distance and respect and you should be fine. I’m no expert in this field so I won’t go beyond that – but you can get plenty of advice from game rangers in parks or through your own research.
Be Botswana road-smart
Knowing local law is a smart way to stay safe in Botswana. Most of the laws are straightforward – and similar to those of South Africa – but there are some things you’ll want to look out for. Cattle fencing is not very common along major roads in Botswana. Driving at night is generally not a good idea in areas where there are cattle, goats and donkeys often sleeping or standing in the streets.
Keep your drivers license accessible, including a valid international driving permit if needed, keep cash/change in the car for tolls or minor purchases, make sure all of your vehicle’s lights and electronics are working. Know that fuel stations are serviced, so you don’t pump your own gas. Known how to open the cap and allow the station employee to fill the tank (tip them a few pula!).
While in an ideal world all government officials would follow regulations to the law, our world just isn’t perfect. We dealt with our share of officers asking for bribes on our journey. It wasn’t intimidating and we remained calm and confident, which is what got us out each time. On our last instance we were driving through a vet fence when the officer noticed our front bumper was missing. You might remember this from my post about losing the bumper. Anyway, the officer looked straight at us, reached out her hand and asked for 200 Pula. We said we had no money. She asked again, pointing at the front of our car. We told her our car rental company would take care of it with the authorities, if she wanted to write us up. She ended up sighing and waving us on…nothing else happened!
Talk to locals and lodge owners
Finally – and perhaps most importantly – talk to the people you meet! If you want to know the best place to see a lion, watch the sunset, grab a beer, try local food or take a boat ride, just ask. For the most part, everyone we spoke with in towns, at lodges and campgrounds were very willing to help and give advice.
We changed our itinerary more than once based on someone’s insights. There were a few times, on narrow sandy tracks, when we stopped to have a chat with a vehicle heading in the opposite direction. We got insight on our destination (and occasionally provided our own advice in return) and were told where to find a pair of mating lions. In short, it’s useful to speak up and ask for help! It pays off.
Hopefully some of this is helpful to you as you plan your upcoming trip. I hope it’s understood that I’m no expert, just a girl who took the journey with her husband and hopes to share a bit of that experience with others. If you have any questions or want to discuss your upcoming adventure, please reach out!