Botswana is famous for its vast areas of pristine wilderness, with almost 20% of the country devoted to fenceless national parks and private game reserves, allowing wildlife to roam free. It’s also known for its policy of high-end, low-volume tourism, and exclusive lodges that can command US $1,000+ per night.
On a mobile camping safari, I discovered travelers don’t actually need deep pockets to experience the thrill of Botswana’s wild animals in their natural habitat.
For seven action-packed days, I go back to basics, back to the way safaris used to be, not fixed to one location like many are now. The true meaning of safari – journey, in Swahili – we move daily, sleeping in small tents, eating under the stars, pitching in with day-to-day chores and leaving no trace, aside from our footprints.
I travel through some of the country’s most stunning and varied landscapes in the company of seven other safari-goers from around the globe, along with Botswanans Sam, our knowledgeable and entertaining guide, and Noga, a human dynamo who runs the camp like a well-oiled machine.
Once we leave the town of Kasane behind, we are either wild camping or using serviced campsites at night, from the riverine forest of Chobe National Park, south through the arid Savute Channel to Moremi National Reserve and the watery wilderness of the Okavango Delta.
Wildlife spotting begins on the way to our first campsite, close to the riverfront in the northwest of Chobe National Park. Sam drives slowly, and, from the open-sided Land Cruiser, I watch as a matriarchal herd of elephants jostles for position as they drink at the Chobe River, fearsome-looking crocodiles bask on the banks, and a pod of grunting hippos wallows in the shallows.
Camping in national parks and reserves offers no end of game-viewing opportunities, day or night. An elephant wanders through the camp in search of tamarind, one of its favorite fruits, a male lion, patrolling its territory, gives a guttural call as he passes by, and Noga has to chase away a hyena foraging for food.
The first night, as I lie wide-eyed in the pitch darkness listening to the rustle and hum of the bush, I realize that there’s only a thin wall of canvas separating me from Botswana’s greatest predators. Camp rules must be obeyed: keep your tent zipped up, and no leaving it after everyone has gone to bed, not even to visit the toilet tent – a hole in the ground topped with a portable seat.
The following morning, I’m up before sunrise to take down my tent and help dismantle the camp – packing away the bucket shower and the kitchen-cum-trailer, before we pile into the Land Cruiser.
Distances in Botswana are huge, and it takes five hours, over bone-shaking dirt roads through flat, arid landscape, to reach the next campsite in Savute, but it gives me a feel for the vastness of the country, and Sam is always pointing out something new, from leopard tracks to a lofty giraffe chewing on a thorny acacia bush.
We stop to let elephants cross the road, a baby – still young enough to have a fuzz of reddish hair across its back – turns and trumpets sweetly in our direction. But, behind is a far larger adult and she starts towards us with her enormous ears flapping, trunk waving, until we can see the network of wrinkles on her skin. Then she abruptly pulls up, gives a loud snort and lumbers off to join the rest of the herd. It was only a mock charge, but the adrenaline rush I feel is very real.
On the fringes of the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve is a watery wilderness and one of the world's largest inland deltas. This extraordinary ecosystem starts with rain in the mountains of Angola and ends 1,000mi (1,600km) away in Botswana, where it fans out into a maze of lagoons and channels.
One of the best ways to see the Delta up close is from a mokoro (traditional canoe). With a long wooden pole, my Botswanan gondolier steers me along the narrow channels. As we skim across the water, the only sounds are the splash of the pole and the gentle swish of reeds. Metallic-blue malachite kingfishers dart among the vegetation, dainty jacanas hop between lily pads, while majestic fish eagles circle overhead.
I watch rare African wild dogs wake up and greet each other, before month-old pups tumble out of the den, blinking in the sunlight. The oversized ears of wiry black-backed jackals poke out of the tall grass, and a magnificent tawny eagle surveys its terrain from a high branch.
Who needs fine dining or glamping tents? Learning from a great guide, showering under the Southern Cross and watching mating lions, now that's priceless.
A ban on plastic bags came into effect on 1 November 2018. This ban has made the importing, possession, trading and commercial use of plastic bags a criminal offence. First-time offenders will have the plastic bag confiscated, but subsequent offenders could be fined up to US $475 or 30 days imprisonment.
We ate simple dishes such as pasta, grilled meat, salads, sandwiches and fruit. Notify the operator of any dietary requirements/allergies in advance.
Choose an operator that employs local guides and staff, disposes of rubbish sustainably, and never offers hands-on animal encounters.
I traveled with Okavango Expeditions on the Botswana Adventurer Safari.
Sleeping bag, travel towel, head torch, binoculars, windproof jacket, fleece, neutral-toned trousers and long-sleeved shirts, closed shoes, sandals/flip flops, sunglasses, sunscreen, and insect repellent. Pack a beanie hat and gloves for travel during the winter months (May–October).
Botswana is a year-round destination but the best time to visit is in the cool, dry season between May and October. Days are warm but mornings and nights can get very cold in June, July, and August, with the hottest daytime temperatures in October.
Listen to the World Nomads Podcast on Botswana and learn about the San Bushmen, the adventurous photographer who camped her way across Africa, and jaw-dropping city names from around the world.
There is a lack of access to medical care and help if you get injured or fall ill in Botswana – here's what you need to know before you go.