Welcome back to Overland Destinations, a regular feature from the Overlander Notebook - practical and inspirational ideas to fuel your next overland adventure, whether it's close to home or a world away.
This week, Botswana - Part I
It's been nearly twice around your watch for the little hand since you left home, and that 14 hour direct from Atlanta to Johannesburg can take it out of even the most experienced travelers. Immigration in South Africa barely glanced at your passport while stamping you in, and then quickly out, of the country. It's well before dawn, and you still have one more leg to go. As you drag your cramped body under the outstretched bronze arm of O.R. Tambo in Johannesburg's main arrival hall, you find yourself, quite frankly, at the end of your rope.
After they call your final flight, a stuffy and interminable bus ride across the tarmac follows. It seems to take forever, but sighting the Air Botswana turbo prop catching the sun's first rays at the end of a row of jets gets the blood flowing. Take off. Winding north, chasing the African sunrise, it's biltong, toothpicks, and a dribble of weak tea in a styrofoam cup for breakfast. Friendly chatter fills the cabin, but your eyes are focused on the landscape below. You trace miles and miles of two tracks across salt pans, endless thornbush desert, and rocky hills. Botswana is the size of Texas, but with less than a tenth of the people. It's as empty as any territory you've ever seen.
The airport in Maun, Botswana (MUB) is about the size of a Dallas convenience store. But, it's the busiest hub in the country as dozens of bush planes take flight daily to the tangled maze of waterways and luxury safari lodges tucked away in the Okavango Delta. It's hot - a kind of all-absorbing heat that seems particular to this part of the world. Fans oscillate pointlessly in the corners of the terminal as dozens and dozens of people crowd the ticket counters. There are entire families decked in head-to-toe khakis and more field glasses per square foot than maybe anywhere on earth. You hear half a dozen different languages floating among the ziggurats of luggage strewn around the hallways.
There is no luggage carousel at the Maun airport, only stout men and women dragging big cartfuls directly into arrivals. You spy your own bag - just a small ARB duffel - and snag it ahead of the onrushing scrum of anxious travelers. You've packed light: camera, a few changes of clothes, some sandals, a jacket, a wide brimmed hat, and your own binoculars. As you turn to the exit, you spy your ride, a Motswana in a short sleeve polo with a wide grin and neatly plaited braids. She holds a small cardboard square with your name printed in neat black marker.
Half an hour later, you're planted in a wide wicker chair on the deck of a run down lodge on the banks of the Okavango River. Sure, it's barely lunch time, but after 24 hours in airplanes you've earned that Windhoek Draught sweating in your palm. You are tired, but you are also feeling the deeply satisfying sense of anticipation that arrives only on the eve of a big adventure. You've made it - Botswana. A weary grin of your own comes across your face as a pod of hippos not far away in the river begins a chorus of grunts and bellows. You're only at the lodge one night, tomorrow it begins in earnest.
If you're the ambitious sort of overlander, Africa looms large as a bucket list destination. Southern Africa, and in particular, the nation of Botswana is an adventure travel paradise. With thousands of miles of empty two track, epic campsites, and more wildlife than your camera's memory card can possibly hold, you owe it to yourself to visit at least once.
Botswana is near and dear to my own heart. My wife Julie and I lived there for two years, and I've written about some of our journeys in this amazing country right here on the Overlander Notebook. This time around on Overland Destinations, I want to walk you briefly through the beginning stages of a typical overland adventure in Botswana. It's easier, more accessible, and more affordable than you might think. And, it's an unforgettable experience of a lifetime.
The beauty of planning an overland trip in southern Africa (the region that encompasses South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and eSwatini) is that this part of the continent is highly developed, its tourist infrastructure is robust, and travel bureaucracy is straightforward. You don't even need to bring your own vehicle, or any of the camping equipment you might normally use at home. Except for Mozambique, English is the primary language.
There's a fundamental freedom and sense of discovery to traveling in this region that you don't get, for example, in east Africa (Kenya and Tanzania). As overlanders, freedom to explore is key to our ethos. Heavily structured, guided, and scheduled safari experiences in Africa have their place. I've been privileged to stay in one of those Okavango Delta lodges, and in the hands of experts I had wildlife encounters I could never have imagined under my own direction.
However, seeing Africa from the back of a Land Cruiser seems to me less rewarding than seeing it from the driver's seat.
Let's rejoin the story, as our intrepid adventurer takes the keys, and takes charge of her own adventure.
After your short stay in the lodge, and many hours of much needed rest, you wake early. Jet lagged, but itching to move, you stuff your minimal kit back in the duffel and head to the lodge parking lot. Waiting for you is a vehicle you've often dreamed about (probably even last night). A white 70 Series Land Cruiser pickup. Forbidden fruit in North America, it's the ultimate expression of off-road travel in this part of the world.
You find a torquey turbodiesel V8 under your right foot, and a five speed manual in your left hand (Botswana drives on the English side, remember) as you slide into the driver seat to familiarize yourself with the controls. You fidget nervously as you prepare mentally to tackle the new roads. Luckily, there's very little traffic in this part of the world. The representative from the rental agency who delivered the truck to your lodge goes over the fundamentals with you: satellite phone, Garmin GPS unit, recovery tools, dual battery system, fridge, propane stove and kitchen stores, water storage and pump, camping equipment, and, of course, the roof top tent. These are all devices and systems you're comfortable with, you might say you're even an expert. You begin to feel your confidence grow.
Wth a cheery wave from the rental rep, you idle out onto the road toward the grocery store. You're surprised to find a fully-stocked super market, brightly lit, wide aisles full of products both exotic and instantly recognizable. You purchase ten days worth of provisions on your credit card and return to the truck. After packing the fridge, you swing into the fuel station to top off the tanks (again, paying with your credit card) and double-check the tire pressures. You then pause to consider the neatly bound route description and map package provided by the rental agency. All the paperwork is there - national park and game reserve passes, campsite reservations, and a detailed day-by-day itinerary for the next week and a half.
The plan is laid out before you, all you need to do now is drive.
One of the great hang-ups about travel in Africa is the fear of the unknown. Will I be safe? How will I supply myself and my vehicle? What about wild animals? What happens if I get sick or injured? Will my phone work?
These are all concerns we try to address in our travels at home, and the principles are exactly the same when undertaking an adventure abroad. Of course, navigating some of the cultural and language barriers you may find overseas adds a level of complexity and uncertainty we don't necessarily find in more familiar terrain. Botswana is no exception, but several factors that you may have noticed in our traveler's experience makes it easier to go there with a level of self-assurance you might not find elsewhere. Especially given the rewards.
First, she booked a travel plan and vehicle with a reputable "self-drive safari" agency that reserved all of her campsites and all of her national park and game reserve entrance passes. With the itinerary set and the route mapped out, she knows exactly where she needs to be each night. She has confidence in a fully equipped overland rig with GPS navigation and satellite communication as a backup should things go awry. Second, the world in Maun is more familiar to her than she expected. Her credit card works, the grocery store looks like Krogers, there's a fuel station on nearly every corner. Batswana are laid back, friendly, and welcoming.
This overland experience is commonly known as "arrive and drive". It's the perfect middle ground between a very expensive fully-catered and guided, but out-of-your-control safari, and attempting to wing it all on your own. By leaning on the expertise of a good self-drive safari agency, you can rest easy knowing the details are taken care of ahead of time, but the adventure you have is completely up to you. This is, in my opinion, the best way to see the wilder parts of southern Africa, including South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, the tiny nations of Lesotho and eSwatini, and, of course, Botswana.
Here's where we'll leave our explorer - on the verge of a something very special. We'll consider the details of exactly how, where, and when to go to Botswana in a future post, so let's summarize some key take-aways from this article as you begin to think about planning your own journey to southern Africa.
Photos by Julie Edwards and Stephan Edwards
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