Prior to our visit to Botswana, I pondered a 1959 East German school map of Africa hanging on our living room wall. I traced the red lines of its borders until I landed in a central patch of southern Africa.
There it is. Bigger than I had imagined: “Betschuanaland (Brit.) Protektorat.”
So much has transpired on the continent in the last 50+ years since this map was created. Some countries have declared independence or changed names while others no longer exist, but the land and people remain through these changes. And that is why, although no longer current, this map still stokes curiosity.
Botswana is in the thick of it. Small amidst the vastness of the continent, its landmass is bigger than we imagined – just about the size of Texas. Tucked between South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, there it is.
But, how did it get there? What defines it and made it what it is today?
Although our stay in Botswana would not render us experts, our conversations with local Batswana (that’s what people from Botswana are called) and Africa-experienced visitors from other countries filled us in during our recent visit. Before, during and after our trip we’ve been asked questions about Botswana, the country itself — characteristics, distinctions. So, before we dive into what we experienced there, we share some of the more enlightening observations.
1. Botswana Was Never Officially Colonized
Although Botswana celebrates 50 years of independence later this year — on the same date as our wedding anniversary as it turns out – it was technically never a colony.
“How does that work?” you might ask. We asked the same thing. The process by which Botswana became a British protectorate in 1885 and became an independent country in 1966 says a great deal about its people and their sense both of harmony and good timing.
In the 1870s and 1880s, in order to avoid the expansionist inclinations of the advancing South African Boers, the three main chiefs came together to appeal to the United Kingdom for protection, which in a game of African geopolitical chess helped them declare the Bechuanaland Protectorate (1885). Decades later, on September 30, 1966, the Republic of Botswana quietly became a fully independent country in a peaceful transition that involved democratic elections, a rarity in this part of the world. Together, these events seem to have set the prevailing tone of peace and stability in Botswana.
During our visit, despite the actual anniversary being months away, walls and buildings throughout the country were painted with Botswana’s tri-colored flag in preparation to celebrate. On several occasions, Batswana proudly explained to us the symbolism: blue for water, and black and white bands to depict the country’s diverse ethnic makeup and the harmony of different races.
On more than one occasion, we also heard an emphasized distinction: “Our flag looks very different from other flags of countries in Africa.”
2. 2.1 Million People in a Country the Size of Texas (or France)
For as large as Botswana is, it’s home to less than 2.1 million people. Given its place in Africa, this struck us as remarkable. However, it began to make more sense once we considered how little fertile land was available for farming. This also explains how you can drive across the country for hours or fly over vast tracts of land without ever seeing another human being.
If you wish to feel the vastness of open space devoid of human touch, then Botswana might be a good travel fit for you.
3. High on Safety and Stability
A few years ago, a color-coded world map of travel safety – colored green for the safest countries, red for the most dangerous — made the rounds. Although we took issue with the map, one aspect stuck out: the only “green” country in Africa was Botswana. To the point, Batswana proudly point out that their country has not experienced wars, insurgencies, or instability within its borders for decades.
Safety is a matter of circumstances and perspective — and nothing is ever guaranteed anywhere, really. However, during our time in Botswana, we felt perfectly safe visiting local villages, flying the bush plane routes, and moving to and in the camps themselves.
Batswana pride themselves on this safety and this stability; it’s something they place high value on as part of their own society. As one person joked, “Even with politics, some people get angry on Facebook for a day but that’s it. We’re laid back like that.”
4. Low on Corruption and the “Resource Curse”
Whether stability is the cause or effect of this, I’m unsure, but Botswana also ranks near the top of the list of countries in the world for transparency and low corruption. This may surprise you when you hear that Botswana is also the world’s largest producer of diamonds.
“How does that work?” you ask? How did Botswana avoid the “resource curse” that sends other countries in Africa into the kind of fits of violence and wealth-controlling corruption that often accompanies the discovery and exploitation of oil, diamonds and other minerals. Apparently, and this is where the “good sense of timing” I alluded to earlier comes in, the country’s public announcement of its discovery of diamonds – was made after its declaration of independence. This meant that a purely Botswana government had control, and made investment in things like free education and health care. This took the country from one of the poorest countries in Africa at the time of independence to one of the most prosperous today.
One of my favorite stories of anti-corruption and rule of law, not involving diamonds:
After a fairly deep conversation about corruption and the country’s history, we were given a timely introduction to a young man named Limbo, one of the Chobe National Park guards. He seemed a sort of local celebrity. “Notice his presidential medal,” James, one of our hosts, said.
The story goes that Limbo was working the gate one night when the presidential convoy pulled up, seeking entry into the park after closing hours to make a short cut to their destination.
Problem was: Limbo was instructed not to let anyone in the park after dark. He took this instruction literally. Even after the president’s team asked Limbo to make an exception considering the request came from the president himself — “This man’s the president,” they said — Limbo did not budge. He refused the convoy entry, explaining that the rules said no vehicles allowed in after 6:30PM. These were the president’s rules after all, so the president himself ought to respect them, too.
After realizing that Limbo wasn’t about to change his mind, the convoy turned around and continued on its way, having been denied their evening short cut.
Not long after the incident, Limbo received a letter from the president inviting him to Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city, where the president awarded him a medal – one he now proudly wears — in recognition of his commitment and adherence to the rules.
5. 85% of Botswana: Kalahari Desert
Botswana is not covered in huge iconic sand dunes, but instead the very fine sand and brush of the Kalahari Desert. Counter-intuitively, animal life thrives in this arid environment and the various patches of water sources that come and go with the seasons. The adaptation of vegetation, animals and humans to an often harsh and demanding environment – one that sees warm days and cold nights and no rainfall for months on end — is a remarkable story.
The cycle of the survival of herds to the final days of the dry season just before life-saving rains is life-and-death drama at its most intense.
6. Okavango Delta: A Fascinating Flow of Flood Waters Into the Desert
But there’s water, too, in Botswana.
Even after seeing the waters of the Okavango Delta from the window of an airplane and witnessing it up close in a mokoro (dugout canoe), I’m still trying to get my head around how its seasonal mechanics drives the rhythm of animal and human life.
As the Angolan highlands and Okavango River flood during their rainy season, water slowly begins to make its way into Botswana, forming the Okavango Delta from the “panhandle” to its “fingers”. This movement of water, from its origin to its most outer reaches, can take up to six months.
As many of Botswana’s rivers and waterholes empty with the dry season, other nearby areas fill with water, and lagoons and waterways re-emerge. Eventually and simultaneously, much of the water evaporates into the Kalahari sand and the cycle begins anew. Locally, the changes are quick, seeming to take place overnight or in only a few days.
During a walking safari at Camp Okavango, Kops, our guide, pointed to a large pool where impala were taking a drink: “That was not there a week ago; it was just sand and brush.”
This annual flow of water brings high concentrations of animals to drink from the network of rivers and lagoons that make up the Okavango Delta, thereby serving up the ideal circumstances for a seasonal variety of safari experiences.
7. Botswana Banned Game Hunting in 2014
Despite the recent attention on the Southern African hunting scene with the killing of Cecil the Lion in neighboring Zimbabwe and the black rhino in Namibia, I really had no idea about the big money in this business until I began to speak with locals and visitors well educated in this topic. (For an interesting examination of hunting and discussion as to whether it hurts or helps conservation, listen to this Radiolab podcast.)
Botswana made a bold but difficult move. In order to focus on conservation and to increase wildlife populations where it was seeing a decline, it banned game hunting in 2014. (Note: the ban is technically temporary so the government may re-evaluate the effectiveness of the policy in terms of animal population and the replacement of lost hunting income with alternative tourism income.)
In contrast, the stories from neighboring countries of declining animal populations, increasing sales of hunting licenses, big money and companion corruption stand in stark contrast. This point was driven home when we happened to be watching elephants on the Botswana side of the Chobe River. In just a few steps over an invisible border with Namibia the rules are different.
One explanation for the country’s focus on conservation: Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, is a wildlife activist and the person once responsible for Botswana’s anti-poaching unit. The focus on sustainable tourism aims to protect animals and their environment (38% of land is national parks and reserves), and provide a foundation for a viable, lasting source of tourism income.
Just as one would expect, however, wild animals do not obey national park borders. Lions, in some cases, have figured out that donkeys and cows from nearby farms are an easier feed than a zebra or wildebeest. Conservation efforts must also be paired with co-habitation education. To avoid the common response of a farmer shooting the offending predator (e.g., the lion), the government aims to compensate families for the loss of domesticated animals due to wildlife incidents. The idea: while a the death of a cow is a loss, it’s easier to re-produce another cow than it is another lion.
All this underscores in action that conservation and sustainable tourism efforts are never really sustainable without the active attention to and involvement of people and local communities.
8. 120,000 Elephants!
At 120,000, Botswana’s elephant population is among the largest in Africa (whose estimated total is 470,000 according to World Wildlife Federation). In Botswana’s Chobe region alone, the elephant concentration is considered to be among the highest in the world at approximately 30,000 elephants.
So it was no surprise that throughout our time in Botswana – from the Chobe River to the Okavango Delta — we saw elephants, and plenty of them. They were a defining feature. Forgive my anthropomorphizing, but elephants seemed the unofficial welcoming and farewell committees everywhere we went, from the opening morning game drives to the late afternoon boat rides. Whether enjoying a morning feed, an afternoon sand bath, or final riverside sunset drink, elephants struck me as remarkable, nimble, and playful.
Visitors like us enjoy watching elephants roam freely. However, local farmers sometimes hold a different view, particularly after an elephant wipes out a field of freshly grown maize that was meant to feed a family for the year. That’s where organizations like Elephants Without Borders (EWB) work with communities to develop “elephant corridors”, paths organized around wildlife habit that enable movement of animals to water sources while minimizing destruction of privately owned farmland. EWB also sponsors programs to educate local families on the principles of wildlife co-habitation.
The idea: simultaneously respect the needs of the community while recognizing the importance of wildlife to the country’s ecosystem and economy.
9. People: laid back, with a sense of humor
“Goodbye, Danny,” Lynn leaned in with a mischievous smile that spread to her eyes. She knew the name she had been playfully calling me for days wasn’t quite what I preferred to be called. But with Lynn, our guide from the all-female guide team at Chobe Game Lodge, it was said with warmth and a dose of good-natured fun. It also reflected the rapport she developed with me in just a few days. Lynn was such an integral part of what made our experience in Chobe so memorable, not only because of the extensive wildlife knowledge she shared with us (her bird identification abilities were outrageous), but because of her desire to connect as we learned from one another.
At all the Desert & Delta Safaris lodges and camps where we we stayed, guides and staff shared the same table with visitors, allowing more time to informally interact outside of scheduled activities. I cannot speak to whether or not all camps in Botswana operate this way, but we appreciated how this approach facilitated connection and a sense of shared humanity between visitors and staff members drawn from across Botswana and its various ethic groups.
Sure, wildlife is the primary draw for most visitors to Botswana. But for us, and for many we spoke to, it was the laid back but attentive nature of the Batswana that made the experience.
10. Botswana: Not Really a Budget Travel Destination
For travel planning purposes, it’s important to note that Botswana is not a budget or inexpensive travel destination. The country features a few budget travel options (e.g., 4×4 self-drive and camping), but clearly positions itself for low-volume, high-end travel. To support the national park system and tourism infrastructure, costs are higher on a per traveler basis.
We’re told this is a result of a deliberate approach to tourism development which aims to minimize the impact on Botswana’s environment and local communities. Based on our experience, this tends to yield something more personalized where, for example, a safari game drive is less likely to feature dozens of land cruisers circling the same pride of lions.
The challenge of the country’s landscape – vast and characterized by the Kalahari Desert – also dictates cost. Sealed roads are few and infrastructure is limited, so many areas are accessible only by bush plane or boat. We witnessed this firsthand in some of the more remote camps (Camp Xakanaxa, Camp Okavango, and Leroo La Tau) we visited, where costly, logistical gymnastics are required to transport guests and stock lodges with fresh food, fuel and other supplies. Additionally, many of the camps are deliberately small (e.g., the ones we visited had just twelve rooms each) so as to provide visitors with an intimate experience with nature, staff and other guests.
Not to mention, these remote locations allow a traveler to shift her brain into neutral, to disconnect and let the mind wander.