There is no point in introducing the country with a string of facts and figures – the Wikipedia entry on Botswana has plenty for those who want them. But a first-hand account from a self-drive tourist is a different story. So here goes.
I first visited Botswana as a self-drive tourist in 2008. It was the first ever visit to Africa for our family. We have been to many other African countries since, found none we like better, and now it is our home. But I still have vivid memories of being here as a first-time traveler.
Like most travelers we had prepared as best we could, based on the limited information available. We were vaccinated against all manner of things. We were taking mefloquine prescribed by our GP in case of an encounter with a malarial mosquito. We had a small stash of US dollars in lieu of the Botswana pula we had been unable to source in New Zealand. We had hired a fully equipped camping vehicle with long range tanks, extra jerry cans of fuel; roof tents to keep us above the animals; and a fridge that could hold enough food for several days.
Most of these precautions were needless. We didn’t see a mosquito in 5 weeks; our New Zealand bank cards worked in the local ATMs (but see below); food and fuel were widely available and we never needed to switch tanks or broach the jerry cans; and nowadays we pitch tents on the ground and leave the animals to worry about themselves.
But the US dollars came in handy. We arrived on a holiday weekend; the banks were closed and the ATMs in Ghanzi had run out of cash. We found a nondescript one-room building that claimed to be a bureau de change. Worrying about shady and usurious characters in border towns I accompanied my wife inside. We were looked after by two charming ladies who gave us a better rate of exchange than that offered by Barclays Bank, and before long we were embroiled in an animated discussion about local hairstyles.
Our first four nights in Botswana were spent with the San people at the Dqae Qare game ranch. We hadn’t planned to stay so long, but our 11 year old son had befriended some local age-mates. He was having a ball out in the Kalahari each day tracking ostriches and giraffe. One of the San ladies said reassuringly ‘They can’t get lost. Even if they do we can track them. And you will see – they will all come back when they are hungry’. The advice proved to be correct and we saw our son and his new friends regularly at mealtimes.
Visits to Ghanzi were an interesting experience. Local ladies took pity on me and explained the queuing system at the bank when it reopened; others provided directions to the shops we needed; and we quickly learned to relax and take our time over the shopping. Life in Botswana is ruled by the sun rather than the clock. Nothing happens quickly, but everyone has time to help a bewildered stranger.
We went on to make a slow circuit of the country. It is the same size as France; has a tiny fraction (1/34th) of the population; and about 38% of the land area is a nature reserve of one kind or another. The wild open spaces are never far away and they seem to stretch on to infinity.
There are animals everywhere. One campsite we stayed in offered a money back guarantee if you didn’t see an elephant – a safe offer as there were elephants strolling across the main road as we drove in.
As we toured the country we also came to appreciate the great diversity of landscapes, vegetation and people. Driving yourself around the whole country is your oyster, and it was not expensive. We deliberately stayed in community campsites and stayed a few days in each so we could take time to meet some of the local people. We made friends that we have kept to this day. And we also knew that we had to come back.
We flew out from Gaborone, leaving our rental vehicle in the airport carpark. The agent failed to meet us at the appointed time for the handover, and I ended up calling the hire company. Their advice ? ‘Don’t worry. Just leave the keys in the car. This is not Johannesburg. No-one will touch it’.
Back in New Zealand everyone thought we had been on an intrepid and dangerous journey. Nothing could be further than the truth. For the motor tourist this country is very easy to drive around, very safe, and there is lots to see and do. If you treat the environment, the wildlife and the people with respect you will be welcomed just as we were.