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Botswana Lion, Africa safari

A 10 day self-drive safari in Botswana  

Countless elephants, tough roads in December

We spent 10-days camping and in lodges, visiting numerous parks in a 2800KM self-drive during Botswana's rainy season. We tacked on Zimbabwe and Zambia's Victoria Falls, including the daring hang over Devil's Pool.

In 50 Words or Less

While Botswana is extremely safe for tourists, if you’re looking for an ideal self-drive safari experience, consider Tanzania over Botswana. Top activities include visiting Chobe River Front, Devil's Pool at Victoria Falls, camping, and splurging on a lodge stay. Prepare for rainy season challenges, sparse gas stations, and the need for guides for game spotting. The itinerary covers Victoria Falls, Chobe River Front, Savuti, Maun, Nxai, Makgadikgadi Park, Central Kalahari, and Gaborone.

Top Five Takeaways

A Playlist for a 
self-drive safari in Botswana 

This playlist encapsulates songs to complement Botswana's expansive lands and sparse population. A long playlist with long songs to keep the music playing as you knock off thousands of kilometres. 

Know before you go

Airplanes

When it comes to getting to Botswana, we opted for Ethiopian Airlines, which included a short layover in Addis Ababa. Be prepared for a chaotic experience at ADD airport, as the security process can be wildly busy and time-consuming. Plan your layover accordingly to avoid any last-minute stress. 

 

On the return journey, the flight from ADD stops in Dublin, but you won't de-plane, resulting in a total on-plane journey of 21 hours. It can’t hurt asking for an upgrade to first class - it worked for us. 

Safety and Health

One of the great advantages of visiting Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe is the safety they offer tourists. Throughout our trip, we never felt unsafe while going about our daily activities, whether it was getting groceries in small towns, inflating the truck tires on the side of the road, or simply walking around Gaborone. Malaria pills can’t hurt, especially if you plan to explore the northern areas.

Would I Go Back?

While our Botswana self-drive safari was an incredible experience, it would rank lower on my list of African countries I've visited so far. Uganda stands out as a top-drawer destination, offering a remarkable variety of activities and sights. If you're looking for a pure driving safari, I found Tanzania's Serengeti to be more captivating, particularly due to its abundance of big cats and nomad camping options. Victoria Falls was an enjoyable visit, but not a place that compels a return.

On the Ground Logistics

Transportation

  • rented an automatic Toyota Hilux 4X4 – layout here – from Bushlore

  • picked up in Kasane and dropped off in Gaborone

  • filled-up gas six times costing a total of $700CAD over 2800KM of driving

  • truck has duel 75L diesel tanks

  • pre-plan where to fill up and fill-up at every station even a small amount

  • ensure truck provides mud traction mats and shovel in case you get stuck

  • pay attention or ask how best to optimize type pressure and powertrain for sand vs tar roads

Camping

  • camping spots need to be pre-booked through the national parks site 

  • camping in the parks are typically equipped with a central bathroom with shower and toilets, bbq space and some have water hook-ups to refill

  • few sites may be more rustic -- deception valley in the central kalahari only had a bucket shower and hole for your bathroom needs 

  • the truck will typically contain essentials for camping:

    • tent for two on top of the truck, propane heat, small fridge on its own battery, huge tank of fresh water with spout on back of truck, cooking stuff, chairs, towels, mud traction mats, etc  

  • you'll need firewood which you'll be able to buy at park entrances or in small towns on the side of the roads (honour system - you need to leave 20-40 pula [$2-3CAD) in the jar)

  • things you should get:

    • lighter and fire starters to make starting fires easier

    • dish soap to wash your dishes

    • headlamp/flashlight – the truck is equipped with lighting in the back, but getting up to the tent or in-tent is dark; don’t use at night in the tent or bugs will undoubtedly come 

    • bug spray – spray-on for day and evening, but one to spray inside the tent ahead of bedding down

Park Fees

  • national park fee are paid at entrance so you don't have to worry about pre-paying or registering in advance (unlike camping!) 

  • comparing to Tanzania, park fees are reasonable, averaging around $30CAD for a person + vehicle 

  • have local currency on-hand as card machines may not have service

Staying Connected

  • we purchased a SIM card with 8GB from Mascom in Kasane for $30CAD

  • BTC Mobile and Orange are options too 

  • 3G service was consistent along main highways with 4G in Gaborone

  • within the parks, service was unsurprisingly patchy 

Safari camp set-up
pleasebuckleyourseatbelt.com

Safari camp set-up

Top Six Things To Do

Kudu peaks out in Chobe River Front Botswana
Devils Pool Victoria Falls

Chobe River Front

Why It's Great

This area was beaming with animals - more elephants and antelope than you can count. We spotted two female lions with a young male, mating by the river and to our surprise, the two females swam across the river leaving the young male and his guttural calls behind

How to Get There

We took the Sedudu gate from Kasane and exited Ngoma gate as we were headed onto Savuti. 

Things to Know

The roads down by the river can be closed or tricky during wet season. Also, make sure to buffer enough time to meet the gate closing times - you may run into a herd of unyielding elephants on a mad dash to the exit

Devil's Pool - Victoria Falls

Why It's Great

Victoria Falls is a huge waterfall. Devil’s Pool is a small swimming hole right on its side, where you can hang over its edge, peering down 35-storeys. The height, the rushing water and the notion of ‘am I really doing this?’ makes it a thrilling experience. 

How to Get There

Tours leave from Zambia side with a short boat ride to Livingstone Island. You’ll have to book a tour as this is not something you can do on your own.  

Things to Know

While it is scary, at no time did we feel unsafe. Follow the guide's instructions closely. We went early in the morning so the weather was cold and rainy however the water itself was much warmer. Cost was ~$130CAD/pp

Elephants walk through campsite in Savuti Chobe Botswana
Tau Pan Camp in Central Kalahari Botswana

Try Camping

Why It's Great

There’s something to be said for falling asleep to the sounds of wildlife and waking up to breathtaking sunrise views. There’s no other way to get so close to animals though that can mean some uncomfortable moments. And since you’re already in the park, you’re best-situated for the early-morning game drives.

How to Get There

There will be a few options of campsites within each national park. Camp sites are well marked in the parks.   

Things to Know

Camps typically have small utility stores where you can buy beer, staples and firewood but you’re not always guaranteed they’ve got what you need so stock up in main towns, especially fuel.

Splurge on a Lodge

Why It's Great

Opposite of camping are safari lodges which offer amazing accommodations with great food. And best of all, you get guides who know the animals and parks, almost guaranteeing your best game drives. We had a leopard and five lions visit the camp. 

How to Get There

Most lodges will be just outside the National Parks, on their own reserve. This means they can enter the park as well. Some have airstrips if you want quick transport. 

Things to Know

Top lodges are not cheap so budget anywhere from $500- to $1000/person/night. It can be cheaper in low season and you can find last-minute deals through some tour agencies. Everything is included in the price and you will get incredible service. 

Bat-eared fox in Central Kalahari Botswana
Baby lion in Savuti Chobe Botswana

Central Kalahari

Why It's Great

It's huge. Bigger than Switzerland. It has unique species like the bat-eared fox, brown hyena, wild dogs and all three big cats including the black-maned lion. Given it’s a desert, you’re able to see far and may spot a cheetah in action.

How to Get There

If you’re doing a north-to-south drive like us, Central Kalahari is a good last stop before ending the trip in Gaborone. On the A3, you’ll see the park entrance on the right, but drive a bit further to take a left into Rakops to refuel.

Things to Know

Because the park is so big, you’ll rarely come across other people. We went two full days without seeing anyone. The facilities are very rustic so bring supplies including water. 

Savuti, Chobe

Why It's Great

We entered Savuti gate and drove a mere five minutes on the sandy road to find a lioness with her three cubs. Savuti, overall, felt like the most put-together park with good facilities and well-organized signage.  

How to Get There

It’s about 100KM from Ngoma gate on a tar road. Savuti itself can be adventurous drive on sandy tracks and occasional river crossings. 

Things to Know

Roads in the park may be limited during the rainy season, as some areas can become impassable. We tried to exit through Marsh Road and got buried in 3 feet of mud, taking hours to dig out.

Three Heads-Ups

Low Season's Pros and Cons

You may not see a soul in days, but same goes for big game. We went two straight days without seeing a car in Central Kalahari, which made camping at night a little eerie. Animals push into lush bush and do not congregate around the few water holes like in dry season. 

Day One & Two

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Where we stayed

Ilala Lodge which is in walking distance to the falls. It is well-appointed and the service was top notch. The rooms were nice and the property itself well taken care of. The ostrich steak was a surprisingly tastey meal and we fell in love with a 2017 bottle of Mulderbosch's Faithful Hound. 

What we did

We spent the first day doing the Victoria Falls loop. You will get wet due to the spray of the falls, but it was 35 degrees so it was welcomed.

 

The second day, we booked a trip to Devil's Pool on the Zambia side. The driver will drop you off at the border to be retrieved by another driver as they won't cross the border. The visa process is simple so don't sweat it. 

The whole experience was well organized and you felt safe the entire time though there are moments of nervousness, especially when you first have to swim across the strong current. The guides ensure nothing happens even as they stand on the edge of the falls capturing photos. 

Some advice 

Given its proximity to Botswana, I would recommend tacking on Victoria Falls to your trip. It was cheaper to fly into VFA for us and is one of those destinations that you only need a few days in at most. If arriving at Victoria Falls airport, make sure you get a multi-entrance visa.

Day Three

Kasane,
Botswana

Where we stayed

The Old House - a budget-friendly stay with a good restaurant and river cruise options. 

What we did

The afternoon river cruise took us down the Chobe River, which splits Botswana and Namibia. You'll see a bunch of hippos, alligators and old bull elephants as it's where the 'retire' once they're kicked out of the herd.

Some advice 

Kasane is a jumping-off spot for your self-drive safari. It's here where you can pick up your truck and get all your supplies. There are a few supermarkets, cellphone options and alcohol points.

Day Five

Chobe River Front, 
Botswana

Where we stayed

Muchenje Camp which is a quick 15 minute drive from the Ngomo gate. The campsite is outside the park, but has a wired perimeter so you're safe to walk around in the evening. 

What we did

The River Front portion of Chobe was great. We had our best luck on the river road and saw two prides of lions and countless elephants with their babies. We watched a male lion with two females who then swam across the river. It was interesting the male wouldn't follow the females across. 

Some advice 

Stick to the roads that abut the river for the best game opportunities. The forests are too dense in the rainy season. If you do see a guide truck, don't hesitate to ask if they've spotted anything. 

Day Six

Savuti,
Botswana

Where we stayed

Savuti Campsite #5. I would recommend getting campsite #5 or #6 as they're furthest away and have unspoiled views. #5 has a large acacia tree, which shades the morning sun. It also attracted a large male elephant in the night. He was chomping on the branches a mere five feet away from our tent. This was a bit nerve-wracking but they'll leave you be if you do the same - plus, it makes for an exciting story.   

What we did

We struck gold 10 minutes after entering through the Savuti gate, seeing a mother lion with her three baby cubs. We got a good hour with them as she laid on the road with her timid cubs dashing into the bush at times.

Some advice 

Chobe is a big park, so ask fellow travellers and any guide trucks you come across about their luck. The rainy season means the pans are overgrown, so it may be difficult to spot cheetah on the move. Also, avoid trying to cut south via Marsh Road and take the long way to exit through Savuti gate. We got stuck and had to dig ourselves out with fresh lion tracks right next to us. 

Day Six to Nine

Maun, Nxai Pan, Makgadikgadi 

Where we stayed

Maun - Thamalakane River Lodge
Nxai Pan - South Campsite #6
Makgadikgadi - Khumaga Campsite #4 which had great views of the river and valley. Try to get this site or RSV1 beside it. 

What we did

We spent countless hours driving in Nxai and Makgadikgadi parks, spotting mostly elephant and giraffe. We booked two days in Nxai as it is top-rated for December but we simply came up empty - a potential outcome of a self-drive safari. 

Some advic

The downside of wet season is striking out when it comes to big game like we did in Nxai over two days. If you're going to splurge on a lodge experience, save it to the end so the guides don't set the 'animal bar' so high. Our dry spell in Nxai is mostly forgettable, erased by the luck we had later at Tau Pan. 

Day Ten to Twelve

Central Kalahari, Botswana

Where we stayed

Deception Camp - bring all supplies including water as the ablutions are a hole in the ground and a place to hang a bucket for showering

 

Tau Pan Camp - this is a Kwando property and was our splurge for the trip. Its location is not the most convenient to drive to but most guests fly into the airstrip. The lodge overlooks a waterhole where you'll see giraffe and other animals from the balcony. Leopards frequent the pool for water, which unfortunately we missed by an hour. We also had a pride of five lions visit the doorstep of our neighbours. The food was amazing and the service good with the guides delivering on spotting game. 

What we did

We continue our dry-spell on the first day in Deception Valley, spotting little to nothing. It wasn't until we were with guides from Tau Pan that we spotted two cheetah's with a kill, plus tons of lions including the pride who visited the camp. 

Some advic

Again, bring supplies as there is little to offer in terms of facilities. Also, given the vastness of the park, you will see very few others. This is one park where having a guide and their ability to call around to others massively helps you see animals.  

Day Thirteen & Fourteen

​Gaborone, Botswana

Where we stayed

Hilton, Gaborone which is a great option to wind down your trip. The rooms are what you'd expect from Hilton but the breakfast is very good. The gym was under renovation though there's a gym across the street you can use. 

What we did

On our way back, we stopped at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Paje. This small park boasts a bunch of rhinos, but also a ton of zebras, giraffes and other prey animals. We only stayed a few hours and made the haul back to Gaborone, stopping quickly at the Tropic of Capricorn marker. Gaborone itself is a small city with not much to write home about to be honest. 

Some advic

The drive to Gaborone is a good 800KM, so most opt to stop in Paje and overnight in the Rhino Sanctuary. The facilities are good, but the park is a little underwhelming when compared to the others we visited.  We pushed on another 3 hours which made for a 15 hour drive but were happy to get a night to clean up and get the truck in order before pick-up the next day. 

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