Ride a Mokoro in the Okavango Delta
Photograph by imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo
How many teeth does a hungry hippo have? More than you can comfortably count while skimming the reed-fringed waterways of the Okavango Delta in a dugout canoe. To call a mokoro ride a casual cruise is to minimize the perception of peril involved. Traditionally crafted from ebony or other hardwoods (and now typically made of fiberglass), these shallow, pole-propelled skiffs appear to offer no protection from crocodiles lingering beneath the murky surface. Fortunately, expert guides with a mental map of the channels, lagoons, and islands of the Moremi Game Reserve can easily navigate mokoros for safe sightings of bathing elephants and oup-close observations of egrets, cranes, and other waterfowl. When water levels are high enough, usually between April and August, Xigera Camp is a mokoro paradise; it's a place to relax and soak in the sensations of a marshy ecosystem that presents an aquatic perspective on Botswana's safari splendor. And about those hippos: Adults have 36 choppers.
Region: Northern Botswana
Wild file: Lions, leopards, and cheetahs prowl the region, but researchers come from around the world to study this habitat's large population of threatened African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus).
Flock to Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
Photograph by Frans Lanting Studio/Alamy Stock Photo
Millennia ago, ancient Lake Makgadikgadi covered an immense stretch of what is now the Kalahari Desert. The Okavango, Zambezi, and Chobe Rivers fed this ancient lake, and this expansive basin swelled and overflowed, influencing a vast network of waterways before drying out to form one of the world's largest salt flats. Today, this ephemeral lake is one of southern Africa's most essential breeding sites for greater and lesser flamingos—and not just a blush of pink, but profusive flocks of flamingos drawn to the wetland ecosystem when waters rise high enough to feed on the newly hatched shrimps and crustaceans and to protect their nests from predators. The best time to visit for birding is around the summer months (November to early April), when rains turn desiccated pans into powder-blue mirrors, reflecting the sky above and attracting cotton-candy-colored clouds of flying feathers. The dry season (late April to October) reveals the pan's post-apocalyptic cinematic virtues: dusty, snow-white flatlands that crackle underfoot and make for irresistible runways for quad-bike (ATV) excursions.
Region: Central Northern Botswana
Wild file: Flamingos are not the area's only avian assets. During the rainy season (November to early April) storks, cranes, herons, egrets, pelicans, cormorants, and grebes, among other birds, flock to the pan.
Weave a Dream Basket Near Maun
Photograph by Barbara von Hoffmann/Alamy Stock Photo
Hypnotic swirls, radiant starbursts, zigzagging lightning bolts, fractal flowers: the kinetic patterns of Botswana's basketry bring modern twists to traditional crafts. Over centuries, women from the Bayei and Hambukushu tribes in northwestern Botswana have honed their artistry to weave fibers from the mokola palm into intricate and durable baskets and lidded bowls. In villages, these functional artifacts are used to store seeds, winnow grains, and contain sorghum beer. Even though plastic has supplanted palm in many homes, expert artisans prove that this household craft can be considered high art. Master weaver Thitaku Kushonya offers hands-on workshops at Botswana Quality Baskets, her studio near Maun. Under her guidance, students learn how to prepare the cream-colored palm fibers, dyeing them in brown hues and then weaving the bundles into bowls using the coil method. Design motifs are then applied by threading strips of dyed grass in strategic spots; the most celebrated designs are known by colorful names such as "tears of the giraffe," "knees of the tortoise," "running ostrich," and "urine trail of the bull." Completing a masterpiece can take more than a month of dedicated toil, so travelers can complete their basket's transformation from drab to fab after the plane ride home.
Region: Northern Botswana
Fun fact: Basketry is only one of Botswana's creative crafts. The San, or Bushmen, make paintings of human and animal figures and jewelry from the shells of ostrich eggs. The Lentswe-la-Oodi weavers make wonderful wall hangings in a village northeast of Gaborone in southern Botswana. Excellent pottery, wood carvings, and leatherwork are produced throughout the country.
Camp on Sacred Lekhubu Island
Photograph by Ben McRae/Alamy Stock Photo
Botswana is brimming with prime tent-pitching places—sweet spots for sleeping under starry African skies. But few can rival Lekhubu Island, a bouldered jumble that rises in the opalescent void of Sowa Pan, a major salt pan in Makgadikgadi. An island in name only, Lekhubu was formerly lapped by waters from one of Africa's largest inland lakes that began to drain millennia ago, leaving behind a desiccated sea of sand. These days the island is aptly described by its Setswana name, which means "rock outcrop." Visible from miles away, ringed by reflective salt flats, and crowned by towering baobabs, Lekhubu is a scrabbly space with a sacred history. Ruins, including stone cairns and a rock wall, are believed to have been sites of ritual for ancient cultures. In recent history, local people have maintained parts of the island as shrines for making prayers and offerings. During the dry months between April and October, self-catering campsites at Lekhubu make for dreamy nights under a cosmic swirl of Southern Hemisphere constellations.
Region: North-central Botswana
Hot shots: Lekhubu Island is an ideal lab for experimenting with time-exposure photography. With a long exposure, stars can appear to create circling halos around baobab trees, and the Milky Way can be captured in its infinite depth and stardust glory.
Trace Rock-Art History in Tsodilo Hills
Photograph by Markus Mauthe/laif/Redux
For thousands of years the San people of the Kalahari have inhabited the foreboding terrain of the Tsodilo Hills, copper-colored quartzite rock shelters and caves in northwestern Botswana near the Namibian border. While the region's archaeological record gives evidence of 100,000 years of human activity, the area's biggest draw are some 4,500 rock paintings that help tell the story of civilizations from the Stone Age through the 19th century. Considered one of the word's most significant concentrations of rock art, this UNESCO World Heritage site sheds light on how local hunter-gatherers (including the San and their ancestors) interact with their environment over time. Images of rhinos in red pigment abound, along with paintings of cows and a mysterious birdlike figure that resembles a penguin. Tsodilo is a sacred place to local communities who believe the hills are a resting place for ancestral spirits.
Region: Northwestern Botswana
Travel tip: Visiting with a knowledgeable guide is essential. Book with a tour operator or stop off at the Tsodilo Visitor's Center where local San villagers work as guides, as part of the Tsodilo Community Trust, with expertise in the area's cultural history, archaeology, and lore.
Help Save a Rhino in the Okavango
Photograph by AfriPics.com/Alamy Stock Photo
Rhinos are at risk. Did you know you can help save them? Two decades ago, black rhinos were considered locally extinct in Botswana, and white rhinos were critically endangered. Much has changed since then thanks to the Botswana Rhino Reintroduction Project, which reintroduced rhinos to the Okavango Delta and continues to support anti-poaching measures. While rhinos roam the Kalahari Desert, the best place to see one in the wild is at Moremi Game Reserve, where many have been resettled. Named for a Batawana tribal chief, Moremi is a protected area of permanently flooded pans, dry plains, and acacia forests. A number of campsites and lodges, from rustic to luxurious, are scattered near Chief's Island, Khwai River, Xakanaxa Lagoon, and Third Bridge. Spotting a rhino is never a certainty, but thanks to the work of the Wilderness Wildlife Trust and Great Plains Foundation's Rhinos Without Borders program, populations of this endangered species are steadily growing. Visit their sites and consider supporting their efforts.
Region: Northern and central Botswana
Activity tip: The Khama Rhino Sanctuary near Serowe is a spectacular reserve dedicated to protecting rhino populations from poachers. Prepare for rhino sightings galore, along with water-hole congregations of wildebeests, impalas, jackals, and giraffes.
Ogle the Elephants at Chobe National Park
Photograph by Ann and Steve Toon/Alamy Stock Photo
The mighty Cuando River courses from central Angola, crosses Namibia's Caprivi Strip, and forms a zigzag border in the swampy northern reaches of Botswana. Along the way the river's name changes to Linyati and then Chobe before it flows into the Zambezi. Marshy in the green season (November to early April) and grassy in the dry (mid-April to October), the floodplains around the river famously support the highest concentration of elephants on the African continent, making one of Botswana's largest parks perhaps the best place to track pachyderms on the plains by truck. Languid river cruises afford a somewhat more mellow perspective of elephants congregating to drink and bathe. One of the park's most wildlife-rich regions is the Savute Channel, home to toothy hippos and crocs and, on drier land, hungry predators: lions, cheetahs, and hyenas. Keep your eye out for baboons scampering around kopjes, or small hills, in Savute. Elephants, zebras, and antelopes, among other animals, migrate by season, so populations come and go. Adventurous safari-goers with a trustworthy guide can test their mettle on a walking safari; once a sense of extreme vulnerability settles in, many bush walkers conclude that the greatest sight of all is an absence of megafauna.
Region: Northern Botswana
Travel tip: Winter months between July and October are good for game viewing because ephemeral pans dry out, and wildlife is drawn to permanent water holes. Rains settle in by late November.
Soar Over the Okavango Delta
Photograph by imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo
Few safari sights can rival that of the world's largest inland delta, a sprawling spectacle of papyrus- and palm-framed permanent marshlands and seasonally flooded plains. Flying over the mirrorlike alluvial fan of this endorheic delta offers a first glimpse of this unique wetland system's remarkable reach. When summer rains swell the Okavango (November to early April), waters flow from the Angolan highlands into northwestern Botswana before spilling into the delta; this seasonal deluge triggers floodwaters that hydrate Kalahari sands. The delta's expanse (more than 7,000 square miles) stretches from swamplands to riverine forests, savanna, open plains, and sandstone outcrops. Exploration options abound: game drives, nature walks, mokoro (dugout canoe) rides, boat cruises, hot-air-balloon rides, and small plane flights each offer abundant photo ops that could feature nearly every creature around, from elephants, zebras, giraffes, red lechwe, and lions to more than 400 species of birds. The Okavango Delta may need no introduction, but its headlands need protection. In 2015, National Geographic launched the Okavango Wilderness Project, a journey of discovery to document the entire length of the river system. One aim of the project is to study the catchment area in the Angolan highlands, where endangered woodlands initiate the water flow that fuels the river and eventually forms the Jewel of the Kalahari.
Region: Northwestern Botswana
Fun fact: In 2014, UNESCO inscribed the Okavango Delta as the 1,000th World Heritage site, describing it as an "exceptional example of the interaction between climatic, hydrological, and biological processes."
Admire the Ancient Baobabs in Nxai Pan National Park
Photograph by David Wall/Alamy Stock Photo
"That giant upturned carrot" is how explorer Dr. David Livingstone is said to have described the baobab, an immense tree with a titanic trunk evolutionarily suited to store water in harsh environments. A particularly large and old baobab served as a landmark for Livingstone during his 19th-century crossing of the salt pans of present-day northeastern Botswana. Tree-minded travelers make a beeline for the Baines' Baobabs, a cluster of seven ancient arbors in Nxai Pan National Park. Named for pioneering 19th-century explorer Thomas Baines, who from 1861 to 1863 undertook a trek from Namibia to Victoria Falls, these tremendous trees stand near Kudiakam Pan, a topographical depression of caked mud, dry salts, and grass. Baobabs can thrive for thousands of years, so these "upside-down trees" have likely been landmarks for generations and stand today much as they did when Baines found them in 1862. Kudiakam is among the larger salt flats, separated by sandy desert, that dot this protected area, an extension of Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Safari outfitters organize overnights to the park; self-catering campers can book sites through the Department of Wildlife and National Parks.
Region: Central Botswana
Wild file: Desolate and dry for most of the year, the ephemeral lake beds of Nxai Pan National Park come alive when summer rains (November to early April) attract large seasonal zebra herds, as well as giraffes, jackals, impalas, lions, and a riot of bird species.
Spend a Morning With Meerkats at Jack’s Camp
Photograph by Anette Mossbacher/Alamy Stock Photo
A mob of meerkats awaits you in Makgadikgadi Pans. While sightings of many Kalahari creatures depend on seasons, luck, and local expertise, one animal encounter is all but certain at Jack's Camp: a charismatic welcome committee of habituated (but still wild) meerkats. These devilishly cute, clever, and clannish mongooses are among the iconic fauna of southern Africa. Standing upright on their rear legs, monitoring their arid landscape for hungry raptors or delicious dinners (the omnivorous suricates feast on lizards, insects, birds, and fruit), ever alert meerkat gangs are the very picture of community values. Get your camera ready to capture these squirrel-size cuties at retro-romantic Jack's Camp, a Kalahari oasis styled after a 1940s East African safari enclave. Celebrated for its elegance (Persian rugs, four-poster beds, high tea), the camp is respected for the erudition of its guides, who partner with San villagers to decode the dazzling desert region on morning walks. Depending on the season, safari-goers can spot plumes of pink flamingos, aardvarks and brown hyenas, massive herds of zebra and wildebeest, and pods of prey munching grass while keeping a watchful eye on predators on the fossilized crust of a superlake that evaporated thousands of years ago.
Region: North-central Botswana
Ultimate escape: One of the best ways to experience the vast, arid, and starkly beautiful Makgadikgadi is by quad bike (ATV). Power across the pan to explore end-of-the-world vistas blurry with radiant heat, rich in ancient archaeological sites, and offering the occasional animal encounter. Leave your cell phone in your canvas tent and tune in to the profound silence of this forever unplugged ecosystem.
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