Food and drink
Talking of any one 'native cuisine' in Botswana is misleading, as what a person eats is dependent on where they live and what ethnic group they belong to. In the Kalahari and Okavango there was relatively little agriculture until recently; there, gathering and fishing, supplemented by hunting, provided subsistence for the various groups.
In the kinder climes east of the Kalahari, where there is enough rain for crops, sorghum is probably the main crop. This is first pounded into meal before being mixed with boiling water or sour milk. It's then made into a paste bogobe
– which is thin, perhaps with sugar like porridge, for breakfast, then eaten thicker, the consistency of mashed potatoes, for lunch and dinner. For these main meals it will normally be accompanied by some tasty relish, perhaps made of meat and tomatoes, or dried fish. Maize meal (often imported as it doesn't tolerate Botswana's dry climate that well) is now often used in place of this. (In Zimbabwe this same staple is known as sadza
, in Zambia it's nshima
and in South Africa mealie-pap
.) You should taste this at some stage when visiting. Safari camps will often prepare it if requested, and it is always available in small restaurants in the towns.
Camps, hotels and lodges that cater for overseas visitors will serve a very international fare, and the quality of food prepared in the most remote camps is usually amazingly high. When coming to Botswana on safari your biggest problem with food is likely to be the very real danger of putting on weight.
If you are driving yourself around and plan to cook, then get most of your supplies in Maun or Kasane. Both have large supermarkets which are well stocked – though Maun's Shoprite is by far the best.
Like most countries in the region, Botswana has two distinct beer types: clear and opaque. Most visitors and more affluent people in Botswana drink the clear beers
, which are similar to European lagers and always served chilled. Castle and Lion are the lagers brewed by South African Breweries' subsidiary here. They are widely available and usually good. You'll also sometimes find the Zimbabwean Zambezi beer, and Windhoek Lager, from Namibia – which are similar and also excellent.
The less affluent residents will usually opt for some form of the opaque beer
(sometimes called Chibuku, after the market-leading brand) – though as a visitor you'll have to really make an effort to seek this out. Most bars that tourists visit don't sell it. This is a commercial version of traditional beer, usually brewed from maize and/or sorghum. It's a sour, porridge-like brew; an acquired taste. Locals will sometimes buy a bucket of it, and then pass it around a circle of drinkers. It would be unusual for a visitor to drink this, so try some and amuse your companions.
Remember that this changes flavour as it ferments: you can often ask for 'fresh beer' or 'strong beer'. If you aren't sure about the bar's hygiene standards, stick to the pre-packaged brands of opaque beer like Chibuku.
Soft drinks are available everywhere, which is fortunate when the temperatures are high. Choices are often limited, though the ubiquitous Coca-Cola is usually there, along with southern African specialities like Grapetize. Diet drinks are available in the towns, but rarely seen in the small bottle stores which pepper the rural areas – which is no surprise for a country where the rural population are poor and need all the energy their food can give them.
Water in the main towns is usually purified, provided there are no shortages of chlorine, breakdowns, or other mishaps. It's generally fine to drink.
Out in the bush, most of the camps and lodges use water from bore-holes. These underground sources vary in quality, but are normally free from bugs and so perfectly safe to drink. Sometimes it is sweet, at other times the water is a little alkaline or salty. Ask the locals if it is suitable for an unacclimatised visitor to drink, then take their advice.
The water in the Okavango Delta is generally fine to drink. You'll be expected to do so during most budget mokoro
trips, which is fine for most backpackers who are in Africa for long trips. There are relatively few people living in the communities in the Delta; contamination levels are very low. However, if you've a sensitive stomach, or are visiting for a short trip, then you'd be best to avoid it and stick to borehole water. (I'd recommend that you do not insist on bottled water as the costs/waste involved in transporting it to you are high, and borehole water is generally fine.)
Tipping is a very difficult and contentious topic – worth thinking about carefully.
Ask locally what's appropriate; here I can only give rough guidance. Helpers with baggage might expect four or five pula for their help, whilst sorting out a problem with a reservation would be P12–18 (US$2–3/£1–2). Restaurants will often add an automatic service charge to the bill, in which case an additional tip is not usually given. If they do not do this, then 10% would certainly be appreciated if the service was good.
At safari camps, tipping is not obligatory – despite the destructive assumption from some visitors that it is. If a guide has given you really good service then a tip of about P30 (US$5/£2–3) per day per person would be a generous reflection of this. A similar bonus for a mokoro
poler might be around P20 (US$3/£2) per day per person. If the service hasn't been that good, then don't tip.
Always tip at the end of your stay – not at the end of each day/activity. Do not tip after every game drive. This leads to the guides only trying hard when they know there's a tip at the end of the morning. Such camps aren't pleasant to visit and this isn't the way to encourage top-quality guiding. It's best to wait until the end of your stay, and then give what you feel is appropriate in one lump sum.
However, before you do this find out if tips go into one box for all of the camp staff, or if the guides are treated differently. Then ensure that your tip reflects this – with perhaps as much again divided between the rest of the staff.