A Personal Introduction
Botswana meant little to me at first; it was never in the news. Then, finding myself in Zimbabwe, I remembered an old friend's enthusiasm for the Okavango Delta. So, in April 1988, three of us set off from Victoria Falls and hitched a lift in an open pick-up into Chobe. We were badly prepared, but even our lack of food and close encounters with hyenas added to the magic. No fences here; everything was so wild.
From Maun we splashed out on a few days' camping trip on a mokoro. Whilst the boatman spoke little English, the Delta was magical, almost surreal – like floating on a tropical fish-tank with animals everywhere around. The Okavango's lush greenery contrasted with the harsh dryness in the rest of the subcontinent. Iridescent birds flashed past, whilst terrapins sunbathed and otters played. All added to the feeling of paradise; we left entranced.
Thus started my love affair with the country. Since then I've been lucky enough to return many times. I've been guided by some of the best, learning more about the bush, and its animals and plants. I've flown over the dry Kalahari and the verdant Delta, mesmerised by the ancient patterns of watercourses, islands and game trails. And I've walked and driven around, exploring for myself on the ground, exhilarated by the sense of freedom. Yet still I feel as if I've only scratched the surface of Botswana, and I always leave wanting to return.
It's tempting here, by way of introduction, to list the highlights of Botswana's main areas one-by-one, describing each to entice the reader. But to do this would be misleading, as Botswana has just three main attractions for me.
Firstly, it's the wildlife. Whether this is you first safari or your fiftieth, Botswana won't disappoint. The sheer variation of the country, from the arid Kalahari to lush, well-watered forest glades, ensures tremendous variety. Botswana is serious about its big game. It has spectacular herds of elephants and buffalo, and prolific populations of predators. Experienced safari enthusiasts can bounce across the bush following a pack of wild dogs; Botswana has probably the continent's best population of these highly endangered predators. Yet often it's the country's smaller residents that will keep you entertained, from tiny painted reed frogs and barking geckos, to troops of entertaining meerkats.
Secondly – and the underlying reason why many come here – is the feeling in Botswana that you're within an endless pristine wilderness, almost devoid of human imprint. For city-dwellers, such space seems to be the ultimate luxury.
In Botswana, animals wander freely across vast reserves which are measured in thousands of square kilometres, not hectares. Exploring these wilder corners is invariably deeply liberating.
Thirdly, and missed by some, is Botswana's rich history. It's often barely hinted at but, veiled and mysterious, it's all the more enticing. It reveals itself in the paintings at Tsodilo, and the magic that seems to surround those hills. You'll catch a glimpse of it as you search for Stone-Age arrowheads on the Makgadikgadi Pans. And standing on an ancient river-bed, or the wave-washed hills around Savuti, it's hard not to think back and wonder what forces shaped this country, long before you, or any Europeans, first set eyes on it.
Back in the present, the world is changing fast. Most of the earth's great wilderness areas are under threat. The 21st century is an age when even the earth's wildest corners must earn their keep, adapt, or change irrevocably. Botswana's government has been a beacon of prosperity and stability amidst a troubled continent. Financed by diamonds, it has set many examples of how to run a country. Taking a long-term view, its thriving tourist industry is the envy of the continent: minimising impact by admitting only small numbers who pay handsomely to rejuvenate themselves in its pristine environments. Then it has channelled much of the revenue back to the poorer communities in the areas concerned. This first-rate approach has been a steady, growing strategy to increase responsible tourism to Botswana. It hasn't been a quick way for the country to get rich, but it has been a sustainable one.
However, as I write, economic storm-clouds threaten. Botswana's diamonds are predicted to run out in the next 10–15 years, leaving a black hole in the economy. Tourism is the obvious way to fill the gap, but exactly how is unclear. With only a sketchy understanding of Botswana's appeal for overseas visitors, large companies are tempted to build big new hotels in efforts to increase the number of visitors. But more tourists may not mean more revenue for Botswana; if the country's sense of wilderness is destroyed, then it'll rip the heart out of the experience that is found here today, leaving the country poorer in all respects.
So my plea to the reader is two-fold. First, go now and support Botswana's small-scale camps and responsible tourism; the country needs you. Second, having committed many of Botswana's secret corners to paper here, I ask you to use this guide with respect. Botswana's wild areas need great care to preserve them. Local people are easily offended, and their cultures eroded, by a visitor's lack of sensitivity. Enjoy - but be a thoughtful visitor, for the country's sake.