The eastern edge of Botswana is an area that lies outside the sands of the Kalahari Desert, and looks and feels more like neighbouring Zimbabwe than parts of the rest of the country. There are rivers and readily available groundwater, giving a fertile environment that can support fair numbers of people – in fact, some 80% of Botswana's population lives in this region today. When Rhodes' British South Africa Company was looking for ways to get the rich mineral resources of the northern territories out to the sea, the railway was built through eastern Bechuanaland, as Botswana was then called, connecting Zimbabwe with the Cape. Along this route, many small settlements sprung up, feeding off the meagre amount of wealth that was imparted by the rich railway corridor. One of these was Francistown.
Botswana's second largest town – now officially a city – is one of the oldest settlements in the country. Traditionally it had close cultural and trading links with Bulawayo in Zimbabwe before the artificial international boundaries were drawn up. Today, a good tarred road and a railway line links Francistown with Bulawayo, which is only three hours away by car. Francistown has a bit of a Zimbabwean feel to it, except for the very well-stocked shops and stores. It's a popular shopping destination for Zimbabweans looking for hard-to-get imported luxuries and spare parts – if they can lay their hands on some foreign currency. Francistown's initial prosperity derived from acting as a service town to the gold, copper and nickel mining industry – now overshadowed by the diamond mine at Orapa and the soda ash plant being constructed on Sowa Pan. The town and its surrounding area are traditionally the home of Botswana's second largest group of people, the Bakalanga.
As the gateway for travel north to Kasane and Maun, the Okavango, Chobe and the spectacular salt pans of Nxai and Makgadikgadi, Francistown has become a main stopover for travellers and overlanders. Here you'll be able to pick up any supplies or vehicle spare parts that you might need for your trip, get yourself organised and prepare yourself for exploring the interior. Other main roads radiating from Francistown link it with the capital, Gaborone, in the southeast of the country.