Into the wilds
Driving around Botswana is exceeding easy if you stick to the network of first-class tarred roads between the towns, but heading into the bush is a completely different proposition, which usually requires a small expedition.
Botswana's bush tracks are maintained only by the passage of vehicles, and aren't for the novice, or the unprepared. However, if you've been to Africa at least once or twice before, perhaps including a driving trip around South Africa or Namibia, then such trips can be a lot of fun provided that you realise that you're embarking on an adventure as much as a holiday.
To explore the more rural areas and remote parks on your own you'll need a fully equipped 4WD vehicle, stocked with food and water for your trip. Depending on where you are going, some form of back-up is often wise. This might be a reliable satellite phone, a radio (and the know-how to use it), someone tracking your schedule – with frequent call-in points so they can look for you if you don't turn up on time, or the security of travelling in convoy with at least one other vehicle.
Having pointed out all the dangers, those who do this kind of trip often get addicted to the space and the freedom; it can be really rewarding and tremendous fun!
Equipment and preparationsFuel
Petrol and diesel are available in all of the larger towns. However, for travel into the bush you will need long-range fuel tanks, and/or a large stock of filled jerrycans. (Only use metal jerrycans for fuel; plastic containers are highly dangerous.)
It is essential to plan your fuel requirements well in advance, and to carry more than you expect to need. Remember that using the vehicle's 4WD capability, especially in low ratio gears, will significantly increase your fuel consumption. Similarly, the cool comfort of a vehicle's air conditioning will burn your fuel reserves swiftly. In late 2002 the price in Maun for diesel was P2.50 per litre, and for petrol P3.00 per litre. The further you go away from the major centres, the more these prices will increase.Spares
Botswana's garages generally have a comprehensive stock of vehicle spares – though bush mechanics can effect the most amazing short-term repairs, with remarkably basic tools and raw materials. Spares for the more common makes are easiest to find; most basic Land Rover and Toyota 4WD parts are available. If you are arriving in Botswana with an unusual foreign vehicle, it is best to bring as many spares as you can.Navigation
There are two good maps designed for visitors widely available – and offices of the Surveyor General in Maun and Gaborone. It's wise to take a GPS, though learn how to use it before you arrive and never switch your brain off and rely on it totally.
Coping with Botswana's roadsTar roads
Botswana's tar roads are excellent, and a programme of tarring is gradually extending the network of roads. Note that the police do operate radar traps, especially near the towns. A speeding ticket will usually mean that you have to turn up at the nearest police station within 48 hours and pay a fine – which can be particularly inconvenient if you were just rushing out of the town and into the bush. Botswana's police are efficient; it'd be foolhardy not to obey such a summons.Gravel roads
There aren't many good gravel roads in Botswana – most are either good tar, or basic bush tracks. However, the few gravel sections can be very deceiving. Even when they appear smooth, flat and fast (which is not often), they still do not give vehicles much traction. You will frequently put the car into small skids, but with practice at slower speeds you will learn how to deal with them. Gravel is a less forgiving surface on which to drive than tar. The rules and techniques for driving well are the same for both, but on tar you can get away with sloppy braking and cornering which would prove fatal on gravel.
Further, in Botswana you must always be prepared for the unexpected: an animal wandering on to the road, a pot-hole, a sand-trap, or an unexpected corner. So it is verging on insane to drive over about 80km/h on any of Botswana's gravel roads. Other basic driving hints include:
• Slowing down
If in any doubt about what lies ahead, always slow down. Road surfaces can vary enormously, so keep a constant lookout for pot-holes, ruts or patches of soft sand that could put you into an unexpected slide.
• Passing vehicles
When passing other vehicles travelling in the opposite direction, always slow down to minimise both the damage that stone chippings will do to your windscreen, and the danger in driving through the other vehicle's dust cloud.
• Using your gears
In normal driving, a lower gear will give you more control over the car – so keep out of high 'cruising' gears. Rather stick with third or fourth, and accept that your revs will be slightly higher than they normally are.
• Cornering and braking
Under ideal conditions, the brakes should only be applied when the car is travelling in a straight line. Braking whilst negotiating a corner is dangerous, so it is vital to slow down before you reach corners. Equally, it is better to slow down gradually, using a combination of gears and brakes, than to use the brakes alone. You are less likely to skid.Driving at night
Outside of the main towns, never
drive at night unless it's a matter of life and death. Both wild and domestic animals frequently spend the night by the side of busy roads, and will actually sleep on quieter ones. Tar roads are especially bad as the surface absorbs all the sun's heat by day, and then radiates it at night – making it a warm bed for passing animals. A high-speed collision with any animal, even a small one like a goat, will not only kill the animal, but will cause very severe damage to a vehicle, with potentially fatal consequences. And in the bush the danger of startling elephants is very real.
Driving near big game
The only animals which are likely to pose a threat to vehicles are elephants – and generally only elephants which are familiar with vehicles. So, treat them with the greatest respect and don't 'push' them by trying to move ever closer. Letting them approach you is much safer, and they will feel far less threatened and more relaxed. Then, if the animals are calm, you can safely turn the engine off, sit quietly, and watch as they pass you by.
If you are unlucky, or foolish, enough to unexpectedly drive into the middle of a herd, then don't panic. Keep your movements, and those of the vehicle, slow and measured. Back off steadily. Don't be panicked, or overly intimidated, by a mock charge – this is just their way of frightening you away.