Driving through Botswana can present some challenges – difficult road conditions, destinations far apart from each other, remote areas and confusing “road” networks. All the more important is it to be thoroughly prepared and use the tools at hand to make sure your journey will be the safari of your dreams.
One of the priorities of our recent self-drive adventure was to test the different tools available. We were super curious to test the app that everybody is talking about – Tracks4Africa. We compared it with the Shell Maps, our maps (which are great as a back-up) as well as the Garmin GPS. During our self drive trip through Savute, the Caprivi, and the Panhandle it became very quickly apparent that the Tracks4Africa app is a very effective tool!
The app is very user friendly and the best about it, it works offline! Even in the remotest areas, the app connects the dots via GPS signal and allows people travelling to easily find their way around the complicated and sometimes a bit chaotic bush network.
Tracks4Africa allows to search by accommodation, places, GPS coordinates, or when you see on the screen where you would like to go, you can simply tap on the screen and it will calculate the route for you. You also have the option of putting in so called “way points” along your way. This way you can literally map out your entire trip beforehand and it will lead you from stop to stop. The indicated estimated driving times are very accurate and if it changes along the way due to rest stops, slower driving etc. the system simply recalculates.
We know that some clients struggle with the costs for the app. It currently costs USD 50, but this includes regular updates. The app covers many African countries including South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe and many more. Users purchase it once and can use it again and again.
Driving through the bush, the app was most reliable. The ways leading up to the lodges usually are not mapped as some lodges do not advertise themselfes as self drive lodges, but by using the SD self drive maps with the accurate GPS points for the lodges, following signs or asking at gates even that was easily manageable.
For next season we are considering putting together self drive-kits including the paper maps of Tracks4Africa as well as the guide book. This can be pre-ordered through Safari Destinations and the clients would receive it on arrival. Our recommendation however is that clients study their itinerary beforehand, downloading the app (available for Android and iOS) and make themselves familiar with their route. Botswana is a demanding destination when self-driving and proper preparation is everything.
We have been debating the hot topic of self drives for years. The trend seems to be that more and more clients have independently travelled South Africa and Namibia by car, and as a result they think visiting Botswana in the same style is the natural conclusion. Botswana is wilder, has less infrastructure, less tarred roads, is a much more challenging destination. Self-driving in Botswana is for the adventurous, people that want a guarantee to see the amazing game in Botswana should always choose to travel with a guide, self-driving is possible in the National Parks and Game Reserves, the famous private concessions in the Okavango Delta or Linyanti can only be accessed by plane and visited with a professional guide.
As your partner on the ground we selected a group of brave individuals to go and explore some of the parks of Northern Botswana, their mission was to test a variety of maps available in the local shops, the Tracks4Africa’s app, our self drive maps and the directions we hand out.
This is the first of a series of blogs about “Self-Driving in Botswana”, we will write about our experiences, the road conditions, the user-friendliness of the maps and Tracks4Africa app and much more, enjoy the ride…
Here is Seeletso’s impression of his first self-drive-adventure:
When I was initially asked if I would like to join a self-drive educational from Maun across Savute to Ngoma and into Namibia then back through the Panhandle to Maun I didn’t hesitate for a second. I was only concerned about traveling in the extreme heat of October (we often get more than 40 degrees in our so-called suicide-month), and the stories I had been told of people getting stuck in the thick sand in Savute and Chobe. The last time I was in Savute was in 2002 as part of a Wellness Club in High School where we put up sign posts to guide everyone visiting the Savute region, so this was an opportunity to revisit this area and to check if our signs were still around or the elephants had destroyed them.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man… my moment had come. I joined Tlotlo, Brinny and Scarlet on this adventure. Being the farm boy that I am, I nominated myself to drive all the way through the park to Ngoma in Chobe. A Wild Wheels car was delivered and handed over the day before our trip, a Toyota Hilux double cab with 2 roof tents and plenty equipment. The handover is vital to make sure that all equipment needed for the trip is in the car and works properly. The vehicle came with a GPS system loaded with Tracks4Africa maps, a satellite phone, fridge, high-lift jack, spade, sand ladder and other necessary tools. We also got a proper briefing on how to use the tools, how to lower the tyre pressure. When hiring a vehicle from a local Botswana operator the equipment is guaranteed to deal with the conditions in the parks in Botswana. Clients choosing to travel through the parks need to make sure they have the right equipment. Ready, we left Maun early morning for our first destination, the recently reopened Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge (yes SD travels in style). The drive from Maun via Mababe to Savute took us about 5 hours of solid, but not fast, driving. After the Mababe Gate (guests that stay in lodges usually travel with a voucher from the lodge confirming that park fees have been paid, at the Gate only the payment for the vehicle needs to be made, it helps to have Pula at hand, the costs for locally registered vehicles is 10 Pula a day, foreign registered vehicles are 50 Pula a day) it became a little more challenging as the thicker sand began. We reduced the tyre pressure from the normal 250 to 180 bar. The Sandridge road is the most direct and easiest way to Savute even though the thick sand there has been a challenge to many. I was up to the challenge and hoping to get photos of us being stuck. To my surprise the sand was not that tough, I do not know if it was my bush baby driving skills or the Hilux just performed better than I had expected. With the vehicle on four wheel drive the stretch was easy enough.
The main challenge of the road was a few kilometers after the Savute Gate on the side track which took us to Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge. Apparently, the trucks that came in for the rebuild of the lodge are the reasons for the state of the road. Extremely thick sand with deep burrow tracks, but nothing to worry about as long as you are driving a 4×4. From Savute to Ghoha Hills there is no thick sand, but the road requires one to drive at slow speed as it is bumpy and uneasy.
At the Ghoha Gate it is advisable to ask the Wildlife officials which is the better route, as the direct route is not in great conditions. Here you drive left (north west) towards the Linyanti cutline and once on the cutline turn right and the road leads you all the way to Kachikau village. Before Kachikau the tarred road comes back to life and at the nearest fuel station we pumped back the tyres to 250 bar. After a night at Chobe Elephant Camp the crew crossed over to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia then spent a few nights in the Okavango Panhandle and back to Maun. The border crossings at Ngoma into Namibia and Mohembo back into Botswana were all smooth and quick. The A3 road from Shakawe to Sehitwa has lots of potholes even though there were few patches of roadworks there and there. (We will speak more about the Panhandle section in a coming Blog).
“Insider tips from your local experts”
- It is advisable to not self-drive in the rainy season, the terrain is difficult and chances of getting stuck in mud or having to cross water are high.
- Make sure your car is loaded with all the necessary equipment before you depart for your Safari (e.g. tools, GPS, satellite phone, working fridge, lockable doors, spare wheels), check all is in a good working condition.
- When switching from tarred/gravel road onto sandy roads reduce your tyre pressure and when going back on tarred road remember to increase the pressure.
- On sandy roads please switch onto H4 for 4-wheel drive at all times, if sand is too thick and car fails engage Low range to avoid getting stuck, the next car might only come by after 24hrs.
- Respect the animals on the road, especially Elephants.
- Do not stop and get out of the car in bushes, find a clear open space for your safety.
- Always ask the people working at the entrance gates which road is better or how do you proceed forward.
Exploring Botswana on a self-drive is becoming more and more popular. However it is not for the faint hearted nor is it for the ill prepared. We realize it is time to give you, our agents, a small guideline how to consult clients who want to drive themselves, what to expect and who the ideal candidates for such an adventure are.
Very often we receive enquiries mentioning that the clients are very experienced as they have been self-driving in Namibia and South Africa. Well, well…. Botswana is a totally different level of adventure.
Unfortunately, Botswana cannot be compared to South Africa or Namibia where the roads (and road signs) are generally very good and the whole experience is pretty straightforward and uncomplicated. Botswana is actually a fly-in destination. There are 18,482 km of beautiful highways, but only a quarter of these, 4343 km, are paved or tarred, which is not to say those don’t get flooded nor are they kept in good condition. It is a well known joke that we all hold a degree in driving and are pros at dodging potholes!
All expert professional guides work by the following motto: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance and this very much applies to planning a self drive itinerary too whether you’re planning a route on the main roads or an adventure through the parks!
In all seriousness, contemplating a self drive itinerary through Botswana incorporating its National Parks is not to be underestimated and can be seen as an authentic “cultural experience”. One must have a sense of adventure and take all that is African in their stride from long delays to the often comical communication glitches. As mentioned above there is a very limited road network with single lane highways, no hard shoulders and minimal road signs so don’t consider the holiday ruined if you encounter challenges along the way or things don’t go according to plan – it’s all part of the adventure. The season one decides to travel in is also vitally important. There is almost only a short window of opportunity because the summer months – our rainy season – is highly unrecommended for all areas in Botswana as can be seen below when even us experienced bush girls got hopelessly stuck in the mud for hours. Nor are the winter months – which is our dry season, flood levels are high – this is to be considered if the Delta is on the itinerary. Depending on the size of the flood most of the roads are closed and bridges overrun by the flood waters, therefore decreasing the area that can be navigated and explored. Towards the end of our dry season the temperatures sky rocket so all the sand roads become very thick and very sticky and unless the clients know what they’re doing with their gearbox and tyre pressure getting stuck is virtually guaranteed.
The free ranging wildlife is another element of self drive itineraries that may cause some excitement. All parks in Botswana are unfenced (as are all of the neighbouring countries except South Africa) which means animals are free to roam and this they do to their hearts delight. Travelers need to have some basic understanding of animal behaviour and know that animals always have right of way. It’s not only the wildlife that uses these road networks, but also a huge amount of domestic livestock, who move between grazing and water sources. This means that not only does one need to have the utmost respect for all animals but driving at night should always be avoided.
What a lot of people also don’t realise is that the distances here are not navigated at the same speed as they are used to at home. 100km here does not mean 1,5 hours… It can easily take 4-5 hours to cover 100km – due to the road conditions, animal movements and the clients’ knowledge of challenging 4×4 driving. One can have the fanciest, finest equipped vehicle, with all the latest gadgets but have no idea how to put it into 4 wheel drive let alone Low range or difflock. So unless clients have that knowledge, no matter how fancy their car is, if it’s stuck in 2 wheel drive they will not get out, and revving the engine, burning the gearbox and spinning the wheels will not get them out any quicker.
Can you imagine the stress of knowing you’ve got an international flight to catch but you’re stuck out in the middle of the bush, trying to dig your way out of the sand? This is why we always recommend a pre-night in town before flying out!
There is a lot to consider when booking a self drive itinerary so let us advise you on the best routes to take, the best time of year to successfully navigate the inevitable challenges and the 4×4 driving courses we recommend clients take, before embarking on this adventure!
Hereby a short list of the Dos and Don’ts for your clients to consider on a self drive:
- Be open minded and flexible: driving in Botswana is not as easy as you may think. Road conditions can be challenging in many areas and include soft sand, slippery clay, deep water and broken bridges. Getting stuck or breaking an essential part of your vehicle happens easily and often.
- Be prepared: plan your route carefully and don’t underestimate the time it may take to cover those distances.
- Make sure you have rented the correct type of vehicle and your car has all the necessary equipment from highlift jack to a spade and most importantly a GPS (Download the tracks4africa App which works OFFLINE!) and ideally a satellite phone. You will be in remote areas with no cell phone signal and the next car coming might be days away.
- Carry more spares and extras than you’ll ever think you’ll need – i.e. fuel, water and tyres without overloading your car.
- Have a nicely stocked medical kit with you – the smallest cut can turn into something nasty quickly in the right conditions.
- Treat officials and bureaucrats with respect. Losing your temper never gets you anywhere. Remember the 3 Ps: politeness, patience and perseverance.
- Be aware of rules and regulations: Botswana has so-called vet fences which prevent the spread of highly contagious diseases such as Foot and Mouth. These fences restrict the movement of any cloven hooved products so you might end up handing in your recently purchased BBQ meats and road snacks to the local officials and you will not win any argument with them.
- Preferably travel in convoy.
- If you change your plan and arrive a day later or not at all at the next prebooked accommodation, please let us know, otherwise we will start a search which can become a challenging thing, like finding a needle on the Salt Pans.
- Embrace the spirit of African adventure in all its glory!
- Do NOT drive off-road! This is prohibited in all National Parks to keep the wilderness pristine and undamaged. Respect those rules also outside the parks. Also driving around a puddle is not always the best route – if you don’t recognise Mopane forests for the treacherous things they are then you will inevitably get stuck driving around the puddle rather than taking the road most traveled straight through the middle of the puddle.
- Do not drive in the dark.
- Do not feed the animals, this will only encourage them to lose their fear of humans which can end disastrously.
- Do not leave your vehicle under any circumstances. You do not know the bush nor the animals. You have a better chance at staying alive with access to the safety of your car and the copious supplies of food and water then risking a walk through the bush and an encounter with a buffalo. EVERYTHING out there is faster than you are.
- Do not lose your sense of humour – Africa will inevitably throw challenges at you and keeping an open mind about it all will prevent you from losing your sense of humour and/or patience.
- Do NOT travel unprepared. Study the maps, directions and distances while planning your trip not once you arrived in the country.
- Prebook all accommodation, Botswana has a very low population density, distances between villages can be huge. If planning a camping trip, campsites have to be booked about 11 months before travel to avoid disappointment.
Here is some helpful information about road conditions in Botswana: https://traveladventuresbotswana.com/helpful-information/driving-and-road-condition-information/
Most importantly: Botswana is by far the most challenging destination and can in no way be compared to Namibia, South Africa and even Zimbabwe and Zambia due to the unique circumstances of season, habitats, environmental conditions and lack of infrastructure!
“Come quietly and sit down’ our guide Nick said, moving over to the dinner table laid out by Somalisa Camp’s small pool. Kay and I negotiated the steps down to the deck carefully by the dim light of hurricane lanterns, trying not to fall on our faces or make any sudden movements. We were sitting down to dinner with an unusual guest, a big elephant bull who had come to drink out of the pool, trying his best to drain the water dry. He faced us head-on, something that would make you twitch in the bush, especially as he was only four metres away. He disregarded us, plunged his trunk into the water, slurped up the liquid and threw it down his throat. The noise was incredible. “It sounds like a really big toilet flushing” said Johnny, our host and camp manager. “They don’t drink out of the waterhole?” Kay asked. “They like the clean water,’ said Nick ‘they prefer the waterhole for mud baths.”
As we chatted over starters and broke bread, the bull moved off and another came to drink, then another. Somewhere through the main course, a breeding herd gathered around opposite us, with a very small elephant calf. We gawked at the noise of 10 toilets flushing in succession as the little calf tried to find water with its trunk. “It’s amazing how blasé you get’ said Kay ‘we’re just sitting here, having dinner and a chat.” She was right. If one of the bulls didn’t like us, it wouldn’t have taken much for him to do something about it from the other side of the pool, but they were calm and Nick was used to this behaviour. It had almost become Somalisa Camp’s guaranteed dinner-time entertainment.
Kay & I had come to Hwange during green season, a time when game viewing is far more challenging and so we were expecting game sightings to be few and far between. Luck was on side, however and on the first morning game drive into Hwange National Park we found a pack of twelve wild dogs moving along the roadside, sniffing bushes and trying to pick up the scent of something to chase for breakfast. We followed them for at least ten minutes as they scoured both sides of the road for a scent before disappearing into the thick brush. Later that day, driving with Nick from Hwange Main Camp we spotted huge amounts of plains game, zebra taking dust baths in the afternoon light, big herds of buffalo spread out across the plains and a big sable bull whose elongated horns curved all the way back to his shoulders.
As the sky started turning orange and pink just before sundowners, we found two big male lions and three lionesses stretched out over termite mounds with full, round bellies and a buffalo kill hidden in the bushes. “It’s interesting about these male lions’ Nick said ‘this one, Cecil with the big black mane is about eleven years old. One of the lion researchers around here thinks he has the biggest skull on record. He got kicked out of his territory by a younger male and was living on the periphery for ages. Then he teamed up with this other male Jericho who’s now nine and they took this area off a younger lion. It’s not often you see that. Normally once they get kicked out, they’re out. And now they have these three young girls here. They can’t be older than five. They’re all quite full with buffalo, but it looks as if one of them might be pregnant.”
The next morning the lions were still right where we left them and had begun slinking over to a nearby waterhole to drink. In the background a black-backed jackal was chewing pieces of meat off an elephant carcass as the vultures watched. We moved over to another waterhole and Nick was distracted by movement on the water. “What’s going on here?’ he said ‘I’ve never seen this before.” Sitting on the water were two Egyptian geese, determined to drown another goose by swooping on his head and forcing him underwater. The goose would then swim under water and pop up about ten metres away as his bullies scanned the water looking for him. As soon as he surfaced, the two geese would be on him again in a blaze of feathers and fury. We watched the attack, holding our breath as each attempted drowning was followed by an underwater swim and a quick breath of air before the geese were back on the trail. Suddenly it seemed a lifetime since we’d seen our half-drowned goose. We checked the surface of the water, scanning for a sign of life. Nothing. More time passed and we started to believe the goose had drowned as the other two geese started honking out cackles and flapping their wings in victory. Just as we started lamenting the goose’s demise, a little figure popped up on the side of the waterhole. He’d swam at least thirty metres underwater in a final attempt at escape. He was soggy, but undetected and alive.
We headed back to Somalisa Camp to pack our bags and move on to another part of Hwange. As we wandered around the main camp gossiping about the morning’s sightings, I was distracted by movement out the corner of my eye. Across the plain near the tree line, impala were scattering. I pointed and yelled gibberish, trying to get everyone’s attention while trying to figure out what I was seeing. “Um, lion…” I shouted on impulse, watching something straw-coloured fifty metres away chasing the antelope. “No, cheetah!” said Nick as we watched the chase becoming un-successful, the impala running faster as the cheetah slowed, panting with fatigue. Nick ran for the vehicle and brought it around as the cheetah retreated to the tree line. We were going to try and catch up with her in our last ten minutes in camp. We drove the tracks and scanned the grass. We knew the cheetah had been right where we were only moments ago. We drove forward & back, looking for leaves or grasses moving. “At this time of year, all she has to do is lie down and you’d never know she was here” said Kay. True enough, she’d disappeared for good, probably hiding no more than twenty metres from us, but in the thick shrub, we didn’t have a chance. This was why searching for game in green season held an exciting element of the unknown. You just never knew what was hiding in the long grass.
Getting to Hwange
Hwange is surprisingly close to Victoria Falls and accessible by tar all the way up to Hwange Main Camp. Road transfers from Victoria Falls town will get you to the lodges on their own private concessions bordering the park in approximately 2 ½ hrs. Flights from Victoria Falls will get you to camps within the park in 45 – 55 minutes. Due to Hwange’s close proximity to Victoria Falls, the park is a logical extension to any Botswana itinerary finishing in Victoria Falls and can be very cost-effective as compared to a delta fly-in.
Where to visit in Hwange
Like the parks in Botswana, there are no fences around Hwange National Park, meaning game can move freely between the park and the lodges on small private concessions outside the park. The terrain in the north of the park around Sinamatella features a lot of hills, granite kopjes and deep valleys, whereas Hwange Main Camp is characterised by open grassland surrounded by acacia woodland. The landscape further south towards the Linkwasha concession changes again, with more Molokwane Palm trees and open pans. The diversity of the park makes it easy to combine two separate camps in two separate areas and achieve a varied safari experience.
Lodges/Camps outside Hwange: While these properties are not technically in the park, they experience good numbers of game moving through in the dry season and some have very productive waterholes and resident populations of game that can be reliably sighted. Most of the camps offer game drives on their own private concessions with the option to game drive inside Hwange National Park as well. We recommend pre-paying park fees to provide clients with the option of both.
Camps inside Hwange: Staying inside the park provides a more intense bush experience and removes the necessity of checking in at park gates before and after game drives. The camps inside Hwange National Park have small private concessions around them, enabling more relaxed sundowners without a rush back to camp before park closing times. Some of these camps can also offer short night drives, something which is not permitted inside national parks in Botswana.
What to combine it with: Hwange is very much a dry land game viewing destination. The park roads are easy-going and very well sign-posted making it a great introduction to a safari before continuing to Botswana. Hwange National Park works very well combined with a houseboat experience or Chobe Savanna Lodge in the Caprivi (opposite Chobe National Park) for a dry land and water contrast before continuing to the dry land game viewing of the Khwai Community Area or Moremi Game Reserve.
Pre-Packaged Options: Check out our 8 Night Elephant Paths itineraries combining Hwange, Victoria Falls and Chobe or extend to a 10 Night Elephant Paths package with a fly-in to the Okavango Delta. All packages can be downloaded from our Agent’s Corner.
Our Selfdrive Trip from Maun to Khwai and Savuti!
Have you ever wondered what it takes to get off the tarmac and explore the sandy tracks of Botswana’s National Parks in a 4×4? We did. With our mission set, four of us Safari Destinations girls, calling ourselves the SD Angels departed Maun early on a Sunday morning for a five day self-drive safari through Moremi, Khwai and Savute.
Leaving Maun, the small village of Shorobe marks the end of the tarmac. From here to the buffalo fence is a big wide stretch of calcrete road where we had our first encounter with someone driving far too fast and almost wiping us out. We quickly discovered slow is the answer, as people generally tend to drive too fast and run into trouble.
From the buffalo fence there are two ways of getting to Khwai. You can either go via Mababe Village, staying on the calcrete road or head through Moremi Game Reserve via South Gate. We decided to go through Moremi as we were in no rush, since the route is more scenic with much better opportunities for spotting wildlife. The road between the buffalo fence and South Gate is quite narrow, passing through mopane forests and very sandy, so the driving is quite a bit slower and we let our tyres down to about 1.6 bar to deal with the terrain.
Once we reached North Gate and exited Moremi Game Reserve, we crossed over a proper bush bridge made from Gum Poles and into Khwai Village. To get here took us approx four hours from Maun, stopping for game sightings on the way. In Khwai, we stayed at both Khwai River Lodge and Khwai Tented Camp, however other options in the area include Sango Safari Camp and Machaba Camp.
For self-drivers, the road network around Khwai is quite disorienting. As a result, it’s best to arrange your game viewing activities with your lodge as the professional guides know the area, where the game is and what signs to look for in tracking animals, resulting in a more enjoyable safari.
Leaving Khwai for Savuti, there are two possible routes. Different people gave us different arguments and opinions on whether we should take the Marsh Road or the Sandridge Road. In the end, we took the Marsh road which is longer but a lot more scenic, traversing the Mababe Depression and the Savute Marsh. There is a lot more wild life on this section of road especially around the Savute Marsh and we saw leopard, cheetah, elephant, wildebeest, giraffe, impala, the list goes on. This road can become flooded in some areas, and very slippery in the rainy season. In October, it took us approximately four hours to drive the Sandridge route.
In Savute, we stayed at both Savute Elephant Camp and Ghoha Hills, however other options include Savuti Safari Lodge, as well as SKL’s Camp Savuti next to the public campsite.
Returning from Savute, we drove back towards Khwai on the Sandridge road, which was a lot quicker with better road conditions. Although quicker, the driving is through a lot of Mopane and we only saw elephant and steenbok driving this way. In the winter months before the rains, this sandy road can get very churned up and a lot of people get stuck. Taking this route back to Maun and skipping Moremi Game Reserve on the return took us approx 5 ½ hours.
To self-drive successfully through the parks, we recommend a good 4 x 4 such as a Land Rover, Toyota Hilux or Landcruiser. It’s essential the car has 4×4 and has good clearance. This driving cannot be done in either a 2WD or a 4WD without the height to manage deep sand and water crossings. For good vehicles carrying the essential equipment as standard and good back-up service in case of emergencies, we recommend Travel Adventures Botswana. Essential items to pack are a high-lift or air jack, two spare tyres, spade, axe, tow-rope, jumper-lead cables, tyre pressure gauge and air compressor. If you don’t have a long-range tank, you will need extra fuel as driving in sand uses a lot more fuel than travelling on tarmac. You should always have plenty of drinking water, basic food supplies, a GPS, satellite phone and a well-stocked first aid kit on hand in case of getting lost, stuck or experiencing break-downs. Of course, you will also need your park entry permits for your vehicle and for yourself, together with any confirmation from lodges you’ll be staying at which confirm they’ve pre-paid park fees on your behalf.