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Okavango Delta, Botswana

Botswana

A landscape of deserts & deltas

Our Botswana Travel Guide

Introduction

Whether it’s your first time travelling to Botswana or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.

At a glance

Flying time from UK
11 hours

Time zone
GMT +2

Currency
Pula (P) = 100 thebe

Language
English and Setswana

Travel advice
(UK/US) None

Travel Guide

Overview

Botswana has prospered like few other post-independence African nations. The discovery of diamond-rich mines after 1966 means that today Botswana enjoys a standard of healthcare, educational and socio-economic stability that, aside from South Africa, is unparalleled in sub-Saharan Africa.

It's also a rich and rewarding destination for travellers. The people are welcoming, proud of and determined to preserve the wonderful natural and cultural bounties of their country. The glorious, vast wilderness, with settlements dotted miles apart (it's one of the world's least densely populated nations) means travelling around Botswana requires some careful planning. But with some of Africa's best National Parks, including Chobe (a staggering 11,000 square kilometres), and a healthy collection of Africa's iconic wildlife spread across the arid-scrub of the Kalahari and the green fringes of the Okavango Delta in the north, it's well worth the effort. 

Culture & etiquette

Botswana is home to a determined and proud population, whose ambition and integrity have led to Botswana's continuing development. Greetings, appropriate dress and a friendly demeanour are important and, if you follow the example set by your hosts, you're unlikely to offend.

Drink

Botswana's beers receive mixed reviews, especially the mass-produced St Louis lager which some consider average at best. Other, more favoured South African lagers are often available or alternatively drink like the locals and try Chibuku, an opaque, sour tasting beer usually brewed from maize and sorghum. Other alcoholic drinks include lala-palm wine or kgadi, brewed with brown sugar, berries or fungus.

Non-alcoholic drinks include rooibos (caffeine free bush tea), homemade ginger beer and all the usual soft-drink suspects.

Festivals

February - World Wetlands Day Botswana

March - Maitisong Festival

May - Tjilenje (Ngwao Boswa) Culture Festival

July - Presidents' Day

August - Kuru Dance Festival

September - Botswana Day celebrations

October - Domboshaba Festival of Culture and History

Food & drink

As in so much of Africa, the national dish of Botswana is based on meat and maize. Made for every special occasion, Seswaa or Chotlho as it's sometimes called, is a thick and tasty stew of beef, which is boiled with nothing more than onion and pepper in a three-legged iron pot, before being shredded and pounded with salt - the long and hefty pounding required means that this is a dish traditionally made by men. It is served on top of pap - a thick porridge made from ground maize, which has been a South African staple for centuries.

Beef is the meat of choice, and cattle play a big part in Botswana's culture, but goat is popular too, often served as a stew. Chicken, especially when cooked in the traditional three-legged iron pots over an open fire, is another Botswana favourite. Many households keep chickens and these free-range birds may be slightly smaller tougher than commercially bred birds, but are considered to be far more flavourful.  Whatever animal is on the menu, it is the norm in Botswana to use every part of it, making serobe another national favourite - it's a dish made from the stomach, intestines, and sometimes kidneys, heart, liver and lungs, boiled together before being lightly spiced.

As in South Africa, biltong is readily available, made from sun-dried beef, eaten as it is, but sometimes boiled and served with sorghum. Sorghum is perhaps the most commonly eaten food in the country, a grain that is pounded into powder before being cooked as porridge. Variations of this make the basis of many meals, it serves as a complete breakfast and is a ubiquitous side dish, as is the maize-based version. Commonly cooked vegetables include morogo - a leafy green, cabbage, wild spinach, onions, potatoes and pumpkins; and many people have melon plants and orange, lemon and papaya trees in their gardens.

You may or may not want to try mopane worms, which are actually caterpillars, dried to make a popular local snack, but do take in a braai, or barbeque while you're in the country if you can.

Geography

Botswana is a landlocked country in southern Africa. Over twice the size of the UK, Botswana has a population of just over two million people. It shares over 4,000km of borders with Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia (with which it shares a border of just a single kilometre).

The landscape of Botswana is generally flat. Two geographical points of note include the Okavango Delta in the Northwest, one of the world's largest inland deltas, and the Kalahari Desert in the south. The lowest part of the country is the confluence between the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, at 513 m. The highest point is 1,489m in the Tsodilo Hills.

Getting around

Your WEXAS Travel consultant can arrange any combination of internal travel to suit your tailor-made itinerary, depending on your preferences.

The best way to get around Botswana is by car - either privately rented or with a driver. The local transport networks are poor and don't link up to many of the key tourist destinations. Car rental is not necessarily cheap, though hiring a car in South Africa and crossing the border is reasonably straightforward and will save you a few pulas.

For long distance journeys consider flying. Air Botswana operates domestic flights between the capital Gaborone, Maun, Francistown and Kasane. 

History

Batswana, as the people of Botswana call themselves, refers to the country's main ethnic group, the Tswana - farmers and herders who migrated into Botswana around the fourteenth century in search of new pastures and arable land. However, even before the arrival of the Tswana, there were thriving agricultural communities in parts of Botswana as early as the seventh century.

Prior to this, like in much of the continent, there existed a complex criss-crossing migration of different tribal groups across much of southern Africa. These included the San (Bushmen) and Khoikhoi, who mixed freely, traded and inter-married. 

The arrival of the Tswana remains one of the key developments in Botswana's long history. In the fourteenth century Tswana dynasties originating from modern day Gauteng province in South Africa established themselves in several areas of Botswana and by the eighteenth century they had established a powerful military state controlling hunting, cattle-breeding and copper mining.

The nineteenth century saw further upheaval, with peoples from the north, dislocated by slavery and the collapse of their local economies, looking for new lands. At the same time Boer settlers crossed into Tswana and Zulu territory from the south and claimed them for their own.

Tswana leaders Sechele I and Mosielele were among those who refused to accept Boer rule and fighting ensued. But after heavy losses of life and land as the struggle against the newcomers intensified, the Tswana sent their leaders to petition for British protection from the Boers.

As the situation in southern Africa worsened, Britain annexed the Transvaal and launched the first Boer War (1880-1881). The Tswana petitions continued, however, and in 1885 the lands south of the Molopo River became the British Crown Colony of Bechuanaland. These lands were incorporated into the Cape Colony, while the area north of the river became the separate British Protectorate of Bechuanaland.

The arrival of the British brought with it a new threat, in the form of Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company, who were soon all but running the country. In protest, a delegation of Tswana chiefs travelled to London in 1894, accompanied by a sympathetic missionary, WC Willoughby, to appeal to Colonial Minister Joseph Chamberlain directly. Although their pleas were ignored, public pressure soon mounted when the London Missionary Society and several other Christian groups took up the campaign and the government was forced to back down.

There followed a period of relative calm for the protectorate, which was run from its capital at Mafeking - actually in South Africa. Tswana fears of Bechuanaland being amalgamated into South Africa grew when Resident Commissioner Sir Charles Rey proclaimed all local officials answerable to colonial magistrates. This action provoked a great popular opposition in Bechuanaland that resulted in Rey losing his job and his proclamation being annulled.

Mistrust of the British continued and this turned to bitterness after the Second World War, when Seretse Khama, heir to the largest Tswana chiefdom, was blocked from taking up his chieftaincy and exiled from the protectorate to England following his marriage to an English woman. After five years in exile, he renounced his tribal throne and he and his wife returned to his homeland as private citizens.

Khama returned as nationalist ideas began to take hold among the Tswana, in particular among university students returning from overseas with political ideas. This led to the formation of the first Batswana political parties and, after dabbling in local politics since his return from exile, Seretse Khama leapt back onto the political scene by founding the Bechuanaland Democratic Party. His exile gave him even greater credibility with the independence-minded electorate and, drawing on the support of other chiefs, he pushed the nationalist agenda forward. He drew up a schedule for independence that included the transfer of the capital from Mafeking to Gaborone and the drafting of a new constitution and a timescale for a peaceful transfer of power. Finally, a general election was held, Khama won and on 30 September 1966 he was sworn in as the first president of the country - now called the Republic of Botswana.

Sir Seretse Khama - he was knighted soon after independence - remained president until his death in 1980 and in that time established a peaceful country with a non-racial, multi-party democracy. During his presidency, the country's economy was also transformed, largely thanks to the discovery of diamonds in Botswana. The mining concession was given to De Beers, with Botswana taking 75 per cent of the profits.

Prosperity, peace, freedom and equality remain hallmarks of the country today. The greatest domestic priority is to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic, with an infection rate higher in Botswana than anywhere else in the world. The UN estimates that around a fifth of all Batswana are infected, including 36 per cent of young adults. However, government spending on health and antiretroviral drugs has been significantly increased and sex education is becoming more widespread in schools and universities, so there is much cause for hope.

Tipping

Tipping is not compulsory in Botswana and in general staff do not rely on tips. That said, if you feel that your day, meal or evening has been improved by good service, advice or guiding, then it's worth leaving a little something extra - it will be very well received. The recommendation is to tip guides an extra $10 a day, and $5 or more to other hotel staff or drivers. 10% on restaurant bills is standard. 

Where to eat

Traditional food is available everywhere, but the bigger cities serve every kind of cuisine, from Italian to Indian. There are plenty of bars, pubs and restaurants to choose from in Gabarone including British and Irish style pubs. Most hotels have restaurants serving a combination of local and international dishes, but possibly the best places to eat in Botswana are the game lodges, both in terms of the food and the settings, which are often spectacular.

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