Botswana: 4 must-explore national parks and game reserves.
Whether it’s the allure of free-roaming wildlife, spectacular natural landscapes and rich cultural immersion, Botswana is sure to have it in spades. Landlocked in Southern Africa, Botswana offers some of the most abundant wildlife viewing opportunities on the African continent, whether you bed down at an out-of-this-world luxury lodge or enjoy the simple comfort of a rooftop tent.
To uncover its natural charm, local heritage and unique biodiversity, set out into one of Botswana’s famed national parks and game reserves, promising thrilling adventure pursuits, epic scenery and a chance to get closer to the wild.
A guide to Botswana’s wilderness: Four must-explore national parks and game reserves in Botswana
Okavango Delta and Moremi Game Reserve
The Okavango Delta is the Earth’s largest inland delta, sprawled over 16,000 square kilometres in Botswana’s northwest. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, the vast Okavango Delta is characterised by a labyrinth of lagoons, swamps, channels and floodplains, revealing one of the most fascinating and untouched ecosystems on the planet.
Fed from the heavy rainfall in the Angolan highlands, these life-giving flood waters arrive each year, flowing in abundance into Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, reviving the region with water during the dry winter, and sustaining countless animals, insects and birds year-round. From above, the snaking amber waters and lush green forests boast one of the most spectacular sights on Earth, while on the ground, hidden channels, riverbanks and forest floors reveal wild secrets, rewarding patient spectators on game drives or around an open fire.
Moremi Game Reserve
For a Botswana safari experience unlike any other, Moremi Game Reserve is a must-explore for every visitor. Proclaimed as protected land in 1963, Moremi Game Reserve has flourished, renowned for its abundance of birdlife – including rare bird sightings of ground hornbills and wattled cranes – and adored wildlife.
This remote year-round destination entices visitors with incredible sightings of lion, elephant, buffalo, hippopotamus, wildebeest, giraffe, Nile crocodile, cheetah, leopard, brown hyena, spotted hyena, greater kudu, sable antelope, rhino, plains zebra, warthog and chacma baboon. Due to its location, exploring Moremi is best by game drive, light plane or helicopter, or on a mokoro (traditional canoe).
Best Time To Visit the Moremi Game Reserve
The wet season lasts from November to March and brings an abundance of new life, migratory birds and renowned predator activity. For first-timers or self-drivers, this is a great time of year to explore with a professional guide. The seasonal rain can make areas of Moremi Game Reserve inaccessible for self-drive vehicles, even those with plenty of experience.
Wildlife viewing is at its best during the dry season from April to October, when the Okavango Delta is at its fullest, revived by the incoming flood waters. This time of year is best for mokoro excursions.
Recommended Lodge: African Bush Camps' Khwai Leadwood
African Bush Camps’ Khwai Leadwood is an intimate safari camp set on the banks of the Khwai River.
Located in the Khwai Community Concession, Khwai Leadwood offers guests comfortable luxury with an unmatched wilderness experience that takes in the bountiful Khwai Concession and Moremi Game Reserve on twice-daily game drives with legendary local guides.
With just six guest tents and one family tent, a few nights tucked under the leadwood trees will revive and enthral travellers of every age. Look forward to tasty meals with a colourful flare, a dip in the scenic pool, and an adrenaline-inducing helicopter flip over the Okavanga Delta.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit Khwai Village, learn Tswana from a friendly local or tour African Bush Camp Foundation’s community projects sites, which include the local Khwai Preschool.
Chobe National Park and Savuti
Chobe National Park is one of Botswana’s famed wildlife habitats, playing host to the world’s largest elephant concentration – estimated at a mind-blowing 50,000 elephants! At certain times of the year, large elephant herds can be seen gathering on the banks of the Chobe River or wandering down ancient sandy tracks deep within the wilderness.
If that’s not enough to lure you, even in the dry season, the permanent waters of the Chobe River are like a magnet for wildlife, offering a reprieve from the otherwise parched Kalahari Desert.
Here vast herds of antelope, zebra, wildebeest and a plethora of predators like lion, leopard, cheetah and hyena roam, revealing magnificent sightings for visitors. “The sand track along the Chobe River between Kasane and Ngoma is a very special route for self-drivers, allowing travellers to explore one of the most game-rich areas in Africa at their own pace,” reveals Johan Steenhuisen from safariFRANK, a father-son duo who plan epic itineraries across Africa. “Whilst the eastern section close to Kasane can be busy in peak season, the further west you go, the quieter it will become,” he points out.
Covering 11,700 square kilometres, Chobe National Park is also one of the best places in Botswana to witness the migration of wildebeest and zebras, which travel long distances to reach the Chobe River and swamplands to raise their young.
“A sunset boat cruise along the Chobe River is also highly recommended for self-drivers as it allows you to experience the elephants and other game coming down to drink,”says Steenhuisen.
coming from a team with over 30 years of overlanding experience throughout Africa.
Self Drive in Chobe National Park
“And for the serious and experienced self-driver, the Nogatsaa area of Chobe National Park is a fantastic area to explore away from the crowds at the right time of the year,” notes Steenhuisen, “[There’s] adventure guaranteed!”
Encompassed with Chobe National Park is an area known as Savuti (also Savute), which borders the Delta to the west and Chobe National Park to the east. When flowing, the Savuti channel spills over to create a thriving marsh ecosystem. As the channel dries, small scattered pools attract a host of wildlife and their predators, ensuring a thrilling setting for eager on-lookers.
Where is Savuti?
Savuti area is located in Botswana, southern Africa. It borders the Okavango Delta to the west and Chobe National Park to the east.
“For most self-drivers, the highlight of Chobe National Park is Savuti. The track to get there is very sandy in some places, but once there, the Savuti area and marsh are a vast space of wilderness to explore,” says Steenhuisen.
Best Time To Visit Savuti Botswana
While Chobe National Park and Savuti can be enjoyed throughout the year, the dry season (April to October) is fantastic for game viewing as wildlife congregates around the shrinking water sources, with hot days and no rain.
From November to March, the wet season means new life in the bush and prolific sightings around Savuti marsh. Bird lovers will also delight in visiting Chobe in the summer months when colourful migratory birds promise enchanting sightings and plenty of bird book ticks.
Recommended Lodge in Chobe National Park: Chobe Game Lodge
Chobe Game Lodge is currently the only lodge within the national park. You’ll find the five-star lodge in the northern region of Chobe National Park, idyllically set on the banks of the river, promising an all-encompassing safari experience.
This ecotourism-certified lodge comprises 44 elegantly appointed guest rooms and daily activities, including boat safaris and game drives.
Recommended Lodge in Savuti: Savute Safari Lodge
Accommodating just 24 guests in 11 thatched chalets, Savute Safari Lodge overlooks the Savuti Channel. Those seeking to learn about Botswana’s rich heritage can go on a guided tour to the ancient San rock paintings at Gubatsa Hills – a small hilly outcrop that forms a prominent landmark in the otherwise flat landscape.
Stretching from the Linyanti River all the way to Savute Marsh, the winding waterways of the Savute Channel have pumped life into the western section of Chobe National Park for many thousands of generations. However, this fickle and unpredictable channel, which has a fascinating history of flooding and drying up, independently of good rainy seasons and flood levels elsewhere, has mystified local inhabitants, geologists and others for many years.
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park reveals a distinct desert landscape that’s unlike anywhere else Earth. Here white salt pans stretch beyond the skyline, creating moonscapes of epic proportions where an ancient lake once existed. Makgadikgadi National Park extends over 3,900 kilometres with a topography that varies from salt pans to palm-sprinkled savanna grasslands, with many coming here to experience true remoteness in the wild.
During the dry months, wildlife congregates near the Boteti River, migrating east to the pans when the rain arrives with thousands of grazers – Burchell’s zebra, blue wildebeest, springbok and gemsbok – journeying in search of fresh new grass.
During this wet season (November to March), enormous flocks of flamingos make the journey from as far as the Rift Valley in East Africa to Makgadikgadi’s nutrient-rich salt pans, feeding on algae and plankton and painting the horizon in brilliant displays of pinks and whites.
One of the many wonders of Makgadikgadi National Parks is the presence of desert-dwelling species like the mischievous meerkat and elusive brown hyena. Visitors can also look forward to spotting lion, leopard and cheetah as they traverse the vast national park. Don’t miss appreciating how truly isolated you are; with no light pollution, nighttime reveals an extraordinary and endless diamond-dusted sky.
Makgadikgadi Recommended Lodge: San Camp
Step back in time and discover San Camp, an impossibly nostalgic Meru-style camp set on the fringes of Ntwetwe Pan. With no electricity, there’s every excuse to immerse yourself entirely in desert life without sacrificing any creature comforts. There’s a scenic yoga pavilion for wellness, an enticing pool on the edge of the glistening pan, and a central guest tent where you can get lost in a world of discovery with curiosities and artifacts. You’ll toast to the sunset on an isolated salt pan, enjoy twice daily game drives and even have a chance to walk with habituated meerkats as they scavenge in the dust.
For a chance to learn about Botswana’s San People and fascinating culture, San Camp can arrange for guests to join the Zu/’ hoasi Bushmen on a bush walk.
In this meaningful and respectful meeting, community members will teach you about their hunting and gathering skills, share stories and demonstrate how the San people have lived and survived in this region for thousands of years. San Camp is open from April to mid-October.
Best Time To Visit Makgadikgadi Pans
Although the park is open year-round, the best time to visit depends on personal preference. In the dry season (April to November), wildlife viewing is best near the Boteti River. The days are hot, and the roads are in good condition for self-driving around the park. The wet season (November to March) is best for bird viewing and witnessing the massive migration of animals to the pans. Days are typically cooler with afternoon thunderstorms.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve
Many know the Central Kalahari Game Reserve from the enthralling pages of ‘Cry of The Kalahari’ by Mark and Delia Owen, an American couple who travelled to Botswana to study wildlife in the 70s. Together they share their first-hand account of life in Deception Valley and their storied adventures with wildlife.
What you may not know is that Botswana's San Bushmen have survived this enormous desert for thousands of years because of their innate hunting skills and ability to adapt to the harsh desert environment. (Take any opportunity to learn about Botswana's cultural heritage for a deeper and more meaningful experience.) When you experience the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, you’ll get an almost inconceivable feeling of space and freedom. Central Kalahari Game Reserve is the largest reserve in Southern Africa and the second largest on the planet, covering a staggering 52,800 square kilometres.
Here, you’ll find stretching savanna, semi-arid shrub and patches of acacia thicket, and in some places, shallow pans and depressions that hold scattered pools of water after the rain. At the entrance gate, your map will reveal the wilderness areas to explore, including Deception Valley – known for its concentration of game – Tau Pan, Sunday and Leopard Pans, Passarge Valley, and further south, Piper’s Pan. During the day, sprays of gemsbok and springbok pepper the flat grassed pans, puncturing the horizon. While at night, a deep onyx sky seems to follow the Earth's gentle curve from one horizon to the next.
Among the species that roam this expansive game reserve, the black-maned lion remains one of the most captivating sights of all. The desert-adapted lion lives in large prides and adjusts to changing seasons and environments where temperatures can fluctuate between minus eight degrees celsius in winter and highs between 40 and 50 degrees in summer. Look out for rhino and desert-adapted elephant, as well as black-backed jackal, spotted and brown hyena, cheetah, wild dog and leopard (although rare), oryx, antelope, honey badgers, bat-eared foxes, the African wild cat, zebra and giraffe.
Several remote public campsites are scattered around the reserve's northern reaches. Navigating Central Kalahari Game Reserve requires patience but prevails with beautiful bird sightings and dramatic scenery. Map your routes carefully each day to take in the enormous reserve, or book a lodge that provides daily game drives with professional guides.
Best Time To Visit Kalahari
The green or wet season may just be the best time to visit Central Kalahari Game Reserve. During this season, the valleys evolve into verdant vegetation, attracting grazers in their thousands.
Recommended Lodge in Kalahari: Wilderness Kalahari Plains Camps
Wilderness' Kalahari Plains Camp is one of only two lodges set within the bounds of Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Here you'll find eight light-filled canvas tents that invite guests to experience luxury in the desert, complete with chef-prepared meals, daily game drives, brunch on the pans and respectful cultural immersion activities, like a fascinating guided walk with the San Bushmen.
For the adventurist, each suite is fitted out with a dreamy rooftop sleepout, where you can stargaze under the magical Milkyway, drift off to the sounds of the wild and watch the sunrise nestled undercover.
Whether you decide to hit the open road to explore the beauty of Botswana, camp fire-side and savour the simple pleasures of the great outdoors, or you opt for a sprinkling of luxury at one of Botswana’s most spectacular lodges, you’ll soon discover that this country is intoxicating. And once you’ve explored Botswana’s vast national parks and treasured game reserves, you’ll have a new sense of wonder for wildlife and wide open spaces, and it won’t be long til you’re into answering the call of the wild, back to Botswana.