If you were looking for a relatively inexpensive, highly entertaining, clean, uncrowded, friendly and relatively safe place to vacation, you would probably not think to look for it in sub-Saharan Africa. To our surprise, we found all these things, and more, in Botswana. Nestled quietly among its notorious neighbors, it has enjoyed peace and prosperity for more than 40 years, and has been determined by Transparency International to be led by the least corrupt government in Africa. The year after peacefully gaining its independence from Britain in 1966, diamonds were discovered in the southeast. Today, 40% of the world’s diamonds come from Botswana, elevating their GDP per capita from $70 to $14,000 in just over 40 years. 60% of its government’s revenue comes from diamond sales, and, unlike much of the rest of the world, the government has returned that wealth back to the the country’s infrastructure.
Our impressions of Botswana are almost all positive. To our surprise the the tap-water was drinkable, the bathrooms were clean and the people loved to sing. It was not uncommon to see a group of people spontaneously break out in three or four part harmony while dancing to some local song. Quick to return a smile or wish you a good day, the people were just friendly enough. Unless, of course, they were trying to sell you something, such as at souvenir shops where “friendliness” morphed quickly into intrusiveness. However even with all this friendliness, it’s not the people that bring in Botswana’s second largest source of revenue, it’s the tourist coming if from all over the world. With the worlds largest herds of elephants, as well as many other exotic animals easily found in their natural habitat all over northern Botswana it’s easy to see why.
Catering to the most high heeled, some tourist packages in the Okavango Delta include five star camping among these animals for more than $3000 a night! If you are more like the rest of us and would rather use your money on something other than air conditioned tents and velvet napkins, I would suggest the Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane, Botswana. At only about $120 a night, one can sleep in a luxurious grass roof hut, along side the Chobe river. The lodge’s restaurant, bar, and all around service was impeccable and the ambiance was perfect with its open air dining around a dimly lit pool overlooking a heavily wooded riverside. The only annoyance was the mosquitoes. These were remedied with mosquito repellant that the staff quickly provided when they saw us scratching; we hadn’t yet realized small bottles of repellant were also next to our shampoo and conditioner bottles in our bathroom courtesy baskets. Mosquito nets were also provided for our beds, although they weren’t really needed if the door remained closed. Curiously, all windows were barred but without wire screens, suggesting theft is still more of a threat than mosquitoes. Fortunately our little hut came with full length loosely woven inner curtains that allowed light and air in, while turning away the mosquitoes.
Another convenience of the lodge was that we could arrange all safari activities at the hotel and bill them directly to our room. We chose a fantastic three hour early evening “game drive” in the Chobe National Park, which is chocked full of wild animals living unrestrictedly immediately next to the lodge. Within those three hours we saw elephants, giraffes, impalas, wildebeests, a wild boar, mongoose, painted dogs and even the occasional dung beetle.
The next day we went on a day trip to Victoria Falls which was only a few hours away. This included a border crossing into Zimbabwe and Zambia, and opportunities to bungee jump, swing, or zip line across the gorge just southeast of the falls. The falls themselves were quite the spectacle to behold to of all the senses as they were not only majestically beautiful and thunderously loud, they were also hard to get anywhere near without getting soaked with the overspray, and there was the delicious smell of continuously watered plant life all along the pathway overlooking the falls.
The last morning we arranged a two hour private boat tour along the Chobe river where a very knowledgable tour guide / boat driver showed us more elephants, crocodiles, hippos, and many exotic birds. I will never forget the sight of a massive elephant swimming just 40 feet in front of us while eight others drank at the water’s edge, and a crocodile sunned himself almost obliviously next to them.
Botswana’s population of around two million people in a county roughly the size of Texas, has enjoyed a lot of recent prosperity, but also continues to endure one of the worst percentages of HIV/AIDS in the world. Unfortunately, this seems to be most prevalent in the universities, targeting an already meager educated work force, and posing possibly the biggest threat to Botswana’s continued success. But despite its challenges, Botswana still offers, in my opinion, a uniquely charming and unforgettable getaway.
A Special THANKS for Charlie and Nikki Cliffe for sharing their experience on this recent family vacation to Botswana. I officially now have to add Botswana to my list of “must go to” places.