Botswana Safaris

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Despite its image as a preserve of fancy, high-end safaris, this progressive southern African country has plenty to offer the budget traveler

For safari-goers, Botswana is synonymous with pricey and exclusive. This enlightened southern African country has pursued a wise policy of high-end, low-impact tourism that has become an ecotourism model for developing nations, but unfortunately is making most Botswana safaris booked in the U.S. cost a heavy $200 to $2,000 a day (and that's not including airfare). We've managed to ferret out a good number of low-cost options that allow you to rent your own vehicle for as little as $23 a day and stay in inexpensive lodges that offer their own tours and mini-safaris. Camp in fancy tents, slumber in traditional round African houses called rondavels, or even bask in your own desert chalet for as little as $4 for camping and $36 for a chalet that sleeps four; throw in a river cruise for $15 or a rhino walk for $18 per person.

With its lack of mass tourism, Botswana's spacious 221,623 square miles (slightly less than Texas) are a special treat for wildlife enthusiasts. There are more wild animals and fewer spectators, especially compared to more beaten-path safari destinations like Kenya and South Africa. The government heavily discourages poaching and hunting, and has set aside a whopping 17 percent of the entire country as national parkland (and that doesn't count the numerous private reserves). Botswanans receive education about preserving their environment and are locally placed in charge of its well-being. Botswana's dry, limitless plains stretch far and wide, with a distinct scent of untamed wilderness and primordial earth in the air.

Wealthy, stable Botswana

Botswana has been nothing less than an African miracle for over 30 years. Shortly after its independence in 1966 (and to the vexation of former colonial ruler Britain), some of the world's largest diamond deposits were discovered here. Its population of 1.6 million is tiny in African terms, and its foreign reserves total $7 billion, the world's highest per capita (its GDP is Africa's second highest per capita). It is easily one of Africa's most politically stable nations. Botswana does have the highest HIV infection rate in the world (36 percent), but this is because, unlike in much of Africa, testing is encouraged and common. The government has also boldly decided to directly foot the bill for pricey HIV drugs kept artificially expensive by multinational pharmaceutical companies-which even its neighbor South Africa hasn't done. With widely available health care, lack of tribal and racial conflicts, a forward-thinking government, not to mention pure riches, Botswana challenges common perceptions about African nations.

All located in northern and eastern Botswana, the following are our top choices for game parks and the best budget accommodations nearby. National park entrance fees are not cheap at about $20 per day but worth every penny. Private game parks include the park fees in their tour prices. Camping on your own in the national parks listed here costs $5 per person per day and must be booked prior to arrival since reservations fill up early (for more info on how to do this, go to gov.bw/tourism/index_f.html). But why rough it when you can sleep comfortably for a few more bucks at lodges? We'll show you how, starting with the least expensive option:

The Okavango Delta

Go wild at the 1,881-square-mile Moremi Wildlife Reserve, located on one of Earth's great natural wonders, a 9,000-square-mile inland river delta (the world's largest), where the Okavango River seeps into the Kalahari's roasting sands. Over 300 bird species teem in the delta's massive maze of inlets and islands, not to mention unwieldy hippos, lying-in-wait crocodiles, elephants passing through, and lily pads that appear to stretch on forever. The traditional water safari here is taken via a dugout canoe called a mokoro. (Note: Try to avoid the summer wet season -- more water than you've bargained for.)

Lay your head at the Audi Camp, seven-and-a-half miles north of the town of Maun, the backpackers' hub for the area. Dedicated to budget travelers and working in conjunction with locals, Audi Camp's prices are nothing short of eye-popping for Botswana: $15 per person for a pre-erected, double tent with beds, along with full dinners for $6. Each tent has lights, its own fireplace, and cooking area. Depending on how much you want to rough it, you can pitch your own tent for only $4 per person. Outdoor bathrooms and showers are communal, and there's croc-free dipping in the swimming pool as well. Audi also has some of the lowest prices for one-day or longer mokoro trips with local guides, at $72 per person.

If you need a ride to far-off Windhoek in Namibia, a weekly shuttle costs $61. Phone 011-267/686-0599 or surf to audicamp.bizland.com.

Kalahari Desert

The Khama Rhino Sanctuary is a special 10,600-acre reserve (15 miles north of the historic town of Serowe), established in 1993 to rescue the vanishing white rhino. From an initial four, the rhino population has swelled to 18, and future plans call for introduction of the nearly extinct black rhino to the sanctuary as well. Seventeen miles of electric fence protects the reserve, and the sanctuary is run by a community trust involving locals from the area. The entrance fee with vehicle is only $5, and the sanctuary is dependent on contributions from tourists.

A short drive from the Khama sanctuary's main entrance, the immaculate Mokongwa Camp offers an interesting variation on the African rondavel hut: five thatched-roof chalets that sleep up to four people in four three-quarter beds and have baths en suite for only $36 to $45 per unit. Or you can opt for a two-story, rustic, A-frame chalet at Boma camp, which is a little roomier, comes with private bath, and sleeps up to six for $64 a night, depending on which particular one you choose. Camping underneath large mokongwa trees is $4.50 a night (in addition to a $9 site fee), including outdoor cooking facilities. The camp is surrounded by stunning arid vistas, and there's a provisions shop and crafts store. Fun and educational guided Jeep tours cost only $37 for up to four people, and night tours seeking out red-eyed nocturnal critters are $55 for one to four people. Simple nature walks are a mere $7 a person, and rhino walks are $18. Info: 011-267/463-0713, or log on to the informational Internet site for the sanctuary at khamarhinosanctuary.org.

Chobe National Park

A good bit larger than Connecticut, Chobe National Park occupies 4,079 square miles just over the borders with Zambia and Zimbabwe. It encompasses a wildly wide variety of terrain, from a lush river region in the north (where myriad game come to drink) and unremittingly dry bushland in the south. Elephants trample around everywhere -- 45,000 are said to make Chobe their home, one of the highest concentrations in the world. Like fishing? Over 90 species, including the mighty tiger fish, are found here. And of course, this is the kingdom of the big cats as well.

Chobe Safari Lodge, located near the village of Kasane just 50 miles from Victoria Falls, dates back to 1963. It couldn't look more picture-perfect perched over the lush banks of the Chobe River. Accommodations and amenities have an upscale feel, including squash courts, a beauty salon, and an Internet cafe. But prices are down to earth: Simple yet spacious rondavels come with private bathrooms and fans for only $43 per person, and 20 "luxury" River Rooms in a tasteful two-story complex come with TV, phone, air-conditioning, and verandas overlooking the river for $50 per person. Three-hour game drives are a rock-bottom $21, sunset river cruises on a double-decker boat with wet bar are $13 (a park fee of $13 covers both outings). Large buffet meals range from $11 to $15. For close-to-nature types, campsites on the riverbanks run $8. Info/booking: 011-267/625-0336 or chobesafarilodge.com.

Makgadikgadi & Nxai Pan National Park

An ancient lake millions of years ago, today this immense national park is a 2,787-square-mile arid basin that goes from a strangely desolate yet inviting dust bowl in winter to a shallow, wet wonderland when it rains in summer. When it's wet, flamingos, wildebeests, and zebras (along with their predators) can be spotted migrating here in the thousands.

Planet Baobab is a 15-minute drive from the town of Gweta, within easy reach of the pans on the Francistown-Maun road, and takes its name from the planet where the Little Prince in the classic tale lived. It's sure enough set amid a grove of giant baobab trees (an African native that looks like it's upside down with roots jutting to the sky), near a natural spring. Planet Baobab offers several comfortable, traditional grass huts built by bushmen for $13 per person with shared baths (if you need to live it up, try the mud huts with private showers for $26 per person). Campsites are $4 per person a night.

Basic but tasty meals are $4.65 for breakfast, $5.50 for lunch, and you'll pay $9.25 for dinner, including the best chocolate cake in the Kalahari. You can also opt to purchase provisions like fresh meat and vegetables in Gweta and cook for yourself in the communal kitchen. There's also a fully stocked bar (check out the beer-bottle chandelier), and a swimming pool, where you can work on your desert tan. Guided activities include bush walks ($9.25) and village tours for $15 each. Info: 011-267/241-2277 or surf to unchartedafrica.com.

Mashatu Game Reserve

With 100,000-plus acres, it's the largest privately owned wildlife area in Botswana, and part of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve occupying the easternmost tip of the country, bordering Zimbabwe and South Africa. Beyond sightings of lions, leopards, zebras, kudu, elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, and hyenas, Mashatu also offers riverbeds full of baboons, thousand-year-old archaeological sites from an ancient minikingdom, and dramatic sandstone dikes!

Mashatu Main Camp is known as a luxury spot, but it's extremely reasonable compared to most Botswana lodges; the $125 per person at Mashatu Tent Camp and $150 at Mashatu Main Camp per night includes morning, afternoon, and night game-viewing drives, park fees, three scrumptious buffet meals a day and snacks, all transfers, optional bush walks or bicycle safaris, and talks led by experts. You have your choice of accommodations of a carpeted tent with a private outdoor bathroom in the tented camp, or a traditional rondavel with air-conditioning and private bath in the main camp, or the more luxurious chalets with twin bathrooms en suite in the main camp. Both camps present watering holes teeming with thirsty game (thankfully, the animals refrain from drinking from the plunge pool for the guests). At night, the electricity-free tent camp is romantically lit with kerosene lanterns. Info: 011-267/264-5321 or mashatu.com.

Bots-wanna go?

One of the best and most economical ways to see Botswana is with a package tour through a discount operator rather than a high-priced "safari specialist." Africa specialist 2Afrika (877/200-5610, 2afrika.com) offers a South Africa/Botswana package that includes one night in Johannesburg, six nights in a River Room at the Chobe Safari Lodge, and round-trip air from New York starting at $1,920. Overlanding safaris from British outfits are represented by affordable, California-based Adventure Center (800/228-8747, adventurecenter.com): A 15-night package from Explore is $1,630 (land only).

Since there are no direct flights from North America, most visitors to Botswana arrive via South Africa. South African Airways (800/722-9675, flysaa.com) is your main option; nonstops to Johannesburg from New York and Atlanta start at $1,364. SAA is also your least expensive option for daily flights between Jo'burg and Gaborone, Botswana's capital: about $160 round trip. Air Botswana (800/518-7781) is much pricier at $260 from Jo'burg to Gaborone, and $270 round trip from Gaborone to Maun.

A selection of car-rental agencies (including Avis, 011-267/391-3093) operate at the Gaborone airport and in town, and most offer compacts for only $23 a day. Botswana roads are rough, so 4x4's at $71 a day may be advisable. Another idea if you're coming from Johannesburg is to get a camper at Avisuper Car Rental (fax 011-27-21/910-2228, kapstadt.de/car-rental/index-g.htm). It offers air-conditioned Toyota Condor camper vans for $30 per person per day, along with cooking equipment, tent, sleeping bags, towels, blankets, etc.

You can get tourist information at the new Botswana Tourism number, 877/268-7926, or online at gov.bw.

The commercial site botswana.com is chock-full of information as well. For reading in the desert, be sure to pick up the fascinating nature story The Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens, and When Rain Clouds Gather, a portrait of a Botswana village by the renowned writer Bessie Head.

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