Game drive by the Chobe River: Spotting elephants from the vehicle, a close-up view of wildlife in its natural habitat.

Self-drive Botswana

February 8, 2024

Botswana is all wild, raw wilderness and epic wildlife. Thick sandy off-road tracks take you to explore the wide open spaces of the vast salt pans and the green desert oasis of the Okavango Delta. While most will explore Botswana by fly-in or combined with a self-drive or private guided element, a complete self-drive is also possible for those with a sense of adventure willing to take on some heavy 4x4 driving. The key is to be prepared and to plan in advance.

Now that’s not to say you can’t travel the country using only the main tarred roads of Botswana, this too is possible, although less likely in and just after the rain season when routes can be flooded (December through March depending on the rains received). You can include the main highlights of Botswana travelling on good tarred roads only. A good option if you are a first time self-driver in Africa and if you’re looking for adventure but less off the beaten path stuff with minimal 4x4 gallivanting. This would most probably see you start in Kasane with a visit to Chobe National Park (including a possible visit or day activity to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe), then south via Nata and the Makgadikgadi Pans before heading west to Maun and the Okavango Delta which, if you’re trying to avoid heavy driving in thick sand, will see you leave the car in Maun and combine you’re self-drive route with a fly-in to the heart of the Okavango Delta, which is not possible by car anyway. This route could be done in reverse too.

Need more reassurance? The main routes are well sign posted (although not as well as in some other African countries) but if you stick to the main roads, you’ll end up where you should be. Botswana has 18,000 kilometres of roads of which only 4,300 kilometres are paved. There aren’t many other routes to take unless you head off road and since that’s not really your thing, you’ll be just fine with map in hand, your GPS and some common sense.

Ok so the above is great for those who may be a little more cautious or only wish to explore certain areas, but what if you’re more of an adventure seeker, you’re happy to drive off-road, you want to include remote areas such as the Moremi Game Reserve and Savuti and thick sand and 4x4ing is more your style? Well it’s possible and doable, but will require you to have some experience and an understanding of 4x4 driving, in often, less than favourable conditions.

You’ve more likely done a self-drive safari, if not several, before and even then it’s still advisable to travel in convoy or as a group with more than one vehicle. Having extra support and another vehicle on “backup” is a great advantage, remembering the remote areas are also known as wild country, the real African bush where you can’t simply get out of your vehicle.

For any self-drive safari you’ll need to be comfortable with changing a tyre and using a high lift jack. In Botswana, even on main routes, there’s a good chance the nearest town is a few hour’s drive away. You’ll want to be prepared. Make sure you have a suitably kitted vehicle with extra tyres, fuel canisters (unless you have double fuel tanks, if needed), a comprehensive tool kit and water as well as snacks and drinks for the journey. Stock up on supplies. You won’t find a grocery store in the middle of the bush. Go figure.

It’s important to know the driving times. While it may not seem all that far between destinations, driving 100 kilometres on tarred or even well-maintained gravel roads is very different to driving 100 kilometres in heavy going off-road. Thick sand tracks means slow driving and you’ll be slowing down through rural villages too. Watch out for livestock and children playing. Drive safe. Be considerate, especially on single track roads. Always be on the lookout for wildlife (the biggest danger on a self-drive in Botswana). Plan your distances and driving times accurately as some days will be full days in the car. All good though since it’s the journey that makes the adventure. Just remember that you don’t want to be out there in the dark.

Botswana is for the most part remote. Exploring Botswana will mean heading to remote destinations so you’ll need to plan your Botswana self-drive itinerary in advance. Remote areas mean limited accommodation options. Plan ahead and book in advance. Luxury options are few and far between on the less accessible self-drive routes, some areas at best offer one or two decent standard options and there’s a good chance you’ll be combining your route with some wild camping, which usually gets booked up roughly a year in advance. Like we said, plan and book ahead. As far in advance as possible. While we know you might be the more adventurous type, you can’t just drive and camp at random. This place is wild remember and if you were thinking to wing it, don’t. You’ll find the campsites and more often than not, the lodges, are all fully booked which makes last minute travel a challenge, although not entirely impossible.

Car rental in Botswana is more expensive than in other African countries. There are definitely fewer rental companies to choose from and you’re likely to only find car rental offices in the major cities. You’ll need a 4x4 vehicle, even if you’re driving on the main tarred routes, as often your lodges will require a short distance of off-road gravel travel and if you’re camping, then you’ll need a fully equipped camping vehicle anyway. Take into account the vehicle drop off fees if you’re starting and ending at a different destination, which will be the case unless you are going round trip. Use a car rental company with an office in both your start and end destination to reduce costs, this will also make the most sense for your route logistically.

You’re likely to start your safari in Kasane where you can collect your rental vehicle. Rough roads start here as you head through the Chobe National Park to the raw wilderness of Savute and then on to the edges of the Okavango Delta in the Khwai area and Moremi Game Reserve before heading to Maun. You could end your safari here or continue to include the Central Kalahari and the Makgadigadi salt pans and returning to Kasane again to drop the vehicle (hence the round trip we referred to above). Then transfer across to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to end and fly out, which makes for a great country combo and international flights are easy to and from here. Possible in reverse too or venture further into Namibia or even into southern Botswana and on to South Africa to continue your self-drive adventure. Both also great self-drive destinations very different to that of Botswana.  

Whatever your Botswana self-drive itinerary, it’s imperative to know your route. We’d go as far as to recommend making sure someone always knows where you are and what your next destination is. Preferably someone on the ground. Your sister-in-law on the other side of the world won’t be able to do much if you get stuck along the way or you don’t pitch up at your next stop as planned. Here’s where we come in. Our next tip: Use a tour operator like NTS and we’re not just saying that so you’ll book with us, although we hope you will, it’s really a top recommendation.

There’s a lot that goes into a self-drive safari in Botswana and you’ll want you to do it right from the start, which includes knowing the best time to travel to Botswana and which months are a ‘no go’ for off-road routes in the rainy season. Using an operator will mean smooth travel, unlike the roads you’ll be navigating and this should be your only concern. We’ll ensure you book the correct vehicle and suitable accommodations in the remote areas you’ll visit, the best route given what you’re up for and then give you all the information you’ll need to travel safely. Necessary tips, driving directions and times including making sure you’ve got Tracks4Africa on your GPS and your map is well highlighted. We’re also on hand to help and assist in any worst case scenario and we’re definitely more reliable in-country than your sister-in law plus we’ll throw in a satellite phone too.

Let’s face it - you aren’t going to wander off into the wilderness and go wild camping if you’re a first time traveller to Africa. Well, you could but would you? If that question excites you then you might just survive the experience, but it’s certainly less likely and even if you have been on a self-drive safari before we’d still recommend you are prepared for a self-drive safari in Botswana.

Be prepared for anything. While we could say this of any self-drive safari we mean it when we are talking about Botswana self-drive tours. Getting stuck in thick sand, meeting a pride of lion along the way or getting a flat in the middle of nowhere are all real possibilities to name but a few. You can’t just get out of your vehicle, especially if you encounter wildlife and remember just because you don’t see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t lurking in the bush watching you.

Botswana is a stunning country to explore and a great destination of remote areas and camps. Expansive bush, prolific wildlife and few people is what makes the adventure and gives driving in Botswana its charm. It’s undeveloped, raw and a fine option if you’re looking to escape the rush of busy days, but for these same reasons it’s also daunting and complicated when considering a self-drive safari.

Contact us today to start planning your Botswana self-drive itinerary. Tailor-made to your preferences and to best suit your budget and experience level.

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We’ve travelled. We’ve adventured. We’ve experienced. We're eager to share our world, never forgetting that each itinerary is as unique as the traveller.

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