We covered over 2,000km driving through northern Botswana on our latest safari, which was a circuit from Maun. On our journey, we visited a number of destinations including Nxai Pans, Makgadikgadi Pans, Chobe National Park, Khwai and the Moremi Game Reserve.
Our biggest concern was supplies – would we have enough fuel to cover us on the most remote stretches of the journey? Another big concern: river crossings! Funnily enough, the most common question we got asked did not have to do with water, food or diesel. Rather, it was how we found our way around in a country with so few road signs.
So…here are some tips on self-driving Botswana, before you hit the (sandy) roads!
1. Make sure you know how to read a map
Get your head around old-fashioned paper maps because your GPS isn’t going to help with navigation much. We found this Shell map by Veronica Roodt to be excellent.
The best Botswana road map we found.
If you have a GPS, you’ll need to enter co-ordinates (if you have them) and most of the time, this will only be a general guide as to whether you are heading in the correct direction. Roads are rarely signed and sometimes, the only clue you have as to whether you’re travelling down the right one is how well-used it looks. If it looks overgrown, it’s probably the wrong road.
In recent times, Tinkers Travels have also published these outstanding English-language maps of Chobe National Park, including Savuti and Linyanti, which you can buy in Maun or at park gates for about AUD20-30 (yes, the price does fluctuate a fair bit, even between gates). Other languages they come in: German and Afrikaans.
Google Maps is only average with showing accurate distances between points (provided your destinations are correctly pin-pointed on Google), but estimated arrival times are TOTALLY off the mark. Also, mobile coverage gets pretty patchy once you leave the big towns behind so I wouldn’t rely on it.
2. Ask locals for advice – they know the road conditions best.
As we travelled in May, we were most concerned about how much water would be around. Locals – such as guides, game park rangers and the people at the park gates – are best placed to advise you which routes to take. This is another instance where your paper map comes in really handy!
This map even shows commonly flooded crossings – useful!
In places such as the Savuti, Linyanti and Moremi, it’s really handy to have up to the minute advice on the conditions of the roads because of regular flooding/mud/water crossings.
3. Stock up on fuel, food and water whenever you can
Shops are very few and far between in northern Botswana so make sure you get everything you need for your stay – and then some, before you leave town. Maun is great, with plenty of choices for food. We bought three 5 litre bottles of drinking water just in case, and filled up the car water tank with purified water at Aquarite, so we could drink that as well if the need arose.
The local shops don’t stock much!
With fuel, our diesel car had two tanks – 160 litres in total – and we filled this up to the brim each time we saw a petrol station (in Maun, Kasane and then just outside Muchenje). We got back to Maun with no fuel dramas at the end of our trip.
Note: Most lodges will also fill your car up with water if you ask; however, this water is whatever they use for washing so could be straight out of the nearest river or Okavango Delta. I never had problems with brushing my teeth using local water and we even swam in a stream, but everybody is different.
4. Know how to drive in very thick sand
I must confess that I didn’t really know how to drive in sand, but I got the hang of it after a few days, burning less and less fuel as the days went by. I also had a high-powered (3.2L) vehicle with automatic transmission, which helped!
If you’re a sand rookie like me, essentially, you have to keep the car moving and maintain momentum in order not to get stuck. Pick a relatively compacted surface to brake or else stop at the top of an incline so gravity can help you get moving again.
Travel in high-range first (until you’re comfortable), then move on the low-range if you can so as to conserve fuel.
Some roads are really, really heavy sand such as the one between Linyanti and Ngoha Gate. Leave early in the morning, before the sand gets too hot and loose.
Don’t forget to let air out of your tyres so you get better traction. When you get back on tar road, make sure you pump up the wheels again.
Here is a short video compilation of some of the road conditions we encountered driving in Botswana:
5. If you get stuck, don’t panic. Dig, reverse and find a new line. Or wait for help.
Make sure your car comes with a shovel and tow rope. If you feel like your car is getting bogged, DO NOT accelerate. You will only dig yourself in deeper.
A couple of times, we helped a couple of other cars out by digging the wheels out of the sand with our bare hands, then pushing the car backwards (out of the rut) and then forwards, while the driver was accelerating.
You can also tow another vehicle out with the rope (if your engine is big enough and if the other person is truly stuck). If you aren’t towing or being towed, make sure you stand well away from the vehicles in case the tow rope snaps.
Karma is strong in these parts – help out and hopefully when you need help, someone else will return the favour.
6. Avoid mud. Like the plague.
Particularly in places in the Savuti, which has black cotton soil in which you WILL get bogged. I got told to avoid muddy roads in the Savuti several times by a number of different people, then saw first-hand what happens if you ignore this advice.
We tried to help these guys but they should’ve helped themselves to start with, by taking the sandy B-line. In parts as remote as the Savuti, you might not see another car for a day. We hope they carried sufficient food and water!
This car was too far gone into the mud.
7. Elephants are everywhere in many parts. Know how to act around them.
This one is particularly important in places such as anywhere in Chobe National Park, where there are thousands of elephants at any given time. Never, ever drive quickly near elephants, or approach a breeding herd (one with babies) too closely. Slow down and give them a lot of space.
If you inadvertently piss them off, learn to recognise the signs. Basically if an elephant decides to face you front on, with its ears out, trumpeting, shaking its head or shaking is trunk, it is TIME FOR YOU TO GO. This might mean reversing but get the hell out of there. Slowly (even if you don’t feel like taking your time).
Never, ever feed them, throw things at them, honk your horn or flash your lights (who even does any of these things???).
When you’re game driving in the park, switch off your engine when you get close to elephants, stay seated and keep very quiet.
These are just some of the hundreds of elephants we saw:
8. Don’t drive after dark.
The road between Maun and Nata is seriously potholed. I mean, there are craters there that will split your car in two. And no street lights. Your car insurance probably doesn’t cover driving after dark, and there are cows and donkeys everywhere outside of the cattle fence that protects the Okavango Delta.
Inside Chobe National Park, we encountered a hundred-strong herd of Cape buffalo at dusk. These animals unnerve me in broad daylight, never mind in the dark! There are also elephants, lions, hyenas and plenty of snakes so you don’t really want to have to travel at night if you don’t absolutely have to.
9. Use your odometer / trust your instincts.
Some lodges give crazy directions such as “turn right 5km past X sign, after you see a white post”. If you don’t use your odometer, use the scale on your paper map to work out where you need to turn off.
In places such as the Linyanti and Khwai, the trees were really high and there were a tonne of trails leading off in all different directions. Use the GPS to work out roughly which direction you need to go, then follow your nose. In the bush, most man-made trails lead somewhere!
10. River crossings – this one requires nerve and some thinking.
This was one of the things we worried about most before we left. Khwai and Moremi were the only two places where we had to tackle water crossings and in both instances, the water wasn’t too deep.
How did we know this? No, we didn’t wade through it (like many 4WD forums suggest). We asked a lot of locals and other self-drivers.
In Moremi, we also tried another tactic: we waited until another car went through, to see how they fared! Riverbanks are a great place to stop for a cuppa and snack as it happens. Make sure you don’t set up in a place you can’t see approaching animals however.
Setting up for a cuppa. Notice how we’ve picked a wide open spot to do this!
A great piece of advice we got: don’t turn off the engine if you get stuck in water. If you do, consider your vehicle written off!
This is our review of the vehicle we hired.
Going to Namibia? Read this first: