Africa - Botswana
Botswana, seasons, medical, safari, photography ...

Botswana, presently with a population of around 1.8 million inhabitants, gained its independence from Great Britain in 1966. Its capital is Gaborone, in the southeast. English is the official and Setswana the national language of the country. Botswana prides itself on its democratic traditions and its robust economy (largely generated by its huge diamond mining industry).

Botswana is a landlocked country slightly larger than France, situated in the centre of Southern Africa.

Its neighbours are South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is a generally flat country with an average elevation of about 1 000 metres (around 3 000 feet).  Most of the country lies north of the tropic of Capricorn.

Botswana has a summer (November to April) rainfall pattern, with the amount of rain varying considerably from year to year. Throughout the country the evaporation rate (annually around 2000 mm from an open water surface) exceeds the amount of rainfall. Rainfall is highest in the north-east (600 –675 mm per annum) and is least in the south-west (around 150 – 200 mm p.a.).

The table below shows the mean maximum and minimum temperatures in four locations in Botswana.

Gaborone28/12 C82/54 F22/2 C72/36  32/16 C90/61 F       32/18 C90/64 F
Francistown   28/14 C82/57 F24/5 C75/41 F32/18 C90/64 F       31/18 C8/64 F
Maun     30/15 C86/59 F26/6 C79/43 F34/20 C93/68 F      30/19 C86/66 F
Kasane    30/15 C86/59 F25/8 C77/46 F       33/19 C91/66 F30/19 C86/66 F

These figures represent averages and it should be noted that the maximum and  minimum temperatures recorded on certain days can be significantly different. For example, it may freeze at night in the Kalahari winter, and at 14h00 in the same area in October or November the temperature may soar to over 40° C (104° F). There may be a very big difference between daily maximum and minimum temperatures: in August, e.g., the temperature may be around freezing at 05h00 and over 30 °C in the early afternoon.
Seasons of the year

The year in Botswana may be divided into three seasons. These are indicated below.

1. May to August: cool to cold. Dry.

Clear skies and sunny weather virtually guaranteed. Nights (especially June to mid August) may be cold, even occasionally freezing. Early mornings cool to cold, but temperatures from 09h00 to late afternoon mild and pleasant. You will need warm clothing (or a blanket) for the early morning game drive in an open 4x4 and possibly for the evening, too, as the temperature quickly drops at sunset. Mid to late morning game drives may be generally more productive than early drives as many animals are more active then at this time of the year. But you still have a better chance of seeing the big cats in the early morning.

Generally this is the “low” season for birds as most migrants are absent, but the birding is still quite good and the first intra-African migratory bird species (Yellow-billed and Black Kites and Wahlberg’s Eagles) arrive late Aug. At this time of the year, it should be noted, you can still see a lot more species of birds than you would expect to see at the peak birding time of the year in Europe or North America.

2. September to mid November: Hot and dry.

The hot dry season can extend to mid, even late, Nov. in some drier years. Temperatures can soar to over 40° C in the middle of the day and early afternoon, dropping to around 30° C at night. This is the time of the year you can expect to se the greatest concentrations of game animals as they concentrate around water in Moremi or Chobe and other areas.  Whilst it can certainly be hot at this time of the year, it should be borne in mind that DRY heat is much more tolerable than humid heat.

Drink plenty of liquids to keep from dehydrating.

Even though early morning and late afternoon game drives are the norm, game drives in the middle of the day can also be productive, especially along the Chobe River when spectacular herds of elephants as well as roan and sable antelopes and other game species may be seen.

Many areas, especially in the Chobe  N.P. and parts of Moremi, look desolate and threadbare and food resources for game animals are depleted.

There is a small chance of light rain during this period, but this very rarely interferes with game drives and other safari activities.

A number of African and Eurasian migratory birds arrive to swell the ranks of resident species. Many bird species breed at this time.

3. Mid November to April: hot and wet.

The onset of the rains brings down the temperature a few degrees, but it can still be hot with daytime temperatures in the high 30s. Humidity rises, especially during Dec. to Feb., the months of greatest rainfall, but never reaches the uncomfortable high humidity of tropical rainforest areas.  Droughts, however, are common in Botswana, so it may not cool down much at this time. By the end of March the heat has diminished somewhat and April may be relatively mild with game species starting to concentrate again around perennial water as pans start to dry out. (A few large pans in a year of abundant rain hold water until Sept. or even Oct.).

Within a couple of weeks of the first good rains (any time from mid Nov. to Dec.), the desperately dry, dusty and khaki-grey bush is transformed into a verdant wonderland. In a good rainy season the pans fill up by December allowing game species to roam away from permanent dry season water the vicinity of which is often overgrazed/overbrowsed. Game disperses at this time and whilst there is always wildlife to be seen in Moremi G.R. and Chobe N.P., game concentrations are generally reduced. Some nature enthusiasts find this season the most attractive time of the year, enjoying the vitality of the rejuvenated bush. Bird life is at its peak, especially in the period late Nov. to March. By early Dec. all the migratory species have arrived in Botswana. In prime birding areas, such as the northern Chobe National Park/Kasane area, keen, energetic and experienced birders can record around 300 species in three or four days.

The wet roads in this season present 4x4 driving challenges in certain places, especially in “black cotton” soil.

There is an explosion of insect life following rain, but insects are rarely the nuisance that many people imagine them to be, and this need not deter travellers. Frogs, too, abound at this time, and are particularly vocal following a heavy downpour.

Some private safari camps and lodges offer special (reduced) “green season” rates during these months.
When is the best time to go on safari?

(Refer also to “Seasons of the Year”, above).

There is no definitive answer to this frequently posed question, so read on, but the “classic” time to go on safari in southern Africa is in the dry season, June to October, when game is concentrated in the vicinity of water. With the onset of the rains (any time from early November to the beginning of December, and potentially lasting through till the end of March/early April) and the consequent filling up of back-country pans, many animals, freed from their dependence on limited dry season water, disperse over wide areas. Consequently it is harder to find them then. But good game viewing may still be enjoyed in the rainy season when the “bush”, now at its loveliest, is transformed from its usual dry khaki-grey aspect into a verdant wonderland in which there is a profusion of bird life, a time when the renewed vegetation ushers in a time of plenty for all creatures.

The best time of the year to see birds (when the number of bird species is at its highest with migratory species having arrived to join Botswana’s resident species) is late Nov. to March. Over 150 different species may be recorded in a day at this time. But remember: birding in the dry months can still be good as many small birds, having completed their breeding during the rains, form multi-species “bird parties” which forage together.

What to bring on safari and general precautions/tips

These are general recommendations, not exhaustive lists
A. What to bring:
- binoculars, preferably one pair per person. This is important for viewing  mammals, essential for bird-watching
- enough film/video cassettes and spare batteries for your camera if you want to take photographs/videos
- hats, suncreams for sensitive skins
- sunglasses
- warm as well as light clothes in the cool months (May to August when midday temperatures may be quite warm and
night temperatures cold to freezing) and light clothing for the other months. Even in summer it is a good idea to
bring at least one warm jersey or jacket as occasionally there are sudden drops in temperature caused by unusual
weather conditions.
- raincoats (from November to April)
- comfortable footwear
- basic medicines, including malaria prophylactics.
- mammal and bird books covering the region traversed
- notebook
- a good torch and spare torch batteries

Occurs in the Game Reserves and National Parks (and surrounding areas) of northern Botswana. Precautions to be taken against contracting malaria include taking appropriate prophylactics (consult your physician), wearing long sleeved shirts and long trousers in the hours of darkness when the mosquitoes are active, spraying oneself with mosquito repellant, sleeping under a mosquito net or in a tent that has mosquito-gauze windows. One is at greatest risk in populated areas (towns, villages where the average safari traveller does not overnight).
With the above basic precautions adopted, the chances of contracting malaria are slight, so tourists should not be anxious about this illness to the extent that it spoils their holiday. Thousands of tourists visit Botswana at all seasons without any repercussions to their health. Residents in malarial areas often do not take prophylactics as the long term effects of regular use of these drugs is unknown. For short term visitors, this is not a consideration and the precautions mentioned above are advised.
(See also “what to Bring”, above)

- wear, “neutral” or bush colours if on a guided walk: khaki, olive-green, even grey and brown. Camouflage might be considered a little excessive….
The colour of what you wear on your game drives in vehicles or in boats or dug-out canoes is not so important.

- recognise that game drives can be productive any time of the day, not just during the “classic” times of early morning and late afternoon. The preferential
time to look for big cats and wild dogs may be early in the morning and elephants are usually most in evidence in the afternoon or evening, but even the
midday period can reveal plenty of game. Various antelopes, zebras  and elephants come to water to drink in the heat of the day and along the Chobe
River sable and roan antelopes can frequently be seen in the dry months coming to drink from midday to mid afternoon. In winter you often see more
morning game between 09h00 and 12h00 than between 06h00 and 09h00: like you, many animals prefer not to be active in the cold of early morning.

- give right of way to elephant herds or a loan bull walking towards you , especially a bull in “musth” (heightened breeding condition).

- bear in mind that most animals allow vehicles to approach them much more closely than people on foot. If you get out your vehicle or walk towards animals
they become more nervous - with unpredictable results. It is illegal to get out of your vehicle in National Parks and Game Reserves, except in designated
camp sites.

- if you have a sensitive tummy, check with someone in the know whether or not tap water is potable in a public campsite, lodge or commercial camp. In general
it is. If not, there should be, at least in privately managed establishments, a bathroom sign indicating this, or you will be so advised during your
host/hostess’s introductory briefing.

- pay some attention to aspects of wildlife other than game animals (like Botswana’s abundant bird life). This adds another dimension and interest to your
safari experience, especially when there is little big game around. There are many interesting trees in the bush, too….
- approach dangerous animals too closely (even those seemingly unconcerned by your proximity). Give them room to manoeuvre.
Rule of thumb: if an animal alters its behaviour significantly because of your presence, you are too close.

- speak too loudly or shout in the bush in the presence of animals. You don’t have to be quiet like mice, but loud voices can make animals nervous,
move away quickly or, in the case of potentially dangerous animals, even aggressive.

- swim in the waters of  the Okavango River and Linyanti/Chobe/ Zambezi systems, or in pans.

- discard cigarette stubs (or anything else for that matter) from a vehicle.

- make seeing lions (or any specific animal) the sole or even main criterion of safari success or satisfaction. You could end up seriously frustrated if you do.
Better to have an open mind and be interested in all or most of the creatures you see. Naturalist types, for example, may gain more enjoyment from
observing a band of Dwarf Mongooses (the region’s smallest carnivore) interacting energetically than watching dozing lions. Active lions have the power
to excite the most experienced safari travellers, but don’t expect to see lion, or other major predator, kills. You may be lucky enough to see one of these
dramatic events, but the odds are against it.

- expect to see the continuously abundant game and/or action-packed wildlife scenes depicted in so many wildlife documentaries. These have taken a long
time to produce and they concentrate on the spectacular, distilling in an hour the high points of months, or even years, of recording exciting or
extraordinary behaviour. Safari experiences are in reality a little less intense than these, but are generally very rewarding and, at times, thrilling. Just
be realistic in your expectations.

Botswana enjoys a lot of bright sunlight throughout the year, and even when there are clouds in the rainy season (Nov. – Mar.) there is almost invariably bright light during the day. Film of 100 ASA rating is probably the most useful for our conditions. If you have a large telephoto lens (unless it is a top-end “fast” one) or a mirror lens you may need 200 ASA in certain situations. Bring a good supply of your favourite film as you may not always find this in Botswana. Bring also an adequate supply of batteries for your camera. Keep your cameras and film out of the hot African sun.

Expect a lot of dust whilst on game drives, so bring dust-proof bags or boxes in which to store your photographic equipment. A standard skylight/UV filter is recommended.

Digital cameras have now supplanted film cameras in popularity. With digital cameras photographers can take many photos of a subject, which can instantly be reviewed and retained or deleted as desired. Digital cameras use up batteries quickly, so it is advisable to bring on safari spare batteries and a battery charging system which ideally can be used with standard 220 volt sockets (for camps which have an electric supply) and a vehicle's 12 V D.C. cigarette-lighter socket.

Most photographers on safari, of course, want to photograph the wonderful variety of animals encountered. You never know what may be round the corner when on a game drive, so be prepared: have your camera immediately available and set, with the appropriate lens for game, i.e. a telephoto lens, so that if you suddenly come across a leopard you can pick up your camera and shoot before it melts away. Too many shots are missed because photographers spend time finding their camera or fitting lenses, etc. You often only have seconds in which to take your picture. There are situations, however, where you have plenty of time to compose and take your pictures – such as when lions are feeding off a carcass, or a herd of elephants is peacefully browsing the vegetation next to your vehicle.

For the best wildlife photography you need a telephoto lens – even for big game (which is often some distance from the road). A simple (“snapshot”) camera, which often has a wide-angle lens, can give you good panoramic shots and reasonable pictures of large game right next to you, but will render animals some distance away from you as fairly small objects against a wide background. Telephoto or zoom lenses from 300 to 500 mm (or similar) are very useful for game, essential for close-ups of birds. For these lenses tripods or “bean bags” are sometimes required to obtain crisp pictures. To capture the essence of the wide open savannas and the Okavango Delta, a wide angle lens is often used.

Video cameras are increasingly popular: they work well in poor light, often have powerful zooms and can be very satsfactory for wildlife photography. If you use one of these, bring several cassettes and at least a couple of batteries. In many (but not all) lodges/camps) there are facilities to re-charge your batteries.

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