Ten Things To Know When Driving in Botswana

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 Pan, the 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 road!

Basic, but it must be said in this digital age! 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.

If you have a GPS, you’ll need to enter co-ordinates (if you have them). And because you won't have exact coordinates most of the time, your GPS 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 way! 

As for Google Maps, the app 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.

In recent times, Tinkers Travels have published these outstanding English-language maps (shown below) 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.

2. Ask locals for advice

As we were travelling in May, just after a very rainy wet season, 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 (and a pencil!) comes in really handy.

In the more remote or less commonly visited destinations such as the Savuti, Linyanti and Moremi, it’s really useful to have up to the minute advice on road conditions, for instance, closures due to flooding or mud.

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 before you leave town. Maun is your best bet for supplies, with plenty of choices for food and fuel. We bought three 5 litre bottles of drinking water just in case, and filled up our car's water tank at a potable water supplier called Aquarite (near the airport), so we could drink that as well if ever the need arose.

Our diesel car had two fuel tanks – holding 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 safari lodges will 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 the Okavango Delta so bear that in mind if you're averse to drinking untreated water. BYO chlorine tablets if you are worried about this.

Local shops - when open - don't stock much so it is best to bring everything you need.

4. Know how to drive in sand

I must confess that prior to this trip, I didn’t really know how to drive in deep 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. To minimise the risk of getting stuck, depart really 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. Then 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 in May 2018:

5. If you get stuck, don’t panic. Dig, reverse and find a new line. Or wait for help.

Most rental 4X4s come with a recovery kit - make sure you have at least a shovel and tow rope.

That way, you can dig out your wheels if your vehicle gets bogged in soft sand. Dig, then reverse and find a new line forward.

If you feel like your car is starting to sink into sand, DO NOT accelerate. You will only dig yourself in deeper. 

Should you be truly stuck, just wait inside your vehicle. At various times along our journey, we helped other bogged travellers by digging their wheels out of the sand, then pushing their car backwards out of the rut. Once freed, the driver would pick a new line and then accelerate, as we helped push the vehicle forward from behind.

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 infamous black cotton soil in which you WILL get bogged. We were 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 in the photo below but they should’ve avoided trouble 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 only hope they had sufficient food and water while they waited for a truck or tractor to come tow them out.

This car was just too far gone into the mud for us to do anything.

7. Elephants are everywhere. Know how to act around them.

This one is particularly important in places such as 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, particularly very young ones) 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 (seriously, 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.

8. Don't drive after dark.

The road between Maun and Nata is seriously potholed. I mean, there are craters big enough that you could split your car in two. And no street lights. Your car rental insurance most probably doesn’t cover driving after dark, and there are cows and donkeys everywhere outside of the cattle fence that encircles the Okavango Delta.

Inside Chobe National Park, we encountered a hundred-strong herd of Cape buffalo slowly crossing the tar road at dusk. We were in a hurry to get to our campsite before dark but there was no moving these grumpy herbivores along so we just had to kill our engine and wait. Bear in mind that there are also elephants, lions, hyenas and plenty of snakes in Botswana so suffice to say, you don’t really want to have to travel at night if you don’t absolutely have to.

9. Use your odometer and trust your instincts!

Every so often, you get a safari lodge that gives you charmingly crazy directions such as “turn right 5km past X sign, after you see a white post”. This is where your odometer comes into play, or you can 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, the vegetation thick and there were a ton of trails leading off in all different directions. Use your GPS to work out roughly which direction you need to go, then follow your nose. In the bush, most man-made trails lead somewhere and if the road gets too overgrown, take it as a sign to turn around!

10. River crossings - this one requires nerve and a little thinking.

This was one of the things we worried about most before our trip began. Khwai and Moremi were the only two places where we had to tackle water crossings and in both instances, the water wasn’t deep at all! 

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 employed 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 set up in a place you can see approaching animals so you don't get a scare.

A great piece of advice we got: don’t turn off the engine if you get your vehicle stuck in deep water. If you do, consider your vehicle written off!

Interested in self-driving in Botswana? This is a comprehensive video review of the vehicle we hired for our three-week trip.

Driving in Namibia for the first time? Read this post first!