Botswana Traveler

An American explores the desert and the delta

Elephant Sands Lodge: Comfortable place to spend the night, but not a destination for relaxation

Posted on | February 2, 2010 | 35 Comments

http://www.elephantsands.com/

Review originally posted by me on TripAdvisor

Elephant Sands is the kind of place I always looked for in Botswana – affordable, unpretentious, and somewhere I could drive to. Unfortunately, all of those features make it a bit of a truck-stop on the way from Johannesburg to Kasane. Every time I’ve been there the place is full of South Africans with their loaded up Cruisers and Rovers heading to or from Kasane. And I can’t say that I’m much better…the only time I’ve stopped here is on the way to or from Kasane myself. But let me tell you, Elephant Sands is a welcome respite after dodging donkeys and (the now temporarily fixed and under repair) potholes.

Elephant Sands is at the southern end of the Worst Road in Southern Africa – a tarmac road that has degraded into a moon-scape of potholes that look like meteorites had hit the road. However, when I drove this stretch in October of 2009, these potholes had just been filled in with gravel, allowing someone in a Hilux or similar vehicle to travel the whole stretch at highway speed without fear of demolishing a wheel to a pothole. I believe the plan is to build a whole new stretch of road alongside this old one, work on which was underway already (ask to hear the story about Ian Khama and the Highways Minister…it is a good one!)

Back to Elephant Sands….the place has a number of lodging options: camping, pre-erected tents, and chalets. There might be one other option I’m missing here, but I can’t think of what it could be. Do yourself a favor and skip the pre-erected tents. They are twice the price of camping (P110 per person vs P55 per person when I was there) and I’d have rather just slept on the ground than the awful cot they put me on. The tents are falling apart, the mattresses appear to have been slept on by an elephant, and they are wedged in the middle of the parking lot. It was my impression they were phasing out these pre-erected tents and I’m all for that. The chalets looked nice enough – like every other chalet at a reasonably priced Botswana lodge, which is to say nicer than you’d expect for the price. Camping is excellent, the campsites all being huddled rather close together, but with enough space for privacy and the obligatory cammelthorn and acacia trees providing some shade. I give it two thumbs up for camping as there’s usually somewhere you can camp and likely that is all you are looking for here.

I had dinner one night here and the food was pretty good. The main attraction, however, is the watering hole that the entire place is built around. This is a rather parched section of land, especially in the dry season, and every evening, like clockwork, elephants trek to this watering hole to have a drink. You are literally a few feet from the behemoths and it is a sight to behold. The chalets, the campsites, the restaurant and bar, and the braii (cook-out) area is all huddled around this watering hole so everywhere gets a view. We never did any of the activities like a game drive etc, but at night we heard hyenas whooping and lions roaring, more than I can say for most campsites in Zambia and Tanzania I stayed at, but quite typical Botswana bush camping it. Except at Elephant Sands, you really aren’t roughing it.

I wouldn’t make this the destination of your trip, but as a place to spend the night after a long day on the road, it is a winner.

Be warned – you cannot get to this place with 2-wheel-drive, the road in is deep deep sand that takes 4×4 year-round. Once you get to Elephant Sands, prepare to buy water or drink water you brought because the taps give nothing but saltwater, a startling experience when you have forgotten this fact and go to brush your teeth!

Maun Phone Book

Posted on | November 2, 2009 | 9 Comments

Maun Phone Book in PDF form from Jacana.net

Maun Phone Book in PDF form courtesy of Jacana Enterprises

Jacana Enterprises, providers of GPSes, pocket knives, work uniforms, embroidered logos, and a whole host of random things (but not cut-keys anymore), has a very nice list of phone numbers for businesses in Maun.  It is a PDF file and lord only knows how long it will be available, so I’d recommend saving it on your machine.

Maun, Botswana Phone Numbers

The Privatization of Campsites in Botswana

Posted on | October 24, 2009 | 15 Comments

Bad new for anyone planning a self-drive trip to Botswana:  the camping prices in the National Parks and Game Reserves, one of the last of the affordable destinations in Botswana, are in the process of skyrocketing.  And it is only going to get worse.  The reason is the decision by the Botswana Government to turn administration and pricing of the campsites over to private companies.  Park entry fees will remain the same and visitors will still need to visit one of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks offices to pay this fee before departing to obtain an entry permit.  It is feared that the park entry fees, plus the high price of camping, will price many travelers out of Botswana entirely, especially the self-drivers who account for much of the economy in places such as Maun and Kasane.

Prices increase by 10x

The worst offenders in the current money-grab is the Mapula Lodge operators who are now charging $50 US Dollars per person per night for international travelers at the Savuti, Linyanti, and Khwai (Moremi North Gate) campsites, a ten-fold price increase from the BWP 30 (around $5) the Department of Wildlife had previously charged.  Citizens and residents are not spared the increase either.  Citizens now pay BWP 100 (up from BWP 5) and residents BWP 150 (up from BWP 20).

Currently, Mapula only operates the 3 campsites listed, with a patchwork of private companies buying up the others.  By 2010, the Dept of Wildlife plans to be out of the camping business entirely and all campsites will be run by these private companies.  Complicating matters is that there is no rhyme or reason to who owns which campsite.  In the Moremi Game Reserve, there are currently 2 different organizations running the campsites along with the Dept of Wildlife, which still operates South Gate and Xakanaxa.  By next year, it is possible you will need to call 4 different companies to find a campsite in Moremi!  This is progress?

Current Campsite Operators and Prices

As of October 23rd, 2009, this is the latest state of affairs with Botswana’s campsites.  This will likely change quickly and I’ll try to update it with whatever I hear.  Also included is a calculation in pula (and US dollars) of the old and new prices to spend a night camping in the park (including park entry fees of BWP 120 per person and foreign registered vehicle fee of BWP 50).

Mapula Lodge

mapulalodge@info.bw, +267 686 3369

Operates:

  • Chobe: Savuti , Linyanti
  • Moremi: Khwai (North Gate)

Prices:

  • International Traveler:  $50 USD (BWP 336)
  • SADC: 250 Rand
  • Botswana Resident: BWP 150
  • Botswana Citizen: BWP 100

Cost for 2 international campers per night:

  • Before = BWP 350 ($52 USD)
  • Currently = BWP 962 ($143 USD)

Xomae Group

+267 686 2221, +267 738 62221

Operates:

  • Moremi: Third Bridge
  • Nxai Pan: Baines Baobabs, Nxai South Campsites
  • Also operates Wilderness camping sites (unlikely to be booked directly by the tourist, therefore prices are not quoted here).

Prices:

  • Non-Residents:  BWP 150 ($22 USD)
  • Botswana Resident: BWP 100
  • Botswana Citizen: BWP 50

Cost for 2 non-resident campers per night:

  • Before = BWP 350 ($52 USD)
  • Currently = BWP 590 ($87 USD)

Bigfoot Safaris

bigfoot@botsnet.bw (Have had trouble getting a reply on this address), reservations@bigfoottours.co.bw (readers report good service at this address), +267 392 7704

Operates:

  • Khutse Game Reserve: Khutse campground, Mahurushele, Khankhe, Molosw, Moreswe
  • Central Kalahari Game Reserve: Lakhubu, Letiahau, Piper Pan, Sunday Pan, Motopi Pan

Prices:

  • Non-Residents:  BWP 150 ($22 USD)
  • Botswana Resident: unknown
  • Botswana Citizen: unknown

Cost for 2 non-resident campers per night:

  • Before = BWP 350 ($52 USD)
  • Currently = BWP 590 ($87 USD)

I am told, but cannot confirm, that Parro (dwnp.parrogabs@gov.bw, +267 318 0774) will be taking over South Gate and Xakanaxa in Moremi, Ihaha in Chobe, and Khumaga and Njuca Hills in Makgadikgadi.  If you wish to visit these campsites in the next year, I’d advise booking now as the Department of Wildlife still operates them and all bookings at the old price will be honored.

Further Information

My experience is my  e-mails to Bigfoot Safaris being bounced back undeliverable and nobody was home on a Wednesday afternoon when I attempted to call.  Not a good start.  I hope the service from the other operators proves better – it should be for these prices.  Please leave comments with your experiences!

Affordable GPS Basemap for Botswana

Posted on | October 21, 2009 | 272 Comments

Load this thing Tracks4AfricaI have found the Tracks4Africa GPS basemap to be the best purchase I have made for traveling in Botswana (and all of Africa for that matter). The maps are simply incredible – the detail, the accuracy, and the extra landmark information – and they led me to places I didn’t even know existed. It meant I’d travel down paths I’d have never gone down before I held the knowledge of their destination in the palm of my hand. The best part is that the price is and unbelievably reasonable 125 Rand, or about $18 U.S. dollars.

For a while, we thought we could get by with paper maps. I mean, this is what we survived on for all those years before GPS, and hey, getting lost is an adventure, right? After returning to camp after dark more times than I can count and a handful of nervous nights spent in the middle of nowhere because we never actually found our camp, we broke down and bought a Garmin GPS. Being from the States, I ordered a refurbished one on eBay and had a friend deliver it when they came for a visit. Of course, this meant I could find a Burger King in Baltimore, but could find only a country boundary in Africa. What I needed was a good basemap compatible with my Garmin eTrex.

First I looked at the Garmin website for their Southern Africa maps and about fell out of my chair at the $119.00 price! Amazon had it for a more reasonable $83, but I didn’t spend $200 on a GPS to have to spend another $100 on a map! And what if I went to Tanzania, what then? Another $100? I began feeling a bit ripped off by the whole experience.

Some further Googling led me to the Tracks4Africa website. The maps came highly recommended by many travel websites, 4×4 forums, and general lunatics that post on the web.  Well, count me as one of the lunatics raving about the Tracks4Africa maps.  There are step-by-step instructions on the website on how to add the maps to your Garmin GPS (unfortunately they only support Garmin units currently) and they are easy enough even a beginner could figure it out.  The maps are all user-generated, meaning that they are updated constantly by people (mainly South Africans…they drive all over this place) who are driving these roads on vacation.

If you are self-driving anywhere in Africa, and ESPECIALLY Botswana, don’t even think twice, spend the money and buy the Tracks4Africa basemap and a cheap Garmin unit today.

African Birds & Birding Magazine + African Bird Club

Posted on | September 3, 2009 | 72 Comments


Saw this magazine on the newstand today with a beautiful picture of 2 Carmine Bee-eaters on the front. Looks to be a South African magazine covering mostly southern Africa, but the photography looks stunning and it’d be worth keeping an eye out for while in the country. Unfortunately, they have no website (at least not one Google can easily find, which is essentially not having one at all), so all I can link to is the Amazon.com page for subscribing to Africa Birds & Birding.

Also catching my eye this week was the African Bird Club website where they have a boatload of birding information.  They have nice features where you can select your information by country, including bird and wildlife book recomendations for specific countries.  You can actually waste many good hours on this site, taking the bird identification quizes and listening to bird calls.

Keep your USB Thumbdrive safe from viruses while traveling

Posted on | August 28, 2009 | 7 Comments

The thumbdrive.  So useful, yet so dangerous.

The thumbdrive. So useful, yet so dangerous.

If you’ve ever used an internet cafe computer, you know the problem.  You insert your thumbdrive in the public computer to quickly access your resume or find a picture of your nephew and next time you use it at home, you cherished home PC slows to a crawl as it is infected with gobs of viruses.  I’ve spent the last 3 days trying to find a solution to this problem as it happens to me in Botswana all the time.  The best (free) solution to this problem I’ve found is the Panda USB Vaccine.  Read on for instructions and information about why this solution works for me.

The Problem

If you use a thumbdrive (aka USB memory stick, USB key, Pen-drive, flash drive) on any public computer in Africa, it will be infected with a virus.  Guaranteed.  There are 2 ways to prevent this:

  1. Buy a thumbdrive with a write-protect switch and always leave it write-protected at a public computer.  This way, a virus can never infect the thumbdrive because it can never write it’s nasty files to the drive, but you will be able to access everything you put on the drive.  But what if you want to backup pictures to the disk or save a file you downloaded while traveling? There’s no way to do this without opening the door for infection.
  2. Pay for a program like DriveSentry that will essentially write-protect the thumbdrive by disallowing any program to write to the drive without your authorization.  It is like the nagging security warnings in Vista – “confirm or deny!”.  This is a great idea, except it costs money.

I already have 5 or 6 thumbdrives floating around my house, I don’t want to buy another.  And paying more than the cost of the drive to keep viruses off of it seems absurd.  So how do you keep viruses from infecting your thumbdrive?

You don’t.  You let them infect the drive.  Think about it – why do you care that your drive has viruses on it?  The only time you care is when your thumbdrive infects other computers – most importantly, YOUR computer.  And this is where a solution can be found.

How to Keep Your Thumbdrive from Infecting Your Home PC

This takes some thumbdrive-prep before leaving home.  Follow these steps:

  1. Download Panda USB Vaccine
  2. Install the program
  3. Insert USB Thumbdrive
  4. Run “Panda USB Vaccine”. The bottom half of the interface is for the USB drive vaccination.  Select the USB drive from the pull-down menu (it is likely already selected for you) and click Vaccinate USB.

How does this program “vaccinate” your USB thumbdrive from viruses?  It doesn’t – it only keeps your computer from automatically infecting itself with those viruses once you get home.  It puts a dummy file of the Autorun.inf file on your drive which cannot be easily deleted, moved, or modified.  This prevents a virus from executing it’s most reliable delivery method: exploiting the autorun feature in Windows.

Panda USB Vaccination***Alert! Extra nerdy explaination ahead – skip this paragraph if you don’t care how this works!!***In order to infect your computer, the virus on your thumbdrive must run a program.  If your computer has Autorun enabled (which it likely does), Windows will look on the thumbdrive for a file called Autorun.inf which tells it how to automatically run the files on this drive.  This feature is super-cool for things like installation CDs or DVD movies, which will open themselves or play automatically when inserted in your computer.  This way, the user only has to pop in the disk and the computer pops up a window with what you likely want to do.  Virus writers exploit this feature and tell your thumbdrive to automatically run their virus program, spreading it’s nastiness all over your computer without you even knowing.  Even if you have autorun disabled, this file will run automatically if you try to access the thumbdrive by going to “My Computer” and clicking on the thumbdrive icon.  ***End nerdiness***

Once you have “vaccinated” your USB drive, it will no longer automatically infect computers it is plugged into – the fake Autorun.inf file blocks that from happening!  Your thumbdrive will, however, still be loaded with viruses after a visit to the internet cafe.  Which leads us to…

The Important Final Step

When you return home from your trip (or from your local internet cafe), the FIRST THING you should do when using your USB thumbdrive is scan it for viruses with the scanner on your home PC or laptop (I use Avira – it is free).  Update your virus definitions, then run a scan on the drive and have it repair or quarantine any viruses it finds.  After this scan, you should be virus free!

Extra note:  The Panda USB Vaccine can also vaccinate your computer.  It accomplishes this by disabling autorun on all your drives, meaning any thumbdrive plugged into your PC will not automatically load itself using the Autorun.inf feature.  This does protect your PC from automatically contracting viruses from strange thumbdrives and if you plug a lot of thumbdrives into your computer, you may wish to do the PC vaccination.  However, this will mean CDs will not autoload, so when you pop in that Microsoft Office disc, you’ll have to navigate through My Computer to find the setup or install file to make it work.  This is kind of a hassle, so it is up to you if you want to do this vaccination.

Tips for Birding in Botswana

Posted on | August 27, 2009 | 5 Comments

Botswana has an amazing variety of birds, especially waterbirds and raptors. If you are interested in birds at all, you will not be disappointed in this country. I am only a begining birder and never found birds that interesting in the U.S. However, the beauty of the birds in Botswana cannot be ignored and I am now hooked on the hobby with my Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa always close at hand.  Here is my advice for a traveler interested in birding:

Before You Leave Home

  • Check out BirdLife Botswana and familiarize yourself with the news about birds in Botswana.  It is the local branch of the BirdLife International organization and has some of the most friendly and helpful I have ever met.  Specifically read about birding places and finding a guide specializing in birding tours.  Most importantly, help the organization monitor birds of concern while on your trip by keeping a list of specific threatened species that you have seen.  I find the birds of concern monitoring a fun challenge while on safari (or in town!) and participate every time I’m out.
  • Check the BirdLife Botswana Blog for the latest news and rarities sightings
  • Buy a good Botswana birding book.  It will be cheaper and easier to buy this before you get to Botswana.  This spinning Amazon doohicky has my favorites.

  • Get a good pair of binoculars.  If you are a veteran birder, you already have these and know how important they are.  If you are new to the hobby, save up some money and get a good pair – they are worth it.  The Safari Holiday Guide has a fantastic buying guide which is a good place to start.  I have the Brunton Echo 10×50 Porro Prism Waterproof Binoculars that are a bit big, but very comfortable in your hand and have fantastic clarity.  I bought these for the wide field-of-view and the price that was lower than similar Nikons.  For more binocular advice, check out Optics4Birdingbirding.com, and for safari binocular recommendations, you can’t beat Best Binoculars & Reviews.  If you want to get really nerdy about it, go to Optical Research Associates and read all about optics.
  • Download and print a Botswana Bird Checklist from Birdlife Botswana (Microsoft Excel File) or here (this one is in a nicer format).  You’ll never remember everything you saw without a checklist!

While In Botswana

  • Be sure to express your interest in birds to your guide or managers at the lodge you are staying at.  They are a wealth of information and can tailor your trip to take advantage of your interests.  Most guides will be very talented at spotting and identifying birds and can tell you much you may not know.
  • Visit areas of Botswana known for their birds, but be sure to visit in the right season!  Some of the best areas are:
    • Nata Bird Sanctuary – Known for the spectacular migration of thousands of Flamingos to this park at the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pan, but can be quite devoid of birds in the winter.  Easy to access.  Birds often seen include Greater and Lesser Flamingos, African Spoonbill, and Great White Pelican.  Best time to visit is the rainy season from December to April.
    • Lake Ngami – Water levels at the lake are unreliable; some years it fills up and floods the surrounding forest (as in 2009) and other years it is dry as a bone.  Easy day-trip from Maun.  Birds seen here are all variety of wading and shore birds including the Wattled Crane, Fish Eagle, Great White Pelican, African Spoonbill, and occasionally Flamingos, among others.  The end of the rainy season is often spectacular, around April and May.  When water levels get too high, some birds leave for shallower hunting grounds.  Best to ask around in Maun to find out the status of the lake this year.
    • Otse Vultures – At the Manyelanong Game Reserve just outside of Gaborone you can find one of the few nesting places of the Cape Vulture in Botswana.  The Cape Vultures live only in Southern Africa and are extremely endangered.  This is a great opportunity to see this rare bird, especially in the breeding and nesting season of May to December.
    • Khwai Area – Home to many Bataleur Eagles, White Backed Vultures, Wattled Cranes, Saddle-Billed Storks, and Ground Hornbills, the Khwai area between Moremi and Chobe should be on every birder’s itinerary.  Birding is good year-round, though the roads can be very treacherous in the rainy season December through April.
    • Central Kalahari Game Reserve – If you are interested in large, odd birds, the Kalahari has you covered.  Ostrich, Kori Bustard, and the Secretary Bird are common sights.  The rainy season is beautiful with wildflowers, but treacherous, while the dry season can be quite bland.  The end of the rainy season is likely the best, sometime around May, when grasses remain but the roads are dry.
  • Look for and record (GPS, photograph, note behavior and gender) birds of concern.
  • Be patient.
  • Take lots of pictures!  For some quick tips, check out the Safari-Guide.  If you have a GPS unit with you, keep it on always so that you can geotag your pictures when you get home with geotag software (just make sure your camera and GPS are set to the same time!).  This will help your birds of concern information for BirdLife Botswana as well!
  • Discuss birds with other travelers!  You may be surprised by how excited by birds other wildlife enthusiasts are.

When You Return Home

Even if you have no bird book, no binoculars, and no particular knowledge, one can’t help but be blown away by the abundance, diversity, and beauty of the birds of Botswana.

Power adapter buying guide

Posted on | August 12, 2009 | 19 Comments

I blame the EU

I blame the EU

In the USA, we have one kind of plug.  No, wait, we have 2: the 2 prong and 3 prong (excluding those weird dryer plugs).  All houses have 3 prong outlets (if they’ve been lived in this century) and you buy something from the store, go home, and plug it in.  The plug will always work with the plug on your wall.  Is this the case in Botswana?  Noooooooo it is not.  Botswana has 2 types of non-compatible plugs used extensively in the country,  the South African M-Plug and the British G-Plug (Just found this nice website with a list of worldwide plugs – however they claim the British Type-G plug is rare in Botswana, which it is not).  For example, I’m sitting in an office right now that has both types of plugs.  You will need adapters for BOTH kinds.  Complicating matters is the fact that many to most of the electronics you can buy in Botswana use the Europlug, which cannot be plugged directly into ANY outlet in the country.  Thankfully, just about everywhere (grocery stores, Pep stores, electronics stores, general dealers) sells cheap converters between these 3 types of plug.  You could just bring one type of adapter with you to Botswana and plan on buying the converters when you need them, however, who wants that kind of hassle on vacation?  Is this where you want to be spending your time?  Plus, plugging things in through multiple adapters is always a mess.

Transformer vs. Converter?

Before I talk about converters, we need to talk about transformers.  For the first 3 months I was in Botswana, I ran all my American electronics (laptop computer, battery chargers, external hard drives) through a transformer.  I thought I needed this as the electricity in Botswana is 220V and 50HZ, completely different than the 120V and 60HZ my USA electronics were used to.  I thought they’d either blow up or melt if I plugged them right into the wall without first converting the current.  So every time we used the laptop or charged batteries, which was every day, we had to sit near the transformer and power-strip, playing musical-plugs with the 6 outlets we had available.  More-over, we found the cheap transformer I had bought to be slightly frightening, making a high-pitched hum when on and electrocuting anyone who foolishly touched it due to it’s ungrounded plug (for reference, DO NOT purchase the Seven Star Step Up and Down Transformer TC500 – it broke within 4 months and is like a brick in your suitcase that you’ll curse yourself for bringing).

A power brick usually indicates you can plug this in anywhere with only a simple converter

Anyone who has ever traveled internationally knows how naive this was.  I now know that many electronic items, including our laptops, external hard drives, and most of our battery chargers, are already designed to work worldwide and will accept power at voltages from 100V to 240V and frequencies from 50HZ to 60HZ.  The only item we brought that cannot run through a converter is a cheap battery charger from Walmart.  How do you know if you can plug something right into the wall with only a converter?  Check the device itself or, more likely, the “power brick”, for the listed input voltages.  If it has a power-brick, it will likely work worldwide with only a simple converter.  If you can avoid taking something with you that will require a transformer (things like a hair dryer and some cheap battery chargers only work at 110V), then do.  Most things you will need on vacation, or even when moving to Botswana, will work without one.  If you must bring a transformer, find one with good online reviews like the VT-500 Heavy Duty Voltage Converter Transformer 110V/240V or the low power REI Transformer. DO NOT go for the cheapest one you can find.  There’s a reason it is cheap.

What to buy

So, this leaves us with the promised buying guide.  What I really wanted was one of those universal power adapters that would work with both the British and South African style plugs, but alas, I have yet to find one.  What I recommend instead are getting a handful of each type of adapter. They are cheap and small and work great.  I bought all mine from Amazon because I really didn’t know where else to get these things in the States and the links provided will take you there.  Here they are:

  • VP 110 – Universal Adapter for S. Africa – ESSENTIAL.  If you only get 1 adapter, get this one and get a few of them.  They are cheap, light, and small and no universal adapter will convert from these South Africa style M-plugs.
  • US to UK 3-prong Travel Outlet Plug Adapter – If you are an American traveling to Botswana, do yourself a favor and pick up a few of these cheapo adapters as well. Your lodge or favorite internet cafe may only have the British style plugs, so be prepared!

Universal Adapters? Don’t bother…

My advice is to not bother with universal adapters unless you already own one.  In that case, it may convert to the British style G-Plug or to the Europlug, both of which have widely available adapters in Botswana to convert to the South African M-Plug. I have 2 All-in-One Travel Power Plug Adapters that are marginally useful to convert to the Europlug, but the British style G-Plug adapter broke on both.  Save yourself the hassle during your trip and buy a few of the cheap adapters that do 1 job and do it well.

Update:  I came across a universal adapter kit that claims to cover all countries in the world, specifically mentioning South Africa as one often overlooked by similar kits.  If you are determined to buy one travel converter set, this one at Roaming Fox Travel Accessories may be your answer

Book Review – Masire: Memoirs of an African Democrat

Posted on | August 11, 2009 | Comments Off on Book Review – Masire: Memoirs of an African Democrat

Title: Masire: Memoirs of an African Democrat

Author: Quett Ketumile Joni Masire

Pages: 368

Who would like it: People interested in African politics, nation building, democracy, and Botswana

Who wouldn’t like it: People that get bogged down in details

Memoirs of an African Democrat is the autobiography of Botswana’s first Vice President and second President, Sir Quett Masire.  Akin to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Masire played a major role as a founding father of Botswana.  In his autobiography, Masire provides a detailed, eloquent, and forthright account of Botswana culture and politics from gaining independence, nation building, and the trials and successes of his time as Vice President and President of Botswana.  His autobiography takes you through his childhood and young-adulthood living in Kanye, Botswana under his chief and British colonialism.  Masire was then part of the Legislative Council, the transitionary government between colonial and independent rule, where he met Seretse Khama.  From there Masire was a key in the political and economic development of Botswana as Vice President (1966-1980) and President (1980-1988).  Masire then embarks in the world of international politics, helping to mediate some of Africa’s most challenging crises including the Rwandan Genocide and Congo collapse.

Personally, I really enjoyed the book.  There is a lot of detail of names, dates, places, and events.  I got a bit bogged down in some of the economics chapters, but I really enjoyed his chapters on nation building and international relations and the book as a whole.  I appreciate the honesty and detail with which Masire wrote.  He really holds nothing back in his opinion of people, be it nice or not so nice.  You get the impression that you are reading truly how he feels, which is rare among politicians.  He is quick to admit where he made mistakes and equally stubborn in voicing how his opinion differed and was not followed.  You feel like you’re having a conversation with a real person, and I really appreciated his honest tone.

Botswana has a really unique history, especially in Africa.  It has had a stable, multi-party democracy since independence, which was achieve peacefully.  Shortly after independence, diamonds were discovered.  This wealth was directed into the government, which was then spent on education, infrastructure, and health care.  Now there is nearly a 100% literacy rate, and, while the country continues to battle with HIV/AIDS, retrovirals are covered 100% by the Government.  Corruption is basically non-existent.  Masire’s autobiography is a fascinating account of how a country, being one of the poorest in the world with virtually no experience in democracy and international politics, can carve a space for itself, surrounded by apartheid southern Africa and turn into what it is today.  It boggles the mind to think about how one would make choices having no experience in democracy and international relations.  From simple things like what should the flag and shield look like to deciding how many representatives should be elected, drafting a constitution, and how to deal with being a landlocked country in the middle of apartheid.  The economic decisions made by Masire are clearly why Botswana is where it is today.  Masire’s account of how he made these choices, what he learned along the way, and the accounts of how the country grew are fascinating stories.

Masire also gives an intimate portrayal of Sereste Khama, the first president and beloved son of Botswana, who was exiled for marrying an English woman.  For more on Khama’s story, check out The Colour Bar.  However, Masire gives the perspective only a life-long friend could give in his remarkably honest style.  I actually preferred Masire’s more honest approach than Williams’ in Colour Bar, as she tried to dance around many of delicate issues of tribalism and race.  I feel Masire’s honest approach to the issues of race and tribes allows the reader to be more honest with themself and gets straight to issues, rather than dancing around political correctness.

As a whole, I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in African politics, nation building, democracy, and Botswana.  If you’re likely to get bogged down in details and just don’t care about WHY something happened, this is likely not the book for you.  But, if you like to understand the why behind how things are, you’ll appreciate Masire’s style.

On Amazon.com: Masire: Memoirs of an African Democrat

6 Reasons to Visit (or not visit) Botswana

Posted on | August 8, 2009 | 4,391 Comments

You may be wondering if a Botswana vacation is the right use of your precious travel fund.   Everyone is into their own thing and everything looks awesome in a guide-book or on a travel-agency website.  When deciding whether to holiday in Botswana, ask yourself these questions:

Are you the type of person who…

1.  Loves Wildlife? – If you want to view African wildlife, there is no better destination than If you love wildlife, you'll love BotswanaBotswana.  With 45% of the country covered by National Parks, a low human population density, and the largest concentration of elephants in the world, Botswana is a wildlife-enthusiasts dream.  Botswana is home to most of the well-known African animals (including the fabled “Big Five”) and up-close-and-personal encounters are almost guaranteed.  It is not uncommon for visitors to see numerous predators, including lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, and hyenas along with abundant elephants, hippos, and many species of antelope.

2.  Values Political Stability? – Since independence in 1966, Botswana has been a very peaceful country.  It was ranked the most peaceful African country in the 2009 Global Peace Index.  It is an African democratic success story, which is why most of the world hasn’t heard much about it.  Elections are carried out peacefully, there is a strong rule of law, and the inhabitants of the land, the Tswana and San mostly, are from traditionally peaceful cultures, a refreshing change for Africa.  Travelers in Botswana do not need to worry about the safety concerns of other African nations, such as violent crime, terrorism, and rampant corruption.  Botswana has a zero-tolerance policy on corruption, which has eliminated the uncomfortable situation of paying bribes, a familiar occurrence for frequent travelers to Africa.

3.  Enjoys the Wilderness? – Botswana is not a zoo.  Even the luxury lodges have limited control over the environment.  Elephants drinking from the swimming pool is not uncommon.  Likewise, there are vast stretches of uninhabited land in Botswana where a traveler may not encounter another person for days.  The exhilaration of vast spaces and connection with nature is intoxicating, but can also be unnerving.  When driving yourself it can be stressful – when part of a guided tour it can be freeing.  If you like the great outdoors and escaping civilization, Botswana may be your ultimate vacation.

Botswana travel hazards4.  Can adapt to adverse situations? – Even the highest-priced guided tour or luxury lodge vacation will come with unplanned adversity and problems.  If you see these situations as an adventure (like when your Air Botswana flight loses your luggage with no option of retrieving it until the end of your trip), you will love your stay in Botswana.  While it will often seem as if everything is running smoothly, a small problem can often lead to disaster.  From airline delays to car troubles to unexpected weather, anything can happen to throw a wrench into your plans.   However, I have no shortage of stories of adversity that, while stressful at the time, turned out well and lead to a fantastic vacation in the end.

5.  Knows what they want? – There are many options for the traveler in Botswana.  From primitive camping to unlimited luxury, anything on any budget is possible.  The worst way to travel is not to know your budget, limits, and preferences.  For instance, I’ve had visitors go on safari with me who claimed to love camping and the outdoors only to spend the entire trip complaining about putting up the tent, dirt on their bags, and getting up early.   I’m not sure what they were expecting when they proclaimed their love for camping, but what I learned from that experience is it is very important to be honest with yourself when you plan your trip.  If you don’t want to rough it, then don’t camp!  If you want to see as much as possible of the country, then accept you’ll spend much of your time in a vehicle!  It is important to know what you want out of your trip and choose accordingly.

6.  Has a lot of time on your hands? – While there are 7 day safaris that are awesome, I have a hard time recommending anyone visit Botswana with less than 2 weeks to spend in the country.  Unless you plan on coming back, or you have no way to visit but to do a short trip, plan to spend at least 2 weeks in the country, the more the better.  The reason is the transit times.  For one, it will usually take the better part of 2 days to get to Botswana from Europe or the United States due to the length of your flight to Africa and the limitations of the Air Botswana flight schedule.  So plan on at least 4 days just getting there and back.  Once you are in Botswana, travel is often on very poor dirt roads (since this is where the wildlife is) making travel slow.  Even on the tarmac roads, distances are vast and much time is spent just getting somewhere.  Plus, when you are on safari, you don’t want to ever say “We can’t stop and look at those lions now sweetie, we’re late getting to our campsite”.

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, you may wish to take a moment to think if Botswana is the right holiday location for you.  It may be a great opportunity to go out of your comfort-zone and try something new, but be sure to prepare yourself for adversity and know what you want.

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