Mention Botswana to seasoned safari-goers and they’re bound to get dreamy-eyed – this small nation, with a population of just over 2 million, tops savvy travelers’ lists for wildlife viewing on the continent. It’s not just that the country, which celebrated 50 years of peaceful independence last year, has somehow managed to avoid the political strife that has beset many of its neighbors. Such devotion also stems from Botswana’s commitment to sustainable tourism: Banning trophy hunting and ensuring that local communities benefit from a small number of high-revenue, low-volume safaris are two strategies that have clearly paid off in terms of decreased poaching. Elephants, for example, now number close to 200,000 in Botswana – that’s almost a third of Africa’s entire elephant population.
“What I love best about Botswana is the diversity of its landscapes and the variety of its game viewing,” says David Bragg, a Virtuoso travel advisor based in Nashville, Tennessee, who recently visited the country. “In a single trip, travelers can go from four-wheeling in the Kalahari Desert, which is filled with leopards, cheetahs, and other animals that have adapted to the parched landscape, to boating in a mokoro (an indigenous dugout canoe) in the Okavango River.” An expansive inland waterway, the Okavango empties into a delta carpeted with grassy plains that’s home to large numbers of elephants, lions, rhinos, and enough variety of vibrant birdlife, such as the lilac-breasted roller, to turn “big five” enthusiasts into card-carrying members of the Audubon Society.
By limiting the number of its safari camps, Botswana also abounds in seclusion. Unlike Kenya’s Masai Mara or Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, which can often be overcrowded, an entire morning might pass by on game drives, walks, or canoe rides without a glimpse of other travelers. If your idea of a safari is spending an hour in pristine wilderness watching a leopard all by your lonesome, then Botswana beckons.