Finding Your Own Comfort Zone in One Gem of a Country

Botswana is a peaceful country of 1.2 million people, most of whom live along the eastern border with South Africa.

If all you saw was the 1980 South African movie "The Gods Must Be Crazy," you might think of this country as primitive and backward. Most of Botswana is blanketed by the Kalahari Desert, where bushmen still hunt with arrows as they have for centuries.

But Botswana also has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, mainly because it provides 25% of the world's gem diamonds.

My Okavango excursion was the highlight of a 12-day loop through southern Africa. It began in Harare, Zimbabwe. We traveled south to Francistown, Botswana, northeast to Nata and west to Maun. After the canoe voyage we headed northeast to Chobe National Park and on to Victoria Falls.

This trip was the rough way to see the Okavango Delta, and it's not for everyone. There are many more comfortable ways to go. Whether you fly to Maun and stay in a luxury camp or drive in a Land-Rover and camp out, you won't likely be disappointed once you get to the delta.

Getting There: If you're driving, you need a four-wheel-drive vehicle; the 190-mile stretch from Nata, which is halfway between Francistown and Maun, is made of a chalky gravel. Coming from Zimbabwe, as I was, Francistown is the first major town, about 58 miles southwest of the Zimbabwe border.

A good stop-off point is Nata Lodge (Private Bag 10, Francistown) six miles south of Nata. The lodge has good accommodations and a nice restaurant. I stayed in the campground behind the lodge for five pula (about $2.50). Thatched huts and tented rooms also are available. Tented rooms cost slightly more than the campground; the huts are 60 pula ($30) a night.

If you're flying to Maun you will likely have to go through Gabarone, the capital of Botswana. Carriers serving the area include Air Botswana, British Airways, Zambia Airways, Air Zimbabwe and South African Airways.

Safari Options: Once you reach Maun there are basically two ways to see the delta: the mobile or the fly-in safaris. I took a mobile safari. We took our own camping gear and provisions.

Island Safari Lodge (P.O. Box 116, Maun, Botswana 300) charges 40 pula a day for a three-person canoe and 95 pula for a return motorboat trip into the delta. We stayed in the Island Safari campground for five pula, but Island Safaris also offers lodging (47.50 pula per person double, 80 pula per person single), a restaurant (dinner is 18 pula), a bar, a swimming pool and a little movie theater.

Other operators in Maun are Crocodile Camp (Box 46) and the Okavango River Lodge (Box 32, Maun). It's also possible to hire your own poler and mokoro out of Maun.

The fly-in safaris offer a more comfortable way to see the delta. These companies fly you from Maun to an exclusive, semi-permanent camp, treat you like royalty and take you out on daylong canoe trips. Amenities include thatched or tented lodging with comfortable beds, mosquito netting, lighting, bathrooms and showers (with hot water), plus a restaurant, bar and movie theater. Meals and laundry service are often included.

Gametrackers International (1000 E. Broadway, Glendale 91205, toll-free (800) 252-0493) offers an eight-day package through northern Botswana, including a stop at Victoria Falls, for $2,725 (low season, March 1 through June 30) or $2,925 (high season, July 1 through Dec. 31).

Desert and Delta Safaris Ltd. (16179 E. Whittier Blvd., Whittier, Calif. 90603, (213) 947-5100) offers an eight-night itinerary for $2,274.65 per person, with a minimum of four people. A six-night itinerary costs $1,537.05 per person (minimum of four).

Ker Downey Selby (13201 Northwest Freeway, Suite 800, Houston, Tex. 77040, (800) 231-6352) offers a nine-day trip for $1,952. The company also does fancy mobile safaris for $660 a day for two people, or $460 a day per person.

Okavango Tours & Safaris (P.O. Box 39, Maun) operates Delta Camp, an exclusive camp with everything provided, and Oddball's, something in between a fly-in and a mobile safari. Oddball's flies you into a semi-permanent camp on the delta (110 pula for return), but you must take your own food and camping gear (7.50 pula a night for camping). For 30 pulas a day you can also hire a mokoro through Oddball's.

When to Go: I took my trip in May, a good time to see the delta but perhaps not the best time to see animals. The delta was in full flood, and it was beautiful. The end of the dry season, September and October, is peak animal-viewing season, but also peak tourist season. It's a good idea to make reservations well ahead.

Health: Malaria is the main concern. Consult a physician and begin taking anti-malaria medication one week before entering the area. Take mosquito repellent and netting. Make sure to keep all of your tent flaps closed until you go to sleep for the night.

Tsetse flies are in the delta, but they usually aren't a problem, mainly because of spraying to reduce their population. There are insect repellents that are effective against the flies.

If you drink water straight from the delta, you should boil or filter it.

What to Take: If you're camping, you need to take all of your gear. Most fly-in operators will supply everything. You should also take sun block, sunglasses, a hat and neutral-colored clothing (to avoid frightening the animals), plus binoculars, a good camera with a telephoto lens, and film.

Miscellaneous: Last July 1 Botswana raised fees for non-residents at its national parks from 5 pula to 30 pula a day, and as much as 50 pula a day for organized tours.

If you're visiting the Okavango Delta it would be a shame not to also visit Chobe National Park. In addition, Victoria Falls is across the border in Zimbabwe, and in Zambia, and should not be missed.

A good source of invaluable information for traveling on the cheap around Africa is "Africa on a Shoestring" by Geoff Crowther (Lonely Planet, $24.95).

For more information on travel to Botswana, contact the Botswana Embassy, 4301 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Suite 404, Washington, D.C. 20008, (202) 244-4990.

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