Why you should care
This way you can gush about those baby elephants for as long as you want.
“Whatever happens, do not slow down,” warns my father-in-law. I’m sitting at the wheel of a 4x4 facing the biggest pothole — or the smallest lake — I have ever seen. Stepping on the gas, scared of drowning my extended family, I fail to notice I’m speeding toward a tree. At the last second, my father-in-law grabs the wheel and gets us safely back on the road. Hands shaking, I squeal, “That was fun! Does someone else want to drive?”
We are touring Botswana’s Chobe National Park, one of the best safari spots on the planet. Since it’s famed for being a luxury travel destination — with budget-squeezing, five-star tented camps and infinity pools — I never thought I’d visit. But it turns out there is an affordable way to explore this wildlife wonderland, if you are willing to get a little muddy.
The cheapest and, frankly, most exciting route is the do-it-yourself one: Rent a car, sleep in tents and cook your own food. It sounds intimidating, but it’s not that different from a conventional camping trip, minus a few retirees and plus a few lions. We got a brand-new 4x4 for $90 a day, which is how much some lodges charge per person for a two-hour guided safari. Get a car with a sleeping nook on the vehicle’s roof, or pitch a tent at a camping site for about $25 a night.
Peppered with towering anthills and Jurassic-looking baobabs, the landscape is spectacular.
The best part about the DIY approach is that you get to drive yourself through Botswana’s pristine national parks, going at your own pace. Peppered with towering anthills and Jurassic-looking baobabs, the landscape is spectacular. So is the game viewing: lions, leopards, rhinos and buffalo as well as many other lesser-known, equally beautiful animals like gazelles, giraffes, zebras and kudus, an adorable antelope that looks like it’s wearing a face full of makeup.
The undisputed king of Botswana’s wildlife, of course, is the elephant. Thanks to decades of strong anti-poaching efforts, the country has the highest population of pachyderms on the continent. These magnificent giants can be easily spotted by the hundreds along the banks of the Chobe River, especially when it’s dry season and most other water sources dry up.
The time of year you should avoid: high season. Every tour operator will tell you the best time to visit Botswana is from June to August because the lack of rain forces animals to get closer to rivers and ponds, making them easier to spot. Honestly, there are plenty of animals all year round. Going in April or September will save you from having to mortgage your home and queue behind seven Land Cruisers taking photos of the same stressed-out leopard.
Granted, driving yourself comes with its own risks. You could get lost in the wilderness or stuck in a pothole. Self-driving safaris pose a bigger danger to the animals than they do to the tourists, says Geraldine Gifford, manager of Botswanan tour company Letaka Safaris. “People who don’t have an understanding of wildlife may go driving off-road,” she says, “or cut off a young elephant from its mother, causing distress.” Still, Gifford says if people listen to the instructions from the park rangers there is nothing problematic about going the road-trip route.
Yes, a DIY safari is a little scary at first. You will have to learn how to drive on sand, change a flat tire and sleep through the occasional blood-curdling lion roar. But trust me, seeing baby elephants right there makes it all worthwhile.